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?”
His Imhallan was thick with a Bathatt accent and with the effect of spider-anesthetic.
“I’m…well… I’m Imhalla.” Why hide the fact? He was dead anyway.
The Bathattan soldier said some words which Imhalla’s tutor in Bathattan had never taught him, then spat, “You dog! Had I my sword in hand, I would kill you and the world would be rid of your cursed insolence!”
“I think insolence is a bit more forgivable than treachery,” said Imhalla, with injured dignity.
“The only treachery is on your part!” the Bathattan retorted. “My king sent you mourners, and you shamed them most provocatively. I am surprised you dare to own your ruined name.”
“Had they been mourners, I would have welcomed them. But I do not welcome spies to my court.”
“Spies? What do you speak of?”
“You know very well what I speak of. It would not be the first time mourners have been sent to spy out a kingdom’s weaknesses.”
“My lord Bathatt is not a coward. If he wished to start a war, he would do so as a man, and not as a sneak.”
“I think you give your lord too much credit.” It was marvelous how anger could restore one’s confidence. Imhalla was feeling more alive already.
“Shouldn’t I know my own brother?” snapped the soldier. Ah, he must be the captain of the soldiers Imhalla saw earlier, a lesser prince of Bathatt.
Imhalla tried to sound older than his eighteen years. “Brothers can deceive.”
“Not Bathatt. Did he ever mistreat your father, or you? Has he not proposed compromises between my people and yours? Has he not extended invitations to marry your sister and forge a peace between us?”
“A slick diplomat can do the same.”
“Tell me,” demanded the soldier. “Tell me how the mourners offended.”
“I told you, they were spies.”
“Based on what evidence?”
“Why, they… they were caught… spying!”
“The High Councilor said that he caught them listening at chamber doors.”
The soldier’s response was another of those untranslatable words. “So. I see. Your High Councilor tells you that he has caught our mourners spying, with only his word to corroborate the story. You shame the mourners, and war breaks out. Now let me guess what will follow. The Councilor will urge you to accept Pegel’s offer of aid, and you will allow thousands of Pegelli troops into your nation. Then you will beat back the Bathattans and… What next, Lord Imhalla? I think you can guess the rest.”
It was exactly as the soldier described it. Imhalla fell into silence. His High Councilor? Surely not! But the Councilor had taken a number of trips to Pegel—ostensibly as a diplomat—during the reign of Imhalla’s father, and, since the war with Bathatt, had been quite insistent that the nation could not sustain a war without Pegel’s aid. What if…?
“Would you swear,” said Imhalla slowly, “by your own soul that Lord Bathatt meant no injury to me, and sent only mourners?”
To swear by one’s own soul was the highest oath. Imhalla knew the stories of those who had perjured themselves and died the most agonizing deaths. The Bathattan soldier was silent for a long time, then said quietly, “I swear by my own soul that my Lord Bathatt had no evil purpose and that his mourners were no spies.”
Imhalla waited for the spider to arrive at once and gobble up the Bathattan for his lie, but the spider did not come.
For a long time, each man remained with his thoughts. Then Imhalla realized, with a flash of hope, that the rope with which he was bound was not as sticky as he had first thought. Or perhaps the condensing dew was making it slick. Either way, Imhalla felt that if he could separate the fibers, he might be able to reach his side and free his hunting knife…
It was a great deal more difficult than he expected, but at last he got his knife free and the sharp blade made barely a whisper as it slashed through several strands. The bonds around Imhalla loosened fractionally. Working with patience diligence, Imhalla freed his arms. In the early morning glow, he saw the glitter of the Bathattan’s eyes, watching him. Yes, what to do with the soldier? Imhalla saw, uncomfortably, that the ways of war and the ways of honor are not the same.
Virtue was not much of a reward if the Bathattan killed him, but nobility offered no other recourse.
After his body was (mostly) free, Imhalla swung to the soldier’s side and began steadily to free him. It took some time, and both were careful of the motion involved, afraid to attract the spider’s attention. Thankfully, the Bathattan seemed a good deal more intent on getting out of the web than he did on killing Imhalla. No telling what he would do on the ground.
Climbing from the web to the nearby tree reminded Imhalla of playing on rope ladders and nets as a child. He wondered how he had ever considered them fun.
At last, he and the Bathattan soldier touched the ground and at once set out to place as much distance as possible between themselves and their captor. Both were a little weak-kneed and leaned on each other frequently.
Imhalla was certain that there had never been a more absurd adventure in all of his nation’s history.
At last, they discovered the path and staggered through the stripes of morning light and tree-shadows. It was nearly noon when they reached the edge of the forest. The green valleys of Bathatt lay to the left, and the hill country of Imhalla serrated the skyline to the left.
“What is your name?” Imhalla asked. He saw now that the soldier had the gray-flecked beard of an older man, and the rugged bearing of one who had endured the hardships of weather and battle.
“I am Shevar, younger brother to Bathatt.”
“Go tell your lord that in three days’ time I will meet with him personally to discuss terms of peace.”
The soldier held Imhalla’s gaze for a time, then, in an oddly respectful gesture, dipped his head, turned, and began the march down to the valley. Imhalla had a feeling, suddenly, that everything was going to be all right.
But he still had a great deal to do before three days’ time. Namely, to learn whether the High Councilor was true or not.
Three days later, Imhalla and Bathatt met face to face at the meeting place. The other king was much older than himself and his expression did not seem kindly. As a courtesy and a sign of respect, Imhalla waited for Bathatt to speak first. At last, after measuring the teenage king for some time, the other king spoke.
“It is hardly for you, Lord Imhalla, to request terms of peace when you were the aggressor. What further insult do you wish to heap upon me and my people with your terms?”
“No insult,” Imhalla replied. “I offer instead an apology. I treated your mourners wrongfully and I offer full remuneration to you and to them for the loss of their time.”
Bathatt was struck speechless.
“I take responsibility for the offense,” Imhalla continued. “And I also wish to extend a personal thanks to Captain Shevar. It was he who suggested that my High Councilor had betrayed me to Pegel and, after some espionage and investigation, I discovered more than enough proof to confirm his treachery. He has been executed for his treason, and will not trouble your nation or mine anymore.”
Bathatt glanced back at the military escort that awaited him, led by Captain Shevar. Then he turned back to Imhalla, and the young king thought he detected a grin behind the gray beard.
“My Lord Imhalla”—Ah! The addition of the word my indicated familiarity or closeness. Imhalla’s spirits rose—“My Lord Imhalla, I accept your apology. I am certain that, together, we can arrive at terms this day which will be satisfactory to both of us.”
Yes, this was the fairness that Imhalla had counted on. Captain Shevar’s high opinion of his brother was entirely justified.
“I have heard my brother’s story,” said Bathatt suddenly. “It is because of your mercy to him that I agreed to this meeting. I saw in your deed some nobility that would make you a better friend than an enemy.” He paused, then said, “My brother had been sent to consult with the Lady of the Woods regarding this war. And what did you seek in the forest?”
Imhalla was so startled by the question that he answered honestly. “I… I was looking for the Lady of the Wood as well. I wished to find some way to peace. But I never saw her.”
“Are you certain? They say that she finds all who seek her, and marks them.”
Imhalla smiled wryly. “The only mark I have is a very painful and sore spider-bite on my shoulder.”
And the moment he said it, he knew. He knew. His world turned upside-down and inside-out. Surely a spider would know how the dew affected the silk, or what resourcefulness her prey might use after the anesthetic wore off. Surely it was not an accident that two enemies were hung side by side, to battle with the honesty that overcomes men when they face death and see no value in the old pretenses.
He remembered now the way that the spider watched him, and what he had taken for malice he now saw quite differently.
“I am sorry,” said Bathatt, shrugging. “I had hoped the old tales of the Lady were true. They say she is very wise and turns no one away unanswered. But the adventure was no loss. I think you found the answers you sought, regardless.”
Imhalla glanced at Bathatt with the vacancy of a man whose thoughts are far away. Then he found his voice and rasped, “Yes. Yes, my questions were answered. All of them, and more besides.”
And he touched his wounded shoulder reverently.