Imhalla braves the giant spiders of the Lady's Wood in order to ask the Lady how he might end a bitter war. But the Lady's answers are not always what one expects...
Those who had met the Lady agreed that she always found the one who sought her, and that she left her mark on their skin, as a reminder of that encounter. The Lady turned no one away unanswered, and that was Imhalla’s greatest hope, for he had so many questions that needed answering—so badly, in fact, that he was willing to risk being snared and exsanguinated by the giant wood spiders.
For example, he thought as he flicked a branch out of the way, how could he quickly put to rest this ridiculous war with Batthat? He could hardly remember how it even became war. He knew the official story, of course. He was part of the story, though in a role that he didn’t like very much.
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?”
Continued in Episode 2
The stranger's 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.