Title: The Spider Courtship
Length: ~2,000 words
Universe: Standalone
Content Notes: Violence, both self-inflicted and not.
Summary: Each year the cities send their youths, armed, as courtship presents to the spiders.
Note: Originally for [community profile] stayintheroom.

      It’s a long trip to the borderland, so it’s predawn on a rooftop by the riverside for the take-off ceremony – as much as there is one. The chopper whumps into life behind her, and Claire hugs her mother, clasps hands with her father; they are shivering, trying to be solemn and honored, but mostly they look put-out. It’s never been good to win the lottery, and for decades there hasn’t been danger enough in it to be worth waking up for, either. The mayor tips his hat to her and shoves the automatic rifle into her hands.
      She’s never been far enough from the life-giving river to see the black igneous formations – twisting spires, tunnels deeper than her mind can encompass – where the spiders dwell. The rising sun refracts off of glassy spots throughout the rocks, and it is beautiful; she wishes she knew if the gleam came from minerals or the carapaces of young arachnids.
      She is let off on the sandstone cliff that rears up in defiance against the black landscape; the natural bridge that stretches between this final tenuous human outpost and the realm of the monsters draws her eyes. Another of the lottery-‘winners’ has made it here before her, a petite woman perched on the bridge itself who is doe-eyed and round-faced enough, as she peers over her shoulder at the chopper, to seem younger than she should be. No one less than twenty is supposed to be entered in the lottery, but – well, the woman has nothing but a handgun cradled in her lap, not a real deterrent at all, so she’s probably from the Tarbank. It’s a poor place.
      Claire waves to her pilot as she walks across the loose gravel whisking in the machine’s wind. The sound of the chopper’s retreat makes her heart lurch in dread – seems to get caught against the strap of the weapon she carries; she didn’t expect the emotion, and she struts to the very edge of the cliff-face to sit down, as if that makes up for the moment of weakness. She glances over the edge to the scree slope far below, then glances aside at the young woman from the Tarbank, who is faced towards the spider’s territory, plastic-faced.
      “Morning.” No reply, which is – fair enough, she supposes, when nominally they are sacrifices to giant arachnids for the sake of trade benefits. That could get to someone, particularly a young person. “Not frightened of heights, I hope.”
      “No,” says the Tarbank girl, and that’s clear enough.
      It’s nothing but the wind sighing between them as the sun climbs, metal of the rifle warming against her hands; it’s late, almost too late, when the third lottery-winner shows up at last on the back of a motorcycle. He’s a long lean dark man, shotgun slung over his back and a smile on his clean-cut face. He shoves his helmet into the driver’s hands and waves cheerfully to him as he leaves and calls, “Morning, ladies,” as he approaches the cliff. “A little late, am I?”
      “By a bit,” Claire agrees, and glances at the Tarbank girl. There’s no movement at all from her, other than the sweep of her thumb across the handgun’s embossed grip. Claire does not blame the new guy when he chooses to sit next to her, cross-legged and a bit further from the edge of the cliff. “I’m Claire, from Den Delaug.”
      “Nice to meet you, Claire. I’m Nail of Hausburg.” He glances at the third human in the barren place. “She’s...?”
      “No idea. From the Tarbank, though.” Claire doesn’t bother lowering her voice, which is rude, but hopefully will incite – something. But it doesn’t, and she shrugs at Nail. When he pulls a squished sandwich in cellophane out of his pocket, she arches an eyebrow at him.
      He shrugs, sheepish. “The mayor’s daughter got pulled on the lottery, so I didn’t know until this morning that I’d be going instead. Sort of missed breakfast.”
      “That’s – very much against the rules.” Claire frowns. “I can’t imagine it would ever happen in the city.”
      “We trust Den Delaug to be more honest than us,” he agrees, and winks at her. “But the council decided that since no one expected to die, there was no dishonor in exempting the mayor and his family from what amounted to an inconvenience.” He chews for a moment, pulls an exaggeratedly mournful face. “Protesting that I expected to die on the ride here didn’t get me anywhere.”
      Claire chuckles, then chokes on her laughter at the small, shivering voice that abruptly asks, “We could die. You do realize that?”
      Nail seems to forget his sandwich as they both turn to stare at the Tarbank girl. She’s pale-eyed, pale-faced, and the wind on the bridge must be worse than it is at the cliff-face, because her black hair whips against her face like so many serpents.
      Claire shares a glance with Hauseburg man. With an awkward laugh, he says, “Hasn’t happened for going on three decades, kid. What’s your name?”
      “I’m Lin,” she says after a long moment in which it seems she might return to ignoring them.
      “Okay, Lin. I’m Nail.” He looks as if he might offer a hand, but shrugs. “If the spiders do kill us, at least—” Then he stops, because the spiders arrive.

      They come from beneath, huge insectile gems out of the ash landscape.
      Three of them, the vanguard, are the size of small trucks; the fourth – a female, if Claire remembers her lessons right – cannot be compared to anything “small”, massive and moribund and beautiful as the sun catches the streaks of garnet and amethyst and quartz imbedded in her carapace. The lead spider’s chelicerae click and clatter, the limbs at the side of her mouth swaying, a language that none of them know.
      Claire’s instinct is to stride forward and drag Lin out of the spiders’ possible range – god, the kid has the smallest weapon of them all, and why wouldn’t the arachnid go for her? But she knows better, just stands up – watches Nail discard his sandwich down the cliff as he does the same, shotgun loose in his hand. She takes a deep breath and announces to the spiders, “I am Claire from Den Delaug, gift to the Spiders, courtship-gift of Den Delaug.” She feels the fingers of the wind in her short curls, hefts the automatic in her arms. “Will you accept me as I am, or gift me to my senders?”
      The lead spider hisses and clatters and twitches its square, protrusion-heavy head form side to side, its multitudinous black eyes gleaming wetly in the sunlight. Claire interprets this as a stream of obscenity, but perhaps she’s projecting.
      Nail clears his throat, and his voice is firm as he says, “I am Nail of Hauseburg, gift to the Spiders, courtship-gift of Hauseburg.” His knuckles are white on the shotgun, but he does not draw attention to it, as if he is enough to dissuade the spiders from taking him. “Will you accept me as I am, or gift me to my senders?”
      Another bout of hisses and clicks; Claire wonders if this is as much an empty gesture to the spiders as it is to their human counterparts, after all these decades of no flesh being exchanged. Surely the trade agreements are as beneficial to them, in the end, and a paltry few bites to eat – or whatever it is the spiders would do with human gifts – wouldn’t make it much sweeter.
      “I am Lin of the Tarbank.” The girl drops the handgun. “Accept me as the courtship gift of the Tarbank.”
      Oh, Claire thinks, because it’s like epiphany, sudden and inevitable, and lunges for the girl, but the gravel is loose and she’s positioned herself too far from the bridge, frightened of the arachnids. One of the vanguard rears over the human figure that looks so very tiny against its gleaming pale belly; then it shrieks, oozing yellowish pus-like liquid as it falls to the side, scrabbling with its eight legs to keep a hold on the rocks. The violent retort of the shotgun rings in Claire’s head as her hands close around Lin’s upper arms and she drags the girl backwards; the girl kicks, wailing near-intelligible words, and maybe it’s not right, but Claire’s parents raised her to stop suicides from completing their self-destructive task.
      Who will stop her, then? Because the two other members of the vanguard slide around their mistress to advance on her as she steps from bridge back to sandstone, as if they know there’s no where she can go. Nothing she can really do, if Lin keeps on fighting to get to them. Claire yelps as the Tarbank girl’s foot comes down on her instep, would’ve lost her hold if Nail hadn’t pitched in to help, both of them with a hand clenched in the girl’s elbows, little bird-bone and grass-sinew thing almost suspended between them. She’s so small, so mad.
      The spiders wait, almost polite, on the bridge. Claire does not recall any laws that proscribe them from crossing that boundary. The injured one gives a steam-kettle hiss and loses its battle with gravity, falls in splendor to the valley below. The crash it makes as it hits the rocks leads all three humans present to flinch, gone still for a moment. The spiders show no sign of resentment or trouble.
      There is make-up on Lin’s face, Claire realizes as the girl turns a sneer up at her, and it makes her feel scruffy in comparison. In her whispery voice Lin demands, “Let me go. It’s my choice. You can’t do anything about it anyway. What will they do if you drag me off? It could mean war.”
      “You’re ill,” Nail says, echoing Claire’s thoughts; he sounds sick himself. “Come on, take it back, or something, Lin. It’s not right.”
      Lin shakes her head, hard, black hair splaying over her shoulders. “What’s not right is the human nation’s constant cheating of their trade partners.” She stares out, blank-faced again, and perhaps she is meeting the queen spider’s eyes. There are so many of them that it would almost be hard not to. The spider responds to that, though, a low susurrus of noise like the wind’s lullaby. Lin smiles in response.
      Claire does not expect the girl’s elbow in her solar plexus, a trained and practiced blow; she bends over gagging, tries to say no as Lin’s hand pops the clasp on the rifle’s strap, but the weight of it is already off her neck, the butt of the gun swung into Nail’s belly so that he’s sent onto his side, wheezing. The Tarbank, though poor, is not so soft as Den Delaug and Hausburg; Lin is not so soft as them, sent to their knees by the one they want to protect.
      Lin back towards the spiders with the rifle trained on them, weird tableau not seen in decades, human threatening human with spiders eager at her back. Lin drops the gun when she stands with her heels on the last scrap of sandstone – the nape of her neck must be mere inches from the face of the vanguard spider behind her. She says, “You should be ashamed,” and falls into the creature’s pincers.
      The spiders go as near as fast as they came, except for the one burdened with the weight of the human, rag doll-limp, punched through with his fangs.
      Claire is still gagging when she gets her feet back under her, but for entirely different reasons. Nail has not yet managed to get up, and he demands of her, “What do we do? What can we do? I don’t have anymore shotgun shells.”
      Claire staggers – it feels as if the wind has picked up – to where Den Delaug’s rifle lay. She takes it into her hands; it is scuffed, dirtied from Lin dropping it, not at all as shiny as when she brought it here. She turns to Nail and says, “We go home.”
      There’s nothing else to do.
breezeshadow: Is it not adorable? (PumaKitten)

From: [personal profile] breezeshadow


So the summary intrigued me, and then the story intrigued me, and now I'm left sitting here a little baffled but very interested and wondering if you would be willing to go further into this concept. From what I can tell, the humans trade human sacrifices in exchange for something from the spiders; but the humans have been cheating with the whole "sacrifice" bit, and Lin does not agree with this.

I personally was surprised the spiders did not attack when they were shot. Is that part of the truce?
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