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Unto the ending of the world: 25. Hunt
May 21 – 24, 3019
Gimli was amazed as much as relieved that he and Legolas had made it to the Forest Gate, but here they were at last and it should be no more than a week to reach Thranduil's realm.
Legolas still stood looking south with an almost offended expression on his face. "Four weeks," he muttered, throwing pebbles at a dead tree stump as if it was the tree's fault that they had been so delayed.
"It would have been less if you had not let those Orcs near Rhosgobel get on our trail," Gimli pointed out.
"We would not have been anywhere near there if you had not insisted on hunting for trace of Radagast," Legolas retorted.
In truth, the Orcs had cost them no more than a day or two; it was only a small band, and they were quickly dispatched between the two of them. Most of the delay had come from having to avoid the other Orc troops marching south. Likely these were headed for the Ford, and Gimli hoped the Beornings were ready for an attack. As they did not yet wish to use the lembas the Lady had given them until they were inside the forest where food would be hard to find, time had also been lost to foraging and hunting after the supplies the Beornings had given them ran out. Gimli wisely said none of all the things he could have said, but remounted his horse and rode on into the forest.
"Gimli! Wait!" Legolas called out immediately.
He stopped and turned round to see Legolas struggling to keep control of his horse. The Gondorian horse appeared unwilling to continue, edging back every time Legolas attempted to have it move forward, and Gimli suspected it was only the Elf's skill with animals that kept it from bolting. In the end, Legolas had to dismount to lead the animal in under the trees. As Legolas calmed his horse enough to ride on, Gimli looked back towards the beginning of the path. Though the day was overcast, the contrast with the dark forest made the light blindingly bright.
After his eyes had readjusted to the gloomy forest, the Dwarf looked around curiously. He had of course traversed Mirkwood before, but though he had heard much from his father and Thorin's other companions, this was the first time he had been on this path. On the whole, the forest seemed much like it did near the Forest Road, though the trees were closer together and no wind played among them, the air stifling even this little distance into the forest. Putting aside his father's description of eyes in the dark, Gimli smiled at recalling the tale of how fat Bombur had fallen into the Enchanted River. But how would they themselves cross that stream, and, even if there still was a boat there, how would they get their horses across?
He turned to Legolas. "You said before that if we can reach the Enchanted River, you would be able to find your home from there. Have you thought about how we shall cross the River?"
"Of course," Legolas said, sounding altogether too smug for Gimli's liking.
"We use the bridge," the Elf added.
"The bridge? Has it been repaired? When?" Gimli asked.
"Oh, about ten years or so ago. It was still sound the last time I went there three years ago."
Frayed webs hung motionless in the still air under the trees, yet no spiders could be seen. Nor did they see any other living creature all morning, though Gimli thought several times that from the corner of his eye he saw something small skitter away. Should he warn Legolas? Or was he jumping at shadows?
"Wait," Legolas said suddenly, as he stopped his horse, and took aim at the trees above them.
So it had been spiders trailing them, Gimli thought, then noticed that the Elf was muttering to himself under his breath as he loosed his first arrows at the spiders that now approached openly.
"Legolas?" Gimli asked.
"Hm?" the Elf responded distractedly as he took aim at a new target.
"Are you counting?"
"Three – yes," Legolas said in reply, his next arrow dislodging a spider from a branch near the path.
"Then make sure to get your count up now; once they come within reach of my axe, the advantage will certainly be mine," Gimli spoke, hiding his satisfaction. After he had admitted to his second thoughts in Lothlórien, Legolas' mood had slowly improved the closer to their homes they came, and this could only be a sign that he was feeling well. Gimli could not use his axe from horseback, but he would be on solid ground soon enough once the spiders came. It seemed, though, that these spiders were not about to attempt prey that fought back, as the surviving creatures disappeared back into the darkness.
"Perhaps," Legolas said, looking worried, "But even with the warnings we had, I did not expect to find spiders, even young ones like these, less than half a day into the forest. Nor are the smaller ones normally this daring."
"You know this path best. If you think we should go back and try the Forest Road after all...?" Gimli would rather not return, but if going north had been a mistake, it would be better to retrace their steps now.
Legolas was silent for some time before he answered. "No. We would only lose more time if we went back, and the Forest Road is likely worse than this."
Though they saw no more spiders that day, or the next, Gimli was certain they were being watched. Legolas clearly felt the same, as he rode with his bow at the ready.
That evening as they made their camp, Gimli could hear something – or some things? he wondered – moving about in the vicinity. Their campfire only seemed to make the night darker, but at least he could see no eyes around them yet. That was something he recalled from Glóin's tales of his journey, how unsettling the constantly watching eyes were. He was not yet afraid, but he would be relieved to reach Thranduil's realm. Fangorn had been unsettling, but had felt merely watchful, awake, defensive. Here, there was a malevolence, a dark intensity in the watching.
"Legolas, I do not like this. There is something here, something evil." This was not his first crossing of Mirkwood, and the forest had never been a light place, but this he had not felt before. More than anything, it brought to mind the Paths of the Dead, or even the Nazgûl before Minas Tirith. Was it some dark influence of Dol Guldur that stretched this far north?
First, the Elf looked as if he was about to dismiss Gimli's concern with a joke, but when he spoke all levity had fled. "I fear you are right, but I do not see any other choice than to continue on this road."
Gimli was about to reply, when Legolas veered up and loosed an arrow into the dark. The angry hiss and thud that followed, confirmed he had struck his target. "Four. And you yet to start your count, Master Dwarf."
"I will have my chance yet," Gimli replied. "And then you will be doing the catching up. All the same, I would rather not have them within axe's reach before the morning light."
"That I agree with, even if I would debate the outcome of the contest," Legolas said. "I will take the first watch, and we should not consider our course until day sheds some light on it. Darkness is an ill counsellor."
Gimli slept fitfully and woke up thinking he felt the cold glare of spider eyes watching him, yet all he saw as he raised his head was the soft gleam of Legolas' eyes in the low light of their campfire. He wondered what time it was, but all he could make out was that the dawn was still far off. "Is it my watch already?" he asked as Legolas met his gaze.
"No," Legolas replied. "Another half hour or so, but do not go back to sleep. The spiders are all around, even if they do not yet come close."
Beyond their fire's small circle of light, it was dark enough that Gimli could almost make himself believe that he was deep under the mountains, surrounded by the comfort of solid rock. There! As he turned his head towards a sudden sound in the trees, Legolas had already jumped up, gazing into the darkness above them. Gimli grabbed his axe as he stood up also, all thought of sleep gone.
"Put more wood on the fire," Legolas said as he tensed his bow and fitted an arrow to the string. "And untie and saddle the horses, but keep hold of their reins."
After taking care of the fire, Gimli walked over to untie the horses. His own mount, while alert, did not appear overly nervous, but the Gondorian horse was trembling, the whites of its eyes showing as it tried to look everywhere around it at once. "Are you certain I should release the horses?" Gimli called out to Legolas. "Yours is about to bolt."
"Saddle them, but keep them hobbled," Legolas replied. "I will try to calm them."
Gimli took over the watch while Legolas put his hand on his horse's head and spoke softly to the animal until it had calmed down again. He then undid the hobbles on the horses' legs and led them closer to the fire.
"Legolas! They are getting nearer!" Gimli could see the spiders' eyes now.
The Elf hurriedly bent down to pick up some long branches from the forest floor, and held them in the fire. "We must go. The spiders fear fire. If we use these brands to light our path, we may still escape. There are some more open areas ahead, where we can rest more safely."
"Which way? Back? And do not the Elves patrol this part of Mirkwood?" Gimli asked.
"No," Legolas responded, "I fear the larger spiders have circled round behind us, to cut us off from the edge of the forest. They may not expect us to go east by our own choice. We might encounter patrols once we are across the Enchanted River, but that is still two days' hard riding. Should we be separated, keep to the path, and keep heading east."
Taking a firmer grip on his axe, Gimli only nodded at the instruction. Not only were the spiders close enough that their eyes reflected the light of their fire, but he could also hear the thin, cold sound of their chittering at each other. It was almost as if there were words in it.
As Legolas turned to mount his horse, the frightened animal skitted away far enough that it came under an overhanging branch. Immediately, a spider, much larger than the ones they had faced the previous day, dropped down to the horse's hindquarters. The horse reared, throwing the spider to the ground and pulling its lead rope free from Legolas' hand.
Gimli stood ready to strike at the spider, but the horse, despite its fear, reared again to bring down its front hooves on the beast until it stopped moving.
Legolas attempted to take his horse's lead rope again, but it backed away nervously, and as two more spiders dropped down on its back, it bolted, the spiders clinging on. Unexpectedly, the Lórien horse pulled free also and followed the other animal. Gimli cursed sharply, then looked around quickly to see where the remaining spiders were.
About ten more spiders scurried into the clearing, the largest he had seen by far, some heading for him, the others moving towards Legolas, who backed away slightly as he drew his long knife.
"Legolas! Above you!" Gimli called out, just as the biggest of the spiders on the ground darted towards him, its fangs snapping at his boots in vain. He did not see how Legolas dealt with his assailants, as he needed all his attention on his own spiders, but by the time he was done, the Elf stood near the fire, examining his left hand closely.
"You are wounded?" Gimli asked as he came closer.
"A bite. One of the smaller spiders got me," Legolas said, rubbing at the red marks on his hand and arm that Gimli could now clearly see. "It is nothing."
"If you say so," Gimli replied. "I..."
Legolas gestured him to silence, and stood listening for some minutes. "The spiders have gone, and so must we."
Gimli glanced up anxiously at the trees, but all he could make out was darkness.
"If we stay here, they will be back with reinforcements. Our hope is to keep on the move," Legolas said.
"Hope?" Gimli snorted. "What hope have we on foot, when the spiders are already hunting us?"
"Very little," Legolas admitted, still distractedly rubbing at his hand. "Even if we run as we did through the fields of Rohan, it is at least three days to the Enchanted River."
"Then run we will," Gimli said, as he met Legolas' gaze. "And the spiders may yet find us harder prey than they care to bargain for."
Legolas gave an almost feral smile in return. "Indeed, even if you still have to match my count, friend."
"You are not that far ahead," Gimli defended himself indignantly. "I only need two to catch up."
They ran all through the morning, at first lighting their way with the burning branches they had taken from their campfire. The forest canopy was not as dense as the previous day, and once the sun had risen, bright sunlight dappled the ground. They had not seen any spiders for a while, but even so, Gimli could not escape the feeling that black doom was closing in on them and that the brightness of the day was no more than a cruel mockery. No matter how fast they ran, their respite from the spiders could only be brief. He also suspected that Legolas' assertion that the spider bites did not bother him was not entirely true.
"Are you sure you are well?" he asked as they rested briefly. "You seem more tired than you ought to be."
"Yes, quite certain," Legolas replied, "The bites itch, that is all."
Close to noon, Legolas suddenly halted to look at a clearing near the path. Gimli stopped also, curious what could have caught his attention. As he followed the Elf's gaze, he saw what seemed no more than a small area of raised ground among the undergrowth.
"That was mine," Legolas said.
Gimli looked at him blankly, not understanding what he referred to. Then, as he studied the half-shadowed shape closer, he saw that it was a horse, its outline almost disguised by a cocoon of spider webs. "I only see one. Maybe the other one escaped?"
"Perhaps," Legolas replied. "But it is Elven-trained and should have returned to us after it first ran, so I fear not." He scratched at the spider bite on his left hand, and, at Gimli's glance, explained, "Spider-poison always itches; it truly is nothing to be concerned about."
"As I have never yet been bitten by one, I can only take your word for it. On, then, if you are certain you are well," Gimli said, turning back towards the path. He was still unconvinced by Legolas' assurances.
Before they could go on, Legolas grabbed his arm to draw his attention, and Gimli turned around rapidly. Spider! But it seemed they had not yet been seen, as the beast was single-mindedly moving towards the dead horse. Gimli looked at Legolas. Could they yet escape? Legolas gestured at him to very slowly move back towards the shadowed undergrowth at the edge of the path.
Keeping his eyes on the spider, Gimli slowed edged back, hoping their Lórien cloaks might offer some protection if the spider happened to look their way. Legolas moved equally slowly, taking an arrow and slowly tensing his bow, but as he fit the arrow to the bow, the string snapped.
Though the sound could not have been loud, it was enough to alert the spider to their presence. The beast turned and quickly scuttled up into the trees, disappearing from sight. Gimli watched and waited, axe in hand, while Legolas was rummaging in his pack for a spare bowstring.
"Where there is one, there will be more," Legolas said as he restrung his bow. "We must be off before they return."
They ran even faster now, though there were no spiders yet that Gimli could see and only a few webs. Soon, though, the forest grew denser again and they had to slow down to dodge webs that hung over the path from overhead branches.
"All these are old webs. We may still be ahead of them," Legolas said, just as they came around a turn in the path.
"Not so," Gimli responded as they came to a hurried stop to avoid running into the webs that had been set across the path. He took hold of his axe to hew at the barrier, but Legolas stopped him.
"The threads would stick to the blade," the Elf explained as he drew his own knife to slash at the web.
"And not to your knife?" Gimli asked.
"No, Elvish..." Legolas started to reply, then stopped and whirled round.
Gimli turned also, just in time to bring his axe down on the leg of a spider that was larger than any he had seen yet. Its body was easily the size of a pony, its fangs as long as Gimli's underarm. Hissing angrily at him, the spider drew back out of reach before Gimli could strike again.
"Can you get through the web?" Gimli asked Legolas, keeping his eyes on the spider. "I doubt we can easily make it back past this one, and our road lies eastward." Without saying anything in reply, Legolas started on the threads. "Quickly," Gimli added, some urgency creeping into his voice as more spiders approached. These were not as large as the one already there, he noticed with some relief.
The big spider stayed out of reach, drawing back every time Gimli moved towards it. As soon as he had driven it back some ten yards, the others spiders darted past him, and he realised it must have been the spiders' intention to separate them.
"Legolas, watch out," Gimli called, not stopping to look behind him, but even the brief loss of attention was enough for the big spider to be upon him. Despite its wounded leg, the spider moved faster than Gimli would have thought possible, and he found himself fending off the snapping jaws from far closer than he would have liked. Those fangs looked wicked and he had no desire to find out for himself whether spider-poison itched.
At least his axe seemed to instil some respect in the beast, and except for some scratches he kept it from getting those fangs in his flesh, even if it took all his skill to do so. He could not risk looking around to see how Legolas was doing against the other spiders, but that question was soon answered when several arrows in quick succession struck the spider's right eye. Two opponents were clearly more than it cared to take on by itself, and the spider quickly turned and ran.
"What took you so long?" Gimli turned towards Legolas.
"I was busy," the Elf answered. "Twelve, by the way."
"But not without further wounds," Gimli observed as Legolas came closer, and he could see a long, ragged-looking cut along the other's right arm. "And do not tell me that it is nothing," he cut Legolas short as the Elf started to reply.
"It is not as bad as it looks," Legolas protested. "Just help me clean and bind it, and then we must go on. It can be looked after properly later." Gimli doubted they would get very far, but said nothing. The Elf was right, though, he noted as he held a strip of cloth in place while Legolas wound the other end around his arm; even if the skin around it looked red and irritated, the wound was more like a deep scratch than anything.
"It is getting dark already. We should carry fire again, if it will help keep the spiders at bay," Gimli said. Legolas nodded in agreement and went to look for suitable branches, while Gimli started a small fire to light them.
Gimli made sure to stay behind Legolas when they went on, so he could keep an eye on him while they ran. At first, the Elf appeared well enough, but it was quickly apparent that he was short of breath, and he began to stumble. After Legolas nearly fell, Gimli was about to call for a halt, when Legolas stopped himself.
"I... I cannot go on," he managed to say in between gasping for air. "I can barely breathe, and my head is spinning."
"Then we will rest here," Gimli said. "You will feel better in the morning."
"Perhaps," Legolas replied as he sat down, wrapping his cloak around himself tightly. Gimli noted that the Elf was trembling as if he was feeling cold, and he quickly collected some dead wood that he could pick up without going too far, and lit a fire.
"Let me look at your arm," Gimli said as he returned, forcing a cheerful tone. Legolas held out his arm without protest, and that worried the Dwarf even more. He said nothing as he unwound the cloth they had used to bind it, though when he uncovered the wound he could not stop himself from gasping in shock. The edges of the wound were swollen and almost black in colour.
"Do we carry anything against infection?" Gimli asked. "I should boil some of our water to wash it out, but what else?"
"Elves do not get infection in wounds," Legolas said softly.
"Then what would you call that?" Gimli reacted vehemently. "And do not say again that it is nothing. I am no healer, but I know that looks bad."
"It is not infected," Legolas insisted weakly, then raised his left hand to stop Gimli from interrupting. He paused to regain his breath before he went on, speaking slowly now. "It is the spider's poison. I have been bitten before, and never was it worse than a rash and the bite itself, which would heal soon enough."
"Then...?" Gimli started to say as Legolas huddled deeper into his cloak, shivering violently. "Are you cold?" Legolas only nodded, and remained silent as Gimli took off his own cloak and wrapped it around him, keeping his arm around the Elf's shoulder so the other could lean against him. With his other hand he held his makeshift torch aloft, even if he knew not how he could hold the spiders off if they attacked again.
After some time, Legolas went on. "I have seen this... It was a Man, from... from Dale. He died within a few... a few hours after he... was bitten."
Gimli shuddered. He did not know how long he sat there, holding Legolas. The Elf did not speak again and lay silently, leaning against him. It had gone dark some time before, and unlike under the mountains, here he was disoriented, his sense of both time and place gone.
To his surprise Legolas opened his eyes again, and turned his head to look at him.
"Gimli, I can hear the Sea," Legolas whispered, so low that Gimli could barely hear him, yet the words cut straight to his heart. "Can you hear it too?"
"Yes," Gimli responded, tears blurring his eyes. "Yes, I can."
"Good," Legolas said, before drawing in one shuddering breath and going still. It was some time before Gimli could bring himself to close the Elf's staring eyes.
What should he do? he wondered as he reluctantly got up to collect more firewood. The spiders would be back soon, and fire would not keep them back forever. He could stay here with Legolas, fight until the spiders overwhelmed him, and die beside his friend, or he could attempt to reach the Elves. At least then they would know that Sauron had the Ring, and Thranduil would have word of his son's death. But how could he get that far, alone and on foot?
He was torn from his thoughts by a rustling among the trees, and he jumped up, axe in one hand, burning branch in the other. If the choice had already been made for him, he would not submit easily. To his surprise, it was not a spider, but the Lórien horse that emerged from the forest.
"Curse you," Gimli yelled. "Where were you before? We would have had a chance!"
The horse whickered softly and lowered its head, almost in apology, as if it understood him. Slowly, the animal came closer. Gimli could now see that it was limping, and must have had its own confrontation with the spiders, for he noticed several wounds along its neck and back.
As he looked at the horse, he knew he had just been offered a chance. On horseback he might make it to the Enchanted River, and then, if he got that far, and luck was with him one more time, on the other side of the river he would find an Elvish patrol, and safety.
No, he thought frantically, looking at Legolas again, I cannot let the filthy spiders have him. Was there anything he could do? He could use his axe to dig a grave, if he had but the time, but the spiders were certain to be upon him once more as soon as they found him alone. There were no rocks for a proper cairn. Fire? A pyre would take time too, and he had no dry wood or oil to ensure the flames would burn hot enough. What then? Legolas would want him to go on, to warn the Elves.
With a sob, Gimli folded Legolas' hands on his breast and placed his bow and arrows beside him before rising to mount the Lórien horse. He did not look back as he rode away east towards the Enchanted River.
The horse seemed to recognise his urgency, and settled into a fast trot that Gimli knew it would be able to keep up for a long time without rest, at least if its limp did not get worse. He could feel it keeping the weight off its left front leg as it ran. Would it be enough? Or were the spiders hunting him again even now? The improvised torch he still carried showed him nothing, yet his mind's eye provided images of giant spiders converging on him, closing in for the kill.
Suddenly, the horse stopped. Gimli lost hold of the burning branch, which guttered out slowly on the ground. He only just kept from falling himself, and now sat in the dark, trying to see what the horse had reacted to. It had to be close to dawn; he could make out the shapes of the trees around him. He could also make out other shapes. There were spiders ahead, several as large as the one he had faced the day before.
"Run if you can; try to find the path again, but get us away from the spiders," he said softly, hoping the horse would understand him. Clearly, it did, for it turned and sprang away, stumbling and recovering as it retraced their steps.
Just as Gimli realised they were heading away from the Enchanted River and Thranduil's lands, the horse stumbled again, and fell. Though he managed to roll away and avoid getting caught underneath the animal, a sharp pain shot through his leg, and he knew he would not be able to go much further, even if there had been no spiders nearby.
The horse was still on the ground, squealing piteously as it attempted to stand up again. That leg... it looked, no, it was broken, as Gimli feared his own leg might be as well. He should get up, and put the poor animal out of its misery, yet as he attempted to stand, his leg buckled under him, refusing to bear his weight. He snorted derisively; he should put himself out of his misery while he was at it... not that the spiders would not take care of him soon enough.
Gimli could see the spiders better as it was getting lighter. They were still wary of him, even now. He took hold of his axe, and somehow, resting the axe-head on the ground, pushed himself back to a standing position. The leg was not broken then. It mattered little. He wondered what Thranduil would think about his son dying beside a Dwarf, then realised he would not have to worry about what the Elf King might say.
Slowly, the spiders were moving towards him, taking care to stay out of axe reach. They were trying to drive him closer towards the trees. He risked a quick glance behind – a large web between trees; but no spiders, not yet – then nearly fell as he had to turn around again quickly to fend off a spider. Even in that brief moment of distraction, one of the spiders had dashed in close, trying to slash at him. He kept his feet, but it could not be long before they overpowered him.
Again, two spiders moved closer. Gimli waited as long as he dared, then struck, his axe squelching through the first bloated body. "Seven," he said softly, then, "Eight," as the second spider was still within reach. He looked at the spiders surrounding him. "Come here and finish it, you filth."
The largest spider started to edge forward, then stepped back as he raised his axe.
Movement at the edge of his sight. He turned as quickly as he could, and the spider that had moved in closer skittered back. He turned back the way he had been facing, only just in time to chop at the legs of the spider that had used the distraction to come closer. Again. And curse it, he was losing ground. Every time he turned, they were driving him nearer the trees.
He risked a glance behind him. Less than a yar... He stumbled to his knees as a weight from above fell against him, and a searing pain shot through his leg. The spider that had been in the tree had jumped too soon to fall on top of him. The others rushed in, but he still had hold of his axe, and he hewed at the legs of the large spider as the beast darted in for the kill. Not so fast. I am not yet entirely helpless. They were now close enough to bite, and it would not be long.
One of the smaller spiders was the first to get a bite in. As he chopped at it, the other spiders crowded closer, and he fell over. He still had his axe in hand, but he found himself unable to move his legs even before another spider dared come close enough to bite. Somehow he found the strength to move his hand to his breast, where lay the bright strands of her hair that Galadriel had given him.
Legolas was right, Gimli thought as his sight went black. Spider bites do itch.
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