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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.
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-dûm ("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 Dúnedain 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 Éowyn 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 Annûn, 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.
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")
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