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The rangers continued their way the next morning. The first part was easy: the road went upwards, but the ascent wasn't steep, and it was wide and flattened. After about an hour of walking, the sight opened towards the Morgul Valley and remnants of Minas Morgul at its further end, and Faramir stopped.
Aragorn fulfilled his idea: the ghastly city was destroyed. Not immediately after the War, of course, because everyone was engaged in renewal. But a year later, several Rangers' squads carried out the King's plan. They built several new catapults in the valley, and after days of heavy bombardment, Morgul walls and buildings turned into a pile of shapeless debris. Awareness that the horrible city was no more did bring relief to the inhabitants of that part of Ithilien, just as the King had hoped.
Faramir had the opportunity to see Minas Morgul before the War; only a few times, though, and only from afar. Rangers rarely patrolled that dangerous area because of the many orcs roaming around. And not just orcs. He well remembered the black silhouettes he had seen in the distance. He well remembered the unnatural cold penetrating to the very bones. And he well remembered that, even though it was mid-day and the sun was shining, the whole valley had seemed darker than the surroundings – as if sunrays couldn't break through the black mist over the area. Even the toughest rangers were very nervous when near Minas Morgul. They could overpower orcs with their weapons and skill – and even trolls, if the numbers were favourable. In this city, though, there were forces against which their swords and arrows couldn't do anything, and which could destroy any of them in a second. After all, he also felt the consequences of Black Breath.
By chance, Faramir had not passed this way since the destruction of the city. He often thought that he should go and personally see that everything was fine. But as all the patrol reports since then till now had been the same – that the valley was uninhabited all the time and that nothing evil was happening – he wasn't worried, and other works were always more important and urgent than that. So now he looked at the remnants of Minas Morgul for the first time after two years.
So many things were different from that day when he last stood here. As the evil had been destroyed and nobody had dwelled here, the nature unstoppably conquered every inch of the environment. The valley was green, covered in lush grass, and greenery also spread over the grey city ruins. Climbing plants grew over the larger part of the former city walls, bushes sprang among sparse rocks, and even tree saplings had started to appear. The place began to look more as the ordinary mountain terrain – humpy and uneven, though, but still natural – than the remnants of the city.
"I didn't believe it could transform so quickly," muttered Haldar in a low voice, and Faramir turned to him.
"Yes. Nature makes miracles," Faramir said and smiled. It looked like he didn't have to worry – at least as not for this area. There was no more evil here.
But there were other things that still had to be resolved; his homeland and people were not completely safe yet. After all, that was why they were on this quest.
They went on and soon left the road, walking the narrow mountain pathway following the same route the hobbits took three years ago. But just like nature transformed Minas Morgul, it did the same here. The path was overgrown and unrecognizable here and there, so they had difficulties finding it. Not once, they went the wrong way and had to return and look for it again. All of it took time, and now they progressed much slower than on the road.
They had to slow down even more when they reached the Stairs. As Frodo said, they really were narrow and steep, and additional problem was that on some parts they were damaged. Rains, slides and roots of the trees broke and shifted stone blocks from their ancient positions. The rangers had to be very careful at every step.
After a while, they passed the Straight Stairs. And when they reached the beginning of the Winding Stairs, a new problem turned up: a slide, obviously a recent one, blocked a part of the stairs and they spent a lot of time while they found the roundabout way through thick bushes. So, when the Stairs finally remained behind them and they reached the edge of the forest, it was already beginning to get dark.
In the distance in front of them Faramir saw steep vertical rocks and the dark opening. He then turned to Haldar. "Your estimate was right. It did last the whole day. Now I almost regret not going by the road and looking for the alternative way to reach this place." He sighed. He hoped that the climbing would go smoother and faster, and that they would enter the tunnel this very day. Expecting the battle – especially the one with many unknown elements – was often more difficult than the battle itself. Delaying the action to tomorrow morning didn't make him very happy. But he had no other choice. The next step in this mission was the way through a long tunnel that hid who knew which obstacles and which would require maximum of their abilities, and they needed a good rest after the whole day of difficult climbing. So he turned to the squad.
"We will make the camp under cover of the trees and spend the night here. We go on tomorrow at dawn," he announced his decision.
When still standing in the open – while the trees didn't block the view – Faramir looked to the west. They were very high, and he had the great view of Anduin, Osgiliath, Minas Tirith, Mindolluin and Ithilien. My beautiful homeland, he thought with a smile. His gaze wandered towards Emyn Arnen. From this distance Vinhir was just a dot, and there was no way to discern his house on the slopes of the hills. But he knew it was there, and he knew who was there. He sent her greetings in his thoughts, and his heart beat faster thinking of her. He enjoyed watching the country he loved so much for a few moments more, and then he took a deep breath and tightened his lips. The war was won three years ago, but there were still battles that had to be fought.
The night passed peacefully. When the sky in the east started to change colour, the guards in the last shift woke up everyone else. They had a plentiful breakfast – nourishing way-bread, dried meat and cheese – and then they began preparing to enter.
Faramir rubbed his brow, thinking. It was impossible to predict all that awaited them. He didn't know how the tunnels in the mountain looked like, how long they were or how many there were, nor how strong the spider really was. He only knew that, according to what the hobbits said, the tunnel was "really long". But he remembered that neither Frodo nor Sam could really estimate the time or length when they later talked about their journey. Also, Sam mentioned that the spider was "very big", but that, too, was not a precise but subjective information. Besides, any object or living being seem bigger if you are only four feet tall, Faramir added in his mind. There are forty of us here. The number instilled a sense of security. After all, the two hobbits in the end passed through the tunnel successfully; he had a big squad at disposition. He thought that forty against one – no matter how big the spider was – should be enough.
He moved to the centre of the camp, and that was the unspoken order on which all the rangers reacted. Those who were still sitting quickly rose; those who talked among themselves now stopped and looked towards him.
"Captain Haldar got all of you acquainted with the situation – with the results of his two scouting missions, and with the facts that he afterwards heard from me. We know that our enemy is the big and very strong spider, but we don't know its exact size nor what awaits us in the tunnels." He stopped and pointed towards the direction of the tunnel. "We will have to fight on its territory. No separating is allowed. We will stick together, and try to find the creature. When we find it, we'll surround it from all sides if possible. From halflings' reports, we know that it has a hard shell that is difficult to pierce with swords. Therefore, my idea is to drop oil-lamps on it and around it. When they break, the oil will spill and burst into flame, and I hope the creature will catch fire, or at least that it will cause burns. I also hope it would make it more vulnerable and slow it down, so we'll kill it more easily." He stopped again and looked at the squad. "Any questions?"
"What if the spider went to Mordor through the opposite exit? Will we pursue it, and if yes, how far?" asked one of younger rangers.
I have no idea, and I have no idea.
But outwardly, remained completely calm.
"If we find any tracks, we'll follow them so far as we can do so safely," Faramir replied. He looked the young man for a while, but couldn't remember if he had met him before. But as the man looked to be in his early twenties, Faramir was quite sure the answer was negative; in the last three years he had spent much more time on councils and performing administrative tasks, than with the army. "However, there is no point in blind guessing. It will depend on what we find on the other side – on the terrain configuration, ambush opportunities and so on."
"And if we don't find the spider and if we can't follow it?" asked another youngster.
"If that happens, we'll temporarily withdraw to our side, call for reinforcement and try again. We'll also set many patrols so that the spider can't get through to our villages again," explained Faramir. "But those are the things we will consider only if it comes to them. For now, no need to preoccupy with them."
There were no more questions after that. Faramir stood at the front, and Haldar was next to him. Five torches and ten oil-lamps were ready and lit very quickly; he believed it would give them enough light, and at the same time, more than half men would have both hands free. Most of them had both a sword and a bow. Faramir didn't know if it would be possible to use bows in a tunnel, though, but if this underground had any similarity to Henneth Annun or some other Rangers' bases throughout the Mountains of Shadow, he thought the existence of bigger caves possible. So he wanted the men to have bows at hand. And bows could certainly be useful if they had to go to Mordor.
Faramir began to feel the stench while still nearing the entrance. He actually hoped that Haldar had exaggerated when talking about it in his report, but it seemed that the captain was objective and that reality fully matched the description. Or the reality is even worse, thought crossed his mind after entering the dark tunnel, when the smell became even stronger. His nose wrinkled in disgust. During all his years of military service he had been in many orc camps – after chasing them away from some locations – but in comparison to this, the orcs' stench now seemed like a perfume.
As the width was nearly fifteen feet, five of them could easily walk parallel. Faramir was in the first row and carried his torch. Their five torches filled the tunnel with some smoke which scraped their lungs a little, but as they progressed the smoke remained behind them, not causing too big problems. On the other hand, there were moments when he thought that breathing in just a little bit of smoke is very welcome to alleviate this horrible stench.
After approximately a quarter of an hour the passage widened on their right, and they saw a big round stone, almost the height and width of the tunnel itself. They stopped; Haldar approached it and carefully observed it, and then looked around. Then he turned to Faramir.
"The period of walking today is about the same as five days ago, and the rock looks familiar. Yes, this is the place we reached that day, and this is the obstacle we faced," he confirmed.
"As the rock was moved in the meantime, we can conclude that the spider passed this way again," Faramir said seriously, wondering where the creature could be now. There were many possibilities, and he knew they had to be very careful. "But at least we don't have to trouble ourselves with moving it," he added to Haldar, and then he turned to everyone else. "Keep your eyes wide open and report instantly if you notice anything suspicious. And don't separate from the group, under any circumstances."
They went on, even more cautiously than before. Faramir scrutinized the walls of the tunnel, watching for eventual traps. It seemed there were none, but he was tense and nervous. There was slime on the ground here and there, as well as webs hanging from the tunnel ceiling. In most cases they were too high, out of their reach, but on one spot it hung down to their heads. He neared the torch to it to inspect it more closely; it was big and dense and...
"Troll's balls!" Faramir cursed when he touched it, driven by curiosity. Yes, he saw it was much bigger and thicker than ordinary webs, but his mind subconsciously envisaged the characteristics of the normal spider-web. But now his glove remained entangled in it, and he just couldn't free it. And except for being much thicker, this net was also extraordinary sticky. Although he applied all his strength, he just couldn't tear the threads. In the end he had to pull his hand out of the glove.
"You saw what just happened," he addressed the squad. "This is one more thing to be very careful about." But he didn't want to leave things to chance, and if it came to eventual quick retreat, the last thing he wanted was someone to accidentally get caught in the net. "Let's burn it. Just like we'll burn the other we see – those which will be within our reach." Those that were too high he considered innocuous anyway, and had no intention of bothering with them.
He touched the net with his torch; it caught flame quickly and the air filled with crackling. It burned soon and some black ash fell to the ground, together with his glove, now free. It was undamaged by the fire, which extinguished even before the high-quality leather could catch fire.
They went on; the tunnel stretched in a straight line, without curves, and was constantly slightly ascending. They walked and walked, and it was difficult to estimate for how long. An hour? More? Less? Now he regretted not trying to get more precise estimation from the hobbits, when he talked to them three years ago; but who could ever think that he would need that information?
"I have a feeling that we entered here an age ago," said Borlas behind Faramir's back, and he startled as the silence was broken after a longer time. Although Borlas spoke in a low voice, the sound echoed in that narrow space and reverberated quite loudly.
"I'd say, something in between an hour and two," said captain Haldar.
Although Faramir wasn't sure, he agreed with the estimate; that meant that it was still morning.
"Well, either we find the cursed creature and kill it, or we exit on the other side if we don't find it a'for then. I guess there's no third way," commented someone from the rear.
But Faramir was not so sure about it. He could imagine many more options than just those two. The tunnel could start branching, there could be more tunnels to investigate, and they would have to be very careful not to get lost. The only thing that he considered good, for now, was that his sense of smell dulled after being here for a longer time, so the stench didn't choke him so much as in the beginning.
"Something is in front of us!" exclaimed the ranger on the leftmost position in the first row. They stopped and looked; it was a lateral tunnel, but only five feet further it was blocked by a big rock similar to that they had seen earlier, and which stopped Haldar's group a few days ago.
Faramir observed the rock, frowning. Branching meant problems, because he knew it was not wise to go further if the background was not checked and secured. However, the rock turned out to be too heavy and they couldn't move it, so they went on.
A little later they saw another pit to the side, but this time it was just a small oval widening.
And it was not empty. Faramir gazed at two piles on the ground. The remnants were pale, almost shapeless and mostly turned into dust, but some parts had not disintegrated entirely, and it was impossible not to recognize what they were. The bones. Judging by the rusted and decayed gear next to them, those were the remnants of the orcs and not men; yet, it was very uncomfortable to watch them, because they were a remainder that the enemy was near. A very dangerous enemy.
"There are forty of us here," said Faramir. He poured calm and confidence in his voice, which he wanted to transfer to the group too. Truth be told, he believed that the older ones, who had gone through dozens of fights in the years and decades before the War, hadn't needed it much; they had seen all the horrors of war, and some had even witnessed the dread the Nazgul had spread. He primarily addressed the younger ones, who didn't have much experience. "We will succeed. Just be cautious and don't separate from the group."
Journey through the dark continued.
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