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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.
"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.
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. "...in 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")
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