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Web of Darkness
‘If you had to have an adar other than me, I am glad it was Gil-Galad,’ Eärendil said.
‘And Círdan made you a caring Daeradar,’ Elwing added.
Elrond nodded non-committally and refrained from mentioning that, if he looked on anyone as the ada of his childhood, it was Maglor.
‘Was it long before you sailed again?’ Celebrían intervened. ‘You said that you took Vingilot on a maiden voyage before heading in search of Aman.’
Eärendil smiled ruefully. ‘It was not the voyage it was supposed to be,’ he admitted. ‘We set off for a few weeks to shake the newness from the vessel and ensure that everything behaved as expected – and came back three months later, having experienced a level of terror that was almost enough to make us wish to remain in Sirion and await Morgoth’s hordes.’
‘Is this part of the story that has not been told?’ Elrond’s interest sharpened. ‘I had heard of Vingilot’s launch, but no-one has told me of any journeys between that and your departure for the west.’
‘In some ways,’ Eärendil admitted, ‘it was the most unforgettable of all – but we had little chance to speak of it on our return, and . . .’ He looked doubtfully at Elwing. ‘I do not believe that it would have been wise to leave those in Sirion fearing that we would encounter such dangers again.’
‘What dangers?’ Elrond leaned forward. ‘I have heard of Voronwë’s experiences among the Enchanted Isles, but never of yours.’
His adar looked at him hesitantly. ‘The Isles, yes,’ he said. ‘But there were other horrors to be found far out on the Sundering Seas, where the greens of the shelf dropped away and the waters took on the steel-blue and pewter of immeasurable depth. Things hidden: things shut away from the time before Tilion chased Arien across the sky: not the devices of the Valar to turn away the curious, but things dark and evil.’
The wind came from the west. It had often seemed to Eärendil part of the Valar’s design to ensure that the white-sailed ships of the Falathrim did not succeed in travelling far over the waters between Arda and Aman. It would keep them working, he knew, to keep close-hauled on their next voyage, but for now it made no odds.
He and Voronwë had been driven north and survived shipwreck beyond the Isle of Balar, so it seemed only practical to test Vingilot’s strengths on a voyage to the south – and the westerlies were perfect for that, enabling them to sail with the wind abeam. It pushed them fast and far, holding their course even when the curve of the shore made the land draw back, until finally there was nothing to be seen but the sparkling waves and the wide blue bowl of the heavens.
Vingilot responded to them with the enthusiasm of an elven horse – light at hand, agile, willing to please, she danced on the water. Her sails gleamed, reflecting the sun like birds’ wings against the sky. The vessel sang to them, inanimate wood and canvas brought to life.
Eärendil drew a deep breath of the clean salt-scented air. He had felt so guilty when he kissed Elwing farewell and hugged the small boys. Elros had laughed, his eyes wide and excited as Glasiel had clutched at him to stop him throwing himself into the water, but Elrond had been sober, staring accusingly at his adar as if he understood that this was an abandonment, his hand tangled possessively in his naneth’s hair.
He had promised to return – aiming his words at his son more than his wife – anything to try to erase that look of betrayal from the elfling’s face, but he was finding it hard to rub it from his own memory. How could a child so young seem to have so ominous an understanding? Elwing had assured him that he was reading more into the ellyn’s reactions than was really there, but he could not remove the suspicion that both Elros and Elrond had an insight into some future that he hoped would never come to pass.
‘Look!’ Aerandir exclaimed excitedly.
Like silver flashes, fish arched from the water, coasting briefly through the air before dipping back beneath the surface. Dozens of them escorted the ship in an exotic display that left the sailors speechless, before finally dwindling away as if they had tired of the sport.
‘I had heard of fish that fly,’ Voronwë marvelled, ‘but I had always looked on the idea as a sailor’s story, like giant sea monsters and mermaids.’
Eärendil’s eyes shone. ‘Was it not the most amazing sight? I wonder if they will return?’
‘I hope all our discoveries are as pleasant.’ Erellont scratched his head. ‘I am not so sure that sea monsters are no more than an elflings’ tale. Our place here in the depths is at the sufferance of those to whom the ocean truly belongs – I would not wish to anger them.’
‘If we wanted to live in perpetual safety, we would not have chosen to sail Lord Ulmo’s waters,’ Aerandir shrugged. ‘This is what I want – every day a new horizon. To see things that no-one has seen before.’
‘Today’s horizon is little different to yesterday’s,’ Falathar said dryly. ‘If it were not for the wind in the sails, we could imagine that we were standing still.’
‘I believe that I could do without seeing any monsters,’ Eärendil grinned. ‘At least until we are more certain of the qualities of our craft. Then – let come what will.’
‘We saw – huge creatures,’ Elrond said thoughtfully, ‘as we sailed west. I was not familiar with their description. They spouted water into the air as they surfaced and I would have been inclined to look on them as floating islands rather than fish, had I not seen their tails.’
Eärendil nodded. ‘There are many types of them in the deeper waters,’ he said. ‘They follow their food as the currents move. They are not dangerous, though, on the whole, preferring to avoid the ships of men and elves, although it is best to steer wide of them – simply because they are too big to pay much attention to small craft in their way.’
‘My vessel was followed by dolphins,’ Celebrían reminisced. ‘I was in no condition to deal with those who sailed with me, but I could not resist the playfulness of the creatures and spent hours propped up at the rail watching them leap from the water. They looked as if they were so happy to see us – I was sorry to leave them behind.’
‘But monsters?’ Elrond raised an eyebrow. ‘Does Ulmo permit such to take refuge in his realm?’
Eärendil smiled wryly. ‘It is a wide realm,’ he remarked. ‘And what is monstrous to one may not be so to another. But I would say that he is not one to tolerate Morgoth’s abominations in his waters. Or even,’ he added, ‘on their margins.’
Vingilot’s hull paled to silver as the salt spray and sunshine leeched the untried freshness from her. Her crew worked in an easy harmony, reefing sails and drawing on halyards to see how she responded to different challenges, finding that Círdan’s vessel rode the waves as easily as a bird floating on the air.
‘If we do not sight land soon, ellon,’ Voronwë said, ‘we will need to turn east. We have food in plenty, but the water grows stale.’
‘What kind of sailors are we to turn up our noses at stale water?’ Eärendil laughed.
‘Sailors with standards,’ Voronwë told him. ‘It is bad enough enduring poor conditions when you have to – but we passed what appeared to be a large island on the horizon a few days ago. It would do no harm to make landfall and see if we can pick up some fresh food.’
‘Was that the island that seemed to be at the middle of a rain cloud?’ Falathar asked. ‘There was something about it that chilled me – I was glad when its darkness faded from our sight.’
‘On the other hand,’ Aerandir said, offering them freshly prepared fish and hard biscuits, ‘if it rained there, we should be able to find a clean water source.’
‘And, reluctant as I am to turn back, our shake-down voyage has proved Vingilot’s worth,’ Eärendil agreed.
‘I am not suggesting that you are anxious to return to your wife’s side,’ Voronwë observed. ‘I would not dream of inferring that you were tied to her apron strings.’
‘Good,’ the Lord of Sirion grinned. ‘I would not wish to have to have you keelhauled.’
Voronwë raised his eyebrows. ‘So, do we change course?’ he asked.
Eärendil nodded. ‘It would be as well to see how she handles in makeshift harbours off unknown lands. We will be bound to have to seek out shelter on the voyage west and find places to top up our supplies.’
Dark clouds still hung over the distant island as they approached in the early morning light, glowering at the visitors with a sullen heaviness that was relieved only by the bright stone of the pale cliffs and the foaming waterfalls that tumbled into the welcoming ocean.
‘There seems to be water in plenty,’ Falathar observed, ‘but there is still something about this place that I do not like. I think we would be wise to take what we need and leave as swiftly as we can.’
‘You may be right.’ Eärendil looked into the wide bay that seemed only too welcoming to the slender ship. ‘Yet there is something here that calls to me.’
‘Not all the calls of the unknown should be heeded,’ Voronwë frowned. ‘Wisdom often lies in knowing when to run.’ He stared at the land behind the shore. ‘There seems something – unsavoury – about this harbour.’
‘I cannot see what.’ Eärendil narrowed his eyes. The water rolled easily towards the shore, showing no signs of breaking over hidden rocks. Its colour faded slowly from the richer shades given to the deep waters to the turquoise of sea over sand with no reef to score the bottom of his ship. ‘We will approach cautiously and take soundings.’ Even from here, he could see that a broad stream trailed down from the forest to meet the breakers. ‘It will not take us long to go far enough upstream to get fresh water. And I can see trees heavy with fruit – we could harvest some while we are there – and maybe hunt for some fresh meat. Much as I enjoy Aerandir’s way with fish, it would be pleasant to have a change.’
They approached slowly, testing the depth of the water regularly, even when it was clearly unmarred by rocks, and anchoring well out into the bay. ‘Erellont, Voronwë, you two remain on board,’ Eärendil commanded. ‘I doubt there are really any dangers here that require so much care, but remain prepared to sail if anything seems wrong to you – and then hold off the coast at a safe distance and watch for our return. We will complete our business as swiftly as we can.’
Voronwë looked prepared to argue, but he clenched his teeth and nodded once. ‘As you wish, my lord,’ he said tightly.
They drew the dinghy up on the beach of soft grey sand and shipped the oars, looking around them uneasily. The trees behind the waterline were just as green as they had seemed from the water and the stream burbled merrily, but they saw no footprints at its margin and there was a singular absence of birdsong. Behind the high water mark, bleached timbers and branches brought down from the forest offered a home to small red crabs and a cloud of flies.
‘Hunting should be good,’ Aerandir said doubtfully. ‘I see no signs of predators – there should be smaller creatures in plenty.’
‘Only there is little indication of them.’ Falathar looked round uneasily. ‘We do not need to hunt – we have plenty of stores. I think we would be better staying together, doing what we have come to do and getting out of here quickly.’
Eärendil laughed. ‘You are as nervous as a pair of ellyth,’ he mocked them. ‘The island seems pleasant enough – gloomy, no doubt, under this constant cloud, but green and fertile and we will enjoy our days at sea the more for an interlude on land. Aerandir – take a look as we head up to find sweet water and see if you can see indication of rabbits or their like. I am sure the island will have no objection to providing us with some of its bounty. And once we have filled the barrels, we can see if that fruit is as flavoursome as it looks.’
Falathar shook his head and rubbed at his ears before taking the empty barrel on his shoulder and following the similarly burdened Mariner. Aerandir looked round uncertainly before clasping his bow tightly in his hand and going after them.
Away from the shore, the silence became more oppressive as the broad-leaved trees loomed over them. Thick vines trailed from one to the other linking them into a network of pathways high above the ground. The freshness of the sea breeze died away and the air became still and humid.
Aerandir gazed up into the canopy. ‘There is nothing here,’ he muttered. ‘I do not understand it.’
‘Maybe the creatures are resting,’ Eärendil suggested. ‘It is hot enough, goodness knows. Any living thing with any sense would be taking its ease and waiting for the cooler breezes of evening.’
‘Which explains why we are here, lugging kegs up this rocky bank,’ Falathar remarked. ‘We are clearly lacking in any sense at all.’
‘I am, you mean,’ Eärendil said without recrimination. ‘You would far rather be resting in the shade of the sails and letting Vingilot do the work.’
‘The heat does not account for the complete absence of sound,’ Aerandir protested. ‘I have been in forests like this before – they hum with life. The only feeling I am getting from this one is fear.’
‘I suppose some of us could be considered strange enough to upset those that live here,’ the Mariner grinned. He lowered his burden and knelt to taste the water that gushed out of a small side stream. ‘The water is sweet enough. It is good to taste something that doesn’t remind me of sweaty feet and the dregs of old ale.’
‘Voronwë would say that you are too picky, my lord,’ Falathar commented.
Eärendil shrugged. ‘He is allowed,’ he said amiably. ‘He has known me since I was born – and risked himself many times to protect me. I am not going to object to his speaking his mind freely.’
Falathar steadied the keg as it filled. There was enough of a warning in his captain’s tone to make him change the subject. ‘How many times do you reckon we will have to make this journey to refresh our water supplies?’
‘Too many.’ Eärendil stretched. ‘But it will be worth it – and we can make Erellont and Voronwë do all the work tomorrow to make up for the fact that they rested today as we laboured.’
The rain started in the late afternoon, but it brought no relief to the heat and feeling of heaviness. Fat raindrops splatted onto the shiny emerald leaves and dripped heavily to the forest floor, pooling in hollows and soaking into the sandy soil. The vines trembled, as if warning of intruders.
‘They are sticky,’ Aerandir objected, as he stepped back into one of the thinner strands that extended to the forest floor. He pulled away, reaching over his shoulder to rub at the pale line. The mark reddened across his bare back. ‘It stings,’ he said in surprise. ‘Perhaps we should not have been so ready to shed our tunics – after all, we do not know whether some of these plants are poisonous. That could account for the absence of animal life.’
‘Watch out for those tendrils,’ Eärendil agreed. ‘We do not need to encounter problems now. And on our return to top up the large barrels, we will cover ourselves. It is foolish to take chances.’
Aerandir staggered slightly as he lifted the full keg. ‘I shall be glad to get away from this place,’ he said, his voice a little thick. ‘The silence gives me the shivers.’
Eärendil took the bow and looked up into the trees, imagining that the dripping leaves contained a shadow before shaking off the odd feeling of coldness that drifted across the steamy afternoon. ‘One more trip should do it,’ he said with forced cheerfulness. ‘It will be your turn to act as guard again, Aerandir. Since the hunting has been so poor, I think we will then return to the ship without delay. There seems little point in staying ashore just for the sake of it.’
Halfway back down the track they were wearing between their source of water and the beach, Aerandir stumbled, lurching to one side before stopping. He swayed confusedly, as if the solid ground beneath him had begun to move like the ship’s deck in a high wind.
‘What is it?’ Falathar paused behind his friend.
Aerandir dropped suddenly, no longer able to control his limbs and the keg struck the brook with a resounding splash, hitting the bottom and stirring up a cloud of mud before bobbing back, like a turtle half-submerged in the water, and then beginning to roll lazily downstream. He started to convulse, his arms and legs jerking helplessly as he gave voice to a long gurgling cry.
With a swift look round to see if the forest showed any more sign of occupation than it had before, Eärendil dropped to his knees beside the sailor. The welt on his back where he had touched the almost unnoticeable tendril was inflamed to an angry, weeping injury and its fire had spread into the surrounding tissues with a speed that shook the half-elf.
‘Turn him on his side,’ Falathar told him urgently. ‘Keep his head up so that he can breathe.’ He abandoned his own keg to the mercies of the small river. ‘We need to get him away from here as quickly as we can.’
‘Should we not wait for this fit to pass?’ Eärendil asked.
‘Who is to say it will?’ Falathar sounded grim. ‘We must get him to the ship, where we have herbs that might help him.’ He hesitated. ‘I am reluctant to move him,’ he agreed, ‘– but I am even more reluctant to stay here.’
‘Wash the wound,’ the Mariner suggested. ‘If there is something in the vine that is causing this reaction, maybe cleaning the injury out will help.’
A quiver of movement made them both turn to look downstream. ‘See to Falathar,’ Eärendil commanded, readying an arrow. ‘I will take a look.’
‘Do not let us become separated, my lord,’ Aerandir warned. ‘We will be in greater danger apart.’
‘Whatever it might be, it knows we are here,’ Eärendil replied. ‘But it might not be aware of quite how big a task it has taken on in confronting us. We have a bigger bite than most of the beasts it might have encountered.’
Falathar lifted Aerandir and stepped into the clean water, dipping his friend to let the current wash the raw-looking stripe. ‘Go carefully, my lord. We have but one bow and our boot knives – and one of us will need to carry Aerandir. We are not best equipped for battle here.’
Before Eärendil had covered a quarter of the way remaining to the beach and safety, he halted abruptly and cursed, retreating the way he had come with even greater caution than he had shown on leaving.
Aerandir was resting on the bank of the stream, limp, but breathing more easily, and the wound less inflamed. A stout stick in his hand, Falathar stood over him, watching the trees. ‘I wish I could think that your return was a good sign, my lord,’ he said.
‘It was not a vine,’ Eärendil remarked quietly, his tone devoid of all emotion. ‘I believe we are in rather greater danger than we might have thought. A mesh of similar strands is now blocking the path some hundred yards downstream – something tells me that it would not be wise to try to cut through them. And,’ he paused and swallowed. ‘You have seen how spiders sit with their foot on the web, awaiting their prey?’ He spread his hands to indicate the size of the limb he had seen. ‘I think we have become prey.’
‘Spiders do not come that big,’ Falathar sounded incredulous.
‘Spiders do not spin webs that big, either,’ Eärendil told him, indicating the wrist-thick ropes above them. ‘But look at the network with the thought of spiders in your mind.’
‘Why did we not see any sign of it earlier?’
‘Perhaps it does not like coming out in the middle of the day. Or maybe it was waiting for an invitation to call. I do not know.’ Eärendil looked back uneasily. ‘I really think that we had better not stay here any longer than we have to – if I can avoid a closer view of that – thing – I would prefer it.’
‘Better to stay with the stream than cut off into the forest. We would be lost in moments. If we can get a bit more distance between us, we will have time to light a fire – there is a chance that the beast will fear flame.’
Aerandir groaned as Falathar lifted him over his shoulder, but he remained as limp as one dead, Eärendil noted in one part of his mind, as he smelled again in memory a whiff of the sulphurous fires of Gondolin. Not now, he told himself firmly. They must get out of this first, before he could let the past catch up with him.
The shadows deepened as they moved as quietly as they could away from the open safety of the beach to the murky depths of the forest. The water flowed freely, but above them the trees seemed trapped and the momentary relief of the afternoon’s rain had passed, leaving the air still and steamy.
‘Careful!’ Falathar paused, breathing hard. A translucent tendril stretched across the water in front of them, delicately adorned with what looked like drops of rain. In one of them, a large insect struggled weakly.
‘Can you get beneath it without touching it?’ Eärendil asked.
‘Yes,’ Falathar panted briefly, ‘but where there is one, there may well be many more – and it is growing too dark to see clearly if this is a trap.’
Eärendil looked over his shoulder. ‘We need to find somewhere defensible,’ he said anxiously. ‘And this is not it. Somewhere open preferably, but I would settle for an enclosed space if I were sure that it could approach only from one direction.’
‘That might be better,’ Falathar replied. ‘We could hold it off.’
‘But we would be trapped. Until we killed it – or . . .’
‘It killed us.’
‘And we dare not be too long in cutting back to the beach or there is nothing that will stop Voronwë coming in search of us. One of us will have to try to get away, while the other guards Aerandir.’
A rustling in the leaves made them both whip round. They peered into the gathering darkness.
‘It is getting bolder.’
Falathar gulped. ‘Today is not going well.’ He inspected the shadowy trees carefully. ‘I have never been particularly fond of spiders,’ he said.
‘This one is unlikely to increase your affection for the species.’
A pattering of raindrops suggested that the creature in the canopy had moved ahead of them.
‘It is driving us,’ Eärendil said with a sick certainty.
‘That would make it intelligent.’
‘I do not intend to end my days wrapped in a spider’s larder.’
‘Then have you any ideas? It knows the terrain, it moves faster than we can, it is venomous – and we appear to be running short of options.’ Eärendil turned towards an excited scratching sound, turning to aim an arrow at it, yet holding back with a calm he would not have expected. ‘It will not be accustomed to prey that can fight back from a distance – although the number of arrows we have is limited.’ He smiled faintly. ‘We may yet be thankful that our hunt provided us with nothing that inclined us to employ our skill.’
‘It is a shame the forest is so wet,’ Falathar commented. ‘If we could use fire, then perhaps we could turn from prey to hunters. Once it is in the open, we might stand a better chance against it.’
‘Perhaps it is trying to stop us moving in that direction for a reason,’ Eärendil reasoned. ‘If we can get through, perhaps we should carry on upstream.’
Falathar hesitated. ‘It could be as good a way as any,’ he said helplessly. ‘I do not know. Perhaps we should make a run for the beach. Once we are past its little trap, we would be only a few hundred yards from safety.’
Eärendil’s released his half-draw, but held the bow ready. ‘There is no point in running,’ he sighed. ‘We do not know where to go – and it is only too likely that we will make our situation worse. Put Aerandir down and grab as much dead wood as you can. We will light a fire here and then see if there is anything we can do to help him. Perhaps staying put will make the monster come for us, so that we can choose how to fight it.’
The fire was small and smoky, but the flames brightened the shadowed forest and, after seeming briefly to draw back, the trees appeared to welcome its glow. Falathar knelt beside his friend, relieved to see that the puffy weeping wound on his back seemed less angry despite his rough ride to try to escape the spider. He bathed the welt again, soaking Aerandir in an attempt to cool him down.
‘He seems easier,’ Falathar commented softly. ‘Although he has not spoken yet, he is beginning to rouse – and he has some slight movement back.’
Eärendil kept his back turned to the light, focusing intently on any slight sound in the trees. ‘I want you to try to see that there is a constant supply of burning brands,’ he said. ‘If anything approaches, be ready to hurl them towards the sound. The monster cannot be accustomed to fire flying at it.’
It was the glitter of firelight in the many-faceted eyes that revealed the spider. Its hunger was clearly tempting it to overlook its natural caution and, in what was probably years as the dominant predator of the island, it seemed to have forgotten that not all potential victims were likely to surrender willingly to its might.
‘Spiders are armoured, my lord,’ Falathar murmured. ‘I think an arrow would bounce off its back.’
‘I will aim for its eyes,’ Eärendil said. ‘I will try to grab a second arrow and hit the second before it can retreat – I do not know how swiftly it will move. Wait for that before you do anything.’
The Mariner drew on the bow as precisely and unnoticeably as he could before releasing the arrow to sing through the air, followed as rapidly as he could manage by a second.
The spider arched back as the first arrow struck, screaming a shrill scratching cry that made the semi-conscious Aerandir moan.
‘Again, my lord,’ Falathar urged, as the second arrow went wide.
‘Only if it is a sure shot,’ Eärendil said absently, his focus on the hideously writhing arachnid. ‘We do not have arrows to waste.’
The spider slowed its movements and tensed, moving its head to observe the creatures that smelled so enticing, yet had proved to be less easy a meal than it had expected. It began to move slowly, creeping towards the network of strands that crossed the stream.
‘Throw some brands, Falathar,’ Eärendil requested. ‘See if you can drive it to the right.’
Falathar took careful aim and hurled a burning branch towards the spider. It caught a strand of web and with a stench like burning hair, the flame fizzed along the sticky substance. The spider rocked, turning awkwardly to steady itself.
‘Interesting,’ Falathar observed. ‘How close do you want the creature, my lord?’
Eärendil smiled. ‘Not that close, my friend! But if you could shake it a little more, I think I might be able to blind it.’
The spider turned as the brand approached, aware now of its danger. Eärendil released a swift arrow, impaling the second eye even as the flame fried the support beneath the creature’s eight long legs. It curled, huddling the limbs beneath it as it fell to land on the far side of the stream.
‘Do not trust it!’ Falathar snapped. ‘It is not dead yet.’
Eärendil nodded, taking a fourth arrow and sending it to sink into the spider’s belly. ‘Can you lob a brand that far?’ he asked.
Falathar took a couple of relatively straight chunks of wood and set them in the fire, picking up another that was burning steadily. He looked at the twitching body. ‘If I cannot, my lord, then perhaps,’ he suggested, ‘a fire arrow?’
‘I will make the attempt,’ Eärendil shrugged. ‘I do not know if it will fly true.’
Falathar’s first attempt fell short, smouldering in a patch of leaf litter. His second, however, sliced through the gap between them and fell next to the creature’s abdomen, while the third landed on the thorax, igniting the hairs with which the legs were covered. The spider screamed, lashing its limbs and turning itself in an attempt to douse the flames, but, to the amazement of those watching, the flames became an inferno that encased the monster in a brilliant blue fire that exploded in a puff of malodorous smoke before drawing in to leave a small heap of red ashes.
‘How did that happen?’ Falathar was shaking.
‘If the web the creature produced burned so well,’ Eärendil said, ‘I suppose it is hardly surprising that it should itself be vulnerable to fire.’
‘At least the forest is too wet to burn.’ Falathar sat down suddenly. ‘Do you think we need to worry about any more of those creatures?’
Eärendil looked at his hands and noticed disinterestedly that they were trembling so much that it was as well he was unlikely to have to draw his bow again immediately. ‘I would not have thought so,’ he said absently. ‘I do not think one would tolerate a rival.’
A soft breeze stirred his hair, blowing the stench of burning spider away from him and he looked up to see a swirl of cloud scudding across the night sky. A star glinted down at them briefly before the racing drifts hid it.
‘How is Aerandir?’ he asked, swallowing down the horror that their enemy had roused in him.
Falathar placed a hand on his friend’s neck. ‘His heartbeat has steadied,’ he said. ‘We will know more in the morning.’
The Mariner drew a deep breath. ‘This will be a very long night,’ he said with a heartfelt emphasis.
Even amongst the dense trees, dawn came with a welcome warmth. The colours lit the fine clouds with a transient fire before the sun rose sufficiently to enliven the bright greens of the trees.
Eärendil approached the spider’s remains cautiously, bow at the ready, but only the size of the burned patch and its heap of ash surprised him. ‘Valar,’ he said softly. ‘It must have been twice the size of a horse.’
‘It is no wonder that the woods were silent.’ Falathar looked at it with revulsion. ‘Aerandir is awake,’ he added. ‘He is in pain and nauseous – and he cannot control his shakes. The wound on his back has blistered, but the red lines are not spreading.’
‘Good.’ Eärendil glanced back at the figure resting beside the stream. ‘He should have little recollection of what happened – that can only be an advantage.’ They waded through the shallow water. ‘We will need to take a brand with us – there are many of those strands of webbing between us and the ocean. I think we need to burn as many as we can.’
‘Listen.’ Falathar put his hand on Eärendil’s arm and leaned his head back to squint at the sky between the sheltering leaves.
‘Birds,’ Eärendil said. ‘Perhaps we have achieved something here,’ he smiled.
‘Something I would have been happy to leave to others,’ Falathar added.
‘By the time we staggered out of the forest,’ Eärendil concluded, ‘the water kegs were waiting neatly at the edge of the stream – as if some unseen hand had lined them up tidily by the dinghy. The sun was shining and the sand was gleaming white in its light. We wasted no time in pushing the boat back into the water and rowing back out to Vingilot. We were doubtful about the water at first – tempted to empty the barrels into the sea and make do with the flat taste of what we knew was safe, but we had to acknowledge that, whatever had been wrong on that island, the water had been clean enough.’
‘A daughter of Ungoliant, do you think? Like Shelob?’ Elrond wondered. ‘Drifted, maybe, in the egg, and hatched on the island?’
Eärendil shrugged. ‘It is possible,’ he conceded. ‘It was no normal spider – it was far too large and much too intelligent – but neither was it Ungoliant herself. This was not one that would have been able to scheme with the Dark Lord to destroy the works of the Valar.’
‘If it had destroyed the animals of the forest, it suggests that it was able to retire into a form of hibernation,’ Elrond mused, ‘at least until an opportunity to feed provided itself. Then, when its warning systems were triggered, it could revive and hunt. It was probably mainly dependent on catching unwary seabirds in its webs. You must have been disconcertingly large – and very tempting.’
Elwing paled. ‘I do not wish to think of your adar as a spider’s prey,’ she said firmly.
‘Yet,’ Eärendil added, ‘remember that the shadow that hung over the island dispersed as soon as the creature was dead. It reinforces the suggestion that the monster was one of Morgoth’s servants – by descent, at least.’
‘I cannot believe that you have never told me of this before.’
Eärendil looked shamefaced. ‘There seemed no point,’ he told his wife. ‘It was history by the time I saw you again. We had survived unscathed – there did not seem to be any reason to worry you.’
Celebrían laughed lightly. ‘I suppose we should be happy that our husbands think us too precious to worry with the events that have come close to destroying them.’ She glanced at Elrond affectionately. ‘It is among their more foolish habits, but it is endearing nonetheless.’
‘Did it take Aerandir long to recover?’ Elrond asked. ‘My experience of spider toxins is mainly based on the Mirkwood varieties – they were also descendants of Ungoliant, although divided by many more generations. I would be interested to know if his reactions indicate a difference between them.’ He rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘Of course, Aerandir’s intense reaction was from absorbing the toxin through his skin – he was not bitten – so it would seem that the spider was a good deal more venomous than those with which Thranduil had to deal. I would doubt that he would have survived a bite.’
‘Elrond,’ Celebrían interrupted firmly, waiting until he turned to meet her gaze, ‘this is hypothetical. The spider does not exist any more: you cannot run experiments to discover the secrets of its poison, you do not need to worry about the risks run by those who have to fight it and you do not need to find an antidote.’ She looked at Eärendil. ‘Did Aerandir recover?’ she asked brightly.
‘He did,’ the Mariner acknowledged, looking from his son to her. ‘The injury, seen in daylight was more like a burn than a cut – it blistered badly and wept for several days. He remained weak and shaky for a while – we did not let him climb the masts for the rest of the voyage! And he said it was the most painful injury he had ever endured, worse even than the broken leg he had a few years before.’ He smiled as he remembered the end of the voyage. ‘Voronwë was very displeased with us all,’ he grinned. ‘He said we had become smug and that we had been exceptionally lucky to make it back to the beach. We told him it was skill that had saved us – but he snorted that that was highly unlikely because we had made every error known to endanger sailors on potentially unfriendly shores. He said a great deal more to me,’ he added, ‘when we were out of earshot of the rest of the crew – heaping on the guilt about leaving Elwing a widow and my sons orphaned, letting down my adar by risking the life that he had sacrificed himself to save, risking the success of the venture laid on me by Lord Ulmo.’ He smiled wryly. ‘It is a good thing that I was young and brash and over-confident,’ he said, ‘or I would have given up there and then.’
‘It is possible,’ Elwing reproved him, ‘that had you not been young and brash and over-confident Voronwë would not have felt the need to take you to task.’
‘True,’ Eärendil admitted, taking her hand. ‘But we learned from the experience – and we were never as careless again.’
‘And you came home,’ Elwing said softly, returning his clasp. ‘Tall and bronzed and laughing, you ran down the gangplank and took me in your arms as if you would never let me go – and then you seized both Elros and Elrond and spun them around and hugged them and made them giggle and we were a family again.’
Eärendil’s face paled. ‘For a while,’ he said sombrely, and in his tone was the tolling of a single bell.
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