By R. F. Gammon
Twenty-four hours to weave garments fit for a queen. Arachne’s hands shook as a guard shoved her into the small weaving room and slammed the door shut behind her. She looked up at the massive heap of purple chaff just ahead, covering the shadowed floor in front of her.
This is what I get. Her stomach twisted bitterly as she shuffled toward the loom. Her father had bragged that she could outweave the gods, and the general had seized on the opportunity, bringing her to this place. And now here she was, facing execution in the morning as soon as it became clear that she couldn’t complete the task.
She sank onto the musty ground and let herself sob. There was no way out. She ought to pray, but with her father’s boasting, there was no chance the gods would help her. She was lucky they hadn’t already struck her dead on the spot. She was caught between gods and the general.
At least Mama had gone to the Elysian Fields and wouldn’t have to fear the results of Arachne’s failure. Father, however… His foolishness would kill them both.
“Why do you cry, child?”
Arachne froze. No one else had entered with her. She sat up, slowly, her eyes searching the darkness.
A woman stepped out of the shadows.
Arachne cried out.
“Hush, child.” The woman shook her helmed head. She was tall—much taller than an ordinary woman, her strong build almost too glorious for mortal eyes. She wasn’t a mortal, was she? No, this had to be a demi-god. “You face a challenge, no?”
Arachne wiped her eyes. When the king would certainly kill her come morning, what more could a demi-god do? “More than a challenge.”
“Then I’ll make a deal with you.” The woman’s voice lilted and her smile took on a mischievous gleam that made Arachne’s stomach churn. “We shall compete to see who can weave faster and better. The one whose work the general selects for his wedding will be named champion.”
Arachne couldn’t breathe. This would not help—she still couldn’t weave chaff. “And the loser?”
“We’ll wait and see who loses.” The woman took a step closer, the crunch of her footsteps in the chaff reverberating in Arachne’s chest.
But this was the best deal she was going to get. At least this way the general’s bride would get something to wear, assuming this demi-god could weave fabric as well as she let on.
“Who can weave with chaff?” Arachne whispered after a moment.
“Oh, that’s easy.” The woman raised a hand. “Only takes a little effort, and…” She snapped her fingers.
The chaff lifted off the ground and whirled into the air like a windstorm had struck the chamber. Dust lodged in Arachne’s chest. The entire room went dark. She curled inward, wrapping her arms around herself. I cannot break down.
The dust settled.
No longer was the room full of chaff. Now it overflowed with beautiful, deep purple thread, the sort that she could already see the general’s seamstresses sewing into something exquisite.
She didn’t ask how, even though her heart begged to know. One did not question a demi-god.
Instead, she sat down at the loom and started to weave. Her fingers already burned, but there was no time to hesitate. The general would return by morning, and he had expectations.
She would deliver, and so would this mysterious woman. And maybe… maybe she could outweave the gods.
The general’s bride-to-be spared scarcely a cursory glance for the woman’s fabric before seizing on Arachne’s. “It’s beautiful.” She spun in a perfect circle with the fabric clutched to her chest, oblivious to the dust that covered the weaving room.
Arachne smiled despite her exhaustion. She hadn’t slept, and her fingers ached like they never had before, but she was happy, somehow. More than happy. Utterly thrilled.
She’d won the wager with the woman who’d spun the fabric. It had worked. And she would go free now.
As the general and his party left them alone in the room, Arachne turned to the demi-goddess, her heart aglow, feeling like she could float away with joy.
But the thunderstorm across the woman’s face resembled the lightning bolts of Zeus, and Arachne’s joy fizzled beneath it. What have I done?
“You won.” The woman smiled, and her body took on a strange glow.
Arachne stumbled back a step.
“You won. I hope you’re proud of yourself.” A flash of lightning filled the room. Arachne threw up her hands to shield her eyes.
The lightning faded, and the woman still stood there…but now her blazing countenance was unmistakably that of a god. And not just any god—her crown, her sword, all of it pointed to one goddess. Athena.
The great weaver.
The one Arachne’s father had challenged by declaring her capable of outweaving the gods.
“Please, goddess,” Arachne begged as she sank to her knees. “Mercy.”
“Mercy?” The goddess laughed out loud. “I’ve been merciful enough. Enabling you to humiliate me? How dare you!” She took a step forward, pointing one accusing finger. “Don’t worry, child. You can keep your silks.”
Arachne’s heart sank.
She pitched forward, the whole world shifting, growing larger and larger as she shrank. The silk grew closer, the dust became a sea. Even Athena rushed upward, growing inhumanly tall, towering like a colossus.
“Please,” Arachne begged.
She tried to scream. Her vision expanded. She could see…everything.
She took a step forward and more legs than she’d known were possible moved with her.
“Have fun weaving for eternity, little spider.” There was a chuckle in Athena’s voice before she vanished.
No one outdid the gods.