Sequenced Heir, Nipped Rind

by Suzanne Conboy-Hill

The ambient light is the colour of swamp fog; I am suspended from the ceiling in a net like a balloon at a solstice party; and there is a worm in my mouth. This has to be the mother of all hangovers.

The worm is squeezed into the space between my upper and lower lips like toothpaste, sealing them shut as effectively as a dollop of glue. There is no smell – earthy or otherwise – and mercifully no taste either, but I have not yet been able to evict it. I have tried blowing but this just puffs out my cheeks and shifts the darned thing not one millimetre. The upside, of course, is that since oral exhalation is ineffective, I can hope that inhalation by the same route is equally impossible so that I will not be further traumatised by ingesting this obscenity. It appears mostly to be dormant although it does loosen its hold a little, periodically, as though about to leave, but then settles quickly back. I have been unable to interpose a finger due to being strung up in this net, helpless as a bridegroom strapped naked to a post in the middle of the town square. I would seem not to be naked on this particular occasion, but the rest feels depressingly familiar.

So, now I have regained some conscious momentum, I am casting my gaze downwards, ignoring the vertigo, and seeking to get the lie of the land. The floor below is tiled. It is polished and glossy and resembles a regal vestibule. It is well-maintained with no scuffing or evidence of foot traffic, and not a crack or a blemish to the glaze anywhere that I can see. Odd then that there is a pile of leaves stacked against the wall in one corner, and as out of place as clogs at a Midsummer ball. I have the faintest feeling that they are significant in some way and normally I would be keen to puzzle it out, but what with dangling aloft and the fact of a fat lumbricoid gumming up my mouth, there would seem to be other priorities.

I have just this minute begun casting about for ideas with regard to an escape plan when a door I had not seen before opens up in the wall, accompanied by a shower of yellow dust and a burst of triumphal music. Some detached part of my mind is intrigued, as with the matter of the leaves, but now I have more pressing concerns because the worm is wriggling, the net has become sticky, and it is pulsating.

While I am pondering this, a young woman with a striking décolletage that is very much in evidence from my exclusive vantage point, enters the room. Or rather has entered the room as I did not see her arrive. Her odd costume and unnatural proportions remind me of a picture book princess and I am just beginning to consider the implications of this when she vanishes again. The worm and the net fall still, but acutely observant as I am, despite the putative hangover, I notice that the leaves have gone. Some unseen force has apparently swept them away, leaving behind a complex display not unlike the map of a maze, randomly arranged. There are also gaps and missing elements, meaning that the map must be incomplete. Obviously, a vandal has broken them, or stolen the parts, and I rather hope it was not me. Perhaps that is why I am being held, because I am the perpetrator of this crime, although suspension in a net is not a form of detention with which I am familiar, never mind gagging by nematode.

At this point, the room goes inexplicably dark and silent.

When the light returns, it is again dull and grey but also faintly suffused with gold, ochre, and red as if passing through frosted glass. There is music somewhere in the distance and the faint tones of a deep male voice expounding to some unidentified other. Looking down, I can see that an ornate key now rests upon the tiles and as this certainly is not mine, then it probably was not me who wrecked the fancy design that still sits in disarray where the leaves had been. The door remains open but the picture book princess is not visible. Oddly, I feel she is nearby, and there seem to be ghosts of her wafting to and fro in the distance where an abundance of new objects has appeared.

And now, frustratingly, everything has gone dark again.

As the light returns once more, it occurs to me that I have no clear sense of the passage of time, and I feel none of the cramps that might be expected from an extended period of restraint. Neither is my bladder expressing any urgency, although if it were, better that there are tiles below than an expensive carpet. But in addition to triumphal music, ghosts, and barely audible conversations, I am distantly aware of unseen forces at work. This, surely, is a sign of incipient and encroaching madness although it also feels entirely rational. The occasional showering of yellow dust over the door, the movements in what now appears to be a courtyard with fountains and exotic plants, and occasional changes in the numbers or orientation of certain elements within this room have me wondering about my sanity, but that it still feels bizarrely familiar is no great comfort.

Most notable of these changes has been the appearance of a suit of armour, the pieces of which have been scattered about the place as if dropped by a thief on the run. There is also a disconcertingly opaque cloud that intermittently swirls in front of me, obscuring my view of everything and giving the impression that it is to be dreaded. In that, it is quite successful, accompanied as it is by a deep thundering chord strike and the feeling that I am not alone. I have a creeping sense that I am the victim of something horrendous so I have been trying to re-orientate myself to see with whom or what else I may have been incarcerated.

But before I can make progress in this enterprise, another grand ta-daa of rising chords pervades the room and my female companion is back, this time to address a small cupboard that has appeared on the wall, using the key I had noticed earlier. Hooray – she is successful! – and now she is turning her attention to the patterns that had been obscured by the leaves. A few deft moves and a hidden recess in the floor springs open, revealing a silver sword which rises into the air and then disappears into a box at her feet. This is quite baffling and I am just considering the purpose of stowing the sword in the box rather than securing it about her person, when the unpleasant sensation of something tapping on my ankle draws my attention. Another tap follows, and then multiple taps up and over my body in a manner my mind recognises but does not wish to acknowledge. The net is swaying and the swirling mist returns; I can no longer see what is happening below.

And then I can no longer see anything at all as the light is extinguished once more.

When light returns and the mist clears, I rather wish it had not. Right there in front of me, rustling up and down so that I am intermittently able to see the princess, now accompanied by a knight in bright armour holding a mighty axe high above him, is a spider. It is at least twice my size (excluding the legs which extend to front and sides over a distance I do not wish to contemplate), and has a body that seems armoured with fluid tectonics. It is behaving like a playhouse monster but it is not made of rubber or painted with lurid gouache. Its bulk is palpable, its colours shifting electric points of iridescence; it throbs, it sways, and it scuttles. Suddenly it shifts without warning to the other side of the web and there it stops, its pulsing abdomen suspended above and behind me, owning me, its head overhanging mine so that I must watch, petrified in position, through its clattering mandibles. These scythe and slash and drip venom, and the lightning that strikes off them threatens to extinguish everyone below.

But instead of wielding the sword, now suddenly in her hand, to attack and vanquish this beast, the princess is, quite unbelievably, using it to trace the threads of the web from centre to periphery along a convoluted track, repeatedly poking them with the weapon, and starting again. Tracing, poking, re-starting. How can this possibly be helpful? Surely prodding at this throbbing, heaving, venomous nightmare is only going to make it madder than it already is? I try to shout but I am muted by the worm firmly pressed to my mouth. Then all at once, I see the silver sword flashing in front of my eyes, thrusting, cutting and severing the strands of the web and, without a single sensation of falling, I am on the ground standing free!

Then again, most annoyingly, the world goes black and silent.

Illuminated once more and resuming what feels to be some florid thespian production in which I am an unwitting participant, I am distraught to see a swathe of thick, occult blackness, at once opaque and yet transparent, that writhes and churns between me and the princess. The knight has vanished and I am reliant entirely upon her for my freedom. She has proved resourceful up to now but does she know I am here, and is she equipped to deal with this unholy malevolence? She looks at the box at her feet, opens it, and retrieves a cantaloupe. A cantaloupe, for goodness sakes! What possible use is a cantaloupe in the face of this vile wizardry that comes accompanied by its own dire sound track in a murderous minor key? I try again to shout and I wave my newly freed arms to signal my distress and need of rescue, and she sees me – stretching out her hand towards me. Then with the other, would you believe it, she hurls the cantaloupe at me! But even that is not the most astonishing part, it is what happens next that really astounds me. The worm that has clung so tenaciously to my mouth, now flies through the air towards the cantaloupe where it penetrates the rind and disappears within, leaving my voice completely unimpeded!

‘Get the flowers from the fountain, Princess,’ I shout to her, for no reason I can think of, and she disappears. Within moments she is back with a handful of blooms. She pitches these into the midst of the roiling blackness, which dissipates as if by magic, and I am holding this improbable woman in my arms.

Congratulations Princess Talia, you have rescued the Prince from the Spider Queen and her servant, the Cloak of Death. The Kingdom of the Sparkling Spires is restored!
The ambient light is the colour of swamp fog; I am suspended from the ceiling in a net like a balloon at a solstice party.

© Suzanne Conboy-Hill 2014

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