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It was around noon when Faramir heard voices from the hall. He was sitting in his study and checking new reports from South Ithilien he had received in the morning. Éowyn was in the living room, reading some of her healing handbooks, as she usually did when she didn't have to treat the wounded or sick, or when she didn't work with him on planning. He lifted his head from the papers and listened; one voice was Liriel's, his housekeeper, and the other... he didn't know at first, but after a few more words he recognized Haldar. Two days ago he got captain's message from which he found out about one more disappearance, about the first scouting mission, and about undertaking the second mission with more men.
It wasn't difficult to guess what this arrival meant. If the explanation was innocuous, or if the missing person had been found alive and well, surely he would have got just a short letter again. But coming to his residence and personal report seemed an ill omen. So much for sparing Éowyn of concern, thought Faramir. He knew she would want to join the meeting, and that there was no point in asking her to just rest and not worry. He rose and opened the door of the study just when Liriel was about to knock. Haldar stood next to her, and behind him was Borlas. He nodded to both of them.
"Captain Haldar, Borlas, welcome," he said. "We'll go to the living room, it is much bigger than this little chamber. Liriel, please, bring some tea for the guests," he told her, and then turned to the two rangers again. "In about one hour lunch will be served, and you can join Éowyn and me. Of course, something stronger than tea will be served after lunch." He laughed. "I have some great red wine from Lebenin."
Haldar and Borlas exchanged glances, and nodded.
"Thank you, Captain Faramir," said Haldar and smiled. "We intended to have lunch in our garrison near Vinhir, but we won't refuse this invitation." Near the village there was a stronghold which was a Rangers' base for this part of Ithilien, and it was also the place for training the new soldiers; in fact, it was the biggest base in the whole Ithilien.
Faramir then led them into the living room. It was oriented southwards, and plenty of light entered through two windows. In its centre there was a low table, surrounded by couch and three armchairs. A big hearth was built on one wall, but the fire wasn't burning now; it was not cold. Éowyn spread several sheets of paper and two books over the couch and table, but when they entered, she quickly gathered everything and put it on the table, making more space for sitting. He smiled and sat down next to her.
"This is lady Éowyn," he said, looking at Borlas. "Dear, you know captain Haldar. And this is Borlas."
Then he looked at the two men in front of him. He knew Borlas only superficially, but Captain Haldar was his friend. When Faramir entered Gondor's army as a young man and joined the Ithilien Rangers, Haldar was his superior for a while, and he had learned so much from the older man. In the years that followed they had been in battles together many times, and had spent many hours next to the fires in rangers' camps. He remembered very well how proud Haldar had been when his son joined the Rangers, as well as his death a few months before the War. Captain had never been the same after that... but not that Faramir was surprised.
Something in Haldar's current appearance reminded Faramir of his behaviour from the period after that tragedy. Haldar looked disheartened and older than his age. Faramir frowned. It was another confirmation that he would not hear good news.
"We discovered a lot, but still much remains unknown," started Haldar. "That which I can say with certainty is that this is not a crime, as we considered in the very beginning, nor the animal attack..." Haldar continued to report about the events after his last message, and Faramir found out everything about the search, the strange tracks equal to those from the first case, and finally about Galador's disappearance and mysterious tunnel. And very soon after Haldar started, Faramir felt as if a stone had formed in his stomach... which became bigger and heavier as the report progressed. Because, while he was listening, words that he and Aragorn uttered that morning three years ago in Minas Tirith started to resurface from his memory. He began to understand the solution of this mystery.
"Unfortunately, five of us could not move that rock. However, if it was put there as an obstacle, then it can probably be moved aside too. Maybe more men would have greater success. The other option is to try to break it, if we can't move it. After that, we could continue searching for that Sauron's spawn, whatever it is. I have to admit that I don't know what it might be," ended Haldar his report. He then sipped some tea, brought in soon after the meeting began.
Faramir slowly nodded and sank back into the couch. He didn't think often of that conversation, and he thought of it less and less as months and years were passing. Actually, enough time passed that he could almost conclude everything was fine.
However – it wasn't.
"I do," he said with a heavy sigh. As expected, he met three very surprised glances.
"How?" asked Éowyn even before he could say more.
Faramir then told them about what happened to hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee when they had passed over the mountains, and about his discussion with the King right after the War.
"Giant spider..." Haldar repeated slowly, and Faramir noticed how his eyes darkened. "Yes, it makes sense," continued the captain. "The tracks were not at all like those made by two- or four-legged creatures. But if I try to imagine spider's legs and enlarge them in my mind... yes, it fits."
"The discovery of that large web confirms it," added Borlas.
"True", Haldar confirmed. "And I thought, while watching it, that the spider weaving that web should be huge too. But I was still not able to envision it then."
Faramir turned to Éowyn. "The Pass of Cirith Ungol was notorious even before the Nazgûl conquered Minas Ithil." He knew she loved history, but he wasn't sure if she had known all these ancient details. "Many rangers disappeared without a trace in that area. I've read that the other rangers were searching for them, but couldn't find anything. Now that I think about it, I wonder if the entrance into spider's lair was hidden, because there isn't much that rangers will miss. Anyway, in time they stopped patrolling there because of what followed: arrival of the plague, loss of men, weakening of Gondor. You know that later part of history."
He stopped and looked at all three around him, now addressing all of them at once. "When I heard Frodo's story of the big spider, I realized the cause of the disappearances in the past. Unfortunately, right after the War of the Ring we had no resources for the pursuit," he said, frowning. "There was no way to know if the spider had survived its wounds, and all the available men had to be engaged in renewal. And as the time was passing and nothing bad happened, I thought it had died somewhere in the tunnels." He stopped and shook his head. "But obviously it did not."
Éowyn, however, seemed confused. "But... you are talking about a period longer than a thousand years! Do you really think it could be the same creature? The same spider?" she asked, dubious expression on her face.
A good question.
"I cannot be sure," replied Faramir slowly, "but we know that there are creatures of the Darkness that are extremely long-lived or immortal. Just remember Ungoliant or Balrogs. It is quite possible that this creature is similar to them in its longevity." He stopped, thinking. "In fact, I would like that."
"Why?" asked Borlas, looking very puzzled.
"Because I'd prefer fighting just one spider – be it huge, immortal and a difficult opponent – than the whole colony. I really wouldn't like to face many descendants of one spider who started to terrorize that area long ago."
"Oh. Yes. I understand." Borlas seemed embarrassed for not remembering that himself. "And I agree."
"But I think we don't have to worry that there are many," said Faramir and nodded. "Frodo reported just one spider. If more of those monsters had guarded the Pass, the hobbits would have probably seen them back then. And now, surely there would have been more tracks, and more attacks on our people in Ithilien."
"I think I agree," Haldar said. "We've been patrolling and searching for the orcs ever since the War, but we have never seen these tracks before. And even now, everything points out that one creature is roaming around, and not more."
"All right, now we are at least not stumbling about in the dark anymore. We know who the enemy is – we are dealing with some horrible spider – and we know where it hides," said Éowyn, summarizing all that was said until then. "The next question is what we'll do about it."
Faramir looked at her and smiled proudly. This wasn't the first time that she took the initiative in important moments, and he didn't miss the plural in her words. Fortunately, you will not do anything, he thought looking at her belly. If she wasn't pregnant, he assumed he'd have to use the strongest chains to make her stay at home. I'd need Angainor, and nothing less than that. He observed her for a few more moments, lost in her eyes. Strong, wise, courageous... he adored her.
Haldar's shifting in his armchair brought Faramir back to the present moment, and he looked them seriously.
"We can't let this creature continue attacking our people. This time we go to the end, no matter how much time and efforts it will require. Unlike in the past, now we at least know where to start. We'll undertake a big expedition towards the Pass and we won't stop until we destroy the spider," he said decisively. But that was something that was understood just by itself. What needed to be considered were the practical details. "Captain, you said that you hadn't managed to move the rock blocking the tunnel?"
"That is correct," confirmed Haldar.
Faramir thought for a moment. "We'll take hammers and break it if necessary, and go further. We'll also need many torches and oil-lamps. We have to consider the possibility that the passage is branching inside the mountain and that we'll have to inspect more than one tunnel, which could require several days. We should take at least..." He stopped, and his brow creased. "...forty rangers."
Haldar tilted his head. "I hope that will be enough," he muttered in a low voice.
"It will. We will succeed," said Faramir convincingly. Ithilien Rangers were supreme soldiers: excellent swordsmen, archers and trackers all at once. Forty such men could overpower almost three times more orcs.
One thing he did not mention aloud, and neither did the others. But he was sure that all of them had thought of the same thing that occurred to him too. The spider could decide to slip away to Mordor – as far away as it wanted. There it had vast expanses for escape and hiding. And in that case, the chances for catching it would drastically diminish. At the moment of Sauron's defeat, most of his army perished in the crevices in the ground around the Black Gates. But not all of it. Some orcs and trolls managed to escape, and Faramir assumed they might dwell in Morgai valley and on the eastern slopes of the mountains. To search for the spider on the eastern side of the Mountains of Shadow would be a very difficult and perilous task for they would probably have to face the remnants of Sauron's army.
But in the end he shook his head, having decided to deal with it if and when it came to that. Now he had to think of urgent and presently more important things.
"We'll take the action immediately," Faramir said resolutely. "I'll write the messages for all the heads of all villages in Ithilien after lunch. I'll introduce them to this new threat. Nobody will be allowed to leave the villages, for any reason, until we resolve this. You two will take the letters and bring them to couriers' service in Vinhir. Let them use carrier pigeons – that is the fastest way. I'll finish my most important errands by the evening, and tomorrow at dawn I'll ride to our fort. Then I'll lead the squad on our mission." While still talking, in his mind he included all the villages as receivers of the message. True, he thought that Southern Ithilien was in no big danger considering the distance from the Pass, but all the same, he wanted to warn them too.
"Understood." Haldar nodded.
Liriel entered then and informed them that the lunch was served. Faramir rose, noticing Éowyn's expression. She didn't say anything, but he could clearly see she was worried.
After the meal, he first wrote the messages for village heads; then he reviewed the most important reports about trade and agriculture and wrote responses. After that, he assorted everything on the shelves, which covered two walls in his study. He left things that were not urgent on the table, but he was sure he wouldn't find this stack of papers when he returned. He would like to see his beloved take more rest, but she still performed all the administrative jobs; she only reduced physical activities a little.
The light in the chamber was dim because only one oil-lamp on his desk was lit. The fire in the small hearth extinguished some time ago because, immersed in his work, hours had passed since he'd given orders not to be disturbed, and he had forgot to add more wood to the fire.
In the end he wrote the letter to Aragorn, informing him about the latest news, and that he would lead the rangers against the spider. He had just sealed the envelope when Éowyn entered the study. Lifting his head, he realized he was totally stiff after spending a long time sitting and writing.
Éowyn passed around the table, pulled the only remaining chair in the room and sat next to him. He immediately took her hands into his. She sat in silence for a few moments, and looking at her, guilt pricked him. He wanted to be with her in the following weeks and not miss a single day. At the same time he felt responsibility towards all his people. Just when he wanted to try to explain, she lifted her hand and laid it softly on his lips.
"Shh," she silenced him. "You don't have to say anything. I understand," she said in a low voice, and her face was tranquil.
Oh. That sting of guilt had just grown even bigger. Simultaneously, his heart fluttered. "Sometimes I wonder what did I do to deserve such a wonderful woman," he said and gently kissed her.
"You are wonderful too. And devoted," responded Éowyn and smiled. "You've shown it many times, and now again." She then got more serious. "I know that you feel obliged to protect your people. After all, I've always felt the same – for my people earlier, and now for Gondorians too. If I wasn't pregnant, I would probably consider joining you. If I can contribute to this country in any way – I will do it immediately."
Faramir nodded; these words only confirmed what he had thought before. Ever since coming here, besides learning to become a healer and her other tasks, she had practiced sword-play every day for at least one hour, maintaining her skill; she only stopped a few months ago, when she got pregnant. And he saw that her feeling of responsibility towards the people was equally strong as his. So he silently thanked Eru that she could not go on this quest.
But he had known ever since the very first day that she was special. That she was fierce and fearless. He fell in love with strong and unfaltering woman – a shield-maiden – and she didn't want her to change. He loved that flame inside her.
"Just be careful, all right?" she added, pulling him from thoughts.
He observed her; the light of a small lamp illuminated her face. Although she tried to hide it, he saw concern in her eyes.
"I always am," said Faramir. "Hopefully this mission won't last more than a few days, so I'll be with you again soon." Éowyn was to give birth in about six weeks, and he hoped the baby wouldn't be very early – just when he was away.
"We will be fine," replied Éowyn patting her belly, and smile returned to her face. "You know Liriel doesn't let me do any strenuous housework, and Anneth comes to check on me every week."
Anneth was a midwife living in Vinhir.
"You worry for me, and I can't help worrying for you," Faramir said softly and smiled. He tucked away one unruly lock of her hair and held his palm on her cheek. "I will do my best to return as soon as possible. I want to be next to you."
His face was close to hers; the grey eyes observed the blue. He imagined the future, imagined holding her hand while children's laugher echoed around them. His heart grew in his chest, filled with love.
"You will be. Everything will be all right."
Their lips joined, and while he kissed her, the rest of the world ceased to exist.
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