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3. Hunting Spiders
In the morning, Legolas rose from tangled sheets that testified to how much he had tossed and turned in the night. He dressed hastily in leggings and tunic, and because they would be on horseback, he chose a brown jerkin rather then his cloak. Then he began throwing objects into his pack. He strapped on his quiver and slung his bow over his shoulder. He considered taking the pair of long knives that Thranduil had given him on his last begetting day, but finally decided on a single short sword that would be easier to manage on horseback than a long one would. He slid it into a scabbard fastened to his belt. Into his boot, he slid the dagger that any Mirkwood Elf would feel naked without.
He paused for a moment to looks at the picture of his mother that stood on the bedside table. The picture had been gifted to him by his brother Eilian just before he left to return to his patrol in southern Mirkwood. Legolas did not know where Eilian had gotten the picture. He had never seen it before Eilian handed it to him. Legolas had been very young when his mother was killed by Orcs and had recently confessed to Eilian that he did not clearly remember what his mother looked like. The picture had come in answer to a need he had not known he felt. He considered taking the picture but decided not to. It was too precious to risk damaging. He started for the stables without pausing for food. He wanted to get away from the palace without encountering his father, and he did not think he would be able to eat anyway.
At the stables, he found Turgon waiting in a state of high excitement. “I cannot believe that I did not think of something like this before,” he exclaimed. “To think that we could be spending the morning at weapons training,” he added scornfully. The two of them led their horses out into the summer morning.
Legolas stroked Sadron’s soft, brown muzzle and whispered into his ear. “Good morning, my friend. Shall we go for a long ride with Turgon and Brithiel?” Sadron snorted in what Legolas was not entirely sure was approval. The two of them grasped the horses’ manes, leapt gracefully onto their backs, and set off westward along the main path.
Turgon had suggested that they ride west along the path as quickly as possible for most of the first day in order to gain distance from Thranduil’s stronghold. They would need to watch for patrols and be ready to move into hiding swiftly, because the path was well-guarded by Ithilden’s warriors. By late afternoon, they could leave the main path and strike southward, hunting primarily for giant spiders. If they should encounter Orcs, so much the better. Legolas had agreed to this plan without enthusiasm.
They began well with a ride through what Legolas had always thought of as the most pleasant time of the day. Morning mist still lay lightly over the land, muffling noise and lending everything a magical vagueness in which anything seemed possible. Gradually, the sun rose higher and the day grew warmer. Both of them removed their jerkins and loosened the collars of their tunics. They became grateful for the green shade in which they rode. By , they had encountered only one of Thranduil’s patrols and had managed to slide into the shadows just off the path in time to avoid detection. Legolas privately thought that Ithilden would have had some crisp words to say about the alertness of the three warriors in the patrol if he had been there to witness the event.
They made good time, and by early afternoon, when they paused to eat some of the waybread from their packs, they were farther from Thranduil’s fortress than either of them had ever been without an adult present. Soon they were beyond where they had been even under supervision. As they rode further, the nature of the woods around them gradually changed. The trees became denser and grew more tightly together over the path. The air became darker, thicker, and more difficult to breath. There were fewer birds and fewer small creatures moving in the leaves and bushes. They both grew a little uneasy, although neither admitted it to the other.
“Do you think we should branch off soon?” Turgon finally asked, breaking the silence that had settled over them for the last half hour or so.
“I do not know,” answered Legolas, looking southward. “The undergrowth is so thick that the horses will have trouble. Let us watch to see if we can find any sort of break that looks like a path or at least an easier way.”
They rode on, scanning the woods closely and finally were rewarded with a thinning of the undergrowth that might have counted as a path in a pinch. They rode along it single file, picking their way around obstacles and rejoicing in occasional breaks in the dense growth. The trees here were silent or murmured only in whispers that Legolas could not understand. They troubled him.
They had been riding south for perhaps an hour when Turgon, who was in the lead, suddenly halted. Coming up on him, Legolas saw what had caused his friend to pause. Thick strands of spider webbing dangled from a tree to their left. The two of them stared at it in thrilled anticipation.
Slowly they rode toward the web. It seemed to be unoccupied and probably had been so for some time. But the sight of it told them that they were at last entering upon an adventure. They paused to consider. In this thickly wooded area, twilight was already approaching even on this summer day.
“If we go on in this direction,” Legolas said, “we are likely to encounter an active colony. But I think that we should do that in daylight. Perhaps we should camp for the night now and begin the hunt in all seriousness in the morning.”
Secretly relieved, Turgon agreed, and, seeking for a place to make their camp, the two of them backtracked a little to a spot where the trees were a bit less dense and the darkening sky could be glimpsed between the distant tree tops. Here they dismounted and turned their horses free to graze. The horses would come when they were called, so there was no need to tether them. They did not bother to build a fire, since the night would be warm and they had only waybread to eat.
“We should set a watch,” said Turgon, thus showing that not all lessons had been lost upon him. They divided the watch, with Turgon volunteering to take the first shift. Legolas rolled up in a blanket and settled to sleep, although sleep was slow to come after the new experiences of the day.
The night passed uneventfully, and in the morning, they set off cautiously in the direction they believed the spiders’ nests to be. The forest was thick enough that they had to walk with their horses trailing behind. They had slipped along single-file for perhaps an hour when they once again began to see traces of webs. The traces thickened and suddenly they saw what they had been watching for. In a pair of trees directly in front of them, there were several black nests, with thick ropes of webbing trailing down to the forest floor, ready to trap the unwary. And there, hovering about the nests, were seven of the huge black spiders that had made much of Mirkwood uninhabitable. Legolas felt a hatred that was akin to disgust.
He and Turgon had been moving as silently as only Wood-Elves can and now they were doubly careful, sliding through the trees in opposite directions, avoiding the strands of web as they went. Legolas slid into position, with his heart pounding so loudly that he was surprised that Turgon did not hear it from the other side of the trees. He found that his hands were slightly sweaty as he pulled his first arrow, notched it to his bowstring, and waited. He had to wait for only a few seconds before he heard the bird call that told him that Turgon too was in place. He drew the arrow back, took careful aim, and fired. Almost to his surprise, a spider toppled to the ground with his arrow through its eye. At the same time, Turgon too had fired and a second spider fell to the forest floor.
Legolas drew twice again quickly and brought down a third spider, but now the beasts were scrambling to their own defense, making a horrible clicking noise. One of them swung toward him on a strand of web as thick as Legolas’s arm. He dodged hastily to his left, watching out at the same time for the other sticky strands that drooped around him. As the spider swung by him, he fired again and had the satisfaction of seeing his arrow go right through the creature’s skull.
He turned toward the nests again and found Turgon firing arrows in rapid succession at two spiders that were scuttling toward him on the ground. Legolas fired and hit one of them as Turgon brought down the other. He notched an arrow and spun round, searching for the last target but, to his surprise, found nothing. Turgon had evidently shot one of them while he was preoccupied with the one swinging toward him. Seven spider carcasses lay on the ground beneath the trees. The whole battle had taken less than three minutes.
Turgon was jubilant. “My first encounter with the spiders and I have killed three of them,” he crowed.
Legolas lowered his bow and felt his heart begin to slow to normal. “Did you never encounter them when you rode with your father’s patrols in the spring?” he asked. “Somehow, I thought that you had.”
Turgon hesitated. “Truth be told,” he confessed, “my father allowed me to join his warriors only twice when they were riding very near the manor. I believe that squirrels were the largest animals that we saw.”
Legolas stared at him and then burst out laughing. “I cannot tell you how jealous I was of you,” he cried. “Your letters put me in a foul mood for days on end.”
Turgon grinned. “It turns out that you were the one who was in a battle. I confess that I too have felt some jealousy over the last two days. But now, I think we both have something to boast of when we return home.”
Legolas’s own joy dimmed suddenly at the thought of what he would almost certainly face at home, but he could not deny the satisfaction he felt. He and Turgon had triumphed in a battle again these loathsome creatures, and he had not hesitated for a second. The steadiness of his own hands was more gratifying to him than anything he could remember for some time.
“Come,” he said. “We had better retrieve our arrows and be off. We do not know how many of their fellows are about.”
By late afternoon, they had made their way considerably further southwest. They had found a lightly trodden path that wound its way through the trees to the west. Legolas wondered if it had been made by the Woodmen who, he had heard, lived on Mirkwood’s western edge. He would have thought that he and Turgon were too far east to find the paths of the Woodmen, but perhaps he had misjudged the distance that he and Turgon had traveled or the extent to which the Woodmen ventured east. In any case, he and Turgon were grateful for the easier travel that made it possible to ride. The only encounter they had was with a pair of spiders that they had almost casually shot before the spiders were even aware of their presence. Both of them felt that this must be what it was like to be warriors.
“My lord, so far as I know, neither Legolas nor Turgon ever intended to come on the camping trip,” said Sondil.
Thranduil face reddened. Signaling an attendant, he sent for Ithilden and for Turgon’s father, Vardalan. After a moment’s thought, he also sent for Annael. If anyone knew where Legolas and Turgon really were, he thought grimly, it would be Annael, since it so evidently was not the younglings’ parents.
The party of elflings had come back a day early after one of them had fallen down the bank into a streambed and sprained a wrist. The injury was not serious, but it was enough to lead to an early return for the small ones. And with their return had come the discovery that Legolas and Turgon were not among them. Thranduil waited now with the woodcraft master to see if they could determine exactly where the two missing ones were.
Ithilden arrived, followed shortly by Vardalan. Thranduil repeated to them what Sondil had just told him and even Vardalan looked worried. Finally, Annael arrived, accompanied by his own father, who had no intention of letting his son face King Thranduil on his own. Thranduil tried to arrange his face in reasonably benign lines so that Annael would feel able to speak freely, but it was a struggle.
“Where are they?” he asked with no preamble.
Annael had been awaiting the summons, although it had come a day earlier than he had anticipated. He had thought long and hard about what he was going to say and had made up his mind: He told the truth, everything that he knew. When he had finished, Thranduil dismissed him, and he was led away, with his father quietly chiding him for not speaking earlier. “Think of the danger they could be in,” he admonished as they left. There was quiet in the room as every Elf there thought of exactly that.
Thranduil’s face was grim with both worry and anger. He waited until Vardalan had departed before he expressed his feelings to Ithilden. “The deceit they used to arrange this is almost past bearing.”
“I gather from what Annael said that the deceit was Turgon’s idea,” Ithilden ventured.
“Has Legolas no mind of his own?” Thranduil exclaimed. “He knows better. This is willful defiance. I want them found and dragged back here by their ears.”
At Thranduil’s orders, Ithilden hastened to organize a search party. He proposed to take Sondil, the woodcraft master, who would serve as their chief tracker, and Thrambor, who had recently been on patrol to the southwest where Annael said the two truants had been headed. “We will make better time with just three of us,” he told Thranduil. “We will leave immediately and get as far as we can before dark. Then we will begin again in the morning. I do not want to miss the place where they left the path. A patrol rode traveled the path that morning and did not see them, so they may have left it earlier than Annael thinks.”
“I have sent a message to Eilian to have the southern patrol watch for them too,” Thranduil said, when Ithilden came to report that the search party was ready to leave. “And Ithilden,” he added as his oldest son was turning to leave. “If he is uninjured when you find them, I trust that you will make his trip home as unpleasant as possible.”
“Turgon’s trip too?” Ithilden asked longingly.
Thranduil gave a small, grim smile. “That would seem appropriate,” he said. “Then once they are home, we can leave Turgon to his own father’s wrath.”
“Turgon’s father is never wrathful with him,” observed Ithilden.
“More is the pity,” responded Thranduil.
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