Butterflies In The Garden
The moon hung new and bright in its early ascent across the sky, waxing towards a full moon. The tangled branches of the trees’ canopy allowed only sporadic glimpses of the clear starry sky above. The dull sound of ropes and pulleys straining groaned and the branches above shivered and pressed against their restraints. Branches pulled apart to create an opening that revealed the sky above, the light of the stars and moon brightening the ground beneath the trees.
Liandan stood with hands on hips and stared up with a stern look, her lips pressed together in a tight line.
The men working did not see her. She had followed them after hearing where they were going and now watched from a distance. They were working above the silk field.
They heaved together and ropes strained, quivered, pulleys shivered and, with an impotent dull sound, a rope snapped. It lashed back suddenly, the freed branch whipping the other way. Leaves and twigs broke off and fluttered to the ground, some carried on the breeze. Larger sticks cracked and broke, falling clumsily, some getting trapped in the branches to hang perilously in danger of falling later with the wind.
Liandan watched the trajectory of three falling leaves twirling with the twig that held them together. They helicoptered down and across towards the silk field.
Éire does not have silkworms, where duine silk comes from; duine being mortal humans. Liandan’s people weave cloth from the silky protein fiber of spider webs. The silk field is a protected area that is abundant with neighboring webs, carefully managed and cultivated to keep the arachnids from killing each other too often or abandoning the area for safer ground.
Cultivating the webs is dangerous and agitated arachnids even more so. You are protein; therefore, you are food to the spiders. Fortunately, they sleep under the moon if not disturbed.
The falling twirling leaves reached the ground, their momentum dragging them. They spun through one web, destroying it completely, tore out most of two more, and continued on to leave a diminishing swatch of destruction through more webs in their path until they finally came to a stop, glued down now by the sticky webs clinging to them.
The cracking thud of a branch hitting the ground, its aftershock that trembled through the dirt and air both shuddering through Lianden, made her jump, startled. Bits of bark and twigs rained down in a weak spattering.
Her lips pursed tighter in a frown and her eyes narrowed.
“Two of our best web makers,” she muttered. “It will take them all day to spin new webs and we were to harvest them tomorrow night. So help me, if they move on because of this, if they’ve injured the web makers…”
She stopped herself before she said anything she would regret, an oath she could not keep perhaps. The newly spun webs would be too sticky to harvest. She had been looking forward to working with those particular two webs.
Shouts pulled her attention from the silk field back to the work above. Ropes strung above hung slack across branches. A dangling pulley swayed back and forth in a pendulum motion.
Two men came into view, half carrying a third between them. He sagged weakly between them. From her vantage point and distance, Liandan could not tell who he was or how badly injured.
She looked back at the swatch of ruined silk field. The anger that burned inside her and the urge to inspect the damage was tamped down by common sense. The field was motionless. Not even the twitch of a single spider leg. That did not mean they had not been left agitated and awake.
“I’ll come back later,” she muttered and turned away, stalking off back to the village.
Liandan was about to turn down the path towards the spinning hut and changed her mind, instead going the other way in search of the grandmothers retired from the council.
It did not take long to find the two of them sitting in the small garden outside the Grandmothers’ cottage sipping fermented nectar and gossiping in irritated voices that matched the scowls on their age-lined faces.
They paused and looked up when she entered the garden.
“Come for some advice?” Saorla asked with a smirk.
“Probably looking for a husband,” Doireann scowled. “She’s long past due, but with everything going on right now, do you really think this is the time?” Her glare on Liandan hardened.
Liandan shifted nervously under their stares. She tried to control the trembling that filled her whole body. They frightened her more than the king and queen and all their court. She instantly regretted coming and thought about slinking away. That was not possible, of course. Not only did they see her, but they addressed her. She was trapped.
Saorla is the most politically powerful woman in all the Glenns. Matron Queen of Faerie Glenn, she is mother to King Tuathal and widow of the former King Alvyeh. To have her grant you acknowledgement was akin to becoming the most important person in the Glenn beneath her for that brief moment.
The other old woman, Doireann, is the most irritable, sullen, and tempestuous person in the village. Even more so than elder Cian.
“Why have you come to see two useless old women?” Saorla asked.
Liandan swallowed and choked on it, her nerves making her almost vomit. That she was going to bring Ibris to see these two after her brush with death at the ugly beak of Craven felt unfathomable now.
What did I almost do to Ibris? The thought bubbled up through the fear that wrapped her like a tight strangling wraith.
“I-I came about what they are doing to repel C-Craven.”
I can’t believe I stuttered. I sound so stupid. Liandan wanted to take her own betraying tongue out.
Saorla leaned forward with interest. Her eyes bore into Liandan.
“There are a lot of measures being taken to repel that beast. What puts such a troubled look to ruin your face?”
Liandan barely managed to avoid stumbling over the words that came out too quickly. She could not keep the tremble out of them.
“It’s the silk field. They ruined it. Maybe even injured or killed some of the silk weavers, and the night before we were to harvest the best webs.”
She looked down at the ground to avoid eye contact. Her whole body shivered with nerves and she wanted to turn and run away.
Doireann scowled even deeper, although Liandan would have thought it not possible.
“Dreadful creatures, those spiders,” Doireann said, her voice condescending and age-cracked. “We could use the cocoons of caterpillars if we have to. Much safer and they are so soft. It would make much finer cloth.”
Liandan looked at her with a knot of bland horror sitting in a lump in her chest that she dared not show. She was sure the woman said these things on purpose to bait others into being the victims of her verbal attacks. To cut the cocoon from a caterpillar felt wrong, even though they are not the same kind of creature as her people. Under the curse of the sun they are nearly indistinguishable from each other. It would be like cutting one of their own children from that which keeps them alive.
The old woman stared at her and Liandan imagined the smugness that surely must be burning behind those rheumy eyes.
Her dismay grew and with it offended indignation. She had to say something.
“The spiders repair and replace their webs continuously through the temperate months. Caterpillars must cocoon over a very short window of time. Even if we had an army of caterpillars we could not harvest enough silk from a single cocoon each.”
Doireann’s eyes gleamed with that sour haughtiness although her face did not change.
“So we cut it off when they cocoon again, and again, and again, until we have enough.” She made cutting motions with her words. “We do what we must.”
Saorla cut the topic off, interrupting them with a warning look at Doireann.
“There was an accident?” She stared at Liandan intently, forcing her to look away from the other old woman.
Liandan nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. It did nothing for the hollowness burned into her by the nasty words of the other elder.
“They were opening the silk fields to the sky using ropes and pulleys to pull the branches back. A rope snapped. Leaves and twigs rained down into the silk field and larger branches broke off.”
“What in blazes are they doing that for?” Doireann muttered.
“Bait,” Saorla said simply.
They both looked at her and she only nodded to the obvious, her eyes meeting Doireann’s then settling to fixate on Liandan’s.
Liandan could not look away.
“They are setting a trap, or a warning. When the moon shines and the crow has eaten the insects, we will know he has been near. Or, he will have sprung the trap.”
Liandan’s mouth gaped in horror. How could they possibly even consider using the silk fields as bait? She felt ill.
“They can’t-.” A hot sickly chill pulsed through her and her knees could not hold her up. They buckled and she could not stop herself from slumping to the ground as darkness closed in.
Liandan felt a hard coldness. It was distant. The wet chill seeped through her. It was a chill wind or water or frozen winter ground. She was floating on air or water and she was not. Very far away was a noise that could have been a rhythmic thrumming, bud-dud, bud-dud, or the dull sound of a woodpecker on a hollow tree, or knocking on a door. It was a low dull sound and a high sharp slapping.
She felt and heard everything distantly and yet not. Liandan’s mind barely drifted on the edges of coherence, unsure if any of these things were there. Far away, a whisper, her name.
Repeated again and again.
She felt like it grew closer but did not.
An indistinct image wavered in the dark white fog of her confusion. It was like them but not. It was a woman but not. The face loomed close, staring, inspecting. It looked deep inside her, past her, through her, and at her all at once. Round and pale as the moon, surrounded by a hazy red orb that wanted to be black.
Liandan was paralyzed in body and mind, and yet felt the surge of her mind rush through brittle terror that recoiled and slithered around her, followed her, like a wisp of smoke rising weightlessly on motionless air that dances sinuously and follows the displacement of that air.
The cold hardness crushed against her, the dull rhythmic thrumming rushed through her ears, and sharp slapping tapped to the repeating of her name.
The world came back too cold and hard, too real and still unreal, and too quickly. She saw herself lying on the ground below with the two elder women leaning over her, nattering at each other and talking to her, before her eyes fluttered open and they came into focus above her.
Liandan blinked the fuzziness filling her eyes away and stared up at them. All else forgotten by the simple thought. How did I get here? She meant lying on the ground.
“You fainted dear,” Saorla answered the unspoken question. She rubbed Liandan’s cold cheek then took her icy hand and rubbed it between her age-gnarled paper dry hands to warm it.
“Fainted.” The world felt foreign on Liandan’s tongue. Wrong. How could she be so weak? She prided herself on being strong. She shook her head. “No, I can’t have.”
Doireann’s eyes held suspicion.
“You were standing then fell, limp. You were gone from your body. Where did you go?”
Saorla waved her off.
“You simply fainted. Probably worrying over the silk field. If they destroy it as a decoy or lure, or even as a warning Craven was near, it will take a lot of work to rebuild. It would mean seeking webs to harvest from arachnids whose moods you do not know. The harvest would be much more dangerous.”
Liandan tried to push herself up, but her legs were weak. Her whole body was shaky and frail.
“Easy,” Saorla cautioned. She helped her up, her grip surprisingly strong for one so old.
“When you are steady we will go see what they are doing with the silk field and talk some sense into them.”
Liandan blinked and nodded gratefully at her.
“Here, sit.” Saorla motioned her towards a chair.
Liandan barely sunk into it when Saorla was pushing a cup of fermented nectar into her hands.
“Drink. You will feel better.”
Liandan looked uncertainly at the cup, up and Saorla, to Doireann’s smug grimace, and back down at the cup. She swallowed. Her throat was so dry the knot stuck in her throat and for a moment she felt she could not breathe or swallow.
Reluctantly, she brought the cup to her lips and sipped the sweet drink. It burned a little going down and had a faint syrupiness. Its heady effect made her head swoon a little the moment it hit her stomach, a purely psychological effect since it was to soon and too little to inebriate even one who has never touched a fermented drink.
She could not shake the chill that still clung to her, or the suspicion she had seen something she should not have. That she had travelled to the other side. Of what, she could not guess.