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Four hours passed in an instant. Actually, Faramir slept even less than that. He lay down very soon after the conversation, but didn't fall asleep at once; he kept thinking of the men they lost. It was so easy to get used to peace during the past months and to think that there would be no more war-casualties. But now the harsh reality reminded him that evil beings still threatened Gondor.
When one of the rangers woke him up, he had a feeling that he had closed his eyes only a few moments ago. The body demanded more sleep, but he gritted his teeth and pulled himself to his feet. Although he was very sleepy, the night chill awakened him very quickly.
A few sips of yesterday's tea, a few quick bites of supper leftovers, collecting his things – and he was ready to leave. Several rangers prepared the torches; they didn't have many of them anymore, and they spent all the oil in the battle. However, they saved enough torches to pass through the tunnel.
Some of the wounded still slept, undisturbed by the noises. Although Aranir would stay in the camp, he was among those who got up; he now stood next to Faramir.
"Ah, I envy you. You will return into your bag and sleep more," Faramir said and sighed, imagining the cosiness of a warm bed. Oh, how nice it would be to continue sleeping...
"Get used to not sleeping," the older ranger said. "From what I've heard, your baby arrives soon. This is nothing compared to what awaits you." A wide smile appeared on Aranir's face.
"You mean I will want to run away and join the patrol again?" Faramir asked cheerfully. But it can't be that bad, can it? Babies don't do anything else except eating and sleeping and they are cute, right?
But he got serious then. They had to leave; the task would not complete itself. "I know I leave the injured in good hands. Be careful while returning," he said and nodded in greetings.
"Do not worry about us. You are the ones who will be in danger, once you catch up with the creature," replied Aranir. "May Eru watch over you."
The squad moved on.
The evening was bad – her incapable allies lost the battle. The night was no better, either. True, passing through the tunnel was relatively simple despite the darkness. It was a little wider than her, and she only had to walk in a straight line. Even if she moved a little bit to the side and touched the lateral wall, she only had to return to the middle and continue. But once she was out, finding the way through the forest, in a moonless night, was a very demanding task. The ground in her tunnel was flat and smooth. But out here there were many loose stones, many holes in the ground invisible in the dark and obstacles in form of branches and fallen trees. Remembering the old times when her vision was better only enhanced her anger.
Cursed halflings, elves and their light that did this to her! And cursed humans that caused all these events!
She progressed very slowly, having to touch and test the terrain in front of her before every step. Getting ahead among trees and bushes, descending some simple slopes, but also some sections of the way not easy at all, she could hardly await for the arrival of dawn. Once the first light appeared, she was relieved. It should finally be easier from now on. When she found a small clearing, she stopped and looked up and down. Half way, she judged.
She continued to observe the lower parts of the mountains a little bit more, trying to recall all the details from her wanderings a few weeks ago. She roughly remembered the locations of the villages near which she had caught those two humans. She pondered the options, and then decided to go towards the northern one. As the north was her final target, she concluded the norther village would be the best choice.
To the north, then. She snarled. The humans would pay.
For the most part of the journey through the tunnel there were no tracks; the only freshly broken stalactites and slime were found in the beginning. Faramir knew it was possible that the spider had gone into some of the lateral passages to escape from them, and in that case the search would be very long and arduous. In fact, he started to realize that the inspection of the whole labyrinth would require tens of rangers – or, more probably, more than a hundred.
But he didn't think that the spider had hidden somewhere in the tunnels, and not just because all the obstacles closing the lateral tunnels had looked untouched. His instinct was telling him that it had gone to the other side and headed towards the foot of the mountains. That meant only one thing: the people in the villages would be endangered. And he couldn't allow it. So he led the squad head on, towards the western exit.
Subjectively, the way back seemed to him even longer than yesterday's journey. The stale air felt even more stinky, everything choked him, and when they finally came out, he thought that the morning light never looked brighter nor the air smelled so freshly. But even now that they came out, he felt as if the stench still hung heavily around him; his stomach still squirmed with disgust. How? Why? He thought he was going crazy.
"I would say the problem lies in the clothes," muttered Haldar after lifting his hand to the nose and sniffing the sleeve. And moving it away very quickly. "After so many hours inside, it absorbed the smell. It will take time until it aerates."
"Are you reading my mind?" Faramir asked with a distorted smile. "I was just wondering when the stench would finally pass."
"Of course I am not. I am just bothered by the same problem that you have. And that everyone else has," responded Haldar with the same frowning expression on his face.
"Well, yes. But I am not interested in aerating. In fact, I think that I will not even have these clothes washed. I will have it burned," said Faramir and rolled his eyes. Then he got serious and addressed the whole squad. "Let's spread and look for the tracks."
They began to descend, all of them looking to the ground, and not much time passed until the first shout echoed.
On one softer spot of soil between the rocks a ranger found a track – a well know conical shape made by a claw. Then they found a few more, and it turned out that the creature had gone downwards.
Once they reached the forest it was much easier to follow the tracks, and they also noticed broken branches of bushes here and there. The tracks were going down the mountain all the time.
Towards the villages.
As they were descending, Faramir tried to estimate spider's advantage. Considering the length of their night's rest, and if the creature left immediately after the battle, Faramir knew it had a little more than four hours. However, he had no idea how fast it could go, nor if it had to rest. But he knew for sure that it was high time for their own break. They passed the whole tunnel and a part of the way down the mountain with just one short pause, and now they needed a new break and refreshment. Observing the sun, he thought it might be around mid-day, so he gave a sign to stop.
Although he enjoyed this meal much more than last night's one, which he ate equally eagerly as he would eat soil, he was already wearied of dry way-food.
"How easy it is to get used to luxury," he said to Haldar who said next to him, and smiled. "There, this is only the third day of the mission, and I am not happy anymore with what we have, but imagine roasted meat in its own juice, delicious crispy baked potatoes, stew... I dream of a comfortable bed... And in the past, I used to spend many more days – even weeks – in action in Ithilien forests, and I didn't mind anything."
Haldar smiled back. "That's how it goes. That is the first sign. You are getting old. Soon you will be able to announce the changes of weather."
Faramir put a deadly serious expression on his face, pretending he was offended. "My joints are perfectly fine, thank you for asking," he said, but wasn't able to endure long before smiling again. Anyway, the statement about the joints was really true... but his lower back started to hurt him lately. Too much sitting with the reports, Faramir, and too little moving. His way of life turned upside-down after the War.
Another change he noticed was that the time seemed to pass quicker and quicker. The three years after the War flew as if it was only three months, and the next year he would turn forty. Forty, he repeated. As a child, he considered that number the beginning of the old age. A little later, as a teenager, he considered it – well, if not the beginning of the old age – then at least a very serious age. But now the number didn't feel that way. He felt neither old nor serious, but still quite young... only with a few wishes for small every day's commodities. All right, all right, young, but with just a little bit of low-back pain, he had to confess.
"Well, speaking of food, I too miss my Bereth's cooking," Haldar said with a yearning sigh.
Faramir, having startled from his thought about aging, looked at captain's face and thought that he didn't miss just her cooking but her. After all, he himself could hardly wait to be with Eowyn again. All Ithilien Rangers spent long weeks separated from their families, especially before the War; now, fortunately, those periods were shorter.
"So, good food is one more reason to accomplish our mission as soon as possible," laughed Faramir. "And then we return to our homes." At least for a while, he added in his mind. He was aware that some other problem might appear in the future, but he really hoped that, after this, everything would be peaceful for a long time.
They all ate quickly and moved on immediately; they could not waste time. It was simple to follow the tracks, and Faramir noticed that the direction was more or less a straight line: the spider strode towards the foothills. However, it did not take the shortest way to it – directly towards the west – but to north-west. He visualized the map, and realized.
"Mindal," he said in a low voice, looking at Haldar.
The captain nodded, and his face was very serious. Faramir guessed the others would also come to the same conclusion – if they already hadn't. The last time he visited Mindal was about half a year ago, during a regular tour through Ithilien. It was perhaps the smallest of all Ithilien villages, but it grew little by little, and was nearing the number of inhabitants before the War. Like most villages, it was situated at the very foothills, on the boundary between the plains where the people grew crops and mountains where they hunted game. It was the home of the brave people who had been contributing to renewal and development of Gondor in this new age. Home of the people who had wanted nothing else but to live in peace.
People who were now in great danger.
Faramir cast a quick glance over his shoulder. Did any of these rangers have family in Mindal? If so, how did they feel right now?
"Let's hurry," he said.
Daylight was a great thing. All the hidden traps of the mountain became visible: all the obstacles she had to step over, all the cracks her legs could fall into, all the areas with too thick, impassable bushes she had to pass by.
Daylight was a horrible thing. She reached the edge of the forest, and she had to stop. The village lay barely two hundred yards away. So close... and so far. She could see the people walking around their houses, working in their gardens, taking care of their animals. Observing them and imagining their flavour, her mouth watered although she didn't think she was hungry. But now she wanted to stab her sting into their flesh.
But she could not. Only two hundred yards... but two hundred too many. She could not reach any house or any man unseen. They would see her. They would shut themselves off in their houses and she would not be able to reach them. Or they would organize a defence. These might not have been trained soldiers but villagers, but there were more than enough to pose a threat to her. Their weapons might not be swords, but several dozens of sickles and pitchforks would just be too much.
She needed dusk, at least. And it would not arrive in the next two or three hours. It seemed she was to face a long waiting. But she didn't want to leave. Were there any more humans further north? She did not know. So she just didn't want to go away. Not before she killed as many of these villagers as possible. She would sneak to their houses under cover of darkness, and kill the humans one by one.
She again scrutinized the village and the arrangement of the houses. There were a few of them that lay a little further from the others and, at the same time, a little closer to the forest – especially one small cabin. Its distance to the forest was surely half-smaller than two yards. A good start for her killing campaign. Yes, she would start from there. She would wait for nightfall, and then attack.
Her jaws snapped in impatient expectation.
The sun was near the horizon. The boy came out of the house and headed towards the chicken coop. As always at this time of the day, it was his duty to close the hens and prepare all they would need for the night, while his mother cooked supper. Their hens walk freely on a nearby meadow during the day, searching all sorts of crawling creatures they considered treats, while the vegetable-garden was fenced so that they would not ravage it.
When he finished his work and closed the door of the chicken coop, the ten-years-old looked towards the sky. The sun was just setting, and he knew the supper would not be finished in the next half of the hour. His gaze then wondered towards the forest. The small house in which he lived with his mother – he had no brother or sister, and his father was killed in the siege of Osgiliath – was the last one in the village. Between their cottage and the forest was just a little over hundred yards. It was a distance short enough to topple it over in a short run. In fact, he and his best friend, who lived in the neighbouring house, often raced to the forest.
They last did it yesterday evening before the supper, although all the adults were saying that it was forbidden to leave the village. Those hundred yards did not really count as leaving, did they? They could still see their houses, and they were still in the reach of the voices. And the adults just did not understand that the forest provided so many possibilities for exploring and fun. Some three weeks ago, as soon as it became warmer, they started to build a small house on one big tree near the border of the forest, whose trunk forked in a perfect way to form a platform for their secret nest. It was almost finished – they only had to complete the roof.
Their little house was perfect: invisible from the ground, unless the passer-by looked in exactly the right direction, while they could see the whole surrounding. They could watch column of ants following their paths on the branches. Observe owl's nest and her chicks on the neighbouring tree. Make plans for future explorations.
Yesterday they put more branches on the roof; they were quick and none of the grown-ups realized they had vanished for a quarter of an hour. Now they only had to finish their work. He got an old piece of leather from his mother; she didn't use it anymore because it had been damaged, but they wouldn't mind one small hole. When they put the leather over the roof, their little house would be protected from rain.
The boy looked towards the neighbouring house and the empty garden. Their animals were already closed for the night; disappointed, he thought that his friend was obviously occupied with some other tasks and that he would not be able to come out. He had already headed towards his house, walking as slowly as possible, when he heard the creak of the door and calling of his name. His friend did come out after all! His face lit up.
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