Strange how extraordinary days can begin like any other, Nella thought. The morning had been neither gloomy nor very bright. There had been no signs at all her life was about to change forever.
She had awoken in her freezing little room before sunrise and had set out to work as soon as she could get her aching limbs to move. Her contribution to her uncle's family was small and so she was even more eager to do what she could.
The winter had been hard and just as the small family had started to draw hope from the beginning of spring their only cow had caught an illness and died soon afterwards. Spirits had been rather low ever since but Nella was determined not to give up.
Today she had set out to dig over the vegetable patch but soon she realized the dry ground would be giving her more trouble than expected.
She had been busy for a while when she noticed a man watching her. A group of soldiers had ridden through the village and their leader who wore the insignia of a captain was sitting on his horse and regarded her thoughtfully. He was a middle-aged, burly man whose mustache and short hair was already streaked with gray.
Nella who usually was neither wealthy nor stunning enough to be the target of any male attention wasn't sure what to think. Finally she straightened her back and returned his look. Caught, the captain smiled nervously and nodded his head as a greeting.
"Your husband really shouldn't make you work like that," he grumbled.
Nella found herself blushing. "I'm afraid, sir, I've yet to meet someone who is willing to take me in as a wife. I live with my uncle who was kind enough to take me in when my parents passed away and cannot be picky about the work I do. Besides," she added with a timid smile, "I'm stronger than I look."
His eyes didn't stay on her face and she felt her blush deepen. "Yes, you don't look all that scrawny," he agreed and Nella didn't know whether to take that as a compliment.
"How old are you?" he continued.
"I'll be nineteen soon."
"Rather old for marriage", he mused and she was beginning to wish desperately he'd go away. "But rather young for what I had in mind."
She stared at the ground and bit her lip, reminding herself to stay calm and not cause any trouble.
At last he scratched his head and asked: "Say, what do you think about coming to the castle with me? We have need of..." he paused and searched for the right word, "someone like you."
Nella's cheeks burned. "Sir," she stammered. "My family may be poor but I assure you I'd never think of selling my body-"
"Oh, it's not that", he interrupted her. "There are plenty of pleasure girls as it is and you probably wouldn't fit their ranks anyway."
Again she wasn't sure if he meant that as an insult or a compliment but she decided to ignore his remarks and get straight to the point. "Well, if it's good and honest work, I will give it my all."
He hemmed and hawed a bit, then asked to see her uncle and disappeared inside.
Nella was undecided whether she should keep working or start packing but in the end she didn't have to wait long before the captain returned with her uncle in tow who looked so relieved she almost felt a bit hurt. But then again she had promised to do all she could to help the family and if that meant working in the castle she'd gladly do as she was asked.
She was about to go and collect her meager belongings but the captain assured them she'd be outfitted with everything she needed at the castle. So when the captain helped her climb atop his horse just a few minutes later her head was still spinning with how fast her whole life had been turned upside down. She was rather sad she didn't even have the chance to say goodbye to her cousins but she hoped she'd be allowed to visit them after a while.
They spent the ride in silence after the captain had ignored all of her questions and just kept onwards stoically.
When they arrived in the late afternoon all Nella got was a lot of stares by servants and soldiers who didn't quite know what to think of a young woman arriving in such company. They still got her a small room and a luxurious supper that cheered her up a great deal.
When the captain came to her room the next morning she had already eaten and dressed so he offered to show her 'where she was needed' right away and she was quick to follow him.
To her surprise she was neither led to the kitchen nor the staples nor any other place she'd suspected to find work in but led her down into the castle's dungeon. Her anxiety returned but still she followed him into a barren room that held nothing but a trap door in the floor and a ring in the ceiling. A rope that ended in a sling went through the ring dangled over the door.
"Here?" she asked confused.
"Actually it's even lower," the captain replied. "Unfortunately we don't have stairs going there but we'll make sure to get you down there gently. But don't worry, there's just one room below and you cannot get lost."
"But what am I supposed to do down there?"
"You'll find out soon enough," he huffed. "Just place your foot in the sling and when you reach the ground below, you can go about and explore."
She didn't dare to ask any more and risk the captain's ire. One of the soldiers, a young man of roughly her age, helped her get a good grip on the rope but when he stepped away she could hear him mutter something like "What a waste!" under his breath. She glared at him until she saw the captain do the same but before she could even sort out her thoughts he handed her a small, lit candle and the trap door opened under her.
When she started her descent she didn't look around much, just concentrated on keeping her grip on the rope and not dropping the candle. Then she reached the floor and as she had been instructed stepped out of the sling and let go of the rope. It was pulled back up hastily by the guards who then slammed the trap door shut once more.
Nella flinched and felt very small and lost alone in the great cavern. She couldn't see very far with the pitiful light she had and this made the cave seem even bigger and more imposing.
Suddenly a voice behind her made her jump, "You're not all that much of a warrior, are you?"
She whirled about and realized that something she would have taken for a rock formation was actually a man sitting on a crag. She made two tentative steps in his direction and curtsied awkwardly. "I'm sorry, Sir, but there must have been a misunderstanding. I'm not a warrior at all."
The man chuckled and propped his chin on a hand. She could now see him a bit better but his appearance did nothing to ease her confusion. He didn't look all that human. His skin was of a strange dark shade, his long hair pale and his eyes had a glimmer that made her very uncomfortable.
Remembering her manners she lowered her eyes and said shyly: "Please forgive my intruding here, Sir. I would have knocked if possible but I'm afraid it was all a bit hectic up there." She gestured back to the trap door. "My name is Nella. How may I address you, Sir?"
He snorted. "You want to know my name? Well, that's a first. But then again, my name would probably be wasted on you."
She didn't know what he meant with that but she was quick to respond. "Oh, no, Sir. I will treat your name with utmost respect and never forget it."
One corner of his lips rose in a crooked smile. "Well, my dear, since you asked so nicely," he responded with a mocking undertone. "My name is Aleithaz."
Nella bowed, drawing another chuckle from the strange man and repeated the name in her mind over and over to keep from forgetting it. "I'm at your service, Sir Aleithaz."
Now he really laughed. "Drop the 'sir'," he told her. "And how do you think you can be at my service?"
She shivered a bit and tried to shake off any sense or dread. "I was told I could work down here."
His eyebrow shot upwards. "Work?" he repeated flabbergasted. "As what?"
She fiddled with a strand of dark blonde hair. "I-", she stammered, "I, uhm, they didn't say. But the captain told me I was needed here."
He leaned forward. "They didn't tell you? Then they are even bigger cowards than I thought."
She didn't like that answer one bit. She thought she had been clear when she told the captain that she would never work as a whore but by now she was getting anxious he had just ignored her. What else was she supposed to do down here?
Or maybe she was to clean this place? It sure looked as if that was needed. But then why was he expecting a warrior?
"You'd better set the candle down or you'll drop it," Aleithaz interrupted her thoughts.
She thought about assuring him she'd take care not to drop the candle but then she just did as he said.
He smiled. "Well, now, let's clear this up, shall we?" he asked in a strange tone, then he got up.
And suddenly all the puzzle pieces fell into place. Nella's eyes widened in fear. He hadn't been sitting on a rock outcropping after all. What she had thought to be stone turned out to be a bloated, bulbous body and as it rose, eight spindly legs unfolded underneath.
With a wordless cry she staggered backwards until her foot got caught in something and she lost her balance. But instead of crashing into the rocky floor she landed in something soft and flexible. A split second later she realized that there were webs all about, spun knee-high, almost perfectly hidden amidst the gray rocks. Panicked she struggled to get up again but already some of the sticky threads clung to her arms and back and dragged her back down.
That was when she lost all restraint and started screaming for help. In the flickering torch-light she could see Aleithaz stroll towards her at a leisurely pace. All she could look at were those horrible spider legs and think about how they'd be close enough to touch her soon.
"NO! Help me! Please! Please get me out!" she screamed again and again until she finally had to catch her breath.
Aleithaz used the break to settle down very close to her and lean over. "They won't come, my dear," he told her in a slightly patronizing tone. "Why do you think did they sent you down here in the first place?"
She stared at him with wide eyes unable to follow this thought to its conclusion because it was just too horrible to acknowledge he was right.
Gathering all the strength her fear and desperation granted her, she managed to roll away from him and get on her knees. But the web that stuck to her back couldn't be stretched any further and kept her from standing up.
Suddenly a hand clasped her right wrist and another grabbed her at the back of the neck. She froze in shock, realizing her helplessness and dreading what he'd be doing to her now. Yet just as she imagined him snapping her neck she heard his voice close to her ear. "Shh, I'll just help you relax."
The hand at her nape travelled down her back, following the outline of her spine until it stopped at the small of her back and she felt a sharp prick. Within seconds her legs buckled under her and although she could still feel them vividly she had lost all control over her muscles. The effect spread upwards a bit and breathing got a little harder but thankfully her lungs kept working. Her arms were affected as well although she could still move them with a lot of effort.
Aleithaz didn't seem to mind as he plucked her from the sticky strands that had kept her down and held her aloft with two of his legs. Nella couldn't suppress a shudder at the feel even though her paralyzed body hardly moved. Yet she felt her heart beating painfully against her ribs as her mind raced to come up with a way to escape, an idea, anything.
Then she sensed something cool touch her ankles, seeping through the holes in her worn out shoes and firmly pressing her feet together. Lifting her head with an effort she saw an off-white ribbon connecting her partly covered feet to the spidery abdomen above her. Slowly he began spinning her with his legs, guiding the silken sheet over her toes. Then he doubled back, closing all gaps and pulling the ribbon even tighter. With a gasp she realized that he had started weaving a cocoon around her and her panic multiplied.
A desperate thought made her move her lips and cry out: "Aleithaz, please!"
She almost couldn't believe it but the mention of his name made him stop in his tracks. Feeling a flimsy bit of hope she tried again. "Please, Aleithaz, let me go. I'm no threat to you and I never even wanted to come and disturb you. Please! You have to believe me."
He shifted her a bit so he could look at her face. His expression was no longer mocking but an almost apologetic smile. "I do believe you, my dear. And I don't feel any ill will towards you for coming down here. In fact it was rather nice to hear my name again after such a long time alone in the dark. Yes, there were fighters from time to time but none of those even showed a hint of manners. So, if I had the choice I'd love to keep you, dearie. But it's really not much of a choice, I'm afraid. I could let you go, sure, but what then? It's not like I had the means to entertain guests. I could maybe provide you with enough water to keep you alive until you starve and then so would I. Would you really prefer that death over what I'll do to you?"
For a moment she was beyond words. All she could do was stare at him. He had sounded so reasonable and none of the things she wanted to say could change anything about her outlook.
When she didn't answer he resumed his work. She felt the silk against her bare shins and then one of his legs carefully smoothed the folds of her dress before the cocoon caught the hem and the rough fabric was pressed tightly against her legs. Realizing how slow and deliberate his movements were she felt a new emotion rise within her, one she had suppressed pretty much all her life.
"Liar!" she hissed coarsely and clenched her fists in helpless anger.
This time he didn't stop but he nevertheless replied in an exasperated tone: "Now dear, which part don't you believe? Do you think the guards didn't know what would happen to you down here? And that they'd change their mind and get you back out as soon as they realize what they've done? Or is it that you expect me to turn a few rocks into something you can stomach?"
"No, it's the part that you are sorry about this," she growled back. "You're enjoying it, don't you? You look forward to killing me! Just admit it!"
For a moment he was silent, just combed the ribbon that now reached her thighs and readjusted it slightly. Finally he sighed. "I suppose, both is true. I enjoy your presence, your feel in my grasp, your softness and even your helplessness. And my hunger is about to drive me insane, so I can't help but look forward to feeling sated." The silk tightened a bit more as he pulled it taut. "And yet, there's this other side, too. For I honestly wish sating my hunger didn't mean your death. I'm dreading the moment you will fall silent and I will be left in darkness once more."
Tears welled up in her eyes. "It's just not fair," she sobbed. "All my life I was waiting for things to finally turn better and now... Why did he have to pick me?! Wasn't my life miserable enough as it was?"
He paused and repositioned her to look into her face again. "So you didn't make enemies in high places?"
She pressed her lips together and shook her head. "I didn't even know the man who asked me to come here. He just made sure I had no family to get in the way and lied to me so I went with him."
Aleithaz raised an eyebrow. "Did they run out of prisoners of war?"
She forgot about her tears and just stared at him until he smiled nonchalantly and shrugged. "The last ones had a rather interesting accent. At least those who bothered saying anything before attacking me."
"They have fed you prisoners of war?" She asked, both fascinated in spite of herself and hoping that he'd put off cocooning her when she kept him talking.
"Oh, they had me fight for every meal." He chuckled. "And then had the galls to ask me to hand their equipment back or they would stop sending them. King Ulvar told me it would keep me sharp, although he didn't mention for what."
Her brow furrowed. "King Ulvar? But he passed away years before I was even born. My father must have been a child back then. Last year Ulvar's son died and now his grandson is sitting on the throne, King Arken." She searched his eyes but this time it was him who evaded her gaze. "How long have you been down here?"
He laughed but she could hear how fake it sounded. "Well, clearly it's been awhile. Funny how this seemed such a good hiding place at first. I didn't even mind much when your kind came along and built the castle atop of the caves and sealed all other entrances off. To be honest I wasn't keen on fighting my way out either. And Ulvar was so fascinated by me, he'd often come down with an escort and watch me fight... and feed. But as the years passed he stopped visiting although he kept sending his leftovers. I always wondered why he even kept me around. Maybe he thought I'd fight for him if he ever got desperate." He snorted. "Interesting though that his sons kept this up."
"Maybe there were afraid of what would happen if you'd ever be hungry enough to try to fight your way up to them," she mused.
His eyes returned to her face and he cocked an eyebrow. "So, considering they no longer have any prisoners for me, is Ulvar's grandson a bit more adverse to waging war?"
She sighed. "Apparently he is just less succesful at it. Or all those years of fighting let the number of his subjects dwindle until there aren't enough men left to keep our troops successful."
"Well at least he has enough sense to not use his own soldiers for feeding me. Although that does make it even more unfair for you." He cupped her face in his hands and wiped away the tears staining her cheeks. "I don't have much to offer you, my dear. I can not even promise to make it quick because I have a hard time to stomach you when you cool too early but I swear unless you start begging again and make me feel miserable I will not gag you. I know, that's not much but at least you can breathe easier when..." The apologetic smile appeared again. "Well, you know..."
She shivered, unable to suppress it, and her legs twitched slightly. The venom must be starting to wear off she realized.
Unfortunately so did he. His hands brushed over her shoulders and grabbed her wrists, pinning her arms to her sides, then pushing them even further to her backside. The position wasn't painful yet but she felt she involuntarily arched her back and left her abdomen very unprotected.
He let her slide down a bit and his legs took over pinning her arms until she was in reach of the spinnerets again. Touching her just below the belly button he connected a new ribbon with the fabric of her dress and when he started spinning her again the silk passed over her wrists and secured them firmly in place.
Her stomach lurched a bit and she closed her eyes trying not to think of the last thing he said. She supposed he was meaning to make this easier for her but while she was indeed grateful about not being gagged she nevertheless wanted to keep from thinking about her end for as long as possible.
He was picking up the pace now but she was quite aware that she'd hardly be able to escape even without being paralyzed. The spider silk around her legs made any movements besides squirming impossible. And even if he hadn't bothered with that she still had no way of running.
It was then that she finally resigned herself to her fate. He wouldn't spare her. No heroes would come to her rescue. All she could do was trying to find comfort in whatever positive thought she could find.
The sticky ribbon had now reached her breasts and was wrapped around her tightly. With a sad smile she realized how wonderfully warm the silk kept her. Once dried the threads formed such a tight mesh that unlike with her worn out clothing none of the cold air could reach her anymore. She remembered how much she had wished for a fine dress that would keep her warm throughout the winter and thought how enthusiastic she would have been had the captain of the guard thought about promising her this.
Aleithaz finished applying silk to her neck, making sure she could still breathe when he saw her smiling. Securing her in the strands of one of his webs a few feet off the ground he bent over her. "I don't think I've ever seen someone in your predicament smile," he whispered, brushing a few stray strands of her hair out of her face.
Unable to say what was on her mind without bursting into tears she blinked and just shook her head.
"Well, then let me do something that I've never done before for a change," he leaned in close enough for her to feel his breath on her cheek. "Let me ask you: What is your name, dear?"
"Nella," she whispered back.
"I won't forget it," he replied earnestly.
"Aleithaz, I..." she began but he interrupted her.
"I can't wait any longer. So, just promise me something. When you feel you no longer breathe, don't fight it. Just let go."
She felt her throat constrict and simply nodded.
His hands were at her elbows and gripped her tightly. "Don't watch," he said, then his face disappeared from view and she closed her eyes.
She felt something pierce the skin of her abdomen and then pain erupted in her belly. She buckled but the silk kept her in place. Unable and unwilling to think about what happened to her she just focused on gasping for air. She clenched her teeth and groaned, finding not enough strength to scream. The pain spread to her limbs until finally when she thought her mind would just snap a blessed numbness replaced it.
Through half lidded eyes she gazed into the darkness, briefly wondering if the small candle had finally died down. She could feel a weight on her chest as she inhaled and remembered her promise. Still, she had given him another promise, too, although that seemed to have been an eternity ago. A promise to remember his name. She gathered all the air she could and with her last breath whispered his name one last time. Then she allowed herself to slip into darkness.
Hours had passed and he was still crouched low next to her body. Part of him was elated by what he had experienced, by feeling so full and complete once more. But part of him hated himself for letting her go so soon. For not bearing the pain and hunger a bit longer.
He wasn't even looking at her, knowing that her pretty face no longer could be called that. But he'd remember it, along with her voice... and her name. He'd remember it for as long as she had. Until his very last breath.