"Hurry up, Squiggle!"
"Come on, Creeper!"
Ame shook her head at the cries and knocking the dirt from her hands she walked over to where Sasha and Akan were huddled. As her shadow eclipsed the cheering duet their cries died and guilty laced eyes looked up. "Just as I thought," she sighed. On the flat rock, in front of the children, was a long shallow wooden box, inside was a pair of spiders. Each child had a small stick in their clenched fist. These sticks were used to prod the captured insects, thus having what was used to be called an Eight-Leg Race.
"We having a race," Sasha said with a lopsided grin.
"No squish!" Akan demanded laying a protective hand on the 'contestants'.
"I won't squish . . . as long as you release them before your mother gets back." Ame thought for a moment. "Who taught you about Eight-Leg Racing anyhow?"
"I did," a voice growled from behind. "And you messed it up . . . I had a wager that Creeper would win."
Ame smiled tenderly at her son. "Eight-Leg Races are no longer allowed . . ."
"What!" Kumo said with a look of surprise. "We've had these races ever since . . . well forever!"
"We haven't allowed the racing in almost six-eights."
"Because . . ." Ame hesitated.
"Mommy!" Akan ran over to embrace his mother.
Ame used her foot to tip the box at her feet over, and watched as the trapped insects escaped. She glanced up and saw her daughter's eyes were locked on the spiders. Only when they disappeared behind some rocks did Shima's shoulders relax.
Kumo slugged his sister playfully in the arm. "So, tell me, Kit, why did you have to spoil the fun for everyone?"
Shima looked at her brother, he saw a flicker of fear before she averted her eyes and glanced down at Akan. "I'm joining Seelee on Sky Tower, Kitling, I'll be back before sunset."
Akan nodded. "I'll be good for Grandma."
"But of course," Shima replied with a grin. After embracing her son she hurried over to a tethered Runner.
** What are you running from? ** Kumo silently challenged.
Shima hesitated for a moment before continuing without a reply.
** May I tell him, Shima? It will help him understand. **
** If you must, Mother. Just not around the kitlings . . . I have to sleep with the nightmare every night. I would prefer not having my son, share the same fate. **
Later that night, well after the kitlings had gone to bed, Ame shared her tale with her son. It took place during the Wandering Years, Shima was a kitling of eight.
Day One (Noon)
"It's kissing me!"
Kigen smiled as he watched Shima handle a small Hood Spider. "Kissing?" He asked, raising an eyebrow.
"When he walks his legs tickle . . . they feel like tiny feather kisses," Shima explained. She let the spider crawl up her arm, giggling as it started slipping into her tunic.
Kigen snagged the insect and cupped it in his hands. "Is this your racer?"
"Maybe," the child shrugged. She opened a small wooden box that hung on her belt and the older one slipped the spider inside. Shima checked her sash. "I still have three empty cages. I want to find some more. Seelee's Starblazer has won all the Eight-Leg Races for the past moon. I want to find a really good one."
** Kigen, we're ready. **
The tracker nodded his head at the silent command. "Your father beckons, Little Tiger. We, along with Seelee and a few others have been chosen for the hunt . . ."
"How long . . ."
"As long as it takes to find a decent herd," Kigen replied. "We've found a steady source of water from the stream flowing off the mountains. If we can find a good cache of meat, we can stay here for a while."
"Standing still is boring," Shima whined.
Kigen laughed. "Definitely a child born during the Wandering. You keep searching for those Eight-Legs and when I get back you can challenge Seelee to a rematch."
"Okay, I'll find a really fast one and maybe you'll win one of those wagers you and Seelee keep having."
Kigen embraced the smaller elf. ** See you in a few days. **
** I'll be waiting . . . with a whole clutch of Eight-Legs! **
Day Three (Noon)
Shima sighed. Two days had passed and even though her spider cages were full she didn't think any of them were faster than Seelee's champion. She was now scouring the sands on the outskirts of the camp. Around her feet raced her dune dog puppy, Tuft. They had only been bond friends for little over a moon and Shima wondered how she ever got along without him.
The lonely elf glanced over at the mountains that shaded her tribe's temporary home. They were well outside the boundaries her father had marked for her. However, the youngster knew that spiders could be found in the dark caverns . . . and her father was away . . . she would be back before he knew it.
The lure of adventure buried any cry of caution as she hurried toward the promising mountains.
Day Three (Mid-Afternoon)
Ame and Vindra were sitting beside the seamstress's tent when they felt the ground beneath them tremble.
"Ground Shake," they said as one.
There was little cause of concern, the trembles never lasted long and hardly ever did any damage. Their cause was often argued among the elves. Some said it was Sand Cobras digging their tunnels others thought it was Death Pits forming. Ame went back to her tale. "And then Kaze said . . ."
Vindra glanced up as her sister's voice trailed off. The look in Ame's eyes turned Vindra's blood to ice. "Ame . . ."
** Shima! **
Day Three (Evening)
The small tent camp was lit up, though night had fallen. Vindra watched the torch lights that dotted the darkened sands. Silently and aloud the desert was echoing with one name . . . Shima.
The seamstress glanced down at the elf kneeling on the ground. Ame had not moved since the cry of alarm had gone out. Her sister was mentally searching for the mind of her child. Ame had told the tribe Shima was alive but unconscious. She had also sensed her daughter was falling in Shima's brief cry for help. Based on that knowledge alone, knowing there was nowhere close by to fall from, Onsha had sent the majority of the searchers toward the mountains. The others were sent to scout various directions. No one would eat or sleep until the child was found. Vindra just wished the hunt would return, all of the best trackers were with them. However, judging by Kaze's last sending they would be back before sunrise.
Vindra felt Ame's shoulders tremble. "We'll find her," Vindra whispered, bending to embrace her sister. "We WILL find her."
Day Four (Before Dusk)
** Mommy, my head hurts **
** Shima! Kitling! Oh thank the High Ones! **
** Stop yelling, Mommy . . . my head is ouchy. ** The small elf paused. ** Mommy where am I? It's dark and I can't see. **
** You're hurt, Kitling, I think you fell. Do you remember anything? **
Shima's fear was returned in her thoughts. ** Daddy is going to be angry . . . **
** You went outside the boundaries. **
** I wanted to find a good racer, one better than Seelee's . . . but then the ground began to shake . . . and the sands opened up . . . I tried to run but Tuft and I fell. **
** Shima, what's wrong . . .**
** Tuft is dead . . . Daddy was right, I am too little for a bond beast. **
Ame tried to remain calm for the sake of her daughter. ** You said it was dark, are you sure Tuft is dead? **
** I just know it! I feel cold in my heart and I smell blood . . . **
** Oh, Kitling, I'm sorry. **
** Shima, can you tell us where you are? ** Onsha's anxious sending broke into their conversation.
** By the mountains, Chieftess . . . I'm sorry . . .**
** It will be okay, Kitling . . . can you hear anyone calling? **
** Yes, but they are far away. **
** Cry out, Shima, tell us where you are. **
** I can't they're kissing me . . . **
** What!?! ** Onsha and Ame sent as one.
** I can feel them . . . on my hands . . . on my legs . . . in my shirt . . . on my face . . . caught in my hair . . . I don't want to yell. Every time I move they bite me . . . they don't bite as much as long as I don't move. **
Ame tried to remain calm. ** What is biting and kissing you, Kitling?"
** Eight-Legs, Mommy, they are all over me. **
Day 4 (Sunrise)
Kaze held his Lifemate in his arms. Deep within his heart an old fear began to surface. ** The Slaughter . . . I was helpless then and lost one daughter . . . **
** Shush, Beloved, we will not lose this daughter. Kigen is searching for her and he will find her. **
** I should be out there at his side! **
** You know as good as I do, that Kigen tracks better alone. And the desert he is searching has been trampled by tribemates all night. He will need all his thoughts focused on finding Shima. I need you here . . . and your daughter needs your love. **
** She has always had it . . . **
** Then remind her . . . she's trapped and she's scared . . . so scared. **
** I have heard about clutches of spiders like this, but thought them to be myths.** Kaze brushed Ame's damp cheek as he once more reached out and found his daughter's terrified thoughts. ** It will be okay, Sweeting, Kigen will find you and bring you home. **
Day Four (Noon)
Shima felt the feather touch of a spider as it came to rest on her closed eyes. She wanted to reach up and brush it off but her fingers ached from bites already dealt to her. Another spider scrambled across her closed mouth.
** Kigen, help me! **
** I'm here, Little Tiger. **
Shima opened her eyes. The movement caused the spider on her cheek to scurry away. In the bright sunlight the child saw the shadow of Kigen on the ridge above her. It was also the first time she got a good look at her rock prison.
The crevice that had opened and swallowed her, was about one and a half of her size wide and about six of her high. Without moving her body she could see Tuft lying beside her. Dried blood stained his fur by his eyes, nose, ears and mouth. In his fangs was a crushed spider. The Dune Dog had probably tried to protect her as she laid unconscious and he laid dying. Moving her eyes off her dog she finally realized the small hell she had fallen into, and she began to scream.
She screamed as Kigen dropped down beside her and began brushing the blanket of spiders off her. She screamed as he carried her up the rocky wall and back onto the sands. She continued her terrified cry as he stripped her clothes off and crushed the spiders that escaped from the folds. She screamed as he wrapped his cloak around her.
Until, finally, from miles away, the gentle touch of the Revered Mother entered Shima's delicate child mind and calmed her frightened screams.
Day Five (Evening)
Kaze watched as Ame bundled Shima in a blanket. He could see the white bandage that had been wrapped around the cut on his child's head. They had also given Shima medicine to counter the spider's venom. Hood Spiders were never venomous on their own, but a whole clutch . . . Kaze had counted well over a hundred bite marks on his daughter's body. If Kigen had been any later . . . the hunter shuddered silently at the thought.
Shima had done nothing but sleep and cry since returning to camp with Kigen. Onsha had decided to move the tribe, in hopes that distance would do what Kaze and Ame could not. The tribe moved at night so they would not be detected by human travelers.
Ame handed him Shima as she climbed onto the back of a Runner. He pulled back the blanket and was surprised by the two blue eyes staring back at him. They were free of tears.
**Are we leaving? **
** Yes, Sweeting. **
** Good **
Kaze nodded and went to hand Shima up to his mate when Seelee appeared. "Here," she said, handing Shima a small box. "Starblazer is all yours, you deserve him."
Kaze saw the look of horror in Shima's eyes. He grabbed the box from her shaking hands and shattered it on the ground beneath his feet. "No more!" He cried.
Shima buried her face in Kaze's cloak. "No more . . ." she whispered, "no more kisses."
Ame glanced over at Kumo as she finished her tale. "Since then there have been no more Eight-Leg Races. Onsha won't allow it."
"After all these years . . . Shima is still afraid of spiders?" Kumo said, shaking his head. "I don't understand . . . it happened a long time ago."
Ame sighed. "I sometimes think she relives it every day."
Two sets of eyes found the lone elf standing on the cliffs high above their heads. They watched as she rubbed her arms. Perhaps she was cold . . . or perhaps she was brushing remembered spider kisses from her arms.