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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")
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