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A traveller set out from home one day to see the world. He loved his home very much, but he knew that the world must be full of such interesting things that he could not find or imagine within the boundaries of his little village, and there were such interesting adventures to be had, and he could not be satisfied with settling down until he had seen as much of it as he could. His sweetheart was much aggrieved by this, as she feared that he would not return to her and she would be left to grow old alone.

 To soothe her fears, he promised upon the sun, the stars and the moon that he would come back and marry her straight away, for he loved her very much, and he promised to travel for no more than three years. If three years passed and he did not return, he told her, it would mean he had died upon the road and his spirit was already beside her.

 A few months after he had left home, he was walking through a forest in a distant land when he came to a very wide river. It was not so very deep, and he thought he would be able to ford it with little trouble, but he had already been walking for some time that day and he decided to sit down and have some lunch first.

He settled himself upon a rock and took out bread, cheese and cold meat from his pack, and ate while he sat in the sunshine, smiling and whistling to himself, watching the swans drift by upon the calm waters.

 He gradually became aware of a very large spider in a tree by the edge of the river. By its markings he could tell that it was a poisonous spider, and he sat very still in the hope that it would not notice him. He watched it crawl out to the very farthest end of the longest branch, far out across the river, and then crawl back again.

 “Hello,” said the spider. “I see you, little traveller. Are you, perchance, planning to cross this river?”

 “Yes,” the traveller said nervously. “I was planning to ford this river when I finish my lunch.”

 “Well then,” said the spider. “I would be very much obliged if you would kindly carry me across when you go.”

 “I can’t do that,” the traveller said with a nervous laugh. “You would surely bite me, and I would die.”

 The spider looked affronted, and the traveller regretted being so outspoken. “I would not do that,” said the spider. “I am no ordinary spider, you see. I am in fact the ruler of a very large kingdom, and if you would do me this favour I would grant you treasures in reward.”

 The traveller was not a stupid man, and he was not so ready to take the spider at its word.

 “Pay me first, then,” he said. “Then I will carry you across with pleasure.”

 “Alas! I cannot,” the spider said. “For my kingdom lies on the other side of this great river. All my treasures are there, so I cannot pay you first.”

 “Not even a small token,” asked the traveller, “to show your good will?”

 The spider thought for a little while, then nodded. “All right,” it said. “I can give you a small token. Lift that rock you sit upon, and dig underneath. You will find a small part of the treasures I can grant you.”

The traveller jumped up at once, lifted the rock, and dug underneath. Just a couple of inches down in the sand, he found a ruby the size of his thumb.

“Well,” said he to himself,”If this is a small part then I must marvel at the thought of the rest. And if the spider told the truth about the treasure, then perhaps I can take him at his word not to bite me.”

He stood up and pocketed the ruby. “All right,” he said to the spider. “Climb down upon my shoulder, and I’ll carry you across the river. Only promise me that I will reach the other side to receive your reward.”

“Oh yes,” the spider said, spinning a web down from the tree to land upon the traveller’s shoulder. “That I can promise you. You have my word.”

So the traveller stepped off the riverbank into the flowing water, until the water flowed well above his ankles. He began to feel a little unsure.

“Spider, o spider,” he said, “Promise me again that you will not bite me, for I don’t want to die in this river!”

“O little traveller, be not so distrustful,” cried the spider. “I promise that you will reach the other side of the river.”

 And the traveller plunged on into the river, until the waters washed around his knees. Once again he felt unsure, and as he braced himself against the cold waters he cried out again.

 “Spider, o spider, promise me again that you will not bite me, for I don’t want to die in this river!”

 “O little traveller, be not so distrustful,” replied the spider. “I have promised you twice already, you will reach the other side of the river.”

 And the traveller plunged onwards, until the waters washed around his thighs. Once again he felt unsure, and he cried out.

“Spider, o spider, promise me again that you will not bite me, for I don’t want to die in this river!”

The spider sighed. “O little traveller,” he said. “I have never met anyone so distrustful as you. I promise you again, you will reach the other side.”

 And the traveller pushed onwards. The water rose even higher until it flowed around the travellers waist, and he had to stop to brace himself against the water before he could push on once more. He looked back and saw that they were exactly half way across the river.

 He was just ready to step forward once more when the spider bit him, sinking his teeth deep into the traveller’s neck before crawling up onto the man’s head.

 “Spider, o spider,” he cried, “What did you do that for?”

 The spider laughed. “I am a spider, little traveller,” he said. “But keep walking, you’re not dead yet.”

 And so the traveller pushed on, for it was as much use to go forward as it was to go back, and he did not want to die in the river. The riverbed began to rise beneath his feet and soon the waters were flowing around his thighs again.

 “Spider, o spider,” he said. “I was a fool to trust you. You promised not to bite me, but you did.”

 The spider laughed. “I promised no such thing,” he said. “But keep walking, you’re not dead yet.”

 And so the traveller pushed on, for he was over halfway now and did not want to die in the river. The riverbed rose more beneath his feet, until the water flowed only as high as his knees.

 “Spider, o spider,” he said. “I feel your poison in my veins. You have killed me, and you promised not to!”

 The spider laughed. “I only followed my nature,” he said. “And you’re not dead yet, so keep walking.”

 So the traveller pushed on, because the shore was nearer now and he did not want to die in the river. The water flowed around his ankles, and with just a few more steps he climbed up the riverbank and fell to his knees on the shore.

 The spider crawled down and onto the shore.

 “You see,” he said. “You did reach the other side. I kept my promise, just as I said I would. If you dig beneath that tall old tree just over there, you’ll find the treasure I promised you.”

 “But you bit me,” said the traveller. “You poisoned me, and I’m dying.”

 “Death comes to all in its own time,” said the spider. “You’re not dead yet, so get digging.”

 The spider disappeared into the forest, and out of curiosity more than anything else the traveller dug beneath the tree that the spider had indicated. There he found another ruby the size of his fist, which he put into his pocket.

 “Well,” he said to himself, “I’m not dead yet, after all.”

 And he carried on walking through the forest, and was still very much alive when he reached the town on the other side. This town was like nothing he had ever seen before, and the people there were very strange and fascinating, but the traveller sat down on a bench, looked around him, and found it terribly dull.

 “There’s nothing of interest here,” he said as he passed stalls full of exotic spices, fountains which flowed with wine and stables which offered talking horses for rent. “I think I shall just go home.”

 And so he turned on his heel and went home to his village. He saw no sign of the spider on his way back through the forest, and he forgot about the two rubies in his pocket.

 His sweetheart greeted him with joy when he returned, as she had expected him to be gone for such a very long time.

 “What has happened to bring you back to me so soon?”

 “Nothing interesting happened,” he said in a dull voice. “And I realised that there was nothing interesting to see, so I came home. Now we might as well be married.”

 She was pleased to have him home, and they married soon after, but she saw the change in him straight away, for he never smiled or laughed any more.

 “My love,” she said, “Something must have happened to you on the road. You were a much happier man before you left.”

 He shook his head. “Nothing interesting happened,” he said. “There’s simply not much to be happy about.”

 She persisted. “Something must have happened to change you so,” she said.

 “Well,” he admitted, “I did find this ruby on the way.” And he handed over the ruby the size of his thumb.

 Believing the ruby to be the source of his trouble, she sold it straight away to a rich man, and from the money they got for it they built themselves a nice little home which gave her great joy, but he still did not smile.

 “My love,” she said, “Something else must have happened to you on the road. You were a much happier man before you left.”

 He shook his head again. “Nothing interesting happened,” he said. “Although I did find this ruby on the way.” And he handed over the ruby the size of his fist.

 Believing this ruby to be the source of his trouble, she sold it straight away to a prince of the kingdom, who set it in his sceptre. With the riches they received in exchange, they built an even larger house, and gave their cosy home to his parents, and were so rich they didn’t even need to work any more. In time, they had children, but even on the day his son was born he didn’t smile.

 “My love,” she said, “Something else must have happened to you on the road. You were a much happier man before you left.”

 And so he finally told her about the spider, how it had given him the rubies and how it had bitten him, and although he was rich and he was settled, and he had beautiful children, the poison had flown in his veins since that day and he had never been happy since.

© Kari Fay

(Author’s Note: I got a little distracted by the Olympics Opening Ceremony and forgot to post! Here’s a fable I wrote a while ago for a role-playing game prop… A bit on the long side for flash fiction, so I guess it’s a skip week on the Friday Flash front for me!)

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