It had all started with the death of the previous Imhalla. Deaths usually caused some kind of upheaval, especially in small kingdoms, and it just so happened that Imhalla’s father was the king, so the young prince lost his father, his freedom, and his name—Gavin—in one day. He became Imhalla, after his kingly ancestors. Imhalla would have willingly abdicated if anyone more suitable as king could have been found, but the High Councilor had assured him that birthright chose the king and must be respected. Imhalla appreciated tradition, but tradition, as he soon discovered, had turned very much against him.
Some unrest had occurred in recent years between Imhalla and Bathatt: quarrels over trade routes amongst the merchant caravans, as well as a few spats between the herdsmen of the two nations over water rights near the border. The boundaries of the small nations were a flexible thing, and some border cities had changed hands so many times that the people were even mixtures of both Imhalla and Bathatt, were fluent in both languages, and did not seem to care who was in power.
Imhalla ducked a nearly-invisible strand of glittering spider-silk and shivered. That had been close. People said the stuff was lethally sticky. Imhalla’s troubled thoughts picked up with his pace.
It was tradition for neighboring kingdoms (at least, those who were officially at peace) to send three men of noble birth to attend a new king for the first three months of his reign, as a sign of grief over the loss of the previous king and as a token of friendship with the new king. So Bathatt had sent Imhalla the usual long-faced trio. But the High Councillor had sniffed treachery and, after an investigation, discovered that the mourners were spies. Spying carried a penalty of death, but Imhalla was reluctant to impose such a harsh sentence, so he offered a solution that balanced mercy with severity. The spies were returned to Bathatt utterly naked, and with half their hair and beards shaven, in the ancient tradition of shaming one’s enemy. Bathatt would suffer the loss of their services until their hair regrew and they could appear in public again. Bathatt, as expected, had taken offense and declared war. Imhalla guessed that the false mourners had been an excuse for war; such schemes were commonplace.
But it all seemed so ridiculous to Imhalla. (More ridiculous, even, than the fly-away spider silk that snagged his hair, which, unfortunately, he had to cut off with his hunting knife.) Wasn’t there a better way to keep peace? Now the war was so costly in human life and to the treasury that he was seriously considering asking for the aid of Pegel, another neighboring nation that he didn’t trust and didn’t like. In just a few weeks, things had gotten very mixed up, and Imhalla desperately wanted answers.
So here he was, climbing through a thick forest, following a track that he could barely discern in the dim light and thick undergrowth, hoping to find the Lady who could offer him wisdom. He hadn’t told anyone what he planned to do, since all of his ministers and councilors would have thrown a fit. The Lady’s Wood occupied a portion of the area that had been contested by both Bathatt and Imhalla for centuries, and was currently under dispute. Despite their claims to the territory, both armies avoided the depths of the forest. It was the Lady’s domain, too sacred for common passage, and it was also reported to be overrun by spiders so large that they stood at the height of a man’s knee and captured human prey in their webs.
The sound of voices jerked Imhalla from his thoughts. He paused, and crouched low, glad for his black uniform. It might identify him as king, but it also melded with the shadows of the forest. The twang of the dialect was unmistakable: these were Bathattan soldiers. There were about a half dozen of them. Having violated the sanctity of the woods, perhaps in some attempt to flank the Imhalla line, they at least had the decency to keep their voices down in the Lady’s domain. Imhalla waited until they were well past before moving.
He rose, turned—and found himself only a yard from the outmost tips of a spider’s legs. Nothing could prepare the mind for the horror of a spider with a legspan as wide as a mill-wheel, and eyes the size of King’s coins.
The spider darted toward him and Imhalla screamed again—a similarly unkingly scream—turned, and fled with the creature at his heels. He saw the flicker of many legs to the left of him and realized that another spider had joined the first. He just caught the glitter of a web stretched between two large trees like a transparent net, and turned to avoid it.
From somewhere nearby, shouts and cries erupted. It seemed the Bathattan soldiers were also hunted, but they were being driven away from him, and this caused Imhalla panic. He would rather risk capture by the enemy, if it meant that their numbers could save him from a spider’s jaws.
By the time the spiders gave up and skittered into the shadows, Imhalla recognized nothing. There was no track, no familiar landmarks, just forest as far as the vision could stretch. Judging from the little sunlight that filtered through the foliage, sunset was perhaps only an hour away.
“I’m a fool,” Imhalla grumbled. “A stupid idiot. I should have listened to the stories and stayed well away. What good is the Lady’s advice to me if I’m sucked dry by an overgrown arachnid?”
The light had now become so dim that he had to move slowly, or risk being caught in an invisible web. Minute by painful minute, he picked his way through the forest, trying to use the waning western light as a crude compass to guide his progress.
A strand of spider-silk snagged his wrist. Imhalla tugged his arm, but the silk held and stretched. Then he made the mistake of reaching with his other hand to disentangle the thread from his first hand. The rope stuck to his palm and no amount of struggling would disengage it. Well, how far could it stretch? Imhalla backed up, and the silk elongated. He retreated further and it pulled taut like a bowstring between its point of anchor on a tree and its hold on Imhalla’s wrist. The prince backed up still further, and felt a touch on his back. He twitched and tried to turn, but it held him fast. His entire back, from head to legs, was trapped in a spider web.
The panic that overcame Imhalla was without sense or reason, and, by the time his efforts at escape had exhausted him, he was more entangled than before and utterly incapable of anything more than the vain wriggling of a trapped fly.
As he paused to catch his breath, he felt a quiver of movement above him, and, twisting to glance upward, he found himself locked in the gaze of many eyes. The spider was larger than any he had yet seen, gleaming a sickly iridescent purple in the twilight. Imhalla shouted at it, but it advanced steadily and then, with experienced skill, began to roll him into the web. Layer after layer of webbing wrapped him around, until his arms and legs were fully enmeshed, and he had only just enough space to breathe. Then, unhurriedly, the spider attached a rope of silk to his cocoon and began to haul him higher up in its web, until he dangled twenty feet above the ground.
Attaching him securely to the web at several points, the spider then prodded him with its pointed feet, as though testing his fleshiness. It patted and poked him for several terrifying minutes, during which time Imhalla struggled and gasped. Suddenly a deep, searing pain stabbed his shoulder and his breath froze in his throat. This was it. All people would find of him—if they ever dared this way—would be a shriveled husk of skin.
Lethargy crept through his blood, and suddenly, entirely outside his control, his entire body relaxed.
The spider poked him a few more times, then retreated until he could not see it anymore.
Somehow this was so much worse than being eaten at once. He dangled limply, and wondered how long the spider’s anesthetic would last, and when the spider would return.
This would be a good time for the Lady to arrive. If only he could shout for help! But the poison had numbed his tongue.
Some time later, Imhalla awoke from restless drowsing to a series of sharp jerks. The web danced and swayed with the movement. He doubted spiders were so clumsy in their own webs. It must be another ensnared creature. Human or beast?
In an hour, he had his answer, as the spider rolled and tugged a wriggling shape nearer. Nausea gnawed at the back of Imhalla’s throat. The new captive was definitely human.
The spider hung this new catch just a few feet from Imhalla, securing the man to the web as it had done with him, and stinging it into limp silence. Then, after prodding Imhalla again but not stinging him, it retreated once again.
The night was very long, but gradually Imhalla felt his strength return, along with a very dry mouth. He tested his bonds and found them immovable. Imhalla tried to give himself up to gloomy thoughts, the kind that doomed men ought to think of, but all he could think of was his wretched thirst.
Some hours later, at the deepness of the night, the other human stirred and groaned.
“Hello,” said Imhalla.
After a brief pause, the other man asked, “Who are you?”