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Hunting the Spider  by Ellynn


1) "Shelob was gone; and whether she lay long in her lair, nursing her malice and her misery, and in slow years of darkness healed herself from within, rebuilding her clustered eyes, until with hunger like death she spun once more her dreadful snares in the glens of the Mountains of Shadow, this tale does not tell." (The Two Towers, "The Choices of Master Samwise")

2) The Ring was destroyed in March 3019, and the Third Age officially ends in September 3021 after the departure of Gandalf, Galadriel and Ring-bearers to the West. I'm sure that, after their departure, Middle-earth didn't "jump" from September into January, but I believe that months continued normally – following autumn and winter season – and that Year 3021 normally ended with December. I take it that after December 3021 T. A. follows January – but now we finally have the change: it is not January 3022, but January 1, Fourth Age.
The first chapter (after these notes) happens in May and July 3019 T. A., and the second chapter starts with April 2 F. A., which means that almost three years passed between the two chapters.

3) There are no settlements in Ithilien on the Middle-earth map in Lord of the Rings, but the book mentions there were villages and small towns. So I made up several names, saying that some of them existed even before the War of the Ring, while some were built later.

4) Distances between locations, configurations and length of Shelob's tunnels are taken from The Atlas of Tolkien's Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad. I took some of the landscape descriptions directly from Lord of the Rings, and descriptions of other locations are my own invention.

5) Writing, editing and finally translating to English Reclaiming Khazad-dϋm ("Child of Quarantine") helped me in many ways to get through the difficult 2020. Writing (and editing & translating) of Hunting the Spider – "Younger Child of Quarantine" – was equally helpful in the first half of 2021. It is what kept me sane through this period.

6) And last (chronologically) but not least: big thanks to Marta Bee for checking and correction the translation.


Minas Tirith, May 2nd, 3019 T. A.

Faramir sat next to Aragorn in one of the chambers on the first floor in the Tower of Ecthelion. Soon they'd descend together to the Hall and Aragorn, newly-crowned the day before, would begin the less storied work of actually governing Gondor; the King would announce his first proclamations and verdicts. But before that, the two of them had a small private meeting. They were in a chamber that was used for the meetings; a big round table dominated the room, and around it there were about twenty chairs. Here Denethor had councils with his counsellors and lords from different regions of Gondor, and many times Faramir had also been present.

The curtains were pulled to the side and the bright light of the early spring morning filled the whole room. Faramir observed the King curiously, wondering why he had told him last night to meet here. He didn't yet know the King well enough to guess, and Aragorn didn't give any hints. But Faramir did know, from what he had seen so far, that he liked their King. He saw how tirelessly and devotedly Aragorn had worked in the Houses of Healing, how much he had helped all who needed it, and how much time he had spent among the people of Gondor, both civilians and soldiers. This was a King who cared about his people.

"The first of today's proclamation will be about you, Faramir, but I want you to hear it now, before everyone else," Aragorn said seriously. "You understand that a difficult period of renewal is in front of us."

Faramir nodded. Of course, he was very aware of the extent of destruction.

"Ithilien has suffered most attacks because it is the part of Gondor closest to Mordor. I know that the orcs have been marauding and destroying for years, and that all the civilians had to leave their homes in the end," continued Aragorn. "Now is the time to return, and I cannot imagine any other person more suitable to be the governor of Ithilien than you. You know the whole region, and you have a great experience in leading the people. You will guide the renewal and all the affairs in Ithilien. In fact, we could say that you will be an autonomous ruler of the whole province." Aragorn stopped for a while and gave him a long look. "The house of your uncle carries the title of the princes of Dol Amroth. You will be the first Prince of Ithilien."

Faramir's eyes widened a little. That which he had just heard meant both big responsibility and honour.

"I thank you for the confidence you show me, my King," he said in a solemn voice and slightly bowed his head.

"We'll leave formal titles for formal occasions," replied Aragorn and smiled widely. "In these unofficial talks, I am just Aragorn."

"Yes, uhm, Aragorn," said Faramir, although this way of addressing sounded strange for now. Yes, in previous days he talked to the King often and slowly started to know him, but they weren't true friends yet – simply not enough time passed for that to happen. Besides, it was difficult not to feel awe: this was Isildur's heir – leader of the Dϊnedain in the north for decades, a great warrior, ranger and healer, all at once, in one person. For now he saw Aragorn as King, and not as someone he could intimately call by first name. "I think I'll need a little time to get used to it," he added in the end, and smile appeared on his face too.

Then he started to think about Aragorn's words. The new duty meant that he would have to move from Minas Tirith to Ithilien. He loved Minas Tirith. It was his hometown, and every house, street and level had a special place in his heart.

But he loved Ithilien too – its mountains, little rivers and forests he got to know so well during his countless missions. Because of these beautiful landscapes, he considered Ithilien the most beautiful region of Gondor.

Emyn Arnen, it occurred to him then. That would be the perfect location for the new life; situated exactly between Northern and Southern Ithilien, and at the same time close to Minas Tirith, which he could visit whenever he wanted to. And he believed that Ιowyn would also like those green hills.

He meant to bring up the suggestion, but Aragorn spoke first. "What do you think about Emyn Arnen as the place for your new life?"

Faramir smiled broadly. "I was just about to say the same thing. I think that is the perfect place."

"That is settled, then," continued Aragorn and nodded. "After the first, most important phases of the renewal and after we stand on our feet again, we'll raze Minas Morgul* to the ground. I'd like to do it immediately, because although the place is now empty and there are no more orcs or Nazgul, surely the very thought of that city will awake fear in some people who would like to return to their former homes in Ithilien. And if they knew that Minas Morgul was no more, perhaps they'd find courage."

Falling silent, Aragorn's gaze wandered somewhere in the distance through one of the windows, and Faramir observed him. The King's lips tightened very slightly, and his forehead barely visible wrinkled. Someone inattentive maybe wouldn't even notice those signs, or would think that the person simply drifted in thoughts, but during all his long years of service, Faramir learned to read body language and to appraise people.

"Your Highn... I mean, Aragorn, is something else about Minas Morgul troubling you?" he finally asked.

Aragorn turned his head towards him and their gazes met, and after a few moments he nodded. "Yes, although it's not about just Minas Morgul but about wider area, too. I've been thinking about one detail important for safety in Ithilien, which I have just spoken of," Aragorn said slowly. "Yes, Minas Morgul is now desolate indeed, but Ithilien is vast and surely there are more the orcs in the forests. However, many of them disappeared in the battle of the Black Gates, and I believe the orcs are not a true army anymore, but that there are only scattered bands. In time, we'll clear Ithilien from their presence. But I wonder if we can consider Cirith Ungol desolate too."

Faramir observed the King very carefully, speculating why he had mentioned that particular place, which was actually quite far away from Minas Morgul. True, probability that the orcs dwelled there was quite high – surely much higher than in the parts of Ithilien closest to Minas Tirith. After all, that was the very entrance into Sauron's land, and there was nothing unusual in the thought that some of his servants still guarded the entrance into Mordor, even though their master had been destroyed.

Moreover, Cirith Ungol had long been a very notorious place; the rangers realized that some dangerous creature lived there more than a thousand years ago. But the strength of Gondor diminished after the Great Plague and they weren't able to undertake a large quest to clear the pass and its surroundings. And when Minas Ithil became Minas Morgul, the whole area fell under power of Nazgul, orcs... and who knows what else. Even if they had wanted, they couldn't go towards the pass anymore because it became the Enemy's territory. After all, when he met Frodo in Henneth Annϋn, he advised the hobbit to avoid that route if possible.

But now his curiosity awoke, especially because he thought that Aragorn hadn't mentioned the place without a reason. "The closer the location to Mordor, the further it is from us, so we'll check it and clear it later," said Faramir. "Yes, I believe that there are still Sauron's servants near the pass. Still, do you have some particular reason for which you mention Cirith Ungol, or is it only about planning the future actions in Ithilien?" asked Faramir. But based on subtle signs in Aragorn's demeanour, he was inclined to believe the first.

And Aragorn's reply showed him he was right; Faramir then heard the shortened story of a huge horrible spider told by Frodo and Sam after their return from Mordor. It was new to him, because although he met the two hobbits several times after the whole army came back from the quest to the Black Gates, he was busy with many meetings and duties, and he didn't have much time to talk to them.

"So you say," Faramir said slowly when Aragorn finished, and nodded pensively. The reason for mysterious disappearances of the rangers in the distant past was finally revealed – a thousand years later. For they were surely captured by that giant, most probably immortal spider, he concluded. He also thought he would ask the hobbits to tell him more about that encounter.

"I'd really like to be able to check those tunnels as soon as possible," said Aragorn. "But..." He immediately stopped and shook his head, and Faramir easily followed King's thoughts.

"...but we don't have enough men," Faramir ended the sentence. "All those who survived the war must put all their efforts into renewal and agriculture. A big part of Gondor is destroyed, and time flies. We have to think how to feed the people. It is spring now, but winter will come before we blink."

Aragorn observed him for several moments, and then nodded. "You are right. We must not waste time. Even today, there is much we must do."

With those words he rose, and Faramir stood up right after him. They headed towards the door together, and Aragorn stopped for a moment before opening it.

"Maybe we worry needlessly..." he said pensively. "It may be that Sam wounded the creature mortally, so it died in the tunnels and would never again pose a danger..."

Faramir looked at him. Aragorn was a little taller than him and he had to raise his gaze, which didn't happen often. King's eyes wandered somewhere far away, unfocused, and Faramir assumed that those words were just thinking out loud.

Thinking. Estimating. Considering. Concluding. Hoping.

Well, they could always hope, couldn't they?

"Yes, maybe it died," repeated Faramir after Aragorn. Equally pensive. Equally... unconvinced.

But considering all current circumstances, right now hope was really the only thing that they had left.


The Pass of Cirith Ungol, July 3019 T. A.


Devastating, horrible, piercing, unbearable.

Pain was the only reality she knew. It was the only thing she had been aware of for the past... she didn't know much, but it seemed immeasurably long. As if it had lasted for years. Centuries. Millennia.

Waves of terrible pain spread through her whole body, legs, head, eyes, reflecting and returning, again and again. The pain blinded her to everything else. She wasn't hungry. She wasn't able to think. She didn't sleep. She couldn't walk. She just lay... and the pain was ravaging her.

Yes, she had been attacked by two-legged creatures in the past. Long ago, in times so ancient that those days had almost paled from her memories, she fought humans – the scouts from Gondor who were unlucky enough to come too close to her lair. Unlucky for them... lucky for her; they had been very tasty. And later, she many times fought with the orcs who had come from Mordor and spread over these slopes. Oh, it was such fun to chase them, to fight with them... more precisely, to play with them. Because none of them were able to harm her and nobody could escape her. True, some of the opponents did hurt her occasionally – if she fought with ten or more at once. Which happened very rarely. Because she avoided those bigger groups; why risk an injury at all? There were more than enough small groups which she could overpower without any risk or difficulty. It was always better to play safe, wasn't it?

But never, never, had anybody's steel stung so deep nor burned so strong as the blade of that cursed halfling. They were so small that she had laughed when she had seen them, thinking she'd crush them in the blink of an eye.

Oh, how wrong she was! Yes, she did catch one of them without any effort. But the other... Nasty little thing! He inflicted her several wounds; the flame spread through her whole body. He cut off one of her claws; the whole leg pulsated with immense pain. He stung her eye; she had nearly fainted.

And that light he carried... She shivered at the very memory. The light stung equally powerful, equally deep and painful as that terrible sword. It was as if thousand knives stabbed her body all at once. That light scorched her other eyes too, it burned to the very core of her being.

She lay. It hurt. Blood poured from open wounds. She didn't move. The pain was so strong that she had called death.

Her wish didn't come true.

She called louder. Again, unsuccessfully.

Time passed.

And then... then finally came a different day. At first the change was almost imperceptible, but one day, the pain was slightly less sharp. And the next day, also a little less. She still wished to die, but that voice was not so loud anymore. And day by day – slowly, very slowly – the pain continued to diminish. Then another sensation awoke in her. One she forgot about, just like she forgot everything else, thinking she would never be able to feel anything except pain ever again.


And when the pain finally eased enough and the emptiness in her stomach became too difficult to ignore, she gathered all her strength and moved one leg. Then another.

The movements caused new waves of pain; she had lain motionlessly for months and her whole body had become stiff. The wounds caused by that terrible sword, although now much better than before, hadn't healed even after all that time and still burned her. The crippled leg hurt horribly and she found the stump couldn't bear any weight; she limped. But the hunger became stronger than pain at last, and she slowly started to drag herself through the dark tunnels. However, she wondered how she'd catch anything if she was blind.

She advanced slowly; every now and then she hit the wall of the tunnel or some protruding rock. Darkness had not been a problem for her in the past, for her eyes were so sensitive that they could take advantage of even the smallest spark of light. But now her eyes were burned and useless, and other senses became numb too, because of pain, hunger and long inaction. And each hit sent new blows of pain through her battered and wounded body.

But this had been her home for many centuries, and she had the whole network of tunnels in her head. She slowed down, and then started to tap the walls of the tunnel around her. She soon recognized the location and knew in which direction she should continue. Tapping in front and around her, she slowly proceeded and finally came close to the exit.

As she was going towards the opening, she noticed the small white circle in the distance. While still far from it, very little light reached her eyes. But after four months in utter darkness, it seemed very bright and she had a feeling that the swords were stabbing her head all over again. She halted and started shaking, as the pain returned in full force. Her massive body was shaking heavily and for a while she couldn't go on.

But while standing, shaking and gathering strength, little by little her eyes adapted to the light and it became easier for her. Besides, what drove her to make the next step was hunger. She was starving.

And then she realized.

I can see! I am not blind!!!

Delight exploded in her and she found a new strength. She continued forward, ignoring the stabbing in her head and the pain in her wounds. Reaching the exit, she lifted her head and looked around in spite of the glare wounding her eyes.

No, she couldn't see well – not like she could in the past. The eye stabbed by the sword was completely blind, and the other eyes couldn't discern much either. The shapes around her were blurred and the colours pale; the world was a mix of greyish hues. No matter how much she was shaking her head, squinting and trying to sharpen her gaze, she couldn't do it. Everything remained fuzzy.

But her eyes healed partially after all, she did see a little bit, and she'd be able to hunt. Standing on the exit, she looked around for a little bit more, and then moved forward. Food. I need food. She had no idea how long she had been lying in there, and even less what had happened in the outside world in that time. But she didn't care. Kingdoms could rise and fall far away from her, and wars could wipe out the whole nations. Those things never affected her. All she had ever wanted – now and always – was food.

Slowly, stumbling occasionally, she headed towards the Tower. Hopefully, she'd find some orc there.


* [Aragorn to Faramir] "For," said he, "Minas Ithil in Morgul Vale shall be utterly destroyed, and though it may in time to come be made clean, no man may dwell there for many long years." (The Return of the King, "The Steward and the King")

Emyn Arnen, 2 F. A., April

Faramir reached his house and joined Ιowyn, who sat on the couch on the porch. When he came, she put aside the book she had been reading until then. He arrived in the perfect moment; the sun was just setting. He took her hand and together they enjoyed the sight, observing the little clouds in the west changing their colour to pink and gold.

Their house was on the western slopes of Emyn Arnen, about quarter of a mile from the foot of the hills. In front of them a view towards the north opened – towards the fields stretching all the way to the road leading from Osgiliath to the east, and they also had a good view on several miles of Anduin, long white-grey line of Rammas Echor and Pelennor Fields.

Much closer to their house, at the very foothill, a village named Vinhir was situated. It was built in the summer after the War, when he and Ιowyn came to live here. People followed them, and together they started to renew this part of Ithilien. The village was constantly growing, and started to turn into a small town. More families came, and children were born. Faramir rejoiced to each baby; war and death remained behind them and now it was time for joy and new life.

The first two years after the War were difficult everywhere in Gondor. They had to rebuild so much – both ruined houses and destroyed fields – and securing supplies for winter turned into race with time. Yet, it seemed the Valar favoured them: the weather was all they could wish for and both harvests were plentiful. So the last year was a little easier.

Three weeks ago spring began and everything started to green, and the days slowly became warmer. Holding Ιowyn's hand, he just couldn't stop smiling. Yes, he was glad for all the babies born after the war, but now the one that made him happiest was on the way. Ιowyn's other hand rested on her big belly, and the joyful event was to happen in about two months.

"How did the meeting go? Is there any important news?" asked Ιowyn, turning towards him.

Ever since the first day of their life in Ithilien she had attended all the meetings with him. They met the people from Vinhir and one other nearby village almost every week, and once in three months meetings were held in which the representatives from all the Ithilien villages were present, as well as Rangers' officers. On those occasions they exchanged all important news and planned future events.

That day it was time for that big council, but considering Ιowyn's advanced pregnancy, this time Faramir managed to persuade her to stay home and rest. However, he knew she wouldn't sit idle; the book she had read until his return was about healing of burns, as he notice from its title. During the past three years she had been studying very diligently, fulfilling her decision made back in the days of the War, when she had lain wounded in the Houses of Healing. She now worked as a healer in Vinhir, and ever searched for more books to widen her knowledge.

"Well, as for the everyday life, everything is fine," he replied. "Agriculture and trade progress well. I think we'll have to extend some of the roads, which are actually sweet cares." He smiled. The need to improve the extant roads, as well as to build new ones, really testified that trade developed in big steps – which meant that the kingdom developed in general, too. Then he continued. "Now that longer and warmer days arrived, people will start to build the school in Harchel."

Ιowyn nodded. "That is a sweet concern too," she said. "And what do Haldar and Armendil report? Are there any problems?" she asked then. Haldar was the chief commander of all the Rangers of North Ithilien, while Armendil led those in South Ithilien.

Faramir looked at her and saw that she was attentively waiting for the answer. "Why do you think there are problems?" he countered with another question, trying to figure out quickly what to say next.

"A little while ago you said everything was fine 'as for every day's life'," said Ιowyn and shrugged. "It suggest that some other things aren't."

Faramir cursed inside, admonishing himself for starting his answer that way and not being more careful in choosing the words. Many times he had seen that nothing escaped her attention, and it happened again now.

And really, there was something that he had found out during the meeting, which he didn't want to mention now, to spare her from worrying. There was always a possibility, though, that she would hear the news from people working in their household, or from those in Vinhir she was in contact with.

But maybe she wouldn't, you idiot, and she wouldn't worry.

"The Rangers haven't found orc tracks in this period either, so everything is fine for that part too," he said lightly.

During the first year after the War, there were quite a few skirmishes with orc-bands, but as the time was passing, there were less and less. Actually, if he thought about the whole period since the War until now, he concluded that they had found even less orcs than he had expected. This last winter was the third season in a row that rangers' patrols hadn't found a single orc on the slopes of the Mountains of Shadow. Of course, the mountain range was vast and the number of rangers was limited, and they couldn't cover the whole region all at once. But Ithilien Rangers were supreme trackers and nothing escaped their attention. Faramir was sure that, on the places they checked, there really had been no orcs; if any remained in some remote, unchecked place, surely there were very few, and he believed they'd soon eliminate them too.

No, there were no signs of the orcs.

But there were some other signs. Very unusual, very mysterious. Worrying. And that was not all; a hunter from the village of Ornost disappeared. Even before the beginning of the meeting, Haldar approached Faramir and the two of them spoke privately for a while. "I know the tracks made by bears or wolves. And no, I didn't see those on the slopes above Ornost. But I did see something. There weren't many tracks because the rain from previous days softened the terrain and erased some of them. They are very weird – narrow, deep, pointy. Almost as if somebody had stung a staff into the ground. For those tracks cannot be of feet. No creature that we know leaves such tracks", Faramir heard Haldar's words in his head again. They imprinted in his mind very deeply.

"But...?" insisted Ιowyn and startled him from thoughts.

He looked at her. The blue eyes he loved so much were now serious; it seemed she felt something was wrong.

"Can't I hide anything from you?" he asked with an exaggerated sigh, but smiled afterwards.

Hearing those words she smiled too, and his heart fluttered. He loved to watch her smile.

"No, you can't," she replied mischievously, but right after that her smile disappeared. "Tell me, what else have you found out?"

He got serious too. "About two weeks ago a man from Ornost vanished while hunting. Considering the time passed since, the chances to find him alive have been reduced to almost none."

Ornost was a settlement founded long ago, back in the first half of the Third Age. It was situated at the foot of the Mountains of Shadow, near the road and plains, about fifteen miles north of the Crossroads. During the last few years before the War of the Ring the people were abandoning it because of the orc attacks, and a few months before the War finally all of them had to leave. But after the War the people returned and rebuilt their houses, and the surrounding fields were planted again.

"Oh. I'm so sorry to hear that," said Ιowyn and frowned. "Do they suspect an animal attack?"

"Well, as there haven't been orc tracks for quite a while, I don't see what else could cause it," replied Faramir.

"Did they find anything? Any item, his weapons, body part?" she asked.

"They found his bow and a few scattered arrows. That's all."

"Nothing more than that? It's unusual..." she muttered, and he saw she was deep in thoughts.

"I agree. In such situations we usually find some remnant of the victim, especially if wolves are the culprits," said Faramir equally pensive. The whole thing was very strange. However, he decided not to give her all the details and his suspicions, but only the official proclamation. "As the body was not found, the cause is probably not the wolves but the bear, who obviously dragged the man into his den. Now, after the winter's hibernation, they are very hungry, and if this was a female with cubs, it's even more probable that she brought her catch into the den to give it to her offspring too. Most probably, that is the reason why the man was not found," Faramir said, this time very careful not to reveal anything else with his voice. This was the explanation that captain Haldar had given in the meeting, warning the people that they were allowed to go hunting only in bigger groups and not to leave their villages until his squads inspected the area.

Aside from Haldar, a few more rangers included in the search knew the truth too, as well as the chief of the village who was instructed to watch over the conducting the orders. Yet, they decided not to scare other people until they were sure what this was about, and in the end they repeated the warning about dangerous wild animals.

Faramir and Haldar considered another possibility. "Narrow, deep, pointy. Almost like a staff", was Haldar's description. The shape of the tracks left open the probability that someone else had passed there, using the staff to help him or her walk on the difficult terrain. So, was there someone else involved? Did that person attack the missing man, and hide the body afterwards? Was this a personal dispute? A crime? In the end, Faramir ordered two rangers to stay in the village, telling everyone that they were there to continue searching for signs of animal attack, but when speaking to them privately, he told them to conduct a discrete investigation among the villagers.

"Well, let's hope there will be no more attacks. And certainly it can't hurt to increase precaution. The forest can always be dangerous," said Ιowyn at last.

"Yes, surely," replied Faramir, perhaps too quickly, because he wanted to change the subject, and this seemed a good opportunity. "But, enough of boring councils. Tell me, how did you spend your day?"

"Peacefully – reading for most of the time," she responded and pointed towards the book she had read earlier. Then she put her hand on the belly. "And now we are a little hungry. But the good thing is that the supper should be served soon."

Faramir smiled. The fact she had used the plural was not lost on him, and he liked very much when she spoke like that. He leaned towards her, kissed her and put his other hand on her belly too.

"You are wonderful. You do so much for our people," he said in a low voice filled with admiration. She devotedly helped everyone, and many times she answered the calls in the middle of the night without a moment of hesitation. "I love you."

"I love you too," she responded gently.

I am the luckiest man in Arda.


She loved these forests around Mindal, her little village. She had been roaming them ever since she was a girl, when she was the apprentice to the old healer and followed him here, getting to know one by one healing herb... one by one slope, little river, hill and dell. The North Ithilien was a combination of all that – a mix of canyons, green vales and mountain slopes. There was almost no part of it that wasn't covered in thick forests.

Before the War, she stayed in Mindal for a long time, not paying attention for ever more often orc attacks and not listening to warnings of the Rangers that it was becoming too dangerous to live here; this was her village. She was among the last civilians who left the village – right before the last, most intense attack of the orcs in which they finally occupied it. And she was among the first ones who returned, in the summer after the War.

It was this period that she had loved most – the awakening of spring. She loved to watch how spring-flowers grew through still partially frozen ground, and later how bushes and treetops became green. If she wasn't occupied with many duties – being both a healer and deputy to chieftain of the village – she would most rather spend entire days walking around meadows and forests.

Yet, because she was a healer, sometimes her duties made that wish come true – taking her into the forests she adored. Every winter and its seasonal maladies thinned her reserves of healing herbs, and this last one was no exception. So these days she started to collect them.

She was diligently filling her big basket, sorting plants by type and purpose. Everything was peaceful; sun shone from the sky, it was nice and warm for this time of the year, and occasional bird song filled the day.

Two days ago, the master of the village announced that nobody should go far alone. The thing was, on the last regular meeting of all the settlement masters he found out that in the forests around neighbouring Ornost a hunter had disappeared, and they suspected the attack of some animal. But she wasn't scared. Yes, there was always some risk, but she didn't consider it very high. Even the biggest animals, like bears, rarely attacked humans. It was dangerous to surprise the animal, and she was always careful to be loud enough to announce her presence to forest inhabitants.

Yes, perhaps it would have been better if Turin – her apprentice – could have been with her. There was some safety in numbers. But the boy fell from the horse last week and broke his ankle, so he wouldn't be able to follow her to these missions to replenish supplies.

Noon passed and the sun started to descend. She headed into the forest early in the morning, so her basket was almost full by now. Observing the small clearing she reached, she looked around and, having recognized the place, realized she went even further than she had planned. It happened often – the herbs and forest occupied all of her attention, and her legs walked without her thinking about it. Now she decided to go back, satisfied with what she had found.

She followed the path towards the village and observed the trees, occasionally touching their bark. As many times before, she wished she was an elf – to be able to talk to the trees and to hear their thoughts. In some moment, she stopped and closed her eyes; she just stood motionlessly and breathed the scents of flowers, leaves and humid soil.

Having opened her eyes, something seemed a little different and more unusual than before. She was puzzled. Was she imagining things? After a few more steps, she discovered her steps sounded louder than earlier. It was very confusing, but she then recognized the reason. The sound of her walking was the same, of course, but it seemed louder because everything was quiet now. The birds had stopped singing.

The path slowly descended and the trees grew on both sides – above and below it. About twenty feet in front of her, on the left side – the upper one – there was a big rock overgrown with moss. The pathway winded left around the big rock and disappeared from her sight, and it wasn't possible to see what was behind it.

Everything was completely quiet and she lifted her head, wondering what silenced the birds. Did they all fly away? Did something scare them?

She then heard barely audible noises from behind the big rock. They were so soft that it could have been a very small animal – maybe a rodent running over the grass. She made a step forward, and the sound was heard again. This time, a little louder.

She stopped again, listening. All right, maybe it's not a mouse but a rabbit or a fox. It wouldn't be the first time she met those critters during her expeditions to the forest. She held her staff a little tighter and hit the ground several times, knowing that the loud noise always chased timid animals away. Her next steps were also deliberately very loud.

When she was about ten feet away from the big block of stone she stopped and listened again, trying to figure out if the animal on the other side – whatever it was – went away. There was still no bird song, but she thought she could discern some other sounds. They were very low, and she wasn't sure how to describe them; they reminded her of scratching. In any case, they didn't sound natural. Suddenly she felt very uneasy. She was standing still, scrutinizing the other side of the path and wondering if she could go down and bypass this part. The terrain was relatively steep, but not impassable.

She gripped her staff, while her heart was pounding a little faster than usually. What could it be? But as she was standing there, observing insecurely the path and the terrain below it, everything silenced. No more sounds came from behind the huge rock.

Don't be ridiculous, she then said to herself. Whatever it was, it had obviously left. She laughed to her own reaction. You scared as a little girl who is in the forest for the first time, you silly! She moved forward. Of course everything is fine.

But while passing exactly by the big rock she was suddenly choked by a terrible stench, and some loud and horrifying scratching came from above her head. She froze in mid-step.

A move, a scream... and then, silence.


P.S. Aranadhel, I don't know if you saw it, but I replied to your questions in my review reply on chapter 1.
In fact, I don't know if you have seen any of my replies - I discussed the last battle, the fact that I now think that I should have described the last battle, etc. When you said "oh, just one more chapter", I replied: "Actually, two", but I didn't get the impression that you had seenthe last one.
The thing is, I know that notification about reviews and review-replies don't work properly, so maybe you didn't see my replies.

I've said it before, but I'll say again: I reply to all the reviews I see. If I didn't reply (immediately), it means that I didn't see your review, because the notification about your review didn't come to my inbox. And knowing the problem of notifications, I do return to my old chapters and stories occassionally, to see if there are new reviews that I missed.
So, if you didn't get an e-mail notification, and you want to see what I replied to you, you have to come back here and search for it. ;)

Humans were definitely much tastier than the orcs. She hadn't hunted them for so long that she already forgotten their flavour. True, the one she caught yesterday was quite smaller than the man from two weeks ago, so it would sustain her a day or two shorter, but was equally delicious. In fact, when she searched her memories, she concluded that the tastiest meat were the elves, but she caught the last elf so long ago that it must have been in some previous Age of Arda – long before she found these tunnels and settled here. And the elves didn't live nearby.

Just like she did two weeks ago, this time she again brought her catch to the lair. It was quite a long way and it was a little inconvenient to carry it, but she didn't want to linger on the slopes; she felt best in her home. But she knew she'd return to the foot of the mountains in about ten days. Now that she tasted the humans' aroma again, she just couldn't resist it.

The large body rested after the meal. She felt quite good – the best that she could in her new life, which started that ill-fated day three years ago. She had never felt the same since then. The pain in the scars never completely disappeared, not even after all this time. The elvish steel bit so deeply and powerfully that she finally had to accept that she'd never feel normal again.

Worst of all was the headache. It was not so heavy anymore, but present all the time. It felt like her eyes, burned by that terrible light, were constantly full of sand which itched her. But at least they partially recovered, although she couldn't see as well as in the past. The crippled leg also hurt; although the stump fully healed, a pain always pierced her if she tried to use that leg, and she learned to move without using it. She'd give everything to be able to live without pain – if only for one single day. We don't appreciate the normal while we have it but take it for granted, she thought bitterly, remembering the easy careless days when she was in full strength. However, things did improve; for the bigger part of the past three years she didn't feel so bad as in the first few months when the pain was sharp and strong. In time it abated and became blunt.

Pain. Part of her everyday life. And all that because of her enemies. She hated them. The elves, who forged that terrible sword. Halflings, who entered her tunnels, and one of which crippled her. If she only could, she'd catch them all in her webs... and then play with them. Very slowly.

At least she saw well enough to be able to hunt. In the very beginning, hungry as she was, she wasn't picky at all. She jumped on everything she had seen – a dear, a rabbit, a fox. At first, she wasn't successful every time. It took time to learn to move quickly and silently not using one leg, and to adapt to her new weakened sight. Actually, she had almost no difficulties during the day, but in the night she couldn't see much. So she mostly undertook her hunting trips during daytime, or at dusk.

She was surprised, especially in the beginning, that there weren't as many orcs around as in the past. They were her main prey before, and now the tower near the pass was empty. Wandering on the western slopes, she had only seen them rarely. When finding them – if a group wasn't too big, which would represent a risk for her – she would disable them using her paralyzing venom and then she would bring them, one by one, to her lair. Yet, in her search for the orcs, she most often went to the eastern side of the mountains, into Mordor. There were more orcs than on the western slopes, although even in Mordor there were less than before. Also, no more gifts* from the Black lands arrived, but when she realized how few orcs there are and how everything is different, it didn't surprise her anymore.

There was plenty of orcs – plenty of food – once. Something obviously happened while she lay wounded, separated from the world; she had no idea what, nor why. But some instinct told her that the changes were linked to that awful day and to those abhorrent halflings. Until they had appeared – both them and that horrible steel and light – everything was fine. After that, it wasn't. Curse them!

She hated them. The halflings, elves, men of the West. All of them were her enemies. She remembered very well the latter ones, who were coming to the pass long ago and were trying to find her. Of course, they couldn't do anything. She used rocks to hide her western entrance, and for a while she took alternative routes over the mountains to reach western slopes; she then hunted them while they were scouting, and she spread horror. In time, they stopped coming and she ceased to hide her tunnel, leaving the entrance wide open. They never returned.

Finally, after having caught all the orcs she could find on the western slopes and decimating those on the eastern side, her search for game led her all the way to the foot of the mountains, very near human settlements. So she came across that man and caught him instantly. When she bit his flesh, long forgotten delicious taste made her wish to do it again.

She had to be very careful, so that humans wouldn't discover her. In her next attempt, she smelled the prey and came near, but the strong vibrations she felt through the ground told her that there were at least ten men, and she didn't dare to attack. She quickly pulled back – deeper into the forest, up the slopes towards her lair. Oh, cursed halflings and elvish steel that had reduced her to this! Long ago, not even ten Gondorian soldiers at once would have been a problem for her. Their swords couldn't pierce her shield-like skin, and they would soon fall under blows of her heavy legs. But now, although she recovered in good part, she was not as strong as before and she didn't want to risk needlessly.

But next time she had better luck – a stupid, incautious human walked alone – and she caught it. She grinned. Yes, humans were very tasty, and surely she'd hunt them again...


A small group of three rangers carefully inspected the forest, searching for the tracks. Two of them were very experienced – one had just turned sixty and the other was fifty – and the third one was more than a half younger than his colleagues. But he was a great tracker too, and there wasn't much that his eyes would miss.

The oldest ranger was the leader of this patrol, but so much more, too; captain Haldar was the commander of all the North Ithilien Rangers. His light-brown hair was turning grey, and there were many wrinkles on his face. The colour of his hair and eyes meant that he was not of Nϊmenorean descent and he looked a little older than those of the same age, who had Nϊmenorean lineage. But his blue eyes were still very sharp, and his muscles lost none of their strength from his youth.

He was in one of the Rangers' camps in North Ithilien, several miles to the north of Mindal, when he received news that the healer of the village had disappeared after she undertook a trip to the forest, to collect healing herbs. He acted immediately; he sent several searching patrols, and he led one himself.

He now stood on the position shown by the villagers, where they had found missing healer's basket. When the villagers realized she disappeared, they first tried to find her themselves, and when they failed, they called the Rangers. Altogether, three days passed.

He frowned. In situations like this, three days were a lot, and he considered that further search would be in vain. After all, if she had slipped and fallen, and even if she had broken both legs and arms – which would make her immobile and unable to return – the villagers would have found her below the pathway. He had a very disturbing feeling that something was wrong and that they wouldn't find her alive, and that all their efforts would be futile.

Just like in the case of the man from Ornost. As much as they searched, it was as if he had simply vanished from the face of Arda. Then, they found only the bow and a few arrows, and now only the basket and healing herbs scattered around it. But there was not the slightest trace of either person.

Animal attacks were rare, and now they had two cases in less than a month. Alleged two cases, he thought, knowing which word was crucial. He didn't like this. In the occasions of animal attacks the tracks were different, and they always found blood on the place of the attack, as well as the remnants of the victim – a body part, pieces of clothes. But it was absent in both of these cases. He remembered the crime hypothesis he talked about with captain Faramir. No, not the captain but the Prince, he corrected himself; it was still in his blood to call the Prince by the military rank he had held earlier. But now, their earlier hypothesis didn't look plausible anymore. Two very similar crimes in such a short time, but on different locations? He just couldn't believe it.

"She was probably attacked and dragged away by a bear," said Haldar to the people around him, repeating what was said after the disappearance of the man from Ornost. "We'll investigate it. From now on, absolutely no one may leave the village, under any circumstances. Tell that to everyone. Understood?" he asked the group of men who took his patrol here, having emphasized the most important words. They nodded, but he asked them to repeat what was expected from them, just to be sure. The villagers then hurried away, and Haldar looked around.

On the spot where he stood, the path made a mild curve towards the left. Next to him there was a huge rock, at least twelve feet high. If someone was walking from behind his back – which meant, in the direction of the village – he or she wouldn't see if something was hidden behind the rock. A few moments later, when he climbed it, he realized that the upper part also provided possibilities for hiding.

"A bear?" asked Borlas ironically, the older of the other two rangers, when he climbed next to the captain. "So, this is again a completely new sort of bear that doesn't leave typical tracks, ha?" Borlas was involved in the first search too, so he was among those few who had known that animal tracks weren't actually found.

Haldar cast a quick glance towards Galador, the youngest patrol member. The young man's face mirrored Borlas' opinion for a moment, but soon got neutral expression and he didn't say anything.

"A bear or something else, it is our task to find out. This time I will not return to captain Faramir until we have some more information," he said. "We'll tell the master of Mindal the truth, just as I told it to the master of my village." Haldar spent much time patrolling, but when he was not on duty, he dwelt in Ornost where his wife and daughter lived.

He turned his back to his two rangers and directed his attention to the ground, expecting them to do the same.

"Maybe you could've said to the villagers too that this is not the bear," said Borlas in a low voice, not looking at him. He was bent forward, his gaze fixed to the ground.

"For now, that warning was enough," Haldar replied. He had no doubt Borlas' intentions were good, but he didn't want to spread panic among people.

He hoped they'd have better luck this time. By that, he didn't mean the outcome of the search for the woman – he wasn't optimistic about it – but finding tracks. True, they found some that last time. But heavy rains from that period muddied a big part of terrain and disabled finding more useful information. But the last few days were dry, and he hoped the tracks would be preserved.

And really, they made just a few steps when Galador shouted, "Over here!"

Haldar swiftly turned towards the youngster. Eru, let this be a mark of an animal, please. He stooped to the spot showed by Galador and examined it. He looked at the same shape he had seen in the last search: a conical cavity, three inches deep and about a half wide. It was as if the hole was made by a pointy staff – which he suggested the last time.

But what was the probability to find identical marks of a staff in this disappearance again? The answer seemed obvious. Very small. Almost zero.

But this track was fresh and much better preserved than those in previous case, and while observing it carefully, Haldar noticed that the hole was not perfectly straight; it was slightly curved. It was as if... He watched, and the image formed in his mind. The image that provoked sudden goosebumps. It was as if the track had been made by a claw.

But how big should be a creature with such a big claw? To leave such a deep track? The beast must have been massive. And Haldar knew he didn't like it.

The tracks led uphill, and the terrain above them was a combination of soil and rocky parts. They slowly advanced, carefully examining the ground. They couldn't find anything on the rocks, of course, and there they lost the trail. Then they spread and searched for softer grounds, and inspected it thoroughly. They were lucky and each time they found tracks all over again. And while watching them, Haldar just couldn't shake his first impression – that the cause were the claws.

They climbed higher and higher. It was around noon when Borlas took out bread and cheese from his backpack and proposed to make a short break. Haldar was surprised seeing how much time had already passed; he was so focused on searching that he didn't think of anything else, not even food.

While he ate, he was thinking about their next moves. But he didn't really need to analyse much; he knew what he'd do. He had more than enough experience from decades of patrolling through Ithilien before the War. Bad experience, he added in his thoughts.

"We'll return to base for reinforcement," he said, looking at the other two. "We'll continue searching tomorrow at dawn."

Borlas just nodded quickly, but Galador frowned. "Why wouldn't we continue right now? Why waste precious time? We could discover where the tracks lead and return with complete information," said the young man.

Haldar looked at him. Since the War, except for a few skirmishes with some small orc bands – fewer than any of them expected – Ithilien Rangers' duties were easy and the atmosphere in their ranks was much more relaxed than once. In fact, from what he could see even before the War, among the Gondorian military the Rangers had always been more casual than most other units. It is maybe too casual now, he thought, if we consider this reply to a commander. He kept observing the young ranger. But let's say it is all right. He didn't counter directly. He asked. Relaxed atmosphere, remember? But the answer is "no".

"I don't want to take risks if it is not absolutely necessary."

"But we haven't seen orcs for months!" Galador exclaimed. "We only need to reveal where the tracks lead, and then give our report."



Galador already opened his mouth and for a moment it seemed he'd say more, but then he lowered his head and nodded.

"Understood," said the young man in a low voice.

Haldar cast a quick glance towards Borlas. He knew him well, and judging by tense expression of Borlas' face, it seemed as if he, too, would like to explore more right away. However, Borlas was much calmer, and he also had the experience coming with age, so he didn't say anything but nodded as a sign of agreeing with the captain.

It is easier for them, Haldar thought with a sigh. None of the other two had the responsibility he did; none of them had other men's lives at their care. And Haldar knew well how it was to carry that burden... and how it felt to lose men when a difficult decision had to be made.

He rose and looked at the slopes above him. Somewhere up there, perhaps near but perhaps far away, lay the solution of the mystery they had investigated. The whole thing disturbed him very deeply, and he wanted no less than them to discover which dangerous creature was responsible for disappearance – death, almost certainly, he thought sullenly – of the two civilians from those villages. But he thought he should not act recklessly, and he didn't want to endanger more lives.

Yes, they had food for three more days. However, he didn't know how far they'd have to go. Their pace was slow because they had to search for tracks, and if they had to go far – to higher parts of the mountains – it would take another day or two. After that, they'd have to spend some time to return, and he didn't like the prospect of finding themselves in the forest without enough supplies. Besides, if he knew something for sure, it was that even the simple expeditions could turn into complicated, long and risky in the blink of an eye.

Then he finally turned. The other two rangers returned the gaze. "Something weird and dangerous is at work here, and I'm afraid that we can do nothing for the missing woman. And because I sense danger, we won't risk more than necessary. We continue tomorrow, in greater number."

This ended the discussion, and the two men just nodded without another word.


* "... Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made." (The Two Towers, "Shelob's Lair")

The next day Haldar led on the group of ten rangers, so he now felt better at least as far the numbers were concerned. Each of them was a supreme archer and sword-master, and such a group could easily overpower even twice as many orcs – if they encountered them. Which, he hoped, wouldn't happen. After all, they hadn't seen signs of their presence for several months.

The rangers got up before dawn and set off with the first light of a day. They marched quickly to the position that Haldar and his small patrol reached yesterday; although that point was about ten miles away from the base, at least that part of the way was known to them and they reached it even before midday. Then they made a short break.

Haldar finished his meal the first. He stood up and watched the slopes and the forest. Tree-crowns above them clad in green, and this thick cover of leaves slightly blocked out the sunlight. The air smelled of grass, moss, soil, trees – all at once.

"None of us has ever seen tracks like these," said Borlas in a low voice, having stood next to him. "What do you think, what could it be?"

Haldar did not separate his gaze from the trees; the only clues uncovering his unrest were rising of his eyebrows and wrinkling his forehead. He had been thinking about that mystery for the larger part of the last twenty-four hours – ever since they had discovered the tracks. He only knew that they were not made by ordinary animals they knew well, and not by the orcs either. And he was sure that it was not the staff. After all, if someone had passed that way and used it as support for walking, they would have found footprints – at least this time, when rain had not washed away tracks. But there was not a single one.

He knew what did not make those tracks. But he had no idea what did. "How do I know?" he responded finally, still observing the forest. "I can only guess that some creature passed over the mountains and arrived to Gondor from Mordor. But what it is... I do not know. Who knows how many sorts of spawn Sauron created?"

Borlas nodded, as if agreeing with that.

"Considering the frequency and position of the tracks," Haldar continued, contemplating, "I'd say the thing has more than two legs. And that it's big. But more than that, I cannot guess."

Soon they went on; as they were now on the area not checked yesterday, their progress was significantly slower after the break. Most of them searched for the tracks, while four of them covered the front and lateral sides, scouting and checking if there was any danger. Haldar knew what some of them thought about it; it was enough to look at Galador or some others. He could see it in their eyes – they thought he was too old, too cautious and insecure.

He didn't care. Although they hadn't seen orcs for long, if there was the slightest danger, he'd do all in his power to preserve lives.

They climbed higher, and everything was similar to the previous day. There were some parts of the mountain which they could pass easily, and there were some steep parts too. For most of the time they were surrounded by trees, and occasionally they found themselves on a clearing, from where they had a great view towards the Anduin valley below them and towards the mountain tops on the upper side. Even from the distance, it was easy to see that the uppermost parts of the mountain range were steep and inaccessible sharp rocks which offered no chance for crossing. There was just one place where the slopes were mild and rounded – the Pass of Cirith Ungol.

Their starting point this morning was Rangers' base not far from Mindal, the missing healer's village. Mindal lay a few miles northern of Ornost, which was north of the Crossroads. Although their way was not a straight line, from what Haldar could see he realized that their search led them from north-west in the foothill to south-east high in the mountains, which meant directly towards the Pass.

When the evening fell, by looking around and judging their position, he concluded that the Pass was one day of walking away. But although he kept repeating to himself that there was no point in guessing the final destination of their inquiry, some instinct was telling him that they'd have to go exactly there.

The next day was the same as previous one. Rangers slowly advanced searching for tracks and discovering them, and the direction remained the same: with some slight winding, they were going towards the Pass. However, as the day passed, some things started to change. Terrain became rockier – which meant it was more difficult to find tracks – and the forest became sparser. Now it was easy to discern precipitous barren upper slopes of the mountains.

When they found themselves on one bigger clearing late in the afternoon, Haldar stopped and regarded the surrounding and the sky above them. Unlike yesterday, this day was cloudy; the clouds were hiding the sun during the whole day, but as it was a little darker now, he concluded it must have set already and the night would come soon.

Above grey mountaintops there was an equally grey sky. The sight was just like those they had witnessed three years ago, when dark clouds above the Mountains of Shadow were ever present. He had a feeling that everything around him was getting gloomy, just like during Sauron's reign over Mordor; it was as if stepping into the past for a moment. Then he blinked and the vision dissipated. He was in the Fourth Age again, and the clouds were ordinary – those bringing rain – and not the unnatural eclipse created by Dark Lord.

The clearing gave him a good overview and he regarded the surroundings for a short while. They were near the forest edge. While observing the barren slopes, he thought he saw a line a little to the east of their position. Obviously a pathway, he concluded, although he hadn't known about it before. He knew that stairs led from Minas Morgul uphill, but he saw that this was definitely something else; except the fact that this was a straight line and didn't resemble stairs, he was sure that the stairs were a little lower on the mountain than this spot.

The whole group stopped too, waiting for his decision, and he continued to think. It was more than obvious that the tracks led towards the Pass and nowhere else. There was no other place to go to; all other upper slopes were too steep and impervious. If they went on, very soon they'd find themselves in the open, and although the forest was much sparser here than in the lower areas, it still provided some sort of cover. Besides, if it started raining, it was better to be in the shelter of the tree-crowns than under open sky. There was no need – nor point – in going further right now. He didn't want to expose their presence and endanger the members of the patrol.

"We stop now. We'll spend the night here. Tomorrow we'll investigate the terrain from here to the Pass, and then we return," Haldar announced his decision.

He looked around. Most of men just nodded and started preparing the camp, but Galador stood still and observed him.

"Captain, if I may propose, we might go a little further from the Pass and inspect the other side too, and discover what this really is about. Because, this way, we don't really have much to report," said the young man.

Haldar watched him until the youngster finally averted his gaze.

"Propose you may," said the captain. His voice was neutral, but his eyes glared. "But the suggestion is rejected. Everything suggests that some creature came over Cirith Ungol to Ithilien from Mordor. Tomorrow we'll search for more evidence for that claim. But we do not go into Mordor," he emphasized in ice-cold voice. "I have no doubt that captain – Prince – Faramir will do something about it. Also, I have no doubt that the squad to eliminate that threat will be much bigger than ours."

"But we could—"


The young man fell silent, and although he continued to frown, he didn't say another word. Haldar observed him while they set the camp; discontent was radiating from young ranger's facial expression and demeanour. But Haldar just shrugged. He knew Galador was twenty-four; it meant that he was only twenty-one in the time of the War of the Ring, and captain doubted that Galador had much combat experience. Yes, the boy is a great tracker, but he doesn't know that many things can go wrong when we are in action.

While he knew. He also knew what could happen if a squad too small encountered a big peril.

By the time they inspected the surroundings, found the best places for guarding, set the camp and finally ate, it was dark. Unlike last night, Haldar ordered not to light the fire. True, everything indicated that the area was empty. But they weren't far from Mordor any more, and if some dangerous creature – or more than one – passed from Mordor to their side of the mountains, he didn't want their presence to be easily noticeable.

Two rangers went to their guarding positions, and the others were in the camp. They lay on their sleeping bags, but didn't fall asleep immediately.

"It was such a nice view towards the valley from this height, nice view. But it's also cold up here," commented Isilmir, the youngest in the group. He was three years younger than Galador.

Haldar smiled inside. The boy came from one anglers' village on the coast of Belfalas, southernmost and by far the warmest province of Gondor. As Haldar had seen several times before, high altitudes were not his favourite places nor was winter his favourite seasons.

"What, you miss woolly sweaters and caps knitted by your grandmothers?" Cheerful teasing came from Galador.

"No I don't. I am Ithilien Ranger and can handle all the troubles," replied Isilmir in almost ceremonial voice. Then rustling was heard from his position, as if he was turning in his sleeping bag. "Captain, have you ever been this high? Where have you gone furthest and highest on your missions?"

"As for this part of the mountains, of course I've never been here," responded Haldar. "This whole area has long been in Enemy's hands. But more to the north, above Henneth Annϋn, I've been very high several times – I think, similar to today's camp."

"The Pass was ill-famed even before the fall of Minas Ithil, y'know, son," added Tarcil, one of older and more experienced members of the group. "And that was really long time ago, as you can conclude."

"Oh, everyone knows that, I'm not so unlearned," said the young man, a little impatiently. "But now that you mention it, I wonder why? There, I haven't heard about that."

"Nazgϋl and orcs conquered Minas Ithil a little more than thousand years ago, son. Before that, we still patrolled these parts of the mountains, we Rangers," Tarcil started to narrate with his deep voice. "But even a century or two earlier than that we didn't go this high any more. Because, y' know, old reports say that a lot of scouts disappeared here near the Pass. Disappeared without a trace. Only sometimes, a bow or a sword were found afterwards, but most often, nothing. It was like they just evaporated."

Just like now, a thought flashed through Haldar's mind in the very next moment after Tarcil's last sentence. In fact, looks like the pattern is the same. He started to wonder if the cause could be the same. But considering the time gap, it didn't seem possible to him. How could it be, after all? Only elves and Maiar were immortal; orcs and trolls definitely were not. Could the Nazgϋl be responsible for the ancient disappearances? Possibly, but history seemed to repeat itself, and the Nazgϋl were now eliminated, together with their master. Besides, none of the beings he just contemplated left tracks like those found. He frowned and felt the beginning of a headache. The riddle seemed big and unsolvable – at least for now.

"And there were many missions to search for them, there were, but no results. We didn't find nothing and nobody. And sure there would be more missions, and maybe we'd find the culprit, but then came the Great Plague. Few men remained, the strength of Gondor diminished, and there were more and more orcs in Mordor. In the end we stopped scouting around Cirith Ungol. And then, as I said, Minas Ithil fell... and you know the rest, son," Tarcil ended his tale.

In the silence that followed only some soft rustling came from the sleeping bags. Lying under the trees that looked black in the night, Haldar couldn't discern much of the surroundings. Through two openings among the branches he managed to see a little bit of the sky, which was just slightly less dark than tree-crowns.

"Surely orcs captured them," spoke Galador a few moments later. "Probably our men were dragged to the Tower or even further into Mordor. Who knows how much they suffered from the hands of the orcs."

That is not the proper explanation, some voice inside Haldar said. He was sure about it.

"Well, at least all of our fallen comrades were avenged in the War, and orcs are now destroyed," added Calion, another one of the elder ones.

"Based on the tracks we found, these disappearances we investigate now are not caused by orcs," said Haldar in a low voice. He wanted none of them to forget that fact, so that they remain fully focused and cautious.

"Yeah, I really wonder what it might be," Isilmir said pensively.

"Probably some unnatural being bred by Sauron, just like he bred those flying monsters for the Nazgϋl," responded Haldar. "We are yet to discover what it is this time, and how many there are."

From Galador's position first came loud coughing, and after that he spoke, "Orcs or something else, if there were many, there would be more attacks on our people. I am sure that there aren't many enemies and that we'd handle them easily."

Haldar's lips tightened in anger, but he had to admit that this time the young man formulated his thoughts wisely – not putting them as open opposing, but seemingly as a neutral comment. But it was not neutral and Haldar had no intention of remaining quiet.

"It will be even easier and less dangerous for a bigger squad. Keep that in mind," he said coldly.

After that, nobody spoke of that anymore; they started talking about every day's trifles, but Haldar didn't participate the conversation. He thought about the mysterious creature, about tomorrow's search, about the report he'd have to make... and about his son.

She felt good. Although the last meal – the human she caught about a week ago – was relatively small, she was still full. In the meantime she slept a lot, so now she was brimming with energy. She decided it would be good to scout the whole western slopes of the mountains – to discover the exact locations of as many human settlements as possible, as well as the best places for ambush. And by the time she would have finished that, slowly and without hurrying, a few days would pass and she would be hungry again. And she'd catch new prey, of course. She rejoiced in advance.

After passing through her long tunnel, she reached the exit and discovered it was night-time. But at least it was cloudy and the white dots were not visible in the sky. Their light was faint, but there was something about it that made her very anxious. She shuddered every time she set her eyes upon them; she hated them.

The area around the exit was barren, without trees, and the terrain was relatively flat: the rocks were quite smooth, so it was easy to walk on them. But because of her impaired night vision, she thought it would be best to wait until morning before starting her descent. A nocturnal trip through the forest, whose edge was about quarter of a mile lower, wouldn't be simple, and she was not in a hurry. So she laid her big body on the ground, having decided to take some rest. Everything was quiet, and the mild wind was blowing.

And it was the wind that brought her the awareness. The scent! The scent of humans!

The breeze was coming from the southwest, so she concluded they had to be settled to her right. Based on the intensity, she judged that they were not very far and that there were several humans. It was a very surprising discovery. They hadn't been coming here for a very long time; she didn't really know how long because she didn't care for counting years. She only knew that it must have been centuries, expressed in humans' time units. And maybe even more. Their coming here was something very unusual.

She was surprised. Astonished. And then the shock turned into rage. Arrival of humans wasn't just very unusual; this was very arrogant. This was her territory! How dare they come here?! Well known hatred flashed inside her. It mattered no more that it was dark and that she couldn't see well. She turned towards the direction in which the scent was the strongest and started to go down.


Galador felt someone was shaking his shoulders. He blinked, but even when he opened his eyes, everything was still dark. Dazed and still half-asleep, he didn't understand anything.

"Galador, it's your turn for guarding," a low Borlas' voice informed him.

He fully awoke in the very next moment and things became clear. Everything was dark because it was night, and he remembered all the events: searching, and then setting camp on the mountain. So, obviously came his turn. That was, his and someone else's, as two of them guarded simultaneously. He rubbed his eyes. It was so comfortable and warm in the sleeping bag, and he really felt like sleeping more. But then he shook his head and quickly rose. There was no point in delaying – it was not that he could have got away from this duty.

"Little nightly delights, ha?" he muttered, taking his sword-belt and bow.

"Of course, there's nothing better than taking guard-shift in the dead of the night," Borlas replied with a smile. "Isilmir and I just returned, and now it's yours and Calion's turn."

"Everything all right out there?" whispered Galador.

"Yes, everything is quiet," confirmed the older ranger.

Galador discerned Borlas' silhouette going towards his place in the camp, and then he headed towards the guarding position. Now, in the darkness, it was a little more difficult to find the way among the trees than it was in the beginning of the evening, when they picked the place for guarding, but he managed to reach it. He covered the southern side of the camp, the one towards the Pass, while Calion went on the opposite side.

And how else would it be than fine, he thought. Even if there were orcs around, surely they wouldn't lightly attack a group as big as ours. He watched the surroundings. It was dark, but he managed to see differences in hues and he discerned the shapes of bushes and tree-crowns around him. But sight was not his primary sense now; if there was no moonlight, rangers mostly relied on hearing during their night guarding-shifts. From his several earlier experiences, before the War, he knew that orcs weren't adept in silent moving. So he listened carefully, and he believed he would hear them in time – if there were any around. Which, on the other hand, he did not believe.

The time was passing slowly, and his greatest problem was boredom. Everything was quiet; there were no animals nor any other living beings around, and the night was silent. He became sleepy again, but he did his best to remain awake and cautious. For most of the time, the only sound he heard was his own breathing. Now and then he heard Calion's sign which told him everything was fine, and he answered the same way. Rangers had several sorts of whistles – mimicking bird-song – that they used for letting others know if everything was all right or there was any danger.

The night slowly went on, and Calion's and his own whistles were always the same: everything was just fine.


Enemies. Somewhere on the slopes, quite near, were the enemies. Humans. Surely those from Gondor; highly unlikely that they were any others. And Gondorians were the allies of the elves. Odious enemies, all of them. She wanted to destroy, smash, kill them. To devour them. Yes, they were so tasty...

But only a few steps later she stopped; she had to restrain emotions and not let rage blind her. Your night vision is not as it used to be, she reminded herself. Before any action, she first had to find out how many humans were around, and only then would she figure out what to do next. She stopped and waited until the heat of her fury cooled down, and then she continued – now very slowly.

A step, then halt. Another step, halt again, then listening and sniffing. Little by little. She put her legs on the ground very carefully. Thanks to this slow rhythm, she managed to go forward without stumbling and almost noiselessly. As she advanced, the scent of humans told her which direction to go.

Soon she reached the forest edge. She carefully sniffed the air again. The smell was strong, and she concluded that there might be as many as ten. She knew that this time it wouldn't be easy to catch any of them. She was not in full strength as in the past, and fighting ten swords would be risky. Actually, this was the situation in which it would be wisest to turn around and go back.

But with every next second her wrath grew. These humans had to be punished for their arrogance. If she could somehow isolate one or two of them, it would be easier...

And while breathing in their scent, her hunger awoke too. Suddenly it no longer mattered that she had eaten only a few days ago. Delicious smell aroused her appetite, and all she wanted to do is to catch fresh meat. And then she decided. She'd try to approach them quietly. If circumstances really turned out to be too unfavourable, she wouldn't risk a fight and wound, but leave. But if someone is separated from the group... well, in that case, everything was clear. That someone would pay. She moved forward and stepped into the sparse forest.


Galador whistled again, messaging Calion that everything was fine, just like he did a few times before. Then he tried to estimate how much time had passed. He finally decided that their shift would last for about half an hour more. He knew that dawn was near, and that he'd have no opportunity for resting after this. But he just shrugged. It hardly mattered. This wasn't the first time that he had lost some sleep because of keeping guard, and certainly was not the last. Besides, he thought that they would be near the foothill by the next evening, safe on their territory, and that he'd sleep through the whole night; he'd have a good rest then.


The sound was so low that he wasn't sure if he had really heard something, or it had been just his imagination. He even thought it might be the noise of the branches swaying in constant breeze. But he stood still and closed his eyes, focusing all his attention to hearing, and turned to the direction from which he thought the sound had come. Moments passed. Nothing.

Probably just the wind, he finally concluded.


This time he knew he was not wrong. Something did make a sound. It was very low, but something obviously passed over there, near the forest edge. His thoughts raced. He knew that one orc might move silently. Two – possibly, but unlikely. More of them – absolutely not. And because of that, even though they were not far from the Pass and Mordor, he didn't think he had heard the orcs. He was more inclined to think a small forest animal was passing – perhaps a rabbit or a weasel.

Absolutely sure he was not wrong, he headed towards the sound. He unsheathed his sword, just to be on the safe side – in case this turned out to be some bigger carnivore like a wolf. He also thought there was no need to report about this in the morning. This was a forest, and different animals lived in the forests and passed around, didn't they? It had absolutely nothing to do with their mission and safety.

Completely convinced in his conclusion and abilities, he slowly strode among the trees... so convinced that everything was fine that he hadn't even thought necessary to inform Calion about his leave.


She stopped. In fact, her progress was very slow anyway; most of the time passed in halting between two steps, so that she could remain as quiet and imperceptible as possible, and in order to discern the objects around her. But now she stopped because she noticed something was going on.

Her nose discovered a change in the spreading of the scent, her ears noticed barely audible noises, and very slight but still perceptible vibrations in the ground confirmed the discovery. Someone was walking towards her.

She grinned victoriously. If some reckless human specimen separated from the group – and all signs suggested exactly that – her task would become much easier. It was just what she craved. She would catch the prey and wouldn't risk fighting a big group.

Torn among hatred, hunting excitement and reason, she shortly considered to go down to the whole group – after catching this fool – to kill more of them and provide more food for the following weeks. If they were sleeping in their camp, maybe it wouldn't be too dangerous for her; maybe she could kill most of them even before they reached for their weapons. But in the end, reason prevailed. You don't see well. You couldn't walk noiselessly through the forest. You don't know the number. And you didn't survive all these millennia by being thoughtless, girl, so go on the same way.

And so the decision was made. She'd catch the prey, swiftly and quietly, and drag it to her lair, where she'd hide. Surely, another opportunity to hunt humans would come again soon; the scouting she had planned earlier would simply be delayed a few days. And she always had game at disposal, just like she had it in all the previous years. She would surely catch some deer or other animal, and wouldn't be hungry.

She froze, not revealing her presence, and squatted next to a big bush. It didn't cover her entirely, but the bush large enough to hide her completely probably didn't exist at all. But motionless as she was, her legs pulled close to her round body, she looked like just another bush in that darkness. And she waited.


Galador progressed quite slowly. Every step or two he stopped and listened, and then went on. As he went further from the camp he noticed the trees were sparser, but he wasn't surprised – they knew they were near the end of the forest anyway. A glance towards the sky told him it was still cloudy.

The surrounding was quiet and he stopped in one moment, wondering if there was any point in continuing. He thought that by now the animal causing those sounds was maybe far away. He stood and observed the darkness of the forest around him, already half-decided to go back. But after a few moments he heard something again – and again he thought of the animals. He didn't think it could be orcs.

The probability that orcs are near is approximately the same as for the arrival of the oliphaunt, he laughed inside. This is surely something harmless for us, but now that I came this far, I'll go to check. Although, he doubted he could spot a forest animal in this darkness. And it wouldn't be easy in the day either, thought crossed his mind, because all of them had much better senses than he did and he was sure they'd run away in time, alarmed by the arrival of some big creature. But he wanted to check the area in front of him, to be sure that he left nothing to chance.

He went a little more forward and found himself on a small circular clearing about ten feet wide. On his right, at the edge of the clearing, he discerned one tree; watching the two black bulbous shapes in front of him, he concluded that those were big bushes. A little further he noticed another silhouette of a tree, and that seemed to be the end of the forest.

When he came closer to the bushes, his nostrils discovered that something in close proximity smelled quite badly. Therefore, he assumed that the noises he had heard earlier came from some bigger carnivore – perhaps a wolf or even a bear – and that there was a rotting old quarry nearby. Probably right here, in these bushes in front of me. He decided to check this part of the terrain before returning.

He held the sword tightly in his hand, ready to react instantly if it turned out that the owner of the quarry was hidden in the bushes too, and continued to walk forward.

When Galador reached the bushes, the smell became stronger. He was just passing next to the second, larger bush when everything happened at once: he was struck by a stench so strong it made him sick, he realized something was wrong, and instinctively he lifted his sword although he didn't see any enemy.

And then it moved – not the enemy in the bush, but the bush itself, Galador realized. The shock was such that he didn't even manage to shout or react. Even before he could deal a blow or scream for alert, he was stung in the neck by a sharp, pointed – bush branch!!!, the last thought flashed through his mind. Only it wasn't a branch, but a long leg finishing with a claw.


"Captain! Wake up!!!"

Haldar needed only a second to transfer from sleeping to fully awake state – the ability developed through decades of living on the edge, when the risk of fighting the orcs was the reality they needed to live with in every minute of all twenty-four hours in a day. In the next moment he rose to sitting position and swiftly looked around, and his arm already stretched towards the sword. Calion, who uttered the words that had woken him, squatted next to his sleeping bag. Calion's shape was not completely black, noticed Haldar passingly, nor was the sky. So, the dawn begins, he thought. Some of them were still sleeping, but the three nearest rangers arose for they were also woken up by Calion's call.

"What happened?"

"Galador, captain! He disappeared. It was his and my watch. He covered the upper side, towards the forest edge. For most of the time he had regularly reported – all clear. When he didn't reply to my last signal I went to look for him. But he is gone. Vanished."

Haldar jumped to his feet. Another disappearance. But this one was different than those previous. This time he knew the victim, and was filled with worry. And with bad premonition too; he knew what this could mean.

But this disappearance was different in one more detail. While in previous situations it was discovered one whole day – or even more – later, this time it was only a quarter of an hour in question, and maybe, maybe, maybe they had some chances.

"Quickly! Get up!"

Together with Calion he woke up those who were still sleeping, and then they quickly got ready for searching. He decided to leave the camp as it was. They left behind all their things except for the weapons; they could pick up everything later. Now it was most important to hurry because every minute could be crucial for the life of their comrade.

They started to search on the place where Galador had guarded. Haldar looked to the ground. It wasn't easy to spot the tracks because dim light of the dawn was additionally obscured by heavy clouds that were still hanging above them. The group spread to cover bigger area, and soon Borlas called out. "I found it! He passed this way."

They quickly headed in that direction. They spotted boot-prints here and there and followed them. Soon they reached a clearing at the very edge of the forest.

"Tracks lead to that big bush in front of us," said Borlas, his neck bent and his gaze fixed to the ground.

Haldar looked around, his mind racing. For now they didn't notice any other tracks except Galador's, and he wondered what made the young ranger abandon his post and come here. And most important, why did he do it without informing Calion? Something like that was never done – it was against all military rules and logic.

For now he had only questions and not a single answer. And he felt as though he had a heavy stone in his stomach. He was afraid that Galador was already lost – that the mysterious creature from Mordor, whom they searched for, had already killed him. Because, although he had no proof, his instinct was telling him that that the culprit was the same in all the cases. He dismissed the thought of a crime long ago, as well as the animal attack. So his hope for Galador's rescue was as weak as a candle in the strong wind.

They bypassed the bush and looked to the ground. Those few stalks of grass that grew were bent, and the ground itself looked as if slightly flattened.

"Someone... something... lay here," muttered Calion.

Everyone observed the spot, everyone equally confused. The depression was round and almost seven feet wide, but very shallow. Haldar could not remember any of Sauron's creatures that would leave such a mark. These are not orcs, nor uruks, nor trolls, he thought, frowning. This was another confirmation that they were searching for something unseen by now.

And then came the discovery that had made his heart sink even more.

"Over here!"

The shout was Isilmir's and Haldar quickly approached the young man standing some fifteen feet further. On the grey rock there were two round red stains – droplets that had fallen to the ground. Right next to them lay Galador's sword, and they also saw several arrows around, obviously fallen out of his quiver.

These facts readily pointed to their natural conclusion. At best, Galador was wounded, disarmed and in captivity. And at worst... Haldar didn't want to finish his last thought, but that little spark of flame had almost died now, especially because he knew that in previous cases the victims vanished off the face of the Arda.

Whatever attacked Galador, had at least a quarter of an hour advantage, and the most probable home of a creature – Mordor – was not far away. Going into Mordor was very risky for a group as small as theirs; it was a task for a much bigger squad. Haldar sighed.

Advantage of at least quarter of an hour – the fact that he couldn't deny, and that was dangerous for Galador. Because the capturer was obviously on his terrain, and they couldn't advance quickly because they didn't know which direction to go – they still had to determine it, by examining the ground. In the dim light, on an unknown area. The advantage of the creature would grow even more.

The advantage of only quarter of an hour – which was negligible compared to previous cases.

"We go forward," he said, although he didn't succeed to sound full of hope as intended. In fact, he almost didn't feel it at all.

They came out of the forest after just a few steps. The area above them were barren; they only saw few tufts of grass here and there. However, the slopes weren't steep here and he thought it wouldn't be difficult to progress; it was only some three of four hundred feet above them that the rocks became steep and impervious, rising up like vertical walls*.

As he mentioned last evening, he knew that the Morgul road was a little more towards the south. They couldn't see it because it was in the vale in front of them. He assumed that the creature descended from here to the road, and that it continued to follow it – over the Pass and then into Mordor. He hoped that the way towards the vale was not too difficult and precipitous. Once they manage to reach the road, he wanted to check if the tracks really led to Mordor, although he was pretty sure about it; so far, everything pointed at that.

"Here are those strange tracks again," one of the rangers said. Coming close, Haldar noticed the same hole as they had been seeing in previous days in the forest.

"Whatever it is, obviously it is big," commented Borlas pensively. "And it has oddly shaped legs," he added.

"Some filthy Sauron's spawn. Probably there are more in far corners of Mordor – forms that had not even been discovered so far," replied Haldar with disgust. "But let's hurry."

They followed the tracks in the soil, also noticing occasional drops of blood. Haldar saw that in the distance the terrain started to veer downward – which was the beginning of descent towards the narrow valley in which Morgul road had lain. But to his own surprise, he realized that the tracks did not lead them directly towards the south – towards the road – but that they were directed towards upper slopes.

Soon they reached the path Haldar noticed from afar the night before. He stopped and looked on both sides, down and up the mountain. On the lower side, he saw the path was coming out of the forest; looking the opposite, upper side, he saw it disappeared behind one big protruding rock which hid from view what was behind it. Knowing that just a little further towards the south there was a road, he actually found quite unusual the fact that there was another parallel path, of the same orientation and obviously towards the same destination – Mordor.

Another mystery. But he shook his head and dismissed those thoughts. He had more urgent task than speculating about the origin of the path. He directed his attention to its upper part, and on it, noticed a few more drops of blood. So now he changed his previous opinion. Whatever the creature is, it did not go down towards the road, but has its hiding place somewhere on the mountain, he concluded.

"We go up," he said shortly and led his patrol that way, wondering what to do when they reach those almost vertical cliffs. The creature was maybe able to climb them, but they surely were not.

They didn't have to walk much; they reached the rock that had blocked their view very soon, and when they walked around it, Haldar saw the big opening in the rocks just a few steps away. The discovery of a tunnel solved the problem of climbing the steep rocks, but now they had to enter this darkness. He couldn't see anything inside, the blackness was opaque. But one of his other senses had no problems in discovering what it was like in there: very stinky.

Based on the tracks, it was more than clear that Galador was dragged inside, and Haldar frowned. He had only eight men at his disposal. The tunnel on the border of Mordor – tunnel faot Rangers had never explored and which was who knew how long and with how many forked paths – could have been the base for the big number of orcs. Suddenly, the memories of his son and one other rescue mission came to the surface.

Everyone around me are someone's sons, who could die in this attempt, he thought. But he quickly shook his head, chasing away the thoughts of the past and concentrating onto this moment. Galador is also someone's son, a son who has to be saved if possible.

And this was the decisive thought, the one that drove him forward despite his usual caution. Of course, he'd be very cautious in the rest of the action too; if he would judge at some point it was too dangerous, they'd return. But he didn't want to leave before trying everything he could to save Galador.

"Torches?" he asked, turning towards the others. He wasn't sure how much of equipment they took, as they had left the camp hastily. On the beginning of this search, he thought – and he believed the others did too – that they would go to the road and to the Pass, after which they would return to collect their things. They didn't expect that their pursuit would take them to some dark space where they'd need light.

It turned out that only one ranger had it. It would be better if we had more torches, Haldar thought, but this will have to suffice. He didn't want to lose time on going back to the camp or going down to the forest to cut more branches; every moment was very precious. He then looked at his men. In the grey light of the dawn, all faces were serious and determined.

"Borlas, Aranir, you will go with me," Haldar said. Aranir was a few years older than him, although it wasn't really visible on the man's face, thanks to his Nϊmenorean descent; also, he was still fast and strong. "Calion, Valantur, you too. The five of us will manage with just one torch. The rest of you will wait. If we don't return..." He thought for a moment. " one hour, you take all the things from the camp, go down to Emyn Arnen and report to cap... Prince Faramir about everything."

The three he was leaving behind were the youngest, and he wanted to preserve the lives of those who had only begun to live. He believed that the younger rangers wouldn't have any problems because, right now, the danger was obviously above them and not on the lower parts of the mountain. Youth also meant least experience, and in a situation like this, he preferred to have experienced fighters with him.

Haldar took the torch and stood first, and those picked to follow stood next to him and behind him. Drawing out his sword, he stepped into the opening in the rocks.

The tunnel was about fifteen feet wide, and just a little less high. Inside, the smell was even worse. He brought the torch nearer to both sides and saw that the walls were quite smooth. On the rocky ground they walked on there were no more tracks, of course, as there had been on soft surfaces. But now they didn't need them anymore; there was only one way to go. He was a little worried which way to go if the tunnel branched, moreover because the blood-drops on the ground had fallen less frequently. But luckily for them, there were no lateral tunnels – for now.

Soon the entrance remained behind them, and the only light they had was that one torch. They walked slowly and carefully, and Haldar noticed the tunnel was slightly climbing. The air was stinky and stale. He searched for the word, but didn't manage to define the smell. He could feel humidity, but there was more than that. The rocks were strangely dirty and sticky. He had been in underground spaces many times – in Henneth Annϋn, and in some other caves in Ithilien. But nowhere had the rocks been so... slimy. He decided that was the right description.

Then he noticed something hanging from the ceiling a little further ahead. He slowed down and they neared it very cautiously, and he raised the torch closer to it. From the ceiling of the tunnel hung... spider web, was the first answer that had formed in his head.

It can't be, another voice continued his inner dialogue. Because it was too big to be a spider web: the grey webbing he observed was spread through the whole width of a tunnel, it lowered at least three feet from the ceiling, and it was much thicker than normal web. He wished to touch and examine it but wasn't able because of the height.

"Looks like a spider web," commented Valantur looking up, expressing aloud Haldar's thoughts.

"Yes, I think I agree," muttered Haldar reluctantly. And he had to admit – in spite of incredible size, that this was probably it. Because these surely weren't tatters resembling a spider web. After all, who would hang a cloth here? An orc drying his laundry? Yeah, right.

He liked his next thought even less than the huge net itself. But he didn't utter it aloud; he decided to mention something else that was familiar to all of them, something they had been seeing in other caves in Ithilien – as if, that way, he'd lessen the effect of what they were looking at right now. "We'll probably see bugs. Possibly bats too," he said. Actually, he would welcome it; to see something natural and ordinary like those animals would be very welcome in this eerie tunnel. But they didn't see any living creature.

Everyone around him nodded. However, the thought from before returned, and Haldar was sure that the others were thinking the same. For they were not stupid.

How huge must be the spider that would create such a big net?

"And what on Arda is this...?" Borlas stooped low, almost to the ground, and diverted Haldar's attention off the net. Down on the ground they noticed something that looked like dried green slime. He had never seen anything like that before.

Still bent down and holding the torch low, he noticed something else. A red droplet, the first one after a while. And he immediately rose. "We have to go on."

They continued their way, even more careful than earlier. But they didn't go far when an obstacle appeared before them. The tunnel was blocked by a big stone, wide almost as the tunnel itself, and equally high. There was no way to pass: no matter how hard they tried all together, they couldn't move it.

Haldar sighed heavily in the end, and his arms fell next to his body. He was hot and sweaty after numerous attempts. He still observed the rock and tried to figure out a solution, but unsuccessfully. With a heavy heart, he had to admit defeat... and the loss of another life.

"We cannot do anything else but go back," said Borlas in a low voice and put a hand on his shoulder.

Haldar looked at his friend. Even in a dim light of a single torch he saw his eyes were sad.

"Yes," responded Haldar through clenched teeth. He had mourned the lost rangers many times, and not it happened again. He looked at the huge block of rock in front of him one more time, as if trying to smash it just with his gaze. But there was absolutely nothing he could do. I am so sorry, Galador. But you will be avenged. I promise.

The small group then headed back towards the exit in silence.


* "[...] was a great grey wall, a last huge upthrusting mass of mountain-stone." (The Two towers, "Shelob's Lair")

It was around noon when Faramir heard voices from the hall. He was sitting in his study and checking new reports from South Ithilien he had received in the morning. Ιowyn was in the living room, reading some of her healing handbooks, as she usually did when she didn't have to treat the wounded or sick, or when she didn't work with him on planning. He lifted his head from the papers and listened; one voice was Liriel's, his housekeeper, and the other... he didn't know at first, but after a few more words he recognized Haldar. Two days ago he got captain's message from which he found out about one more disappearance, about the first scouting mission, and about undertaking the second mission with more men.

It wasn't difficult to guess what this arrival meant. If the explanation was innocuous, or if the missing person had been found alive and well, surely he would have got just a short letter again. But coming to his residence and personal report seemed an ill omen. So much for sparing Ιowyn of concern, thought Faramir. He knew she would want to join the meeting, and that there was no point in asking her to just rest and not worry. He rose and opened the door of the study just when Liriel was about to knock. Haldar stood next to her, and behind him was Borlas. He nodded to both of them.

"Captain Haldar, Borlas, welcome," he said. "We'll go to the living room, it is much bigger than this little chamber. Liriel, please, bring some tea for the guests," he told her, and then turned to the two rangers again. "In about one hour lunch will be served, and you can join Ιowyn and me. Of course, something stronger than tea will be served after lunch." He laughed. "I have some great red wine from Lebenin."

Haldar and Borlas exchanged glances, and nodded.

"Thank you, Captain Faramir," said Haldar and smiled. "We intended to have lunch in our garrison near Vinhir, but we won't refuse this invitation." Near the village there was a stronghold which was a Rangers' base for this part of Ithilien, and it was also the place for training the new soldiers; in fact, it was the biggest base in the whole Ithilien.

Faramir then led them into the living room. It was oriented southwards, and plenty of light entered through two windows. In its centre there was a low table, surrounded by couch and three armchairs. A big hearth was built on one wall, but the fire wasn't burning now; it was not cold. Ιowyn spread several sheets of paper and two books over the couch and table, but when they entered, she quickly gathered everything and put it on the table, making more space for sitting. He smiled and sat down next to her.

"This is lady Ιowyn," he said, looking at Borlas. "Dear, you know captain Haldar. And this is Borlas."

Then he looked at the two men in front of him. He knew Borlas only superficially, but Captain Haldar was his friend. When Faramir entered Gondor's army as a young man and joined the Ithilien Rangers, Haldar was his superior for a while, and he had learned so much from the older man. In the years that followed they had been in battles together many times, and had spent many hours next to the fires in rangers' camps. He remembered very well how proud Haldar had been when his son joined the Rangers, as well as his death a few months before the War. Captain had never been the same after that... but not that Faramir was surprised.

Something in Haldar's current appearance reminded Faramir of his behaviour from the period after that tragedy. Haldar looked disheartened and older than his age. Faramir frowned. It was another confirmation that he would not hear good news.

"We discovered a lot, but still much remains unknown," started Haldar. "That which I can say with certainty is that this is not a crime, as we considered in the very beginning, nor the animal attack..." Haldar continued to report about the events after his last message, and Faramir found out everything about the search, the strange tracks equal to those from the first case, and finally about Galador's disappearance and mysterious tunnel. And very soon after Haldar started, Faramir felt as if a stone had formed in his stomach... which became bigger and heavier as the report progressed. Because, while he was listening, words that he and Aragorn uttered that morning three years ago in Minas Tirith started to resurface from his memory. He began to understand the solution of this mystery.

"Unfortunately, five of us could not move that rock. However, if it was put there as an obstacle, then it can probably be moved aside too. Maybe more men would have greater success. The other option is to try to break it, if we can't move it. After that, we could continue searching for that Sauron's spawn, whatever it is. I have to admit that I don't know what it might be," ended Haldar his report. He then sipped some tea, brought in soon after the meeting began.

Faramir slowly nodded and sank back into the couch. He didn't think often of that conversation, and he thought of it less and less as months and years were passing. Actually, enough time passed that he could almost conclude everything was fine.

However – it wasn't.

"I do," he said with a heavy sigh. As expected, he met three very surprised glances.

"How?" asked Ιowyn even before he could say more.

Faramir then told them about what happened to hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee when they had passed over the mountains, and about his discussion with the King right after the War.

"Giant spider..." Haldar repeated slowly, and Faramir noticed how his eyes darkened. "Yes, it makes sense," continued the captain. "The tracks were not at all like those made by two- or four-legged creatures. But if I try to imagine spider's legs and enlarge them in my mind... yes, it fits."

"The discovery of that large web confirms it," added Borlas.

"True", Haldar confirmed. "And I thought, while watching it, that the spider weaving that web should be huge too. But I was still not able to envision it then."

Faramir turned to Ιowyn. "The Pass of Cirith Ungol was notorious even before the Nazgϋl conquered Minas Ithil." He knew she loved history, but he wasn't sure if she had known all these ancient details. "Many rangers disappeared without a trace in that area. I've read that the other rangers were searching for them, but couldn't find anything. Now that I think about it, I wonder if the entrance into spider's lair was hidden, because there isn't much that rangers will miss. Anyway, in time they stopped patrolling there because of what followed: arrival of the plague, loss of men, weakening of Gondor. You know that later part of history."

He stopped and looked at all three around him, now addressing all of them at once. "When I heard Frodo's story of the big spider, I realized the cause of the disappearances in the past. Unfortunately, right after the War of the Ring we had no resources for the pursuit," he said, frowning. "There was no way to know if the spider had survived its wounds, and all the available men had to be engaged in renewal. And as the time was passing and nothing bad happened, I thought it had died somewhere in the tunnels." He stopped and shook his head. "But obviously it did not."

Ιowyn, however, seemed confused. "But... you are talking about a period longer than a thousand years! Do you really think it could be the same creature? The same spider?" she asked, dubious expression on her face.

A good question.

"I cannot be sure," replied Faramir slowly, "but we know that there are creatures of the Darkness that are extremely long-lived or immortal. Just remember Ungoliant or Balrogs. It is quite possible that this creature is similar to them in its longevity." He stopped, thinking. "In fact, I would like that."

"Why?" asked Borlas, looking very puzzled.

"Because I'd prefer fighting just one spider – be it huge, immortal and a difficult opponent – than the whole colony. I really wouldn't like to face many descendants of one spider who started to terrorize that area long ago."

"Oh. Yes. I understand." Borlas seemed embarrassed for not remembering that himself. "And I agree."

"But I think we don't have to worry that there are many," said Faramir and nodded. "Frodo reported just one spider. If more of those monsters had guarded the Pass, the hobbits would have probably seen them back then. And now, surely there would have been more tracks, and more attacks on our people in Ithilien."

"I think I agree," Haldar said. "We've been patrolling and searching for the orcs ever since the War, but we have never seen these tracks before. And even now, everything points out that one creature is roaming around, and not more."

"All right, now we are at least not stumbling about in the dark anymore. We know who the enemy is – we are dealing with some horrible spider – and we know where it hides," said Ιowyn, summarizing all that was said until then. "The next question is what we'll do about it."

Faramir looked at her and smiled proudly. This wasn't the first time that she took the initiative in important moments, and he didn't miss the plural in her words. Fortunately, you will not do anything, he thought looking at her belly. If she wasn't pregnant, he assumed he'd have to use the strongest chains to make her stay at home. I'd need Angainor, and nothing less than that. He observed her for a few more moments, lost in her eyes. Strong, wise, courageous... he adored her.

Haldar's shifting in his armchair brought Faramir back to the present moment, and he looked them seriously.

"We can't let this creature continue attacking our people. This time we go to the end, no matter how much time and efforts it will require. Unlike in the past, now we at least know where to start. We'll undertake a big expedition towards the Pass and we won't stop until we destroy the spider," he said decisively. But that was something that was understood just by itself. What needed to be considered were the practical details. "Captain, you said that you hadn't managed to move the rock blocking the tunnel?"

"That is correct," confirmed Haldar.

Faramir thought for a moment. "We'll take hammers and break it if necessary, and go further. We'll also need many torches and oil-lamps. We have to consider the possibility that the passage is branching inside the mountain and that we'll have to inspect more than one tunnel, which could require several days. We should take at least..." He stopped, and his brow creased. "...forty rangers."

Haldar tilted his head. "I hope that will be enough," he muttered in a low voice.

"It will. We will succeed," said Faramir convincingly. Ithilien Rangers were supreme soldiers: excellent swordsmen, archers and trackers all at once. Forty such men could overpower almost three times more orcs.

One thing he did not mention aloud, and neither did the others. But he was sure that all of them had thought of the same thing that occurred to him too. The spider could decide to slip away to Mordor – as far away as it wanted. There it had vast expanses for escape and hiding. And in that case, the chances for catching it would drastically diminish. At the moment of Sauron's defeat, most of his army perished in the crevices in the ground around the Black Gates. But not all of it. Some orcs and trolls managed to escape, and Faramir assumed they might dwell in Morgai valley and on the eastern slopes of the mountains. To search for the spider on the eastern side of the Mountains of Shadow would be a very difficult and perilous task for they would probably have to face the remnants of Sauron's army.

But in the end he shook his head, having decided to deal with it if and when it came to that. Now he had to think of urgent and presently more important things.

"We'll take the action immediately," Faramir said resolutely. "I'll write the messages for all the heads of all villages in Ithilien after lunch. I'll introduce them to this new threat. Nobody will be allowed to leave the villages, for any reason, until we resolve this. You two will take the letters and bring them to couriers' service in Vinhir. Let them use carrier pigeons – that is the fastest way. I'll finish my most important errands by the evening, and tomorrow at dawn I'll ride to our fort. Then I'll lead the squad on our mission." While still talking, in his mind he included all the villages as receivers of the message. True, he thought that Southern Ithilien was in no big danger considering the distance from the Pass, but all the same, he wanted to warn them too.

"Understood." Haldar nodded.

Liriel entered then and informed them that the lunch was served. Faramir rose, noticing Ιowyn's expression. She didn't say anything, but he could clearly see she was worried.

After the meal, he first wrote the messages for village heads; then he reviewed the most important reports about trade and agriculture and wrote responses. After that, he assorted everything on the shelves, which covered two walls in his study. He left things that were not urgent on the table, but he was sure he wouldn't find this stack of papers when he returned. He would like to see his beloved take more rest, but she still performed all the administrative jobs; she only reduced physical activities a little.

The light in the chamber was dim because only one oil-lamp on his desk was lit. The fire in the small hearth extinguished some time ago because, immersed in his work, hours had passed since he'd given orders not to be disturbed, and he had forgot to add more wood to the fire.

In the end he wrote the letter to Aragorn, informing him about the latest news, and that he would lead the rangers against the spider. He had just sealed the envelope when Ιowyn entered the study. Lifting his head, he realized he was totally stiff after spending a long time sitting and writing.

Ιowyn passed around the table, pulled the only remaining chair in the room and sat next to him. He immediately took her hands into his. She sat in silence for a few moments, and looking at her, guilt pricked him. He wanted to be with her in the following weeks and not miss a single day. At the same time he felt responsibility towards all his people. Just when he wanted to try to explain, she lifted her hand and laid it softly on his lips.

"Shh," she silenced him. "You don't have to say anything. I understand," she said in a low voice, and her face was tranquil.

Oh. That sting of guilt had just grown even bigger. Simultaneously, his heart fluttered. "Sometimes I wonder what did I do to deserve such a wonderful woman," he said and gently kissed her.

"You are wonderful too. And devoted," responded Ιowyn and smiled. "You've shown it many times, and now again." She then got more serious. "I know that you feel obliged to protect your people. After all, I've always felt the same – for my people earlier, and now for Gondorians too. If I wasn't pregnant, I would probably consider joining you. If I can contribute to this country in any way – I will do it immediately."

Faramir nodded; these words only confirmed what he had thought before. Ever since coming here, besides learning to become a healer and her other tasks, she had practiced sword-play every day for at least one hour, maintaining her skill; she only stopped a few months ago, when she got pregnant. And he saw that her feeling of responsibility towards the people was equally strong as his. So he silently thanked Eru that she could not go on this quest.

But he had known ever since the very first day that she was special. That she was fierce and fearless. He fell in love with strong and unfaltering woman – a shield-maiden – and she didn't want her to change. He loved that flame inside her.

"Just be careful, all right?" she added, pulling him from thoughts.

He observed her; the light of a small lamp illuminated her face. Although she tried to hide it, he saw concern in her eyes.

"I always am," said Faramir. "Hopefully this mission won't last more than a few days, so I'll be with you again soon." Ιowyn was to give birth in about six weeks, and he hoped the baby wouldn't be very early – just when he was away.

"We will be fine," replied Ιowyn patting her belly, and smile returned to her face. "You know Liriel doesn't let me do any strenuous housework, and Anneth comes to check on me every week."

Anneth was a midwife living in Vinhir.

"You worry for me, and I can't help worrying for you," Faramir said softly and smiled. He tucked away one unruly lock of her hair and held his palm on her cheek. "I will do my best to return as soon as possible. I want to be next to you."

His face was close to hers; the grey eyes observed the blue. He imagined the future, imagined holding her hand while children's laugher echoed around them. His heart grew in his chest, filled with love.

"You will be. Everything will be all right."

Their lips joined, and while he kissed her, the rest of the world ceased to exist.

She was lying and thinking.

Her hunger was quite satisfied. That human she caught two days ago – easier than she expected, because he separated from the group – was big and would keep her full for at least ten more days. And he was very tasty; that was the youngest and freshest human flesh she had tasted since... well, very long ago. She couldn't remember since when.

But she was not. She was also restless. And furious. That day when she caught the human, when she returned a little later to check the first part of the tunnel, the remaining wisps of smoke told her that other humans had been impudent enough to enter her home. She couldn't tell why she had set the rock to block the tunnel while carrying her prey. It was not that she had been scared of several men; even now, when her strength was diminished, she believed she was strong enough to defeat... well, up to five or six men. After all, it turned out she was still able to move that rock, although it was more difficult now than once. The dull pain from the old wounds, that just didn't pass, dulled the peak of her strength too. The wound inflicted with the elvish weapon would hurt forever, obviously. Oh, where were now the days when she could overpower ten opponents at once?

Indeed, where were the old days? Long ago, in the beginning of her life here, humans couldn't even find her; she took care of that, using rocks to hide the entrance. And as they couldn't find her, they couldn't explain the disappearances. So in the end they started to fear this area so much that they stopped coming here altogether. Oh, how she laughed at them! She was the absolute ruler of the pass and even the Lord of Mordor paid respect to her. And now?! Now those few humans dared to enter her home. The whole world turned upside down. How she hated them! Them, and the elves, and everyone...

She had stopped hiding her entrance long ago; there was no need for it. And now her home was discovered. Even if she immediately covered it with rocks, it wouldn't help; humans now knew where to look. If many of them returned, they would simply move aside the rocks and enter. So now she regretted putting the obstacle in the tunnel. In that moment, she only wanted to eat in peace, thinking it would be better not to risk a fight if there were too many men. But now she was angry with herself for not ambushing them. I should have been smarter and realize the consequences of their discovery. They would not be able to surround me in the tunnel, and I could have overpowered them. I should have killed them all, preventing them from returning and talking about me, she raged.

She rose and started pacing around. Her biggest cave was slightly oval, about hundred feet wide and a little longer than that. She passed several circles, and the air was filled with her angry hissing and the sound of claws scraping the stone. After few more circles she stopped next to the passage leading towards the main tunnel. She looked into the darkness of the tunnel, but in her thoughts, she saw much further – both towards the slopes, and towards the future.

Humans would return, she was sure; they obviously became very arrogant in this new age. But they would regret it.


When Faramir got up, it was still dark. Although he tried to leave the bed as silent as possible, Ιowyn heard him and awoke. He convinced her not to get up to see him off, and to sleep more instead. After refreshment and a quick breakfast, he took all his gear and rode out.

The eastern sky, above the mountaintops, slowly became brighter. It was a clear morning, and it was still chilly. While riding down the slopes of the hills, his gaze wandered from one horizon to another. A thin haze rose from the Anduin. The green crops stretched on the wide area between the river and Emyn Arnen, as well as northwards from the hills. In front of him, Vinhir was slowly waking from sleep. He noticed a few dots of light in the windows, and discerned moving around the houses; the people started their first morning tasks in their gardens and stables.

He reached the settlement in a few minutes, and the Rangers' base was a quarter of an hour of riding away. Leaving Vinhir behind, he looked towards the west. He could not see Minas Tirith, several miles distant and hidden at the foot of the mountain. But another sight captured his attention – just as he knew it would. Sunrays lit up the top of Mindolluin and the mountain shone as if its highest slopes were made of silver and gold. This was not the first time he observed the tops of the White Mountains shining at dawn, but every time the beauty left him breathless. While he rode, he looked more towards the mountains than on the road in front of him.

A squad of forty rangers with Haldar at the front waited before the fort, and they continued to ride together. The day passed peacefully; they had a break at mid-day, and then went on towards the north. Late in the afternoon they neared the Crossroad, and continued on a little more to the foot of the mountains. It was the perfect location for the camp: flat, and with rich meadows for the horses. Further to the east the terrain started to rise, and the terrain become more impenetrable. The plan was to continue on foot.

About ten boys between fourteen and sixteen followed the squad. They were still in the process of training and they would stay there with their instructors; they'd learn different rangers' skills and take care of the horses by the time the squad returned.

Men sat around several fires, talking and joking. After supper, Faramir approached Haldar to determine the details for the next day; two of them sat a little further from the others.

"We can follow the road up to Minas Morgul," Faramir said, pointing towards the mountain while speaking. "After that we can leave the road and climb the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, which is the route the hobbits took. From what they said, the pathway after the Stairs leads directly to the spider's tunnel."

Sitting next to him, Haldar nodded pensively. "That must be the path we reached in our search, only I didn't know it existed, then. I thought that, as we approached from the north, we would have to descend through thicket to reach the road, which I knew was situated a little lower than our position. But in the end the search led us in a different direction."

"Yes, I remember you reported about it on the first day. If we followed the road all the way to the Pass, that would be the easier way, and maybe it really is possible to climb from the road through the thicket to spider's lair. But maybe it is not," replied Faramir. "As you didn't inspect it, we don't know how steep the terrain between the road and the lair is, nor if it is passable. So I think that it is better to take the route that is checked. According to the hobbits, the Stairs are very steep on some sections, but if we are cautious, we should be able to pass."

Haldar's face frowned slightly, and it seemed he was thinking. Then he turned to Faramir.

"It is about fifteen miles from here to the Pass, as the crow flies," he finally said. "But we'll walk much more than that, on a difficult terrain. It is possible that we won't reach our goal before tomorrow evening."

"You are probably right." Faramir nodded. "If it turns out that way, we will not enter after the whole day of climbing. We'll go in the day after tomorrow."

Haldar then frowned even more. "I hope we'll find that creature soon, without entering Mordor..." he muttered. "And I hope we won't lose anybody else."

Faramir hoped the same. He, too, was haunted by faces and names of the men he had lost, although now, three years after the war, the ghosts of the past didn't haunt him so often anymore.

"We will do our best. We will resolve this," he said softly, but also convincingly. Then he put a hand on Haldar's shoulder and smiled. "And now let's join the others and cheer up with them."

Haldar seemed to hesitate for a moment, but finally he nodded. "Let' go."


Unlike her morning's mood, when she was frustrated and angry, now she felt good. True, it would be even better if the orcs' group she had found was bigger, but even this meant a lot. Her eyes shone, and she grinned inside. Her plan, formed while she frantically paced her chamber in the morning, was now fulfilling just as she envisioned it.

The night had just fallen. She sat at the edge of the orcs' camp, waiting for them to get ready to go. She grinned again. Stupid. The best word to describe them. They really were stupid. But they would also be useful for her, and only that mattered.

In the morning, after she concluded the humans would return and after devising the plan, she went out through the eastern exit and entered Mordor. She then turned northwards and searched for most part of the day, because the orcs learned they had to keep off the pass. Although she had been careful not to be seen by bigger groups, mostly hunting lone wandering specimens, the orcs had obviously realized that the area was dangerous. Not that it had saved them, though. To catch the prey, she had been crossing great distances if necessary, and today she also travelled many miles before she found what she had been looking for: the orcs' camp. But this time, she didn't see them as food.

This was the dwelling place for about two hundred wretched creatures. They had just a few ragged tents and wooden shanties which looked like they would crumble down if only someone sneezed on them. The cubs were skin and bones and their clothes hang on them, and the adults didn't look much better. She wondered what they could find here. Some meagre plant or root? The eastern slopes of the Mountains of Shadow were quite barren and sterile. Did they have to go over the sharp mountaintops to catch animals in the forest on the other side? Probably. And maybe not all of them returned every time from those dangerous trips over the treacherous terrain. But she didn't really care.

Stupid, she scoffed again. When they saw her coming they grabbed the weapon, but she bespoke from afar that she was coming in peace, and she started her story. It was so easy to persuade them. "Evil Gondorians banished you from your side of the mountains, from the land that was rightfully yours. They were killing you mercilessly. They doomed you to this miserable life. But now is the moment to revenge and take back what is yours! And I'll help you with that!" Just a little sufficed – just those few sentences – and she won them over. The males seized their swords, grinning and shouting. "You will follow me, I will lead to the place where we'll make the ambush. You will taste human flesh again." The mention of food fell on fertile ground. No more persuasion was needed.

Stupid. But that was not their only weakness. She assumed they were not very efficient, unfortunately. From her long memories, she knew that the orcs were less skilled fighters than highly trained Gondorian soldiers, and she could not imagine these feeble scrawnies would be a match to true soldiers. But she cared not how many of them would perish. All able-bodied males started to prepare for the quest, and in the end about eighty gathered.

She could only hope that there wouldn't be too many Gondorians and that the orcs would be good enough reinforcement for her. She hoped that together they would be successful; she was afraid there was no time to look for more orcs, elsewhere over the mountains. And if there would be too many Gondorians... well, she'd think about that problem if it happened.

Better anything than nothing. She could have as well been unlucky in her search, and it that case, she would be alone; it would be much more difficult that way. The plan started to unfold, after all. She was satisfied.

The rangers continued their way the next morning. The first part was easy: the road went upwards, but the ascent wasn't steep, and it was wide and flattened. After about an hour of walking, the sight opened towards the Morgul Valley and remnants of Minas Morgul at its further end, and Faramir stopped.

Aragorn fulfilled his idea: the ghastly city was destroyed. Not immediately after the War, of course, because everyone was engaged in renewal. But a year later, several Rangers' squads carried out the King's plan. They built several new catapults in the valley, and after days of heavy bombardment, Morgul walls and buildings turned into a pile of shapeless debris. Awareness that the horrible city was no more did bring relief to the inhabitants of that part of Ithilien, just as the King had hoped.

Faramir had the opportunity to see Minas Morgul before the War; only a few times, though, and only from afar. Rangers rarely patrolled that dangerous area because of the many orcs roaming around. And not just orcs. He well remembered the black silhouettes he had seen in the distance. He well remembered the unnatural cold penetrating to the very bones. And he well remembered that, even though it was mid-day and the sun was shining, the whole valley had seemed darker than the surroundings – as if sunrays couldn't break through the black mist over the area. Even the toughest rangers were very nervous when near Minas Morgul. They could overpower orcs with their weapons and skill – and even trolls, if the numbers were favourable. In this city, though, there were forces against which their swords and arrows couldn't do anything, and which could destroy any of them in a second. After all, he also felt the consequences of Black Breath.

By chance, Faramir had not passed this way since the destruction of the city. He often thought that he should go and personally see that everything was fine. But as all the patrol reports since then till now had been the same – that the valley was uninhabited all the time and that nothing evil was happening – he wasn't worried, and other works were always more important and urgent than that. So now he looked at the remnants of Minas Morgul for the first time after two years.

So many things were different from that day when he last stood here. As the evil had been destroyed and nobody had dwelled here, the nature unstoppably conquered every inch of the environment. The valley was green, covered in lush grass, and greenery also spread over the grey city ruins. Climbing plants grew over the larger part of the former city walls, bushes sprang among sparse rocks, and even tree saplings had started to appear. The place began to look more as the ordinary mountain terrain – humpy and uneven, though, but still natural – than the remnants of the city.

"I didn't believe it could transform so quickly," muttered Haldar in a low voice, and Faramir turned to him.

"Yes. Nature makes miracles," Faramir said and smiled. It looked like he didn't have to worry – at least as not for this area. There was no more evil here.

But there were other things that still had to be resolved; his homeland and people were not completely safe yet. After all, that was why they were on this quest.

They went on and soon left the road, walking the narrow mountain pathway following the same route the hobbits took three years ago. But just like nature transformed Minas Morgul, it did the same here. The path was overgrown and unrecognizable here and there, so they had difficulties finding it. Not once, they went the wrong way and had to return and look for it again. All of it took time, and now they progressed much slower than on the road.

They had to slow down even more when they reached the Stairs. As Frodo said, they really were narrow and steep, and additional problem was that on some parts they were damaged. Rains, slides and roots of the trees broke and shifted stone blocks from their ancient positions. The rangers had to be very careful at every step.

After a while, they passed the Straight Stairs. And when they reached the beginning of the Winding Stairs, a new problem turned up: a slide, obviously a recent one, blocked a part of the stairs and they spent a lot of time while they found the roundabout way through thick bushes. So, when the Stairs finally remained behind them and they reached the edge of the forest, it was already beginning to get dark.

In the distance in front of them Faramir saw steep vertical rocks and the dark opening. He then turned to Haldar. "Your estimate was right. It did last the whole day. Now I almost regret not going by the road and looking for the alternative way to reach this place." He sighed. He hoped that the climbing would go smoother and faster, and that they would enter the tunnel this very day. Expecting the battle – especially the one with many unknown elements – was often more difficult than the battle itself. Delaying the action to tomorrow morning didn't make him very happy. But he had no other choice. The next step in this mission was the way through a long tunnel that hid who knew which obstacles and which would require maximum of their abilities, and they needed a good rest after the whole day of difficult climbing. So he turned to the squad.

"We will make the camp under cover of the trees and spend the night here. We go on tomorrow at dawn," he announced his decision.

When still standing in the open – while the trees didn't block the view – Faramir looked to the west. They were very high, and he had the great view of Anduin, Osgiliath, Minas Tirith, Mindolluin and Ithilien. My beautiful homeland, he thought with a smile. His gaze wandered towards Emyn Arnen. From this distance Vinhir was just a dot, and there was no way to discern his house on the slopes of the hills. But he knew it was there, and he knew who was there. He sent her greetings in his thoughts, and his heart beat faster thinking of her. He enjoyed watching the country he loved so much for a few moments more, and then he took a deep breath and tightened his lips. The war was won three years ago, but there were still battles that had to be fought.

The night passed peacefully. When the sky in the east started to change colour, the guards in the last shift woke up everyone else. They had a plentiful breakfast – nourishing way-bread, dried meat and cheese – and then they began preparing to enter.

Faramir rubbed his brow, thinking. It was impossible to predict all that awaited them. He didn't know how the tunnels in the mountain looked like, how long they were or how many there were, nor how strong the spider really was. He only knew that, according to what the hobbits said, the tunnel was "really long". But he remembered that neither Frodo nor Sam could really estimate the time or length when they later talked about their journey. Also, Sam mentioned that the spider was "very big", but that, too, was not a precise but subjective information. Besides, any object or living being seem bigger if you are only four feet tall, Faramir added in his mind. There are forty of us here. The number instilled a sense of security. After all, the two hobbits in the end passed through the tunnel successfully; he had a big squad at disposition. He thought that forty against one – no matter how big the spider was – should be enough.

He moved to the centre of the camp, and that was the unspoken order on which all the rangers reacted. Those who were still sitting quickly rose; those who talked among themselves now stopped and looked towards him.

"Captain Haldar got all of you acquainted with the situation – with the results of his two scouting missions, and with the facts that he afterwards heard from me. We know that our enemy is the big and very strong spider, but we don't know its exact size nor what awaits us in the tunnels." He stopped and pointed towards the direction of the tunnel. "We will have to fight on its territory. No separating is allowed. We will stick together, and try to find the creature. When we find it, we'll surround it from all sides if possible. From halflings' reports, we know that it has a hard shell that is difficult to pierce with swords. Therefore, my idea is to drop oil-lamps on it and around it. When they break, the oil will spill and burst into flame, and I hope the creature will catch fire, or at least that it will cause burns. I also hope it would make it more vulnerable and slow it down, so we'll kill it more easily." He stopped again and looked at the squad. "Any questions?"

"What if the spider went to Mordor through the opposite exit? Will we pursue it, and if yes, how far?" asked one of younger rangers.

I have no idea, and I have no idea.

But outwardly, remained completely calm.

"If we find any tracks, we'll follow them so far as we can do so safely," Faramir replied. He looked the young man for a while, but couldn't remember if he had met him before. But as the man looked to be in his early twenties, Faramir was quite sure the answer was negative; in the last three years he had spent much more time on councils and performing administrative tasks, than with the army. "However, there is no point in blind guessing. It will depend on what we find on the other side – on the terrain configuration, ambush opportunities and so on."

"And if we don't find the spider and if we can't follow it?" asked another youngster.

"If that happens, we'll temporarily withdraw to our side, call for reinforcement and try again. We'll also set many patrols so that the spider can't get through to our villages again," explained Faramir. "But those are the things we will consider only if it comes to them. For now, no need to preoccupy with them."

There were no more questions after that. Faramir stood at the front, and Haldar was next to him. Five torches and ten oil-lamps were ready and lit very quickly; he believed it would give them enough light, and at the same time, more than half men would have both hands free. Most of them had both a sword and a bow. Faramir didn't know if it would be possible to use bows in a tunnel, though, but if this underground had any similarity to Henneth Annun or some other Rangers' bases throughout the Mountains of Shadow, he thought the existence of bigger caves possible. So he wanted the men to have bows at hand. And bows could certainly be useful if they had to go to Mordor.

Faramir began to feel the stench while still nearing the entrance. He actually hoped that Haldar had exaggerated when talking about it in his report, but it seemed that the captain was objective and that reality fully matched the description. Or the reality is even worse, thought crossed his mind after entering the dark tunnel, when the smell became even stronger. His nose wrinkled in disgust. During all his years of military service he had been in many orc camps – after chasing them away from some locations – but in comparison to this, the orcs' stench now seemed like a perfume.

As the width was nearly fifteen feet, five of them could easily walk parallel. Faramir was in the first row and carried his torch. Their five torches filled the tunnel with some smoke which scraped their lungs a little, but as they progressed the smoke remained behind them, not causing too big problems. On the other hand, there were moments when he thought that breathing in just a little bit of smoke is very welcome to alleviate this horrible stench.

After approximately a quarter of an hour the passage widened on their right, and they saw a big round stone, almost the height and width of the tunnel itself. They stopped; Haldar approached it and carefully observed it, and then looked around. Then he turned to Faramir.

"The period of walking today is about the same as five days ago, and the rock looks familiar. Yes, this is the place we reached that day, and this is the obstacle we faced," he confirmed.

"As the rock was moved in the meantime, we can conclude that the spider passed this way again," Faramir said seriously, wondering where the creature could be now. There were many possibilities, and he knew they had to be very careful. "But at least we don't have to trouble ourselves with moving it," he added to Haldar, and then he turned to everyone else. "Keep your eyes wide open and report instantly if you notice anything suspicious. And don't separate from the group, under any circumstances."

They went on, even more cautiously than before. Faramir scrutinized the walls of the tunnel, watching for eventual traps. It seemed there were none, but he was tense and nervous. There was slime on the ground here and there, as well as webs hanging from the tunnel ceiling. In most cases they were too high, out of their reach, but on one spot it hung down to their heads. He neared the torch to it to inspect it more closely; it was big and dense and...

"Troll's balls!" Faramir cursed when he touched it, driven by curiosity. Yes, he saw it was much bigger and thicker than ordinary webs, but his mind subconsciously envisaged the characteristics of the normal spider-web. But now his glove remained entangled in it, and he just couldn't free it. And except for being much thicker, this net was also extraordinary sticky. Although he applied all his strength, he just couldn't tear the threads. In the end he had to pull his hand out of the glove.

"You saw what just happened," he addressed the squad. "This is one more thing to be very careful about." But he didn't want to leave things to chance, and if it came to eventual quick retreat, the last thing he wanted was someone to accidentally get caught in the net. "Let's burn it. Just like we'll burn the other we see – those which will be within our reach." Those that were too high he considered innocuous anyway, and had no intention of bothering with them.

He touched the net with his torch; it caught flame quickly and the air filled with crackling. It burned soon and some black ash fell to the ground, together with his glove, now free. It was undamaged by the fire, which extinguished even before the high-quality leather could catch fire.

They went on; the tunnel stretched in a straight line, without curves, and was constantly slightly ascending. They walked and walked, and it was difficult to estimate for how long. An hour? More? Less? Now he regretted not trying to get more precise estimation from the hobbits, when he talked to them three years ago; but who could ever think that he would need that information?

"I have a feeling that we entered here an age ago," said Borlas behind Faramir's back, and he startled as the silence was broken after a longer time. Although Borlas spoke in a low voice, the sound echoed in that narrow space and reverberated quite loudly.

"I'd say, something in between an hour and two," said captain Haldar.

Although Faramir wasn't sure, he agreed with the estimate; that meant that it was still morning.

"Well, either we find the cursed creature and kill it, or we exit on the other side if we don't find it a'for then. I guess there's no third way," commented someone from the rear.

But Faramir was not so sure about it. He could imagine many more options than just those two. The tunnel could start branching, there could be more tunnels to investigate, and they would have to be very careful not to get lost. The only thing that he considered good, for now, was that his sense of smell dulled after being here for a longer time, so the stench didn't choke him so much as in the beginning.

"Something is in front of us!" exclaimed the ranger on the leftmost position in the first row. They stopped and looked; it was a lateral tunnel, but only five feet further it was blocked by a big rock similar to that they had seen earlier, and which stopped Haldar's group a few days ago.

Faramir observed the rock, frowning. Branching meant problems, because he knew it was not wise to go further if the background was not checked and secured. However, the rock turned out to be too heavy and they couldn't move it, so they went on.

A little later they saw another pit to the side, but this time it was just a small oval widening.

And it was not empty. Faramir gazed at two piles on the ground. The remnants were pale, almost shapeless and mostly turned into dust, but some parts had not disintegrated entirely, and it was impossible not to recognize what they were. The bones. Judging by the rusted and decayed gear next to them, those were the remnants of the orcs and not men; yet, it was very uncomfortable to watch them, because they were a remainder that the enemy was near. A very dangerous enemy.

"There are forty of us here," said Faramir. He poured calm and confidence in his voice, which he wanted to transfer to the group too. Truth be told, he believed that the older ones, who had gone through dozens of fights in the years and decades before the War, hadn't needed it much; they had seen all the horrors of war, and some had even witnessed the dread the Nazgul had spread. He primarily addressed the younger ones, who didn't have much experience. "We will succeed. Just be cautious and don't separate from the group."

Journey through the dark continued.

The humans arrived sooner that she had expected. In fact, it turned out that she and her allies had reached her home in the nick of time.

She gave the orcs the outlines of her plan and left them to wait in ambush, and she hurried towards the western entrance to block the lateral tunnels. Not a moment too late, as she discovered. Having reached the furthest western tunnel, the vibrations told her that the humans were already inside. And there were quite a lot of them, it seemed. She didn't like it. Curse them!

She then started to work as fast as she could. From west to east, she closed all the branching passages. Centuries ago she had put rocks of different sizes throughout the tunnels and cavities in them, in case some passages must be blocked; now came the moment for that, and she used them. There was one tunnel in whose vicinity she had no rocks, so she blocked that one with webs. In order to hinder humans' progress, she placed rocks on two locations in the main tunnel too – but in these cases, she didn't block the way completely. She didn't want to stop the humans, only to slow them down.

In the end, she made a web on the beginning of the tunnel leading towards her main hall. She could finally rest; that was the last tunnel she had to block. Unless the humans decided to waste their time and energy to remove the obstacles – and she hoped they wouldn't do that – they would have no other choice but to go in the straight line towards the eastern exit.

She remained sitting behind newly woven web. She was only six or seven feet distant from the main tunnel, but invisible in the darkness behind the dense web. She grinned; the humans would have no clue how close to her they would pass.

She now only had to wait their passing... and then to start the action.


Walking dragged on enough that they had to light spare torches, and they refilled their oil-lamps. Although reserve supplies meant additional burdens to carry, they had a lot of both torches and oil. Faramir wasn't sure how long the journey through the dark would last, and in the end they'd have to return – which meant more hours in the darkness of the tunnel. If they happened to remain without light, he knew they would be lost.

They were twice slowed down by the piles of rocks, so they lost some time to clear their way. And although he wanted to reach the exit as soon as possible, he gave the order to stop after the second such interruption; they needed some rest and a meal. After about half an hour they went on.

"This begins to feel like an eternity," grumbled Haldar.

"Well, the hobbits said that the tunnel was long, yes," said Faramir, doing his best not to sound equally irritated. It wasn't easy to maintain the same high level of concentration and caution all the time. They had to be ready to start the fight at any moment – if the spider suddenly appeared from the dark – but all those hours in which nothing was happening dulled their conscience and senses from time to time. Darkness and nothing but darkness, silence and nothing but the sound of their own steps. Everything was empty.

And yet, he knew they were not alone. Somewhere in this underground lived a deadly creature. Webs and bones they occasionally saw reminded them of that fact. His nerves were tense to the point of breaking.

Minutes and hours were passing, and he lost all sense of time and distance covered. He profoundly hoped they were near the end of this accursed tunnel; the travelling became really long and he was already sick of it. Everything drove him mad – stench, webs, corpses remains, slime on the ground and lateral walls. He had never had problems with small closed spaces before, but now, after hours and hours in the tunnel, it became almost unbearable – he had the feeling that the walls were closing in around them and that he couldn't breathe.

Thinking about all of it, he realized that there was so much more courage in the hobbits than anyone could ever imagine. Because there were forty of them now, they had safety in numbers, they were each other's support, and yet, this was very far from a pleasant walk. The two little hobbits must have felt so much worse. His admiration for them suddenly grew to the sky.

They passed by a few more branching tunnels. But each time they lit the openings and looked inside, they realized they couldn't enter either of them. All of them were blocked by huge stones, too heavy for them to move. Only one tunnel was the exception – that one was closed by a web.

Faramir approached it and observed carefully. The web in which his glove was caught was an older remnant; what he was looking at now was quite obviously a new creation, and it was so thick and dense that it looked opaque. It was perfectly clear that nobody could set himself free from this, no matter how strong. Maybe only a troll, he speculated.

Then he considered another option. Could the swords do any damage?, he wondered. In truth, he doubted it, but he wanted to check; otherwise, he would never know. And if his sword remained caught... they did have the way to free it, after all. So he decided to try.

"Well, let's see..." he muttered and brandished his sword. Just as he expected, his blade entangled into thick threads, not causing them much damage. Another ranger tried to break the web with the hammer, but he, too, managed to make just one move – after which the hammer remained stuck.

"At least we learned something new," Haldar said surly. "Now we know that we cannot destroy it this way either."

The web was soon burned away, and Faramir looked at the darkness in front of him. He couldn't pierce it with his gaze, and he wanted to check at least first few yards. Holding his sword, he stepped forward, while few rangers immediately backed him up. But after only a few steps they had to halt again – there was another web in front of them. A few moments later they burned it down, but their way was blocked again – by the third one.

"We go back to the main tunnel," Faramir said after a few moments of thinking. "We could burn this one too, but as things are unfolding, there could be more obstacles behind it. And we must move on. I want to go out before nightfall."

They went on, and Faramir noticed Haldar's frowning.

"Hmmm..." Captain looked worried. "All the lateral tunnels are blocked. It is almost as if... as if someone wants us to walk in a straight line, directing our steps."

Faramir looked at him. It could have been a coincidence... however, some inner feeling told him not to believe that type of a coincidence. Haldar could very easily be right. He turned to the others. "We go further. Double your caution."

They walked on, and Faramir began to think that they would need the whole day to reach the exit. He didn't like it at all; night scouting of Mordor would be too dangerous and it was out of the question. But the thought of spending the night in the tunnel drove him frayed at his last nerve. He prayed it would not come to that.

"Hm, I think the smell is worse again," said Haldar in some moment. Having considered it, Faramir thought it might be true, but in the overall stench he just could not be sure.

"Maybe it is because of this web, maybe they smell stronger," said the soldier walking next to the left tunnel wall. Right now they were passing by a lateral tunnel, and just like all the previous ones, this one was not passable either; it was blocked by a dense web.

"Possibly," Faramir replied, a little suspicious. There was nothing he could be sure about in this lair, and everything seemed dangerous. But he could do about it, and they continued.

However, they passed only about a hundred feet more when they felt the new change – and this time it was so expressed that they knew they were not wrong. The air was becoming fresher. And they didn't just smell it; they could also see the change. A grey dot appeared in the long lasting unbroken blackness.

"We are close to the exit!" exclaimed Faramir, although even as he was saying the words he realized that the announcement was totally unnecessary. You are so silly. As if they don't see it themselves, he thought. But the fact that they had finally reached the end made him so happy that he just had to utter it aloud immediately.

And so they passed through the whole mountain, but didn't find the spider. One did not need to be very wise to come to a conclusion. It either hides in some of the blocked lateral tunnels, or it went to Mordor. In both cases they faced a difficult and perilous searching, and he couldn't decide which option he liked less.

The bright spot became bigger with every step, turning from dot into circle.

"Draw your swords."


The humans passed through the main tunnel while she was on the spot she had taken earlier, hidden behind the web. And as they were going further, she knew that it was most important to pick the right moment. If she broke the net and entered the main tunnel too early, they could hear her and attack her. Which she wanted to avoid. Judging by vibrations of their steps, there were nearly fifty. No less then forty, for sure. She didn't want to risk an unnecessary fight.

She wasn't happy at all discovering there were so many. Although there were about twice as many orcs, uncertainty began to gnaw her and she wasn't sure any more that it was enough. But now she couldn't change it. She brought as many orcs as it was possible; she now knew that she would be late if she had searched further, and in that case she couldn't realize her plan at all. She could only hope that the orcs would inflict serious losses to Gondorians – serious enough that she can finish the remaining ones.

She flattened herself to the ground, picking up even the weakest vibrations that way, and judging the attenuation of the smell of the humans. When she thought they were at least a hundred feet away, she quickly tore the web with her claws and entered the main tunnel. She was not totally silent in doing it, but she hoped they were far enough not to hear her. She thought that only the sounds could betray her, but was not afraid of being seen. Even if some of the humans looked back, she believed her black shape would blend with the gloom of the tunnel, especially because of the distance.

She followed the humans for a while; they were relatively close to the exit now, as it seemed to her, and she concluded this could be the moment and the place to start the action. She grinned. A shadow over her plan was the number of humans – greater than she expected – but generally, she was pleased by how the situation unfolded so far. Now was the moment to block their retreat route.

In fact, the main obstacle that would truly make their escape impossible she would set when she returned towards the tunnel branching to her cave. That was her plan from the beginning. What she was doing right now – the idea that came only a little while ago – she didn't have to do it. But she loved the idea, and she wanted to do it. The result would be multiple. A few men in her web would mean additional meals for the following period, and would also mean fewer men fighting orcs. There was one more reason – it would be fun. And because, even though her time for the action was limited, she did have just enough time for weaving the web.

She delighted in advance; she imagined the humans running into the net and trying to set themselves free... unsuccessfully, of course. No one could escape from her webs. She grinned wider, and started to weave.



The name that evoked horror in all the inhabitants of Middle-earth.

Even more in the inhabitants of Gondor, because it was their country that bordered the land of the Dark lord.

But most of all, in those Gondorians living in Minas Tirith and Ithilien, because they watched that border every single day – the watched the grey, dark slopes of the mountains, above which even darker clouds hovered.

Faramir and the Rangers were a part of that last group. They had resided in the shadow of Mordor all the time and watched those sights every day. And although all of them were hardened soldiers, looking at the darkness of Mordor was not a pleasant view even for them.

Mordor. A name for terror, evil, dark and death. For thousands of years.

Faramir observed the opening they had approached. Daylight from the outside was grey and obscured, and it was obvious the night was near. But he was content that it was not completely dark yet.

And when they pass through that opening, they'd be in Mordor.

Even if this was an ordinary trip in the middle of the sunny day – and it wasn't very probable that anybody would undertake trips to Mordor any time soon – he assumed he would feel... well, weird, at the very least. And maybe a little discomfort, too. Because even now, when Sauron and most of his huge army were destroyed, Mordor was not a nice place at all and didn't evoke pleasant emotions.

Most of Sauron's army. Yes, that was the key word. Not all of it. Although there seemed to be no orcs in Ithilien anymore, one could assume that some still dwelled in Mordor. Some? A few? Many? He just could not know. And the latest events meant that the orcs were not the only creatures of the dark that had survived. Because this quest was not a sightseeing trip; this was going to battle.

As they neared the exit, they slowed down. They had to be very careful, in case there were any threats on the other side. When they were close, he looked back to his men. "Look out for a while, straight into the light, so that your eyes get adapted to it", he said. "We will wait a little bit, and only then we go out." He didn't want the day light to blind them.

Faramir looked out. Mordor. For now, he couldn't see much because the walls of the tunnel still constrained his field of view. He only managed to see a part of the terrain closest to the exit, which was stony and more or less flat.

Soon he judged their eyes had adapted enough. Three more steps, and the first row was only a foot away from the exit. All of them had swords in their hands. He could now see a little more: the terrain was flat, and in the distance it rose slightly. Everything was silent and he didn't see anyone. But they had to check the sides and the slope above the tunnel, which was impossible from the inside; they had to go out and look left, right and up. So he made the next step and entered Mordor.

The first step into Mordor, the second—


The two shouts came simultaneously – one from the soldier on the left, and another from the soldier on the right side. Faramir, who was in the centre of the first row, was just lifting his gaze; just as the alert cries echoed, with the corner of his eye he noticed movements on the upper slope, and at the same time he heard the sound of the arrows from above.

Orcs! The mountain was full of orcs, positioned on the slopes around and above the tunnel.

"Pull back!!!" he shouted together with Haldar in the very next moment. But although all the rangers moved immediately, the arrows were faster than they could be. Sounds of their impact and one painful cry were the sign that at least one had hit the target, and Faramir cursed the orcs. "Pull back, quickly!" he shouted one more time. He didn't want a battle. He didn't manage to see how many orcs there were – and he could hardly ask them to stop releasing the arrows until he counted them. There could be five dozen. As well as five hundred. And in case of the latter, the only thing to do was to retreat and to hope that the orcs wouldn't pursue them.

One orc jumped in front of him and Faramir quickly cut him down, and then the next one. He retreated and several seconds later he was at the exit again. The rangers stood side by side and held the formation, fighting orcs who rushed towards them.


The limiting factor was the width of the tunnel. Only the first five rangers – the first row – could fight simultaneously, and it was their task to hold the black tide. Not one single ranger from behind them could approach and fight. However, at least one positive thing in that situation was that the same constraint applied to the orcs too: not more than five or six orcs could fight, either. However, Faramir was not afraid of their individual skill but the overall number. The orcs were no match to professional soldiers, but as one fell, another would take his place. If there were enough of them, they could exhaust his squad and overcome it by sheer numbers.

"Pull back!!!" he shouted.

He fought with all his strength and cut down the orcs attacking them. Soon they were deeper in the tunnel again. Faramir saw the ranger on the left fell down, but stopping to grieve was not an option; the new opponent was already in front of him. Torches from the background lit the orc's face for a moment and Faramir saw the wild hatred in his eyes. The orc lifted his sword, but wasn't quick enough. In the very next moment he fell.

A ranger from the back filled the empty position in the first line and the fight continued. At the same time, they retreated. Then Faramir heard a loud guttural shout in the Black Speech; he didn't understand, but the orcs halted, and then turned and ran towards the exit.

Why? he wondered. Did the orcs' commander judge that the rangers were too skilful and that he was losing too many of his fighters? Or was he simply content that he prevented the intruders from entering his territory?

"Let's go deeper inside," he said to the men around him. They walked backwards, and Faramir observed the exit all the time; silhouettes of the orcs were outlined in the grey circle. As the distance increased, they looked smaller and more blurred.

Many thoughts whirled in his mind. Most important of all was concern for his men. He had to find out how many had fallen, as soon as possible; later, he would have to take care of the bodies. At the same time, he made a mental note that more squads should come here and clear the area. But he would deal that later; now he thought of the wounded, orcs and spider.

Then he noticed the new activity at the exit, and then came the arrows.

Cursed orcs!!!

"Shields up! Retreat!"


The web in the main tunnel was ready. Out there in the front, around the exit, sword clashing echoed, and she only had to go a little bit to the back and continue to execute her plan – that was, to block the way. But she stopped. Another thought came to her mind. Risky. But possible, because the rocks were ready, and she thought she had enough time to pile them up.

In spite of the risk, the thought just wouldn't go away – nay, the excitement inside her kept growing. She felt as if the idea was screaming "Fulfil me, fulfil me!!!".

Do I have enough time?

Her heart beat faster and faster.

I do!

And so she didn't go back to the spot where she would put the rocks, but remained waiting behind the web. She would not only imagine the beautiful sight that was about to happen. She would see it in person. She was bursting with joy.

She listened, silent and invisible for those on the other side, felt the vibrations, and what she discovered was very satisfying. Great, excellent... The humans retreated. Straight into her web.

The steps were closer and closer, and the scent more intense. Dim light was nearing the web and passing through the small openings in it, and she concluded the humans had carried the torches. But at least it was the ordinary light – not at all like that which almost destroyed her sight three years ago.

A little more, just a little bit more... Her blood heated up with impatience and hunting excitement. For a long time, she hadn't done anything this big and thrilling. She had already forgotten how great the feeling was. She almost wanted to tear down the web and jump on them, full of energy and will to fight. But she was aware it wouldn't be wise and restrained herself.

They come, they are here...

In the next moment one body was caught in the web, and a blink of an eye later, another. The web started to swing forward-backward, and the two shapes began to scramble frantically. Of course, she knew their attempts were in vain and she grinned. No matter how hard they tried, her net didn't loosen even the tiniest bit; there was no escape from it. Not for anyone, not ever. Then the loud shout echoed, and no more prey ran into the trap.

Gondorians, caught in the web. The most beautiful sight.

She jumped into action the very next moment. Her sting plunged into one body, and then into another. She wanted to make sure her prey would remain fresh. Then she turned and hurried to the tunnel towards her lair without looking back, because it was high time to do it. There could be no more delaying. So she didn't wait to see how the humans would stop to move and finally become limp.

She swiftly reached the pile of rocks she had set at the tunnel's widest point and started to put it in the middle of the passage. After closing the retreat line the humans would be trapped, and the only escape would be the exit – straight into the orcs' squad.


The orcs were not very precise, but they didn't have to be. For them, it was enough to simply release the arrows to the interior; as the rangers were forced together in the tight space, the probability for the hit was quite high. The rangers had to counter at once.

"Archers, into the first row!" shouted Faramir. Yes, he wanted to retreat to safety, but had no intention to leave the orcs unpunished; he wanted them to feel the taste of the arrows too. And he had no doubt that his men were much better archers.

Walking slowly backwards, the rangers in the first row held the shields up, and as each archer was ready to shoot, they moved them a bit, just for a moment, to enable aiming. Soon the orcs' arrows stopped coming.

And then, a few yards further in the background, the loud order echoed.


As he was withdrawing, Faramir ran into the soldier behind him, and the one from the front row bumped into him. Faramir wondered what could have happened that the stopping became more important than retreating into safety. He swiftly got through the crowd to the last row, looked around, and...

...and remained frozen in place. In front of him there was the big dense web closing the whole width and height of the tunnel that, just a few minutes ago, while they walked towards the exit, was not here. Which meant that the spider somewhere in the vicinity. Somewhere very close, in fact. And they weren't aware of it at all. They had no idea where the creature was hiding.

The thought was very disturbing.

But that was not the worst. Two rangers were in the web. They scrambled with their full strength but in vain – it seemed as if, with every move, they got even more entangled, that the sticky creation was swallowing them more and more. And while the sound from behind his back told him that the arrows battle was continuing, the sight before him became even more dreadful. The movements of the two rangers suddenly slowed down. In the torch-light, Faramir saw their eyes widen and their mouths open, but no sound came from them. They finally became still and remained hanging, seemingly lifelessly, and their eyes stared vacantly into space.

Everyone just stood and stared in shock for a few more moments, and then the nearest soldier moved closer to the two unfortunate rangers. He swiftly turned to Faramir.

"They are still breathing. They are alive," he reported.

In that moment Haldar arrived and stood next to Faramir.

"Why aren't we retreating any more? The orcs could—" Captain stopped in mid-sentence, in the moment in which his gaze moved from Faramir to the web, and when he saw what had happened. He stared wordlessly for a while, and then shook his head. "Oh damn..."

Faramir moved quickly. "Haldar, supervise the actions of those in the first row. Let them continue to shoot the orcs." He, on the other hand, had to save these two. No matter of the ongoing arrow-battle, no matter what would happen later, he just couldn't let them like this.

They couldn't do anything with swords and their own muscles, and he knew the fire was the only remaining chance. He also knew they'd have to be very quick when the fire reached the unconsious rangers. He made the plan with the men around him, and then they took their positions in front of the web.

Eru, please, make this work.

Faramir and another ranger stood in front of the two caught in the web. Faramir gripped tightly the left forearm of the man – the only part of his body not entangled. Then he gave the sign to two rangers with torches, and they lit the web. At the same time, Faramir started to pull the captured ranger, and the soldier next to him did the same.

The fire swallowed the web quickly – just like in both previous situations. It quickly caught the whole surface of the web, and the part of the web between the two caught rangers burned out too. Faramir and the others readily caught the two limp bodies that, now freed from the web, had started to fall towards the ground. The fire spread to them too, but all the rangers covered them with their own bodies and extinguished the last flames with their weight.

Lying on one ranger, choking and catching his breath, Faramir's heart beat wildly. But he breathed a sigh of relief. We made it. They saved the two of their brothers in arms from that horrible trap.

The smoke hadn't yet dissipated completely and Faramir coughed, but he gritted his teeth and forced himself to get up. He quickly looked around, judging the situation. A little bit of the web remained on their clothes – both of the saviours and the two men on the ground. But those were just a few small clumps here and there, and not very sticky any more because they were partially burned, and he concluded they wouldn't constrain their movements. Anyway, the cleaning of their clothes would have to wait for better days.

"Quickly! Let's retreat a little more!" Faramir shouted, although to his own ears he didn't sound as loud as he wanted; the smoke still scraped his lungs. But he hoped that most men had heard him. "We must take care of the wounded, and we can't do it under fire of arrows!"

The order was conveyed all the way to the first row, and the whole group moved towards the interior, going further from the orcs and their arrows. But only fifty feet later, they had to halt again. A big heap of rocks stood in front of them. They tried to move it, but most of the rocks were very heavy. And from what they could see, there were many, because moving some of them only revealed more rocks in the back. The way was blocked.

"Cursed creature, looks like it blocked a big part of the tunnel! You spawn of Morgoth, if only the whole mountain crashed on you and squashed you..." growled Faramir, clenching his fists. He began to understand – this situation was not a mix of coincidences. It was obviously a result of thorough planning. The creature pulling the threads – both figuratively and literally – was successful not just for being a big and strong hunter, but also for being intelligent too.

But then his gaze fell on the two rangers next to him. They were young – he thought they were hardly older than twenty. And although in the dim light he couldn't see their expressions very well, he realized they were nervous. And he thought they were scared too, albeit they evidently tried to hide it. He couldn't blame them; considering their age and three years of peace, this might have been the first skirmish, and everyone was afraid the first time. Me too, he remembered. And not just the first time; no battle had ever left any soldier indifferent. Everyone wanted to live.

He took a deep breath and regained control.

"Report! How many wounded? How many dead?" he asked.

Three men were missing, and Faramir assumed they were killed in the beginning, near the exit, and that their bodies still lay there; they would have to retrieve them later. He tightened his lips, but didn't let the emotions overcome him. He would grieve later; now was not the right moment. Now he had more urgent tasks.

Two men had shallow cuts on their hands, while one had a deeper wound on his leg; he limped. Aranir, one of the oldest and most experienced in the squad, carried some of the healing equipment; he wasn't as skilled as those working in the Houses of Healing, but he had basic knowledge. He immediately started to clean the wounds to prevent infection.

It was not difficult to calculate: except for the two who had been captured in the web and currently lay unconscious, three missing and the limping man, there were thirty-four men ready to fight. They couldn't stay here long, blocked and trapped, and they had to break through to the outside. He could only hope that there weren't too many orcs.

Faramir cast a quick glance towards the exit. He could not see it because of those standing in front of him, but he actually didn't have to see it to know that the night would come soon. In complete darkness they would have no chance, and they had to act now. But at the same time, he had to come up with the good plan; rushing headlong into danger would not save them.

He tilted his head, thinking. Yes, he was much younger than the oldest rangers in the group, but he had a lot of experience, too. His mind searched for the solution – and found it. He remembered. The Northern base. Now we could again—

"But what happened to them...?" asked one of the rangers who observed the two fainted men; his voice sounded very puzzled. For a moment, he diverted Faramir's thoughts from planning. The eyes of the two unlucky men were now closed and they looked as if in very deep sleep.

Faramir then heard another voice – the hobbit Samwise's – that suddenly surfaced from his memories. "And then I heard the orcs saying that the spider could give a special sort of poison. The victims become immobile and incapacitated, and in that way the spider stores them for later. And if we take the example of my master Frodo, we see that the effect of the poison abates in time and the victim wakes up."*

He turned to the ranger who had asked the question. "They are only poisoned and paralyzed. They will wake up. I know it because I heard it first-hand," he said shortly, not wasting time to explain the details. They had to hurry – the night was near. His thoughts returned to the orcs and the battle they had to win. Just before the soldier's question, he remembered a situation from about ten years ago, which also included a squad of rangers he had led, the orcs and two caves. Although the configuration of terrain was different then, there were some similarities to present circumstances and Faramir quickly made a plan in his head. His gaze passed over the men surrounding him, and stopped on Valantur. Yes, that is correct, he nodded, remembering. He was there too.

"Valantur, do you remember the assault on the Northern base and our counter-attack?" Faramir asked the other man.

The ranger was motionless for a few moments, and then his lips slowly curved into a smile. His eyebrows rose, and his eyes shone. "Oh, I certainly do." Valantur's gaze remained fixed to him, and Faramir saw in the man's eyes that he was starting to envisage how to perform the same breach here.

"Yes. We will do the same now," Faramir said. In the previous situation they had more space, and he knew it would be very dangerous now – especially because they didn't know how many orcs waited for them. But that was the best way. The only one, in fact.

In a few sentences, they explained the others what to do, and in the next two or three minutes they performed all the necessary preparations. Finally, when they were ready to start, Faramir turned to Duilin, the man with injured leg.

"You could not follow our pace and could not fight. We will leave you one torch. Your job is to keep these two safe. When we finish with the orcs, we'll come back for you," he said firmly.

Of course, he was aware that much could go wrong and that, if the orcs were too many, he wouldn't be able to keep his promise. If they were all killed, the three they were leaving behind would be an easy prey for the orcs. On the other hand, if the orcs really were too many, one limping soldier could hardly prevail in the forthcoming battle, and final the outcome for the handicapped three would be the same.

I will hope for the best.

It was obvious that Duilin wasn't glad he had to stay; even with the injury, he would surely prefer an active role. But he just nodded. "Understood."

Faramir turned to the squad, that was ready and impatient.

"Let's go."


* [Sam listening to orcs talk.]

"Garn!" said Shagrat. "She's got more than one poison. When she's hunting, she just gives 'em a dab in the neck and they go as limp as boned fish, and then she has her way with them. (...) Nar – this little filth, he'll wake up, in a few hours; and beyond feeling a bit sick for a hit, he'll be all right. (...) And of course, beyond wondering where he is and what's happened to him."

The squad headed towards the exit. The rangers in the first row walked shoulder to shoulder and held shields that overlapped at their edges, forming a wide barrier that orcs' arrows could not penetrate. Just like earlier, when they had been retreating, only a step behind them were the archers. But now, after those first two rows, there were the men who carried spare oil and lamps.

Faramir was in the first row. Soon after they left, he moved his shield a little bit just for a split-second, and quickly beheld the situation. The grey circle in the distance was a little darker than when they had first approached it. And in fact, he was even satisfied because of it – as much as it was possible to be satisfied in complicated circumstances like these. But the fact that was important right now was that the eyes of the orcs had surely already started to adapt to the darkness, and Faramir believed that the rangers' action would bother them – at least for several moments – which would be very important for his men. On the other hand, there still was enough light and the men would be able to fight.

He cast a quick glance towards the exit and he noticed the move. He had no intention to allow the orcs to attack first, so he immediately gave the order.


They were coordinated; they had repeated those moves countless times back in the days of their training, as well as later in battles. They could perform them day and night, in any situation and on any terrain, with their eyes closed if necessary. The first row stopped, all of them in the same moment, and tilted their shields to make some two inches of space between them. The archers were already prepared and released the arrows. Shields had to be overlapped again instantly – to protect them against eventual attack – so there was not much time for precise aiming. But accuracy wasn't essential right now, actually; all the orcs standing there would surely get a hit. Maybe it wouldn't be fatal, but wounding was also good enough – it would exclude some of the opponents out of the upcoming battle.

And they could not give the orcs a pause. Only a few steps later, the order was repeated.


Stopping again, tilting the shields again, another volley. And the same action repeated every few steps.

Not surprisingly, things didn't go smoothly. After all, Faramir didn't expect the orcs would let them just promenade to the exit. Although painful cries witnessed that the rangers' arrows hit their targets, the orcs tried to counter. Every now and then he felt a blow to his shield, and vibrations transferred to his hands and shoulders. He held it tightly, aware that he must not move it at all, so that everyone in the formation would remain protected. They held their positions one next to the other, a little bent down to be covered better, knowing they should not allow even the smallest hole in their wall. Their plan – and their lives – depended on it.


Step by step, volley by volley – from both sides. But the rangers did progress, and as they were coming closer, they released the arrows more frequently to chase off the orcs further. Reaching the exit was crucial and everything depended on the success of that very phase of the operation; it was impossible to carry out the plan while still in the tunnel. However, when they were only ten feet away, the orcs swarmed inside.

"Damn!" muttered Faramir furiously. "Charge!"

The rangers swiftly drew their swords and fired on the orcs. The clamour was tremendous for the ring of steel echoed in a small space. The orcs fell under rangers' blows and the squad managed to go forward. We must be quicker, a thought flashed while Faramir cut down one orc and moved to the next one, drawing all the strength and speed he had in his muscles. Not looking at the ground but the opponents in front of him, he stepped on the fallen orc – and it was nearly fatal. He lost his balance and barely avoided orc's attack. But he quickly regained it and counter-attacked, and managed to eliminate the threat. And then the rangers reached the exit.

"Prepare to throw!" shouted Faramir as loudly as he could, over the noise around him.

A stroke; an orc down; a step forward; next stroke... and then the first row came out of the tunnel. But it still wasn't enough – they had to advance at least two steps more so that those carrying oil had enough room to throw it. Everyone around him knew that too, so they fought with all their strength. But now that they were out, peril became even bigger because the attack with the arrows started from the above. The rangers had to fight the orcs in front of them and to shield themselves from the arrows from behind – all at the same time.

"Charge!" yelled Faramir and threw himself among the orcs, hoping that the arrows would stop coming if the rangers intermix with the enemies; in that case, the orcs wouldn't be able to shoot without risk to hit their own. They fought as hard as they could, and soon conquered a little more space. And then it was finally possible to realize what Faramir had expected with utmost impatience.


The orcs in the first row, preoccupied with fighting as they were, probably didn't even see several burning projectiles that flew over them and fell behind them – among those in the background. The bottles, wrapped up in cloths and lit before throwing, broke when they hit the ground; the oil in them spilled and caught fire instantly. About ten fires flashed in the dusk. The rangers spent all the spare oil they had – but with the passage blocked, Faramir knew they would not need the lamps at all if they didn't overpower the orcs. In that case, there would be no return for them.

Some of the bottles hit the orcs too, so the fire caught their clothes. Painful cries filled the air, and chaos spread through the horde of orcs – they were distracted and temporarily blinded. The orc band stopped for a few moments, not being able to consolidate.

Those were the moments the rangers desperately needed – and got. Raising up on the balls of his feet, Faramir risked a quick glance around. It seemed that not the whole army of the orcs was present, and although it was impossible to be accurate in the dusk and in just one split-second, he thought there were not many more than fifty. It was the ratio they had often experienced before, and from which they usually came out as winners; the orcs were less skilled and two orcs to one ranger was never enough for the orcs.

The orcs who were caught by fire ran around screaming in pain and bumping into the others, creating additional commotion. The others retreated from the flame. But Faramir knew that they would recover very soon, and the rangers had to use those important seconds in which the orcs had not regrouped yet. The rangers rushed onto the orcs in front of them.

And they had more surprises for the orcs. Earlier preparations included coating the swords with oil; as the rangers advanced from the tunnel and ran forward, it was enough just to pass with the blade through the fires burning around for the oil to burst into flame. The orcs were suddenly faced with the opponents wielding fiery swords.

Of course, the swords were not any more deadly because of the fire, and from the experience of previous such battle, Faramir knew it would die out very soon; the oil-coating was thin and burned quickly, and every stab into the orcs's bodies quenched the fire. But the real effect was psychological one: the scared orcs backed down, and the rangers cut them down. By the time the orcs realized that the swords were not magical, it was too late. Many of them fell and the numbers were turned.

The fighting line spread. Most of the orcs retreated in direction opposite of the tunnel, while one group ran up the mountain. So the rangers split into two groups too; Faramir led the bigger part of the squad which chased the orcs forward, and captain Haldar's group pursued those on the upper slopes. One by one, the orcs fell. Finally, those remaining few stopped fighting and tried to escape. But they weren't fast enough.

Faramir then became aware of the silence. It was not completely soundless – he could hear a word here and there – but there were no more shouts, echoes of swords clashing, or hammering of steps. It was over. There was not a single orc alive anymore. As always after the battle, his first concern were his men.

"Are there any casualties? Any injured?" he shouted.

Rangers, somewhat scattered while chasing the orcs, now started to gather around him; Haldar and his group also came nearer. And although some rangers were on their feet and fine, the battle could not pass without consequences. Six more men were killed, and there were several wounded.

"Scout the surroundings while there is still some light," said Faramir to the men around him, and turned to Aranir. The older ranger already opened his backpack and took out bandages and equipment. "Aranir, take as many men as necessary to help you."

Faramir then walked a few steps forward and moved away from the group, and looked around. It was getting darker, but he could still see the shapes of the landscape. Behind him there were steep slopes and mountaintops, and they stretched towards the north and south. But in front of him, looking to the east, the terrain was very different from all other surrounding inaccessible escarpments. Several hundred feet further there was a ravine with smooth, almost flat sides – the Pass of Cirith Ungol.

And behind the Pass, on the almost black background of distant plains of Mordor, he discerned a tower. More precisely, only its top; from where he stood, its biggest part was hidden from his view because it was situated on the opposite side of the Pass. Faramir could see only the uppermost part and the spike on the top. Three thousand years old, he reminded himself. Just like the towers of Cirith Gorgor, this one was also built by the Gondorians – to keep watch on the evil of Mordor and to keep it inside. But history took a very different turn from what the old architects had imagined.

"As for setting the camp, I believe that nobody wants to return into that stench, and that everybody will put their sleeping bags in the open. Me first. And not very close to the entrance," Faramir heard Haldar's voice. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the captain approaching. "And we must hide our presence. As soon as Aranir finishes his work, we have to extinguish the torches. The fire in the night can be seen from afar."

"I hope there are no more enemies who could see us. But you are right. We will quench them." Faramir nodded. If Haldar hadn't mentioned it first, he would have ordered it himself.

They were silent for a few moments, and then they went back. Faramir approached Aranir, next to whom stood two rangers with torches. Having asked for the news, he found out that the injuries were not serious. All seven wounded men had only cuts and shallow stabbing wounds that were not life-threatening. But possible infection was quite another matter, and all the wounds would require frequent cleaning. Anyway, Faramir was relieved; cleaning wounds, applying healing salves and changing bandages were manageable tasks. But if there had been men with serious injuries, he was not sure they could be saved in these circumstances and without a proper healer. Eru, thank you.

The scouts soon began to return. As the darkness was thickening, they couldn't go far. But the surroundings did not offer cover for the enemies; there were no vegetation or canyons suitable for hiding. The terrain the scouts inspected had been empty, and it seemed they would have peaceful night. Faramir almost thought everything was resolved, when the last scout approached him and Haldar. It was one of those young men – children, the term popped up in Faramir's head – whom he had no chance of meeting earlier.

"Captain Haldar, Prince Faramir," the youngster addressed them and stopped, as if uncertain how to continue.

"Go ahead, Isilmir," Haldar prompted him with a nod. "Do you have anything to report?"

"I do, captain. I didn't see no orcs, just like the others," continued the young man, now seeming a little more confident than in the beginning, "but I found one more opening – another tunnel in the rocks, just like the one we came out from." He turned and gestured towards the north. "It is there. I think it's about two hundred feet away, captain, or just a little more," he ended, looking at Haldar.

Faramir frowned. More tunnels? More mysteries? He didn't like the news – it could mean new danger. They had to find out more, as soon as possible. He summoned ten nearest rangers. They had already sat down and started to clean their swords. But just one Faramir's word was enough for all of them to get up instantly. He turned to the scout.

"Isilmir, if I remember correctly?"

"Isilmir son of Brandir, Prince Faramir," replied the young ranger, standing to attention.

"Lead us to the tunnel you discovered."

Cursed, cursed, hundred times cursed humans!!!

While she was passing through the tunnels of her home, she was boiling with fury.

And cursed, cursed those incapable orcs!!!

There were at least twice as many orcs as humans, but they just couldn't fight that well. She had observed the battle from another exit, a little towards the north, and peering from behind the edge of the rock. At first she hoped everything would be fine; those detestable Gondorians started to come out, the orcs attacked them, and the humans retreated. Of course, she knew the way was blocked, and the only thing they could do was to come out again. She thought that they would be in disadvantaged position because they couldn't go out all at once, so the orcs simply had to eliminate them with the arrows from above and with swords – one by one, little by little, as the humans would be coming out. The approaching night should have helped the orcs further; they were not fond of daylight, and they saw better than humans in the dark.

But the humans attacked incredibly powerfully and inventively; as soon as they appeared with that flame, she realized how everything would finish. The fire was a factor of a surprise – the element that bought them time for more fighters to come out, and that turned the tide. As the numbers' ratio began to change, she didn't wait to see the end. She turned around even before the last orc fell, and disappeared in her passages.

Stupid incompetent orcs! As she walked, she brandished with one leg and the claw scratched the lateral rock. She wanted to break, destroy, demolish; one stalactite paid the price of that wish. Venom dripped from her sting; she overwhelmingly wanted to kill someone or something. Anything. But at the moment, there was nobody and nothing around her, and that enraged her even more.

Obviously, this clan of the orcs that she had found was worthless. They didn't manage to fulfil her plans, and she needed all the humans to be killed; none could return to talk about her and her tunnels. Because, although she hadn't talked to anyone in the past three years, although nobody had retold her the events from the War, she realized in the beginning of this period that the world had changed. The tower was empty – and not just the tower. There were no more orcs, trolls or dark wraiths anywhere to be seen – not on the Pass, not all the way towards the foot of the mountains. That meant that humans now ruled the area. And nothing would stop them to return.

The dumb orcs failed her. She shrieked in frustration, having realized she would have to leave this lair that had been her home for many centuries. Too many humans remained after the battle and she alone couldn't confront them; she just could not defeat twenty or more at once. And humans would surely return in even bigger numbers, and they would overturn every rock of her home and its surroundings. Hiding the entrance would have no sense – the humans now knew where it was.

One day she would return to the pass, she vowed. However, first she would have to hide. Perhaps she could go northwards; there was the orcs' camp she had found. Her first thought was to go there instantly and to punish the females and the cubs for the males' failure. It would be a double gain – satisfaction because of the punishment, and a lot of food. Yes, she would do exactly that. She would find a new den somewhere in the north, and eliminate the remnants of that incompetent pack.

But not right away. First, she would have her vengeance on the humans. This squad would surely not be able to search for her at once because the main tunnel was blocked, and she hoped they wouldn't discover other eastern entrances; she would have a good advantage. Therefore, before going to the north, she would descend to the foothills – to their villages. They had to pay for what was done to her.


Faramir stood in front of the group of twelve rangers and stepped into the tunnel. They had a few torches, and all of them had swords in their hands. Every few steps they stopped and listened; everything was silent and quiet, and it seemed there was nobody around. But they didn't let their guard down for a single moment.

This tunnel was very similar in size to the main one, through which they had passed earlier. It was similar in everything else, too: equally stinky, also containing bones and web here and there. After one mild curve in the beginning, they progressed in a straight line.

"Considering the position of the two entries and the direction of this tunnel, I assume that we are now walking parallel to the main tunnel," Faramir said in a low voice to Haldar, who walked next to him.

"Yes, I think so too," said the captain.

After about five hundred feet they reached a forking and stopped. Right passage was closed by a web, while the left was free. Faramir observed both sides, and then made a decision.

"I am very curious about the right, blocked side. Maybe something is hidden behind it. However, I would like to check our position first. If the two tunnels are aligned, we should reach the main one if we turn left. We must know where we are," he said.

"If this is the way to the main tunnel, how come we didn't see branching that leads to where we stand now?" A question came from one of the rangers in the background.

"We probably did see it," responded Faramir. "Surely all of you remember several lateral passages, and all of them were blocked. The last lateral tunnel was not far from the exit, and it was blocked by the web."

Faramir's reply was followed by affirmative murmur. He heard someone comment, but in such a low voice that he couldn't hear it. The only word he thought he had discerned was "smart"; obviously the ranger who asked that question turned into a target of banter.

Haldar then gave them a sigh to be silent, and the group turned left. And really, they soon reached the new crossing. Just before it, near the point where the two tunnels joined, they saw remnants of the web; while it was whole earlier, now it was torn apart and hung in bands from the ceiling. After burning them so that they don't get caught in them, there were no problems to pass into the main tunnel.

Faramir observed the remains of the web, the crossing and the tunnels, thinking. And realizing. "The spider must have been hidden behind this web. It waited until we pass, and rolled the rocks afterwards, blocking our return."

He stood like that for a few more moments, and then another cognition hit him. Oh, what a good opportunity it was... but missed. True, they couldn't do anything against the web with swords, but he believed the arrows would pass without problems. And maybe they wouldn't kill the creature, but many arrows would certainly do some damage and wound it – if only they had known it had been hiding here. He clenched his fists, furious. But there was nothing he could do about it now.

A quick inspection of the eastern part of the tunnel led them to the pile of rocks which stopped their retreat on the other side, and then they returned to the crossing. Faramir stopped next to the burned web.

"I would return to the forking, where the right side was covered with web. It is possible that the web is there with reason again," he said pensively. While still saying that, he noticed that Isilmir – the ranger who discovered the other exit – headed to the opposite side, westwards. He walked very close to the tunnel wall holding his torch, and it was obvious that he was scrutinizing very carefully the lateral walls, floor and ceiling of the tunnel. Delaying his order to return for a moment, Faramir observed the lad advancing foot by foot. And he didn't stop.

"Isilmir!" called Haldar just a split-second before Faramir himself meant to react. He didn't want anyone to separate from the group.

The young man stopped and turned towards them. In the light of the torch he carried, his figure was silhouetted against the blackness of the tunnel behind him.

"I was just about to stop, captain, I didn't mean to go no further," the young ranger replied. "In fact, sir, I think I saw enough. You can come to see, all of you."

When Faramir and Haldar came closer, the youngster looked at them seriously. "Now that we entered this main tunnel I first noticed slime that seemed fresh, unlike those dried traces we saw earlier on many places. So I went to check, and I found this."

Isilmir lifted the torch so Faramir could see the upper part of the ceiling, and he noticed a stalactite. Or what was left of it, more precisely. About a foot beneath its base on the ceiling it was broken, which was clearly visible from its sharp edges. The young man then lowered the torch, and Faramir saw a conical bottom part of the stalactite.

"When we walked towards the east earlier, I was on this outer position right next to the wall, right on this side, and I remember this one very well. There aren't many so they are noticeable, and this one really stood out for its colour, a little more red than the others. And it was not broken. But now it is."

A web that blocked the way earlier, but was torn in the meantime, and fresh tracks on the western side. Faramir didn't have to think much to conclude what the new discoveries meant.

"The spider is moving westward," he said, looking through the darkness down the tunnel. He wished he could pierce that opaque blackness – to see where their enemy was. Moreover, he wanted to know how far it advanced and what was on its mind.

"I wonder if the orcs were the allies of the spider... was this their mutual ambush?" Haldar muttered pensively, looking at Faramir, and then he turned to the young ranger and nodded approvingly. "Well done, Isilmir."

Faramir noticed that the boy tried to remain calm and serious, but his lips twitched in a hint of a smile and his eyes slightly widened.

"Thank you, captain."

Faramir then gave a sign to return. "We saw enough, there is no need to investigate further. We will not waste time to explore what is behind the web we passed by a little while ago. I believe it is not necessary anymore," he said. "As the spider is moving towards the west through the main tunnel, we would probably find only the empty passage and nothing more. Let's return to the camp, where we'll consider further action."

After these words, the group headed towards the exit.


As she progressed and her fury cooled down, she let her frustration loose on the objects passing by less frequently – but only a little less. She still occasionally kicked a bone if there was one on her way, and her jaws still rattled.

Oh, how much meat will go to waste!, a new thought flashed through her mind when she remembered the bodies next to the main eastern exit, and the piercing scream came out of her throat. All those orcs and humans would remain as a feast for crows and other scavengers who would discover that treasure, and it frustrated her tremendously. She also knew that she wouldn't be able to use much of the prey she would kill next. Unfortunately.

She still did not make the plan what to do once she reached the foothills; that would depend on what she'd find, and where. But she would do something. She had to. She felt as if she would die if she only left without revenge, and her hatred grew with every step. Humans. Her enemies. They seemed to have prevailed over the whole world, and now she had to leave because of them. Now they accomplished what they hadn't succeeded to do centuries ago.

But they would not go unpunished. She would find some humans, somewhere, somehow. She would very much like to be able to make revenge on those who had driven her out. But that, unfortunately, was not possible. However, her next prey would be humans. Gondorians. Enemies. She would punish at least some of them.

Kill, kill, kill.


After coming out from the tunnel, Faramir discovered it was almost completely dark. They joined the other rangers around the main exit. Aranir finished his work with the injured men in the meantime, and everyone were now resting on their sleeping bags.

Faramir took some food from his backpack, although he wasn't truly hungry. The battle dulled his appetite – more precisely, its consequences. As the War ended three years ago, and especially because in the last several months there were no more encounters with the orcs, he hoped he would never again have to knock on someone's door and deliver bad news to the family. And now he would have to do it again – no less than nine times. Someone else might send a messenger, but he didn't want to do it. He perceived it as his own duty, no matter how difficult and sad it was, and had no intention of running away from it.

He ate quickly, not even feeling the taste of food; his brain worked frantically all the time. Then he called Haldar, as well as Aranir and Borlas, because the latter two were among the most experienced rangers in this squad. It was always useful to have such men at hand when counselling.

For safety reasons, all the torches were extinguished now. It was dark and the silhouettes were hardly discernible in the night, and it was getting colder. It was the end of April and the days were getting warmer, but the nights were still chilled even in Anduin valley where he lived; this high, it was even colder.

When the three sat around him, Faramir spoke to them. The outlines of the plan had already formed in his head.

"If we had not discovered the spider's track, I would have probably decided to go to the Tower tomorrow morning, all of us together, and to go back to Ithilien by road. That is the easiest way, and we have to make the return easier for the injured," he said for the introduction. "However, things changed. While we sit here, the spider moves towards the west. We have to go after it. I wish we could go right away, but we've been on the move since dawn. Now that we know the length of the tunnel, we know we need several hours to pass through it, and we must continue our pursuit after we come out, too." He sighed and frowned. "We must give the men four to five hours of sleep and rest."

In the brief silence that followed, he heard rustling on his right; Haldar was slightly shifting, and then sighed heavily.

"A search like that is quite risky, especially because we have several injured men," said the captain. "They surely won't be able to follow the pace of the others, and splitting into two smaller groups is not wise."

"I thought about that too. But we must split," responded Faramir. "If there are injured men whose wounds are light enough that they can fight and won't slow us down – they can go with us. The others can go to Ithilien at their own pace and the route they choose themselves – maybe the road, which I mentioned as the easiest way." He turned to the healer's figure. "Aranir, you checked all of them. Are there any injured men who could join the chase?"

It was impossible to see the facial expression of the older man, but a few moments of silence hinted he was thinking about it.

"I think there are three or four," he finally replied. "They have only skin-deep cuts that shouldn't bother them in wielding their swords."

"All right. Then they could—"

"But I would not advise them to go with you," Aranir stopped him in mid-sentence. "You see, there are two wounds that I must supervise all the time, and no matter how much I would like to contribute to your pursuit, I'm afraid I will have to stay with them. As for those with lightest injuries – the problem are not the injuries themselves, but risk of infection. And we all know that it can be fatal. I would like all the injured to be near me. And near the antiseptic salve."

Faramir's forehead wrinkled in thinking. Aranir's words made sense, especially when he thought of orcs' blades full of rust and dirt. He finally nodded.

"The reason for my question is my wish for more of us to be in the chase, so that we overpower the spider more easily. But even if I exclude all the injured and you who must stay with them, about twenty of us remains," he said, having accepted all Aranir's arguments. "That should be enough."

"Also, maybe it is a good thing for those with lightest wounds to remain with Aranir and those more seriously wounded, as some sort of cover if they see the orcs and they have to fight," said Borlas, getting involved in the talk for the first time. "Although, I doubt it will happen. As soon as they leave the Pass behind them and start going down the road, they will be safe. There are almost no more orcs on our side of the mountains."

Faramir nodded.

"I agree with that, Borlas. I also agree with what you said in the tunnel, Haldar. The more I think about it, the more probable I find that these orcs were in league with the spider. And when it saw the things weren't going as planned, it escaped." Faramir stopped for a moment and thought. "Surely there are more orcs in Mordor, but I, too, believe that the western side of the mountains and the road are safe for the return of Aranir's small group."

"Yes, we will take the road to go back," Aranir said. "The man with leg injury could not take steep paths through the forest, and we will probably have to make crutches for him."

"We will leave during the night, and you can start your return in the morning," Faramir told him. "Before you go, put the bodies of the dead in the tunnel, next to the rocks that blocked our way. That is deep enough, and they will be well hidden. When you reach our garrison in Vinhir, organize an expedition to retrieve our fallen comrades."

He fell silent and looked at all three dark shapes sitting next to him.

"Regardless of your arguments, I am not glad that we will split," Haldar said finally, his voice full of disapproval.

"We have no other choice," Faramir replied firmly. "What we know for sure is that the spider is going towards the western exit of the tunnel. What we don't know are its intentions. It could just hide in some of the lateral passages. But it could also go out and head towards our villages in Ithilien. I think that the probability for that option is quite high. After all, it has done it before, and has grabbed two of our people."

The silence after his last words hung between them; all three around him obviously thought about that. After expressing his disagreement twice, this time Haldar didn't speak any more.

"All right then, we arranged everything," Faramir summed up this little council, and lifted his gaze. There were a few clouds sailing over the sky, but it was mostly clear and the guards would have no problem in estimating the time.

Some of the men around them were still talking, but they could also hear snoring from several directions. "Always take the opportunity for the meal and sleeping", he heard in his head one of his first lessons, from the days when he was just a boy and only started his military training. Well, some of the nearby rangers had already followed that advice. Although it was peaceful for quite a while, the men around him were soldiers and that way of life was deeply rooted in them. As it always will be, he thought.

Then he concluded that he should take that particular counsel himself, too. Resting would pass very quickly, and soon they would have to move on.

"Four hours," he said in the end. "And then we go hunting the spider."

Four hours passed in an instant. Actually, Faramir slept even less than that. He lay down very soon after the conversation, but didn't fall asleep at once; he kept thinking of the men they lost. It was so easy to get used to peace during the past months and to think that there would be no more war-casualties. But now the harsh reality reminded him that evil beings still threatened Gondor.

When one of the rangers woke him up, he had a feeling that he had closed his eyes only a few moments ago. The body demanded more sleep, but he gritted his teeth and pulled himself to his feet. Although he was very sleepy, the night chill awakened him very quickly.

A few sips of yesterday's tea, a few quick bites of supper leftovers, collecting his things – and he was ready to leave. Several rangers prepared the torches; they didn't have many of them anymore, and they spent all the oil in the battle. However, they saved enough torches to pass through the tunnel.

Some of the wounded still slept, undisturbed by the noises. Although Aranir would stay in the camp, he was among those who got up; he now stood next to Faramir.

"Ah, I envy you. You will return into your bag and sleep more," Faramir said and sighed, imagining the cosiness of a warm bed. Oh, how nice it would be to continue sleeping...

"Get used to not sleeping," the older ranger said. "From what I've heard, your baby arrives soon. This is nothing compared to what awaits you." A wide smile appeared on Aranir's face.

"You mean I will want to run away and join the patrol again?" Faramir asked cheerfully. But it can't be that bad, can it? Babies don't do anything else except eating and sleeping and they are cute, right?

But he got serious then. They had to leave; the task would not complete itself. "I know I leave the injured in good hands. Be careful while returning," he said and nodded in greetings.

"Do not worry about us. You are the ones who will be in danger, once you catch up with the creature," replied Aranir. "May Eru watch over you."

The squad moved on.


The evening was bad – her incapable allies lost the battle. The night was no better, either. True, passing through the tunnel was relatively simple despite the darkness. It was a little wider than her, and she only had to walk in a straight line. Even if she moved a little bit to the side and touched the lateral wall, she only had to return to the middle and continue. But once she was out, finding the way through the forest, in a moonless night, was a very demanding task. The ground in her tunnel was flat and smooth. But out here there were many loose stones, many holes in the ground invisible in the dark and obstacles in form of branches and fallen trees. Remembering the old times when her vision was better only enhanced her anger.

Cursed halflings, elves and their light that did this to her! And cursed humans that caused all these events!

She progressed very slowly, having to touch and test the terrain in front of her before every step. Getting ahead among trees and bushes, descending some simple slopes, but also some sections of the way not easy at all, she could hardly await for the arrival of dawn. Once the first light appeared, she was relieved. It should finally be easier from now on. When she found a small clearing, she stopped and looked up and down. Half way, she judged.

She continued to observe the lower parts of the mountains a little bit more, trying to recall all the details from her wanderings a few weeks ago. She roughly remembered the locations of the villages near which she had caught those two humans. She pondered the options, and then decided to go towards the northern one. As the north was her final target, she concluded the norther village would be the best choice.

To the north, then. She snarled. The humans would pay.


For the most part of the journey through the tunnel there were no tracks; the only freshly broken stalactites and slime were found in the beginning. Faramir knew it was possible that the spider had gone into some of the lateral passages to escape from them, and in that case the search would be very long and arduous. In fact, he started to realize that the inspection of the whole labyrinth would require tens of rangers – or, more probably, more than a hundred.

But he didn't think that the spider had hidden somewhere in the tunnels, and not just because all the obstacles closing the lateral tunnels had looked untouched. His instinct was telling him that it had gone to the other side and headed towards the foot of the mountains. That meant only one thing: the people in the villages would be endangered. And he couldn't allow it. So he led the squad head on, towards the western exit.

Subjectively, the way back seemed to him even longer than yesterday's journey. The stale air felt even more stinky, everything choked him, and when they finally came out, he thought that the morning light never looked brighter nor the air smelled so freshly. But even now that they came out, he felt as if the stench still hung heavily around him; his stomach still squirmed with disgust. How? Why? He thought he was going crazy.

"I would say the problem lies in the clothes," muttered Haldar after lifting his hand to the nose and sniffing the sleeve. And moving it away very quickly. "After so many hours inside, it absorbed the smell. It will take time until it aerates."

"Are you reading my mind?" Faramir asked with a distorted smile. "I was just wondering when the stench would finally pass."

"Of course I am not. I am just bothered by the same problem that you have. And that everyone else has," responded Haldar with the same frowning expression on his face.

"Well, yes. But I am not interested in aerating. In fact, I think that I will not even have these clothes washed. I will have it burned," said Faramir and rolled his eyes. Then he got serious and addressed the whole squad. "Let's spread and look for the tracks."

They began to descend, all of them looking to the ground, and not much time passed until the first shout echoed.

"Over here!"

On one softer spot of soil between the rocks a ranger found a track – a well know conical shape made by a claw. Then they found a few more, and it turned out that the creature had gone downwards.

Once they reached the forest it was much easier to follow the tracks, and they also noticed broken branches of bushes here and there. The tracks were going down the mountain all the time.

Towards the villages.

As they were descending, Faramir tried to estimate spider's advantage. Considering the length of their night's rest, and if the creature left immediately after the battle, Faramir knew it had a little more than four hours. However, he had no idea how fast it could go, nor if it had to rest. But he knew for sure that it was high time for their own break. They passed the whole tunnel and a part of the way down the mountain with just one short pause, and now they needed a new break and refreshment. Observing the sun, he thought it might be around mid-day, so he gave a sign to stop.

Although he enjoyed this meal much more than last night's one, which he ate equally eagerly as he would eat soil, he was already wearied of dry way-food.

"How easy it is to get used to luxury," he said to Haldar who said next to him, and smiled. "There, this is only the third day of the mission, and I am not happy anymore with what we have, but imagine roasted meat in its own juice, delicious crispy baked potatoes, stew... I dream of a comfortable bed... And in the past, I used to spend many more days – even weeks – in action in Ithilien forests, and I didn't mind anything."

Haldar smiled back. "That's how it goes. That is the first sign. You are getting old. Soon you will be able to announce the changes of weather."

Faramir put a deadly serious expression on his face, pretending he was offended. "My joints are perfectly fine, thank you for asking," he said, but wasn't able to endure long before smiling again. Anyway, the statement about the joints was really true... but his lower back started to hurt him lately. Too much sitting with the reports, Faramir, and too little moving. His way of life turned upside-down after the War.

Another change he noticed was that the time seemed to pass quicker and quicker. The three years after the War flew as if it was only three months, and the next year he would turn forty. Forty, he repeated. As a child, he considered that number the beginning of the old age. A little later, as a teenager, he considered it – well, if not the beginning of the old age – then at least a very serious age. But now the number didn't feel that way. He felt neither old nor serious, but still quite young... only with a few wishes for small every day's commodities. All right, all right, young, but with just a little bit of low-back pain, he had to confess.

"Well, speaking of food, I too miss my Bereth's cooking," Haldar said with a yearning sigh.

Faramir, having startled from his thought about aging, looked at captain's face and thought that he didn't miss just her cooking but her. After all, he himself could hardly wait to be with Eowyn again. All Ithilien Rangers spent long weeks separated from their families, especially before the War; now, fortunately, those periods were shorter.

"So, good food is one more reason to accomplish our mission as soon as possible," laughed Faramir. "And then we return to our homes." At least for a while, he added in his mind. He was aware that some other problem might appear in the future, but he really hoped that, after this, everything would be peaceful for a long time.

They all ate quickly and moved on immediately; they could not waste time. It was simple to follow the tracks, and Faramir noticed that the direction was more or less a straight line: the spider strode towards the foothills. However, it did not take the shortest way to it – directly towards the west – but to north-west. He visualized the map, and realized.

"Mindal," he said in a low voice, looking at Haldar.

The captain nodded, and his face was very serious. Faramir guessed the others would also come to the same conclusion – if they already hadn't. The last time he visited Mindal was about half a year ago, during a regular tour through Ithilien. It was perhaps the smallest of all Ithilien villages, but it grew little by little, and was nearing the number of inhabitants before the War. Like most villages, it was situated at the very foothills, on the boundary between the plains where the people grew crops and mountains where they hunted game. It was the home of the brave people who had been contributing to renewal and development of Gondor in this new age. Home of the people who had wanted nothing else but to live in peace.

People who were now in great danger.

Faramir cast a quick glance over his shoulder. Did any of these rangers have family in Mindal? If so, how did they feel right now?

"Let's hurry," he said.


Daylight was a great thing. All the hidden traps of the mountain became visible: all the obstacles she had to step over, all the cracks her legs could fall into, all the areas with too thick, impassable bushes she had to pass by.

Daylight was a horrible thing. She reached the edge of the forest, and she had to stop. The village lay barely two hundred yards away. So close... and so far. She could see the people walking around their houses, working in their gardens, taking care of their animals. Observing them and imagining their flavour, her mouth watered although she didn't think she was hungry. But now she wanted to stab her sting into their flesh.

But she could not. Only two hundred yards... but two hundred too many. She could not reach any house or any man unseen. They would see her. They would shut themselves off in their houses and she would not be able to reach them. Or they would organize a defence. These might not have been trained soldiers but villagers, but there were more than enough to pose a threat to her. Their weapons might not be swords, but several dozens of sickles and pitchforks would just be too much.

Cursed light!

She needed dusk, at least. And it would not arrive in the next two or three hours. It seemed she was to face a long waiting. But she didn't want to leave. Were there any more humans further north? She did not know. So she just didn't want to go away. Not before she killed as many of these villagers as possible. She would sneak to their houses under cover of darkness, and kill the humans one by one.

She again scrutinized the village and the arrangement of the houses. There were a few of them that lay a little further from the others and, at the same time, a little closer to the forest – especially one small cabin. Its distance to the forest was surely half-smaller than two yards. A good start for her killing campaign. Yes, she would start from there. She would wait for nightfall, and then attack.

Her jaws snapped in impatient expectation.


The sun was near the horizon. The boy came out of the house and headed towards the chicken coop. As always at this time of the day, it was his duty to close the hens and prepare all they would need for the night, while his mother cooked supper. Their hens walk freely on a nearby meadow during the day, searching all sorts of crawling creatures they considered treats, while the vegetable-garden was fenced so that they would not ravage it.

When he finished his work and closed the door of the chicken coop, the ten-years-old looked towards the sky. The sun was just setting, and he knew the supper would not be finished in the next half of the hour. His gaze then wondered towards the forest. The small house in which he lived with his mother – he had no brother or sister, and his father was killed in the siege of Osgiliath – was the last one in the village. Between their cottage and the forest was just a little over hundred yards. It was a distance short enough to topple it over in a short run. In fact, he and his best friend, who lived in the neighbouring house, often raced to the forest.

They last did it yesterday evening before the supper, although all the adults were saying that it was forbidden to leave the village. Those hundred yards did not really count as leaving, did they? They could still see their houses, and they were still in the reach of the voices. And the adults just did not understand that the forest provided so many possibilities for exploring and fun. Some three weeks ago, as soon as it became warmer, they started to build a small house on one big tree near the border of the forest, whose trunk forked in a perfect way to form a platform for their secret nest. It was almost finished – they only had to complete the roof.

Their little house was perfect: invisible from the ground, unless the passer-by looked in exactly the right direction, while they could see the whole surrounding. They could watch column of ants following their paths on the branches. Observe owl's nest and her chicks on the neighbouring tree. Make plans for future explorations.

Yesterday they put more branches on the roof; they were quick and none of the grown-ups realized they had vanished for a quarter of an hour. Now they only had to finish their work. He got an old piece of leather from his mother; she didn't use it anymore because it had been damaged, but they wouldn't mind one small hole. When they put the leather over the roof, their little house would be protected from rain.

The boy looked towards the neighbouring house and the empty garden. Their animals were already closed for the night; disappointed, he thought that his friend was obviously occupied with some other tasks and that he would not be able to come out. He had already headed towards his house, walking as slowly as possible, when he heard the creak of the door and calling of his name. His friend did come out after all! His face lit up.

"A race?"

"Of course!"

The rangers hadn't stopped for hours, and they had been on the move since that short break when they had lunch. The day was passing and the sun was getting nearer the horizon. Checking its position when he was able to see it through the treetops, Haldar saw it would soon set.

It was more than clear that the creature was going towards Mindal, and one didn't have to be very wise to conclude that its intentions were not good; it surely didn't go straight towards a settlement, only to pass it by and continue the way. Haldar silently prayed they wouldn't be too late. So many things had gone wrong since the spider had appeared on the Gondorian side of the Mountains: missing civilians, Galador's death during the first scouting mission, and death of nine more men in the battle with the orcs. And he had so hoped there wouldn't be any more casualties.

He was now very worried about the smaller group led by Aranir; he was worried about the inhabitants of Mindal; he was worried about the soldiers of their own squad. He wished there were much more than twenty, which was their current number. As it seemed, captain Faramir considered the ratio favourable, but Haldar knew he would be upset until the very end.

Battles were always dangerous, always, and so many things could go wrong. He knew it all too well. And he hated risks.

As he was hurrying toward the village, he recalled another battle fought several years ago. The images appeared before his eyes, as they had countless times before. He still remembered the smallest details of that fateful day.

It was a gloomy autumn day. Heavy clouds lay very low over the Mountains of Shadow, and it felt as if it was enough merely to stretch an arm to touch them. It was only early afternoon, but under those black clouds it looked as if the night was very near. A few months later, when Haldar saw the eclipse spreading from Mordor towards the Pelennor Fields and Minas Tirith, he realized that the clouds on that autumn day had looked just like the ones during the siege of the city. And he concluded that, even back then, it was Sauron's magic at work. But that autumn day, he did not know it.

There was one more thing that he didn't know – that the orcs would attack already in the afternoon. Based on the reports about the orcs' advancement, they expected the evening attack on Henneth Annun and prepared for the battle; he had already planned how to surprise the orcs while they were still on the move, and how to destroy a large part of their troops. But nothing unfolded as he had planned.

The orcs could roam around during daylight if they had to, but they rather avoided it. However, under those accursed clouds everything was so dark: the trees and golden autumn leaves and soil looked dark-grey, and the air itself seemed to be denser and opaque. It was as if the twilight had arrived several hours before-time, so orcs' progress was easier. When Haldar thought about it later, he saw it as another argument for Sauron's influence over weather.

The orcs attacked earlier than the Rangers expected – earlier than the squad that should have reinforced the Henneth Annun deployment managed to arrive to the destination. Earlier than the Rangers managed to set the traps they had planned. And in the end, the orcs did not attack the base. They went after the easier prey – after the squad that was still on the way.

The attack occurred close to the base. One ranger from the attacked group hurried forward as a messenger and reported about the clash. The situation was not good when he left; there were many orcs, and the odds for the rangers were not favourable.

But they weren't lost yet, either. They were seasoned soldiers, and they could long resist the orcs even though they were highly outnumbered. And the site of the battle was less than half an hour of march away.

Staying in the base and preparing the traps for the expected evening battle were now out of the question. Things changed, which meant that his plan had to change too. He led his men to a rescue mission.

And they did arrive on time. A part of the squad was still holding and resisting the orcs, who were then – as many more rangers arrived – utterly destroyed.

He saved some lives. But other lives were lost. And among the rescuers who perished was his son.

Haldar shook his head, chasing away images and memories, and focused on the terrain around him. He had to be careful – it wouldn't be good at all to trip over a protruding root or a rock and fall flat on his face. Fortunately, the chances for that scenario became lower – regardless of his concentration. They almost reached the plain, so the ground became flatter and the forest sparser. He judged they were only about a hundred feet far from the meadow. The tracks were still leading unvaryingly to the village, and he could only hope they were not late.

Eru... please, don't let anybody else get hurt.


She looked towards the settlement, almost not believing her luck. The two humans – judging by their size, they must have been cubs – went out of their dwellings and ran towards the forest. That would make the start even easier! The first two preys would fall here, out of the village, and she would catch them hidden from all views, totally unhindered. She could even eat at least one of them. She wasn't very hungry, but an extra meal was always welcome. And then she would continue her quest.

A wind was blowing from the west, bringing their scent and the shouts they released while running. Obviously, they were happy and carefree. Soon, they will be neither. They will be food, she thought, satisfied. She retreated a few steps and partially hid behind one big bush. She first wanted to see how deep the cubs would go into the forest, but in any case, she didn't mean to wait long before attacking. They might decide to return to their houses soon, and she didn't want to miss this opportunity.

The cubs reached the edge of the forest, and she started to consider the possibilities for the attack. Then she realized her luck grew even more. After just standing on the edge and giggling for a few moments, they headed inside the forest.

This couldn't turn out any better, she grinned.


The boy stopped next to the first trees, catching his breath. He lost again! It actually happened quite often, because his friend was a little taller and had slightly longer legs. But he immediately smiled, not caring about the defeat. It felt so great to run at full speed and to feel the wind on the face!

They were standing next to the trees, laughing. Soon his heartbeat and breathing slowed down. Then he moved, and his friend walked next to him.

They headed towards their secret nest. Here in the forest it was a little darker than in the open, but the sun had only set minutes ago and there was still enough light for them to easily see everything. They would be able to climb without problems, and they would attach the leather to the roof. And then it will be finished, he thought merrily. It was only fifty feet away from the forest edge and they would reach it in a moment. They would not need more than quarter of an hour for the whole project, and he hoped that none of the adults would notice their short absence.

They passed about three quarters of the way, merrily chatting as they went, when he heard noises behind their back. Loud, and quite obviously undisguised. He stopped and turned around.

And stood in shock, his mouth agape when he saw the creature behind them. His eyes opened wide. His blood froze, his heart beat like crazy. He was paralyzed.

He screamed.


When the rangers reached the foothills, they spread to cover the bigger area. While Haldar strode forward with huge steps, many thoughts raced in his mind. How far ahead the spider was? Did it already attack? Was some villager killed? Did the spider already move on? Would this pursuit continue?

As he hurried as much as he could, driven by sheer power of will, he truly hoped it would not. Although the concern for the civilians was what had driven him and given him the strength to endure, they had been marching for fourteen hours and he began to feel the weight of his sixty years. He thought that – if the pursuit went on for an hour or two more – he would simply collapse after it, and not get up for the whole next day.

Actually, if it really went on, he hoped he would not collapse even before its end. He really wasn't young anymore.

And then a scream echoed – a woman's or child's, as it sounded – and his fatigue vanished entirely. A new dose of adrenalin exploded in his body and his muscles pulled out the new strength.

Rangers' fast striding turned into running.


The eyes of the human whelps were wide open, they were visibly shaking, and obviously couldn't move. She liked what she saw. Catching those previous humans had been no great feat – she had simply jumped out of her cover and stung them, finishing the hunt quickly. And now... well, why wouldn't she have some fun?

She headed towards them but stopped after only two steps and looked at them, observing the reactions. They started to shiver even more. Nice. One cub was silent, and the other started to snivel.

Yes, this was fun.

Young as they are, they must be very tasty, she thought. Yes, she would definitely eat one of them right away, as she had decided earlier. Then she would kill as many people in the village as possible before they discover her, although she knew she would have to leave all of them behind. What a huge waste of meat, she thought, not for the first time these days. But once she would finish her attack on the village, she would return this way and take the other cub with her; that much she would be able to carry without problems.

Two more steps and she stopped again; now she was mere five feet away from them. They were small, she looked at them from the height, and it seemed they got even smaller – as if they were pulling their heads into shoulders and shrank. One of them made a small step back, but stumbled and fell on his buttocks. Clumsy fool. But you wouldn't be able to escape even if you hadn't fallen, I am quicker than you, she grinned with malice.

The standing cub still snivelled and it started to irritate her, and the one on the ground began to release some whimpering sounds while water started to leak from its eyes.

These humans are really pathetic...

And then she heard noises from behind her back. From the forest.

She quickly turned and looked backwards. At first she didn't see anything, she just heard more sounds. Then, in the next moment, she noticed a move among the trees. And another. And one more.

The humans were emerging from the forest. They were approaching quickly, and it was impossible not to notice swords in their hands.

Why didn't I catch their scents in time?!?! Why didn't I feel the vibrations in the ground?!?!

Her mind grasped the answers in the very next moment. And she was furious – both at the circumstances, and herself.

Because the wind blows from the meadow, and the soldiers are coming from the forest and the wind direction helped them!!! And because you were so absorbed with these cubs, you idiot, that you shut out the rest of the world around you!!!

In the next moment she saw more of them coming – now there were at least ten. And they were running towards her.

She had only a fraction of a second to decide. Ten – or even more – armed men were too much. Her only way out of this was escape; perhaps she could be faster than them. A quick glance around told her that the only possible route of the flight was the border of meadow and forest, towards the north.

But even though she wouldn't be able to feast on one whelp and take the other with her, she would accomplish at least a part of her intentions. They were still just a few feet away, and the stroke of her sting, as she would pass next to them, would last less than the blink of an eye.

They must die.

Haldar ran at full speed. That scream erased all his fatigue; suddenly, it was as if he hadn't marched for fourteen hours and slept only four hours before that. Everything else became irrelevant – he focused only on the fact that someone was in danger and that they had to save him or her.

We have to. I have to.

Then he came close enough, the trees were sparse enough, and he comprised everything in his gaze: two boys, one on the ground and the other on his feet, both of them motionless, and next to them a big black monster.

The body of the creature was spherical, about eight feet wide, and many legs protruded on all sides. It looked disgusting and unreal at the same time. It had a form of a spider, quite obviously, but he thought that something like this shouldn't exist. This is unnatural. Evil distorted spawn from the ancient days, were the thoughts that had crossed his mind. Yes, this was a spider, but this was no ordinary animal; this was not a natural creature.

The beast turned towards the rangers and hesitated for a moment – as if it was thinking what to do about this new threat in form of the armed men running towards it. As he was sprinting, Haldar's eyes scrutinized the massive black body searching for the weak spots. He wasn't sure if there were any; according to what captain Faramir had said, the whole body was like a huge armour. But he hoped that at least some part was vulnerable. Maybe the very middle of the belly, if we can reach it. Or legs. He thought that they should attack joints for the beginning, to destabilize the creature.

"Cut the legs and joints!!!" he shouted while running.

"Archers, aim for the head and eyes!!!" echoed Faramir's voice next to him.

The muscles were burning.

Almost there...

The monster moved. It quickly turned and Haldar looked in terror how a long pointed limb extended towards the boy who was standing – and that could not mean anything good. It could only mean death. He unconsciously lifted his sword – in an instinctive attempt to stop the worst. But in a futile one. He was still a few steps too far.

He already thought it was over, he already saw the prick stabbing the child's body, when in the last moment the boy startled and threw himself to the side. The prick passed through the empty space, and the furious scream of the beast ripped the air. Hoarse, guttural one. The loudest, the most piercing howl Haldar had ever heard from an animal.

This is no animal.

It was a relief to see that the thing didn't assail the boys again. Obviously it judged there was no more time for that – seeing so many enemies went towards it – and it started to flee to the opposite side. The two arrows then flew from behind, but they only grazed the big body and slid along its hard skin, not making any damage and confirming the report of the thick impenetrable shield-like skin.

"Aim for the head!!!" shouted Faramir again, running with a lifted sword.

"Cut the legs!!!" Haldar repeated his earlier words.

The monster ran towards the north – faster than Haldar expected, considering its size. The rangers released more arrows, but didn't manage to hit any of the vulnerable parts; the arrows hit the hard outer shell again and just bounced away. Haldar was sprinted further. His muscles screamed in effort, but he ignored it; all he saw was a big black monster. They were catching up, and with every next step he was closer. And closer. Endure. Find more strength. Just two or three steps more, and he would be able to deal a blow...

One ranger neared the creature from its right side, while Haldar and Faramir were catching up from behind. The man lifted his sword, but even before he could strike, the spider extended one of his legs and hit man's chest, throwing him several feet away.

Haldar noticed the man's fall with his peripheral vision, but didn't stop. Two more steps... Sweat poured down his brow, face and back, but he didn't care. One step... Pulling out all the strength, he did all in his power to catch the monster... and a moment later, he was there. In the reach of an arm. In the range of the hit.

In this close proximity the black body seemed even bigger, the legs even longer. But he didn't think of the opponent's size. He focused all his attention to one point – to the joint of the nearest leg – and hit with all his power, cutting as strong as he could.

Even the joint itself was more rigid than he expected. The sword deflected off back almost as if it had hit a rock, and his whole arm vibrated in response. But although no damage was visible, the beast screamed, and the next movement of that leg was not as nimble as before. His blow did obtain some effect, and that gave him more strength to continue. It was vulnerable!

A moment later Faramir attacked the spider from the left side and his sword hit the ankle of another leg, while another ranger neared from the right. But creature's speed surprised Haldar one more time. It swiftly turned; while still spinning, one leg knocked down the ranger on the right, and the other leg snagged Haldar's sword, almost kicking it out of his hand. He cursed, angry for allowing to be taken by surprise; errors like these could be fatal. He needed a second to regain balance – a second the monster seized to attack.

It assailed Faramir and him at the same time. Faramir was toppled by one of the legs, while open jaws lowered towards Haldar. He swiftly bent down and avoided the attack in the very last moment, and the big jaws snapped at the empty air. It was the nearest possible miss – the jaws actually grazed his leather armour. But in the very next moment the spider attacked again, and Haldar didn't manage to fight back. He was in a subordinate position and could not charge; he was only defending himself, he was only trying to avoid the frightening jaws, and couldn't do any more than that.

Then the creature spit some slime towards him. Haldar couldn't dodge aside in time, and some of the black liquid spluttered his face. The skin burned him very much, and he started to cough intensively because of the stench. He fell on his knees, and the only thing he saw were wide open jaws and a huge black mountain dangerously close above him. It does not have to sting me, it would suffice if it just lay on me...

The head was stooping towards him, and he saw with the corner of his eye that one leg was extending towards Faramir, who was only now starting to rise after the first hit he had gotten. Haldar didn't have to see the end of the long leg to see how it looked like – in the past days he had seen the tracks countless times. If the claw hit an unshielded body part, it was surely equally deadly as a sword.


Then, in the last moment before the monster caught him with its jaws, he stretched his right arm and plunged the sword in one cluster of spider's eyes. The beast shrieked again, and more slime and poison sprinkled him. But he rose to his feet using the last of his strength; he gripped the hilt with left hand too and, clenching his teeth, continued to push the sword deeper and deeper.

Save Faramir. Save the others.

The beast started to squirm violently and Haldar had the impression that he had turned into a leaf in the strongest wind. Every move of the spider threw him left-right, lifted him off the ground and shook him in all directions. But he didn't relent – he directed all his strength in his fists. He was seizing the hilt, focused on that one goal. Not to let it off. And to destroy the creature.

He didn't see other rangers coming from all sides – when still dealing the blow, he had closed his eyes in an instinctive, unconscious attempt to protect them from the slime. He didn't see how they started to cut spider's legs, and how they finally stabbed the head and the softer belly. He was just gripping his sword, while the cacophony of screams and hits echoed around him.

Then, at some point, he realized that the movements of the beast were becoming slower. And slower. And finally, after what felt like an eternity, they stopped.

He was still holding on to his sword. He was still clenching his teeth. His eyes were still closed. A lot more moments passed before he realized that everything was still, and he slowly became aware of the rest of his body; until that moment, all his concentration and strength were directed into his fists. Based on the pressure he felt on his hip, he concluded he was half-sitting and half-kneeling on the ground – as the beast languished and its head sank, the movement pushed him down, because he was still linked to the beast by his sword.

The next sense he became aware of was the smell. His stomach retched and he almost threw up. At the same time he wondered why he couldn't see anything, and then he finally realized his eyes were still shut.

What would he discover once he opened them? The thought of reality he had to face – of eventual dead bodies he might see around – froze his heart.

He shook his head trying to shake off the slime, blinked slowly, and then opened his eyes. But there was no change – everything around him was still black just like when his eyes had been closed, and in the first moment he got scared that the poison had blinded him. But then he realized that he was leaning on the carcass and that huge black body was only an inch away from his face, filling his whole field of view. He moved away a little and looked around, still blinking. The shapes around him were a little blurry and he didn't manage to clear his view yet. But he slowly started to discern figures. Faramir was on his feet, and from what he could see, others were too. He heard a merry laughter and cheering to victory.

Eru, thank you.

"Are you all right, captain?" He heard Borlas' voice and felt a hand on his shoulder. Faramir approached from the other side, and together they helped him get up.

Was he all right? Well, the sprinkled portions of the skin still burned a lot, and he felt somewhat shaky after being tossed on all sides. And he was... he hated to admit it, but he was exhausted. Now that everything was over and he started to relax, now that adrenalin stopped to take effect, he just could not deny that he was tired. You are old. But yes, in spite of everything, he was fine. And not just fine, but great. They made it. They killed this dangerous creature. And, as it seemed, nobody got hurt.

"I am, my friend," he replied and allowed himself a smile of relief. "I am."

He looked at the monster lying in front of him. Stinky monster, he thought and quickly moved away to a distance safe for his nose. And huge. Even lying on the ground, the body was as tall as he was in its highest point, and the legs' length equalled that of an average man's height, at the very least. A tremendous enemy... but finally eliminated. The inhabitants of Ithilien would now be safe.

As he soon discovered, they did not go without consequences after all. The ranger knocked down in the beginning had a broken arm, while Faramir had a long cut on his left shoulder and upper arm. But it was only superficial, fortunately; his leather armour and jacket prevented a deeper and more difficult wound.

The rangers then escorted the boys to their houses. A young man from the village – Turin, Haldar repeated the name in his head, not to forget it – the apprentice of the healer who, two weeks ago, was one of the first victims of the spider, tended the broken arm and Faramirs's cut. The youngster put the balm otherwise used for burns and skin-healing on the captain's face and neck, apologizing all the time that he couldn't figure out anything better. But Haldar just waved his hand and smiled, saying no apology was necessary. Not that the boy could know a cure against something he didn't even know existed.

And even more important – that which completely erased his pain and burning on the skin, was the moment when he had seen the boys in their parents' embrace. The moment in which he saw gratitude in their eyes. And immense relief. Tears of joy. Yes, that was the best cure.


Six weeks later...

Faramir sat on Ιowyn's bed and held his newborn son in his arms. Everything went fine, according to Anneth's words – even easier and faster than she had expected. The mid-wife then retreated, leaving them alone. Ιowyn looked somewhat tired, but not much, and the smile lit her face. She observed the bundle in Faramir's arms, too.

He couldn't take his eyes off that tiny face and hands. My son. I am a father. He still did not quite comprehend. It seemed like a miracle. This little being he held was a part of him and a part of Ιowyn. He was perfect. Beautiful. His heart grew in his chest and he thought it would burst of strong emotions. I am not dreaming. I really am a father.

He thought of his family, which he had lost much too early. Mother. Father. Brother. How he wished they were with him now, to be able to see this wonderful occasion! His mother's premature death was caused by an illness, but his brother and father he lost because of the War, as did many others; he often thought that there was not a single family in Gondor that hadn't lost at least one member because of war. He remembered the times when they had lost Gondor's territory little by little and when they had not known if there was any hope, or Sauron would cover all Middle-earth in darkness.

He held the bundle closer and kissed baby's forehead. Sleep peacefully, little one. If he had to describe how happy and thankful he was because his son would grow in a different world – in peace and serenity – he wasn't sure if he could find words. True, the events from a few weeks ago showed that their fight was not completely over, but there were fewer and fewer servants of the Enemy left in this world, and the last victory was an additional step towards safer Middle-earth.

Little one, I will do all in my power that you never need a sword.


The journey to his house would last a little longer than he thought, Haldar discovered as he was passing his village by, and as he continued to ride towards Mindal. More precisely, he concluded that much longer was a better description, because he had to go further north and return afterwards. He didn't plan this in advance; the change of plan happened in a moment and almost surprised him. But on the other hand, not too much. He simply had to go to Mindal, and somewhere deep inside he knew he would do it sooner or later. Well, this day was equally good as any other.

The task given to the squads he led was now successfully and completely fulfilled. They inspected the whole labyrinth of the tunnels at the Pass and saw they were empty; they also confirmed that in the part of Mordor near the Pass there were no more orcs. Then they caused the collapse of all the entrances – the one on the western side, and three on the eastern side of the mountain. Actually, the rangers left that part of the task to a group of dwarves who currently dwelled in Minas Tirith and repaired the city walls. As soon as the dwarves heard that their help was needed to destroy the lair of one creature of Darkness, more of them volunteered than was necessary for the mission.

Truth be told, Haldar would swear that, after all the entrances were buried in tons and tons of rock, he saw regret on dwarves' leader's face. He smiled when he remembered it. It was more than obvious that the dwarf had been imagining how those tunnels could look like if they were theirs – cleared, readjusted, tidy, lit by dwarvish fires; he probably dreamed of searching for the ores, too. But it was not possible now, so closing the passage was the best option at the moment – so that some other ill-intentioned inhabitant of Mordor would not use it.

His men went to their well-deserved rest. He was riding all the way from Vinhir garrison, but when he came near Ornost, he listened to a sudden impulse and continued northwards. Yes, he wanted to hug his wife and daughter and to relax in his home, but he concluded that ten miles to Mindal was not such a huge distance, after all. What was a delay of several hours after being absent for two weeks? Not much, he decided and hurried his horse to canter a little faster.

However, when he came close to his target, he did not enter the village but led the horse around, walking among the trees next to the forest edge. Finally, he reached the northern side of the village and the location where they had fought the monstrous creature.

Standing hidden behind one tree, he first observed the meadow between himself and the village. On the day when they killed the spider, later that evening they burned it on the meadow, wanting to remove all traces of the foul beast's corpse from their land. He was now pleased to see that vegetation had already erased the traces of the pyre; new grass grew and covered the black site of the fire.

Then he saw the two houses at the end of the village. The adults worked in their gardens, and he saw three children – two boys and a girl – watching over several cows on the meadow on the other side. He couldn't see their facial expressions nor hear their laughter – they were too far for that – but their happy bouncing and relaxed movements told him all he needed to know.

They were carefree and safe. And still alive, still here in this world, with their families. And it could have easily been different. He smiled. Well, maybe on that day on the slopes around Henneth Annun he could not have done anything different, and he could not have saved his son. But his deeds saved some other persons – he contributed to saving someone's sons. And that fact probably saved their world. Both on that day before the War, and three weeks ago. Well, that was important too, after all.

He turned around and headed towards his house, more tranquil than ever during the past three and a half years.

~ The end ~


Thanks to everyone who read, and especially to those who reviewed. Your support meant so much to me.

And huge thanks to Marta Bee. *hugs*

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