For once in her short life, Muffet was praying that Sir Barnham didn't notice her.
She sat in her favorite tree, high enough that she could avoid detection but low enough that she could jump down without assistance—though if Sir Barnham was to kindly offer it, she certainly wouldn't have turned it down! Her hands steadied herself on the sturdy limbs above her head, her rear cradled by the junction of branch and trunk, kid boots dangling in the open air. She was terrified but didn't dare shut her eyes. If her time was coming, she'd face it head-on like a woman, not a little girl.
Sir Barnham was heading directly for her tree. In normal circumstances, that would be cause for celebration. But he wasn't alone…. He was following a shadowed figure, someone she'd never seen before. He was following it just far enough that she knew they weren't together. As she watched them, the puzzle pieces clicked together in her mind and she realized that the shadowed figure must have been… a witch!
Muffet had immediately been frozen to the branch, shaking in her boots and terrified beyond belief. She'd been lucky enough to avoid witches her entire life. She'd never seen one, beyond the trials where her neighbors—sometimes even friends—had been exposed. But those witches were tricksters, taking one form in the day and another at night. She'd never seen a witch in the shadowy form it took—must take, for how could a normal person like herself ever think about casting a spell? —and now one was walking right beneath her!
The witch was close enough that the top of her hood brushed her petticoat; Muffet stiffened, hoping that the entire branch didn't tremble with the force of her fear. Was her number up? Was this it? No! No, of course not. She was in the safest place possible. Even if the witch did look up, Sir Barnham was right there! He was an inquisitor, someone who studied witches for a living. He'd know how to apprehend the vile fiend and keep her safe.
She watched as the witch passed, breathing a soft sigh of relief once she was in the clear. From her vantage point, she could see Sir Barnham as he followed her not towards town, but into the forest. Muffet frowned. Why would the witch be going away from the people she was supposed to cast a spell on? And why into the woods? There was nothing out there but yucky swamp and icky insects.
Furthermore, Sir Barnham went alone. Usually he had a team of knights to go after the witch—after all, if he were to have a spell cast on him, there would need to be backup. It was well known that witches got confused when they were surrounded by a group; their spells almost always backfired, going to the wrong person.
Should she go and call for help? Was there a reason he was alone? Oh, if he's weally going out there aww by himsewf, he'ww be huwt for sure! Muffet considered her options. She could go to the Courthouse and scream for help until someone heard her. There was no guarantee any of the knights would still be there, however. There would be knights at the garrison, but it was too far away to go. Anyone with sense knew that it only took a split second for a witch to cast her spell.
The only other thing to do would be to follow him herself.
She was afraid: truly, truly afraid. She'd never ventured anywhere alone, at least past her tree. She was a nobleman's daughter, after all. She need only look pretty and marry richly—she was working on the latter—and all her desires would be taken care of. She had servants to do the lowly work, private tutors to teach her everything she'd ever needed to know; she'd never been dirty a day in her life!
But she'd do it… if only for Sir Barnham's safety. After all, he was a handsome young man. That was a dangerous combination; even if he could do almost anything, that didn't mean he was faultless. She'd seen firsthand that he could be hurt. She'd cried for two hours after watching them pull him from that awful rogue horse, battered, bruised, and thoroughly humiliated. Her poor, poor Zacky! If only she'd been a little more courageous, or taller, or stronger, she could have run to him and cradled his head in her hands. Even with all the dirt and blood on him, she would have sacrificed her best dress to nurse him back to health by hand.
I missed my chance back then. I won't miss it now!
She slid from the tree quietly, leaving her parasol hooked on one of the lower branches. Picking up her skirts in both hands, she ignored the moldering mulch sticking her petticoat and followed the broken trail through the woods, her eyes locked on the back of Sir Barnham's oh-so-sexy neck.
She'd gotten lost.
Muffet had followed them deep into the woods, deeper than she'd ever thought the woods went. Surely they'd hit the ocean by now! But they hadn't, and instead had ducked into an odd, eerie ruin. The disjointed stone, covered in moss and swarming with beetles and bugs she couldn't name, made her stop and second guess her decision. It didn't help that she'd felt eyes on her, peering from the darkness visible between the branches. They frightened her more than the witch did, so with a squeak she'd followed Sir Barnham and the witch into the cool, damp rock.
She'd hesitated too long and lost them; by the time she reached the first branching path, she couldn't see the entrance to the ruins anymore. She'd been scared, and for a long time stayed rooted to the spot with tears blurring the shifting shadows all around her. Then she realized that if she didn't move on, or go back, she'd stay here forever: a cute little skeleton in a pink dress cowering against the wall. That thought alone had sent her stumbling down the left path, towards the sound of water.
She'd found an underground river and followed it, admiring the soft red petals floating on its surface. It had led her to an antechamber—or, that was the type of flowery language the Storyteller would use to describe it. It was a large room, broad pillars spiraling towards the arched ceiling. The sound of water bounced off the walls, both loud and quiet all at the same time. It was peaceful.
She rested here, sitting on her knees so that the stones wouldn't stain the back of her dress. The water lapped against the stone, reflecting the light from the large sconces that blazed along the main path. Who wights these fiwes? Muffet wondered, watching the firelight play off the ceiling. Someone must come and wight them. They can't buwn fowever on theiw own. She wondered how far underground she was. Was she still in the woods, or had she circled around and was back beneath town? Was her own house above her head, her family none the wiser that their beloved daughter was down here, chasing a witch?
"This is mowe adventuwe than I evew asked for," she sighed, brushing at a stain on her frock. "When we're mawwied, Sir Bawnham will have to pwomise to not chase witches awone ever again." Her legs already burned with walking, her lungs protesting at the damp, moldy air. It smelled strange and she couldn't see well, not to mention the fact that she didn't remember the way back. Surely there was more than one entrance to this sprawling maze!
She picked herself up and continued, sticking as close to the river as she could. It branched out of sight and she nearly stopped again, but took a deep breath. Be bwave, Muffet. Sir Barnham needed her. For him, she could face even the most unsavory circumstances. Even darkness. Even getting lost.
She walked, and walked, and walked. When the path branched, she picked the side her gut told her to go with. Left, right, left, left, right, left, right. She stopped only when there wasn't another path. She was in a stone room, the ceiling high above her. The walls were carved with terrible, ugly drawings—people screamed, burned by witchfire, their hands over their ears. She shivered, turning to go back. Where was the door? She couldn't see it in the gloom. Stopping in the center of the room, she held her hands up to her cheeks. Oh… oh deaw… Far above her, she heard a sound. She paused, listening. A footstep? Sir Barnham?
"H-Hewwo?" she called tentatively, looking up at the darkness high above her. The only light came from a small patch of broken stone, the fading dusk casting one lone sunbeam on the terrifying mural tableau. "Is anybody thewe?" There was no answer.
She took a tentative step forward, jumping in shock when her foot hit water. She squinted down, seeing a trickling puddle running beneath her boot. That hadn't been there a moment ago… the room had been dry! Holding her sunhat against the sunbeam, she let her eyes adjust. Water was slowly flowing into the room from every side, beneath the walls, along the cracks and crannies, building in speed until the trickle became a steady stream.
Panic beat at her ribcage, her heart thudding against her throat.
"H-hewwo, pwease, somebody hewp me! H-hewwo!" She called up to the ceiling, sure she had heard someone walking. Was there a ledge? Could they pull her up? She jumped when her sock became wet, looking down to the see the water lapping at her kid boots.
"Nononono," she stammered, trying to back away from the water that, unfortunately, surrounded her on every side. She heard a soft, feminine laugh.
"You know too much. You've seen too much." The voice took on a mocking edge. "Stowytewwer wwest yow soul." The witch! She froze, and then cleared her throat. She spoke as calmly as possible, trying to appeal to etiquette to save her.
"Ma'am, why awe you doing this to me?" No answer. "Hewwo! Hewp me pwease!" She saw someone peer over the edge. A shock of red hair, tan skin darker in the shadow. Gray eyes watching her solemnly. She jerked back, feeling the water washing over her calves. Was it a trick? Was the witch casting a spell? Or was it really—
"Sir Bawnham is that you? Hewwo!" She waved both hands, her white gloves dancing with reflections of the water. "Pwease hewp me!" she begged. "I seem to be in a wittle bit of twubble Sir Bawnham—hewwo?" He didn't answer, didn't even move. The only way she knew he was alive was the gentle movement of his sloping shoulders as he breathed. "H-hewwo?" Again, no words. She wondered, guessed, doubted, and then began to gasp for air.
The water was waist high, now. Pressing, smothering, suffocating her before it ever reached her lungs.
"Pwease, Sir Bawnham." Her voice was barely a whisper, carried up by the echoing chamber. She knew he could hear her. "Pwease save me; I down't wanna die." He moved away from the ledge. She muffled a scream in her throat, the tears falling down her plump cheeks. Why wasn't he saving her? Why did he leave her down here?
"H-hewwo? Sir Bawnham? Awe you still thewe?" He came back, this time with the shadowy figure. She ignored the witch, looking only into the gray eyes of her—of Labyrinthia's—protector. He was the knight that rescued them from the witches. Couldn't he swim? Couldn't he throw her something? Why was he just standing there? What was happening? Was he going to watch her die? She fought her way, half-swimming, half-walking, to the wall directly beneath them. Her skirts, weighted with water, made it hard to move. She'd never learned to swim; even if she could shrug out of her dress, she had no idea of what to do to keep her head above the water.
"S-Sir Bawnham pwease, I'm drowning…" She reached one hand up, as if he could clasp it from where he stood. "H-hewwo… I'm scawed…." She wanted her parents. She wanted her tree. She wanted them to answer her. She wanted to go home. "I'll do anything fow you Sir Bawnham…." She meant it. Even if he didn't love her back—she would leave him alone forever, if it only meant that he would save her from the water that rocked rhythmically against her chest. She closed her eyes, leaning her cheek against the stone. "Pwease help…."
"Anything?" It was the first thing he'd said to her. His voice, already deep, boomed against the stone cavern. She looked up, a smile spreading over her face as she nodded desperately.
"Anything for you, Sir Bawnham!" He leaned over the ledge, and the shadowy figure behind him took off her hood. Muffet screeched in shock, hands balling into fists as she stared up at the familiar face. H-H-High Inquisitor Darkwaw?! The shadowy water danced patterns across Sir Barnham's face. He grinned, the normally bright expression somehow malevolent.
"No-o-o-o-o!" Muffet sat straight up, the bedclothes falling from beneath her chin as she screamed into the night. She clawed at the high collar of her nightgown, her palms slick with sweat. She heard her maidservant racing up the stairs, felt the soft mattress below her, and sighed. It had just been a dream. A terrible, terrible dream.
She fell back against the pillow, frightened tears spilling from her eyes. It had seemed so real. Why had she dreamed of that? She buried her face in her pillow as her maidservant came into the room, flicking on the new electric lights.
"Lady Muffet, what's the matter?!"
"I-I had a nightmawe." The maidservant sat on the edge of her bed, putting a hand comfortingly between her shoulder blades and rubbing gently.
"Would you like me to heat you some milk?" she asked. "It might help you get back to sleep. You'll need your rest; you are part of the procession in the wedding tomorrow, after all." Muffet turned over, wiping her eyes and assuming her 'ladylike' apathetic expression.
"Yes… yes, that would be fine. A wittle miwk and some gingerbwead." The maidservant nodded.
"I'll bring it directly, ma'am." Muffet lay against the plush cushions, staring past the sleek curtains to the sleeping town. Mawwaige… tomorrow…. She sighed again, rubbing her temples. I reawwy would do anything for you, Sir Bawnham….
Even be a bwidesmaid.
Afterword: I laughed so hard writing this that I had to physically leave my computer at least twice and wipe the tears from my eyes. Trust me, if could have somehow fit Mr. Obama into this… I would've.