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The rangers hadn't stopped for hours, and they had been on the move since that short break when they had lunch. The day was passing and the sun was getting nearer the horizon. Checking its position when he was able to see it through the treetops, Haldar saw it would soon set.
It was more than clear that the creature was going towards Mindal, and one didn't have to be very wise to conclude that its intentions were not good; it surely didn't go straight towards a settlement, only to pass it by and continue the way. Haldar silently prayed they wouldn't be too late. So many things had gone wrong since the spider had appeared on the Gondorian side of the Mountains: missing civilians, Galador's death during the first scouting mission, and death of nine more men in the battle with the orcs. And he had so hoped there wouldn't be any more casualties.
He was now very worried about the smaller group led by Aranir; he was worried about the inhabitants of Mindal; he was worried about the soldiers of their own squad. He wished there were much more than twenty, which was their current number. As it seemed, captain Faramir considered the ratio favourable, but Haldar knew he would be upset until the very end.
Battles were always dangerous, always, and so many things could go wrong. He knew it all too well. And he hated risks.
As he was hurrying toward the village, he recalled another battle fought several years ago. The images appeared before his eyes, as they had countless times before. He still remembered the smallest details of that fateful day.
It was a gloomy autumn day. Heavy clouds lay very low over the Mountains of Shadow, and it felt as if it was enough merely to stretch an arm to touch them. It was only early afternoon, but under those black clouds it looked as if the night was very near. A few months later, when Haldar saw the eclipse spreading from Mordor towards the Pelennor Fields and Minas Tirith, he realized that the clouds on that autumn day had looked just like the ones during the siege of the city. And he concluded that, even back then, it was Sauron's magic at work. But that autumn day, he did not know it.
There was one more thing that he didn't know – that the orcs would attack already in the afternoon. Based on the reports about the orcs' advancement, they expected the evening attack on Henneth Annun and prepared for the battle; he had already planned how to surprise the orcs while they were still on the move, and how to destroy a large part of their troops. But nothing unfolded as he had planned.
The orcs could roam around during daylight if they had to, but they rather avoided it. However, under those accursed clouds everything was so dark: the trees and golden autumn leaves and soil looked dark-grey, and the air itself seemed to be denser and opaque. It was as if the twilight had arrived several hours before-time, so orcs' progress was easier. When Haldar thought about it later, he saw it as another argument for Sauron's influence over weather.
The orcs attacked earlier than the Rangers expected – earlier than the squad that should have reinforced the Henneth Annun deployment managed to arrive to the destination. Earlier than the Rangers managed to set the traps they had planned. And in the end, the orcs did not attack the base. They went after the easier prey – after the squad that was still on the way.
The attack occurred close to the base. One ranger from the attacked group hurried forward as a messenger and reported about the clash. The situation was not good when he left; there were many orcs, and the odds for the rangers were not favourable.
But they weren't lost yet, either. They were seasoned soldiers, and they could long resist the orcs even though they were highly outnumbered. And the site of the battle was less than half an hour of march away.
Staying in the base and preparing the traps for the expected evening battle were now out of the question. Things changed, which meant that his plan had to change too. He led his men to a rescue mission.
And they did arrive on time. A part of the squad was still holding and resisting the orcs, who were then – as many more rangers arrived – utterly destroyed.
He saved some lives. But other lives were lost. And among the rescuers who perished was his son.
Haldar shook his head, chasing away images and memories, and focused on the terrain around him. He had to be careful – it wouldn't be good at all to trip over a protruding root or a rock and fall flat on his face. Fortunately, the chances for that scenario became lower – regardless of his concentration. They almost reached the plain, so the ground became flatter and the forest sparser. He judged they were only about a hundred feet far from the meadow. The tracks were still leading unvaryingly to the village, and he could only hope they were not late.
Eru... please, don't let anybody else get hurt.
She looked towards the settlement, almost not believing her luck. The two humans – judging by their size, they must have been cubs – went out of their dwellings and ran towards the forest. That would make the start even easier! The first two preys would fall here, out of the village, and she would catch them hidden from all views, totally unhindered. She could even eat at least one of them. She wasn't very hungry, but an extra meal was always welcome. And then she would continue her quest.
A wind was blowing from the west, bringing their scent and the shouts they released while running. Obviously, they were happy and carefree. Soon, they will be neither. They will be food, she thought, satisfied. She retreated a few steps and partially hid behind one big bush. She first wanted to see how deep the cubs would go into the forest, but in any case, she didn't mean to wait long before attacking. They might decide to return to their houses soon, and she didn't want to miss this opportunity.
The cubs reached the edge of the forest, and she started to consider the possibilities for the attack. Then she realized her luck grew even more. After just standing on the edge and giggling for a few moments, they headed inside the forest.
This couldn't turn out any better, she grinned.
The boy stopped next to the first trees, catching his breath. He lost again! It actually happened quite often, because his friend was a little taller and had slightly longer legs. But he immediately smiled, not caring about the defeat. It felt so great to run at full speed and to feel the wind on the face!
They were standing next to the trees, laughing. Soon his heartbeat and breathing slowed down. Then he moved, and his friend walked next to him.
They headed towards their secret nest. Here in the forest it was a little darker than in the open, but the sun had only set minutes ago and there was still enough light for them to easily see everything. They would be able to climb without problems, and they would attach the leather to the roof. And then it will be finished, he thought merrily. It was only fifty feet away from the forest edge and they would reach it in a moment. They would not need more than quarter of an hour for the whole project, and he hoped that none of the adults would notice their short absence.
They passed about three quarters of the way, merrily chatting as they went, when he heard noises behind their back. Loud, and quite obviously undisguised. He stopped and turned around.
And stood in shock, his mouth agape when he saw the creature behind them. His eyes opened wide. His blood froze, his heart beat like crazy. He was paralyzed.
When the rangers reached the foothills, they spread to cover the bigger area. While Haldar strode forward with huge steps, many thoughts raced in his mind. How far ahead the spider was? Did it already attack? Was some villager killed? Did the spider already move on? Would this pursuit continue?
As he hurried as much as he could, driven by sheer power of will, he truly hoped it would not. Although the concern for the civilians was what had driven him and given him the strength to endure, they had been marching for fourteen hours and he began to feel the weight of his sixty years. He thought that – if the pursuit went on for an hour or two more – he would simply collapse after it, and not get up for the whole next day.
Actually, if it really went on, he hoped he would not collapse even before its end. He really wasn't young anymore.
And then a scream echoed – a woman's or child's, as it sounded – and his fatigue vanished entirely. A new dose of adrenalin exploded in his body and his muscles pulled out the new strength.
Rangers' fast striding turned into running.
The eyes of the human whelps were wide open, they were visibly shaking, and obviously couldn't move. She liked what she saw. Catching those previous humans had been no great feat – she had simply jumped out of her cover and stung them, finishing the hunt quickly. And now... well, why wouldn't she have some fun?
She headed towards them but stopped after only two steps and looked at them, observing the reactions. They started to shiver even more. Nice. One cub was silent, and the other started to snivel.
Yes, this was fun.
Young as they are, they must be very tasty, she thought. Yes, she would definitely eat one of them right away, as she had decided earlier. Then she would kill as many people in the village as possible before they discover her, although she knew she would have to leave all of them behind. What a huge waste of meat, she thought, not for the first time these days. But once she would finish her attack on the village, she would return this way and take the other cub with her; that much she would be able to carry without problems.
Two more steps and she stopped again; now she was mere five feet away from them. They were small, she looked at them from the height, and it seemed they got even smaller – as if they were pulling their heads into shoulders and shrank. One of them made a small step back, but stumbled and fell on his buttocks. Clumsy fool. But you wouldn't be able to escape even if you hadn't fallen, I am quicker than you, she grinned with malice.
The standing cub still snivelled and it started to irritate her, and the one on the ground began to release some whimpering sounds while water started to leak from its eyes.
These humans are really pathetic...
And then she heard noises from behind her back. From the forest.
She quickly turned and looked backwards. At first she didn't see anything, she just heard more sounds. Then, in the next moment, she noticed a move among the trees. And another. And one more.
The humans were emerging from the forest. They were approaching quickly, and it was impossible not to notice swords in their hands.
Why didn't I catch their scents in time?!?! Why didn't I feel the vibrations in the ground?!?!
Her mind grasped the answers in the very next moment. And she was furious – both at the circumstances, and herself.
Because the wind blows from the meadow, and the soldiers are coming from the forest and the wind direction helped them!!! And because you were so absorbed with these cubs, you idiot, that you shut out the rest of the world around you!!!
In the next moment she saw more of them coming – now there were at least ten. And they were running towards her.
She had only a fraction of a second to decide. Ten – or even more – armed men were too much. Her only way out of this was escape; perhaps she could be faster than them. A quick glance around told her that the only possible route of the flight was the border of meadow and forest, towards the north.
But even though she wouldn't be able to feast on one whelp and take the other with her, she would accomplish at least a part of her intentions. They were still just a few feet away, and the stroke of her sting, as she would pass next to them, would last less than the blink of an eye.
They must die.
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