Brandon massaged his temples in frustration. “You didn’t tell me that the princess was deathly afraid of spiders!”
Beatriz shrugged. “Did it matter?”
“Would have fixed the course of our plans.”
“Nah, it wouldn’t have. Besides, I like seeing the look of terror on her face.”
Brandon groaned. What kind of lady-in-waiting was Beatriz? She took pleasure in her master’s terror and pain! He shook his head. At least Luke didn’t have any weird quirks other than his overwhelming naivety. But could the dryad help it? The boy was technically just born five years ago! He did learn a lot within those five years and he did pick up some things of his own.
The pirate captain stayed in the common room where the chieftain of the Arachnos tribe and the rest of the council stood. Despite their houses being on the trees, they seemed pretty sturdy. He was surprised the house could hold at least thirty people. He stepped lightly on the bamboo wood beneath his boot.
“Surprised? So was I,” Beatriz chuckled. “And I’m not the one person you could call light either.”
Brandon raised an eyebrow at her. “You’re still small.”
“Being small doesn’t necessarily mean I’m lighter.”
“You could… ditch the armour?”
“But I like it on.”
“Choose: look simple or fall through a bamboo floor?”
“Sorry, I’d rather fall through the bamboo floor. Besides, it seems to be accommodating my weight anyway!”
Brandon sighed. He squatted slowly to check how thick the panels of wood were beneath him. His fingers glided over the polished bamboo wooden floors as he noticed the strings that wove them together. He had seen industrial grade rope but he was amazed by how the strings could hold everything together! He whistled; if it was really that strong, it could actually hold a sail up and still withstand the terrors and powers of a storm!
“Amazing isn’t it? That’s abaca fibre,” Arkamedon said proudly. “There were so many Abaca trees here that I insisted on researching about it. The trees here are unique with one another yet they all seem to coincide in harmony.”
“That explains why you wanted to live here,” Brandon glanced around.
Arkamedon nodded. “Aye but not just that.” His expression became crestfallen. “It is also the only place where we will not be shamed for our monstrous appearance.”
“But, you know how to appear human.” Brandon raised an eyebrow, skeptical. “You could easily live in town looking like that.”
“Ah but appearances may be deceiving. Our ways of life are what give us away. We feast on bugs and sometimes the more unruly ones prefer feasting on humans. Some of us have adapted a more vegetarian and vegan lifestyle. But some does not mean all.”
“I’m guessing the majority still prefer eating people?”
“Not entirely. Some of us have sworn off it, pirate.” Brandon heard an annoyed voice come from behind him.
Everyone turned around to see Sandor with an annoyed scowl on his face.
“Ah, Sandor! What a pleasant time for you to join us!” Arkamedon beamed. “We were raised to be hospitable, no?”
“Yes, how wonderful it is for me to,” Sandor paused for a moment before nodding slowly. “Join you.”
Brandon narrowed his eyes. Was it hesitation he saw in Sandor’s eyes? His hand slowly went towards his gunblade as the man strode in. A slight chill ran up his nape as their gazes met. He could feel his fibres thrumming beneath his skin as he sat in the village common room. The pirate glanced over to Beatriz who remained completely silent when Sandor walked in.
“You felt it too, didn’t you?” Brandon asked her.
Beatriz nodded. “A spider always knows how to make a good web. Be it a web of networks, a literal web or a web of lies.”
The pirate nodded. At least he wasn’t alone. He saw the torches flicker and the beady stares of the council members of the Arachnos tribe. His fingers tightened around his gunblade. His nose twitched; there was something hostile in the air. It was as if something had been trying to claw after them. The pirate had dealt with slippery and deceitful people. But what could they possibly be working towards?
And the fact that he didn’t have an answer to that was completely exhilarating.
The pirate captain, after going through many meetings here and there, had acquired a talent for sensing tensions fast. It was a required skill after all. Being at sea and negotiating with people here and there required him to read people. He glanced towards the sentries that stood at the doorways. They were completely armed with spears and axes. Understandable, Brandon thought. They were foreign creatures in their homeland. They were at a disadvantage should something go wrong.
Arkamedon soon stood up and announced to all that were present.
“Brothers and sisters, here we are today to greet a few guests from the city of Xychosia! Although they are not complete, let us nonetheless give them a warm welcome to our humble tribe!”
The members of the tribe howled and cheered with a thunderous applause as Brandon and Beatriz were beckoned to stand. The pirate exchanged glances with the lady-in-waiting as the two knights stood up for all of them to see. Brandon nodded in acknowledgement as Beatriz smirked at them before the applause died. The two knights then took their seat.
“It is with great honour that we welcome these humans who are much different than the others we have faced,” Arkamedon announced. “Many humans have shunned us for our appearance and for our abilities.”
“It’s true,” one of the members piped up. “They really shove us out of the city!”
Brandon remained silent. The Arachnos people were known to be a benevolent race. But they had sub-tribes that emulated the more violent side of their race. He looked into the eyes of the Arachnos people. Many of them were despondent, crestfallen, and hopeless. The pirate had met many of their more violent counterparts and many of them died by his sword.
“But because they have been kind and brought good people to this city, no harm should be brought to them!” Arkamedon declared.
The tribe’s members mumbled in agreement.
“Now let us celebrate and give our guests a hearty welcome!”
The tribe members cheered as the instruments began to play. Brandon and Beatriz found themselves being offered all sorts of food. Brandon disguised his wincing as he saw a wriggling silkworm slowly being roasted alive. Beatriz feigned a giggle and refused a dish of deep-fried cockroaches. She then looked away in disgust and turned towards Brandon.
“Deus fucking hell, where’s the real meat?!” Beatriz hissed to the pirate. “You didn’t tell me that we had to eat bugs while we were here!”
Brandon shrugged. “It’s not so bad.“”How can you eat insects?! I have a delicate stomach!”
“I learned this later on in my life. And trust me; at least these guys actually cooked them.”
Samantha followed Luke as they made their way to the town hall. She however refused to open her eyes and clung onto Luke for dear life.
“Princess, there are no spiders out here,” Luke rolled his eyes. He sighed. “We asked the chieftain if he could have his people be in their human forms for a day.”
“I’m still not chancing it!” Samantha bawled. “Spiders are scary! How can you not be scared by their venom coated fangs and their beady red eyes boring holes all the way into your very soul?!”
“I’m just not. Are you really that afraid of spiders?”
“Then, why didn’t you say so?”
“I should be asking you that question!”
“That’s because you never asked.”
The princess whined. “But you should have told me.”
Luke shrugged. “Sorry about that. I didn’t know you were afraid of spiders.”
Samantha sighed and continued to keep a grip on Luke’s scrawny arm. She could feel the wood echo beneath her feet as the ground started to shake a little. Her body trembled slightly. Where was she walking? She slowly opened her eyes only to see that she was a good distance away from the forest floor and that she was walking on a bridge held together by thick ropes. Her eyes widened as she let out a yelp and clung harder onto Luke.
“Ow!” The boy yelped. “Your nails!”
Samantha whimpered. “Sorry.” She shook her head and wailed. “You didn’t tell me that we were that high off the ground either!”
“Well, if your eyes weren’t shut half the time we walked then maybe you could have noticed?”
“I do not want to die, Luke!”
“If you did less screeching and more looking, maybe you’d realize that we won’t.”
“There are spiders everywhere!”
“Open your eyes and check again!”
Samantha, wary and uncertain, slowly opened her eyes when she saw that Luke was right. Not a single spider in sight. She stared in amazement at the windmills that caught the wind and lit up the lights in the room. She also saw some of the tribal members striking two stones to make fire. She had only seen villages like these in the storybooks that she read. And most of the time, her nanny would say that the people were “savages” and “barely even human”.
“Amazed?” Luke chuckled.
Samantha could do nothing save for nod.
“Yeah, most nobles don’t even leave the borders of their city. I thought fleeing Sofiene would have been an eye-opener. But apparently, you’re still blind.”
Samantha frowned. “I’m not blind. I can see just fine.”
“The eyes may not necessarily be blind. Even the mind can be blinded. After all, people only do things that they want others to see.”
Samantha fell silent. Luke had a point; it was how Matteo and Santino managed to deceive her back at Sofiene. All this time, she believed that Santino and Matteo cared for her. It was only until that day when she saw the soldiers killing one another and Matteo using some strange weapon to kill her father that she realized something was up. Had she been blind about their contempt towards her? That, she wasn’t sure.
“Did you know about me?”
“About you what?”
“About me being the reason why your race was hunted down?”
Luke shrugged. “Not really. But you weren’t the real reason why the dryads were hunted to endangerment.”
Samantha nodded. “It was the Black Argus disease made by the House of Argus.”
“At that time, the only enemy people really had back then were the insurgents of those who were still loyal to the Mad Queen’s cause. And the House of Argus believed that the Black Argus disease would cause so much death that all the life taken would awaken the Mad Queen. Or so they say.”
“The Mad Queen Julia, you mean?”
“Yeah. While your father just hunted within the boundaries of Sofiene, Mad Queen Julia burned and razed cities to the ground. She didn’t hunt dryads because of their properties. She did it because she enjoyed it. She and her followers.”
Samantha nodded. “Yeah, the Forest Fire of Sylvadene. I remember reading about it.”
“I only saw it through books. But, your father did the thing that a father would do for his dying daughter. I can’t fault him for being a father to his dying child.”
It puzzled her to no end. How could Luke forgive her just like that? Even at the brink of extinction, he was helping the very descendant who his race had been slaughtered to save. The princess smiled. “You’re really kind at heart, aren’t you?”
“My captain taught me how to be kind.” Luke returned the smile with a nostalgic one. “When the sea is rough and there are nothing but storms in the mind and soul, a kind heart is always welcome aboard a tossing ship.”
“Yeah. But I always did wonder - were their other dryads like me out there? I’ve always wanted to speak to one.” Luke’s voice trailed away. He sighed. “I wanted to know what it was like to hear the lullabies of the earth. The early morning songs of the birds as they chirped. They said that was how all Dryad lands were like.”
Samantha said. “It sounds beautiful.”
“Yeah. Cap and I made a promise to one another that once we get The Warhammer back, we’d go find those lands. Travelling on foot doesn’t get us very far.”
Seeing Luke long for his own home reminded her of how she longed to return to Sofiene. She wanted to return to the place where she spent her happy childhood. Long before, she was neutral for the war on the throne. In fact, she didn’t particularly care who sat there so as long as she could do as she pleased and she had her purple things. But after the war, everything had changed.
“Then it’s settled then!” Samantha beamed.
Luke blinked in bewilderment. “What is?”
“When we get to Sofiene and win, I will give you The Warhammer. You and Brandon will be completely supplied before going off on your adventure.”
“A princess never breaks her promise.”
“Do I get that in writing?”
Samantha shook her head. “There’s another way to do this.” She put up her hand with a pinkie. “Put out your pinkie.”
Luke, blinking for a few moments, put up his hand with his pinkie stretched out.”Okay…?”
Samantha then linked his pinkie with her own as she beamed. “Pinkie promise!”
“It’s a pinkie promise. A promise that was meant never to be broken!”
“But… promises are not normally kept unless written down. Cap always got things on paper.”
“When you’re with me, you don’t need to get things on paper.”
Luke stared at the pinkie for a moment before tightening his pinkie around hers. He then nodded. “It’s a pinkie promise, then.”
Samantha beamed. She now had another reason to head back! Although she herself wanted to see the lands of the Dryads, the important thing is she had to get home first. Sofiene was where everything started. The day she lived her life as a princess and the day she wanted to go back to. It was those days where she didn’t need to care about a single thing that she missed. The days when it was all just fun and games back at home.
“Oh, we’re here,” Luke beamed.
The moment the doors would open, Samantha was expecting a whole horde of spiders to come out and attack. She flinched as she heard the doors open only to hear loud merry-making and laughter. Puzzled, she opened her eyes only to see everyone feasting and drinking. For the first time in forever, Samantha saw Beatriz laughing herself sick. Brandon on the other hand was nodding as he listened to another tribesman brag about his bravado.
“I didn’t expect Bea to get so...” Samantha winced.
Luke raised an eyebrow. “So?”
“Well, so drunk.”
“Didn’t you have parties often in the castle?”
Samantha shook her head. “Most of the parties involved diplomatic dealings so we had to bring out the tame stuff.”
“Wow, that’s,” Luke winced before sheepishly scratching the back of his neck. “Lame.”
“Yeah, that’s what Bea said too.”
“I mean, you have to loosen up. It’s the best way to get people to agree with you.”
“True. I always liked a good drink.”
Luke shrugged. “I would but,” he shook his head. “I don’t like the taste. I like cherry wine but that’s it.”
“How about Brandon? Does he drink?′
“Cap doesn’t drink. He says he doesn’t want to feel like a bloated Narwhal in the morning.”
Samantha giggled softly as she nodded at Luke. “You really do look out for him, do you?”
Luke shrugged. “Someone has to. He always looked out for me. Even during that time in Xychosia when one of the guards harassed me for food.”
Samantha’s eyes widened, admonished. “A guard harassed you for food?!”
“Yeah. To think it was good venison meat.”
“How dare he! Why didn’t you report him?!”
Luke shrugged. “If we did, who would believe us? We’re commoners. They only arrest guards who have harassed nobles.”
Samantha opened her mouth to say something only to realize that Luke was right. Rarely did any crime against a commoner reach the council. Most of the time, it was the district court that handled their cases.
“Nah, don’t mind it,” Luke dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “Brandon kicked the guy’s ass anyway. And we knew the guy as a daily troublemaker.”
“You kicked... his... ass?” Samantha gasped. “Why would you kick his donkey?!”
“... What donkey?”
“An ass is a donkey, isn’t it?!”
“He didn’t have a donkey with him.”
“Then what is an ass?!”
Luke face-palmed. “It’s a slang word for butt.”
Samantha’s mouth formed a small “o”. “Oh.”
“Yeaaah, you’re gonna need some training on how to use some slang words.”
Samantha laughed. “I guess so. So, shall we party?”
Luke nodded and offered his elbow with a boyish smile. “May I have the honour of escorting the lady?”
“I’d be honoured,” Samantha giggled. “Where’d you learn that?”
“I’ve seen Cap do it a couple of times with the girls and he always gets it right.”
Brandon laughed until he saw Luke and Samantha walking in.”Well,” he smirked. He folded his arms with a raise of an eyebrow. “Good morning, sleeping beauty.”
Samantha stuck out her tongue with a childish pout. “You don’t have to be that mean about it.”
“What? You literally passed out and you were whiter than snow. I should have called you Sleeping Snow instead.”
“I’m a pirate, lass. Did you actually expect me to be one of those smooth talking nobles who you could eat lemon squares with?”
Samantha pouted. “Ugh, I half-expected you to at least treat me with proper decorum.”
The pirate smirked and shrugged it off. However, he couldn’t help but remember the look on Sandor’s face. Also, he did find it rather strange that they were throwing a feast for them. A sigh escaped his lips. He was probably over-thinking. But my gut feeling isn't usually wrong, he argued. The pirate glanced towards the window where he saw a portrait of a Black Widow Spider eating its mate. He shuddered. What kind of person would have a tapestry of a murder on their wall? He then glanced at the dead insects being served to him on the plate. He twitched as one of the butterfly's wings cracked into a brittle chip and fell on the plate.
I'm probably just overthinking this, Brandon shook his head. He then brushed off his paranoia and went straight to eating.