21. Following the Cats
They hastened through the garden. Elentar practically dragged her through the gate. Her heartbeat hurried, the straps of the backpack cut painfully into her shoulders. She felt adrift, as if caught in one of those nightmares where your feet are too heavy to lift, and the monster is coming for you.
When they were rushing along a narrow trail between fields and an orchard, Mina realized that the cats were not trying to get away from them, to escape from their sight. They were moving swiftly, as felines do. They ran in a determined way, as if they knew exactly where they were going, three grey shadows about thirty feet ahead of them. But they were not running away.
Mina relaxed slightly; her breathing grew a bit easier. A few yards down the trail she even took the time to brush a sweaty tendril of hair out of her face. An awkward, shaky gesture. Elentar was still holding her right hand. She realized it was useless to ask him to let go. He would only let go of her once they were wherever they were going, and not a second earlier.
"If someone sees us like that, they'll think we are completely nuts," she panted.
"I don't think we have many spectators out here," Elentar remarked dryly, his voice calm. He was not even breathing faster. "And if someone sees us, all they will see is a pair of hikers. Not all that unusual in the country of public footpaths."
"Do you always have to be right?"
But she had to smile. Walking began to feel a little easier. Now they were moving beyond the orchard, towards a clump of trees, a bit of a forest. Not much of a forest, just a few beeches, oaks, poplars and sycamores. It was a harmless, idyllic, open bit of English landscape. A landscape you would find painted on Rockingham porcelain, or maybe Wedgwood china, in delicate, easy colours. The idea of finding a way into another world between the sounds of bumblebees and larks, marching through air that was hot and sweet with resin and woodruff... seemed rather preposterous.
However, the cats certainly gave the impression that they knew exactly where they were going. And they were heading for the trees.
Elentar and Mina did their best to keep up with them.
Sunlight filtered through the leaves in flecks of green and gold. At the edge of the trail the white blossoms of strawberries peeked through the verdant green of spring grass. The path was a broad public footpath, firm ground with just a few low indentations where puddles would fill up when it rained. There was even a sign with the symbol of a white star nailed to a tree. But the cats kept going. Something tickled her nose, probably the pollens of some tree blossoms she was allergic against. She sneezed, closing her eyes for a moment. Blinking rapidly to clear her watering eyes, she frowned. A moment ago she'd been certain that they had almost passed through the small patch of forest. Now it looked as if they were just starting down the path into the forest. And it looked much more like a real forest, not at all like the bright, spacious wooded areas of England.
She blinked again.
She couldn't remember having seen any fir or spruce trees when they had entered into the forest. But now... Up ahead the trees were growing denser and darker, and they were most certainly not beeches or sycamores budding with spring. They were firs, forbidding, tall, intimidating firs.
She clutched Elentar's hand. "Elentar, I think - I think - we're... we're not where we were!"
What had she expected? A gate filled with stars? A sudden, painful tumble into the void between the worlds?
"I think you are right." Elentar's voice was still calm, but there was a certain tension to his strides. His hand closed more tightly around hers. "Whatever happens, don't let go. And if you do let go, don't leave the path."
Mina glanced at the darkening woods. The trees were pressing in on them now. Heavy branches reached out across the path, blocking out sight of sun and sky until nothing was left of the bright spring afternoon. Sweat was suddenly cold on her skin; she shivered. Were those soft silvery shadows between the branches high above their heads spider webs or spin-offs of her overactive imagination?
"What if the cats leave the path?" The thought turned her stomach into the proverbial knots.
"Doesn't look like it, so far."
He was right. In fact, the cats seemed to have slowed down a bit, as if they wanted to make sure their pursuers didn't lose sight of them. They hurried on in silence for a while. Their path was turning into a tunnel between the trees. The ground was firm brown earth and swallowed the sounds of their footsteps almost completely. No white strawberry blossoms or yellow anemones here, no pea green spring grass, only moss, heather, and the glossy teal of whortleberry and bilberry bushes. And here and there, almost translucent, glittering with dew, a hint of gossamer. A cold drop of wetness from one of the low boughs overhead hit the back of her neck. She shuddered, resisting the urge to look up. If the backpack had not been so heavy, she would have drawn up her shoulders, trying to duck away from the low boughs. Her breath was hot with the exertion, forming small clouds of mist before her. Some shreds of gossamer between the trees seemed large as sheets.
"Is that gossamer or are those spider webs? Because if those are spider webs, then I don't want to meet the web-weavers. That's worse than that Harry Potter movie."
"Chamber of Secrets?" The grin was audible in Elentar's voice.
"Yes. And I'm sure you are aware that the Middle-earth lore that made it into my world contains some references to arachnids as well."
Bilbo's story was the first that came to her mind. Was it possible that they were already in Middle-earth? That this was Mirkwood? But when Elentar had been born, Mirkwood had long since ceased to exist. Elentar had verified that detail of Fourth Age history. He knew Mirkwood as Eryn Lasgalen, as Greenwood. Of course that didn't necessarily mean that there were no spiders in those Elvish woods anymore. If they ended up in a time after Elentar had left Middle-earth to begin with, that was...
And Frodo's encounter with spiders had taken place in the mountains of Mordor, not in a forest...
"I'm aware of that. But... Mina, if you don't mind, I'd rather not tarry long enough to find out just which of those references would be the most relevant."
An undertone of fear in his voice made her lengthen her steps again, her heartbeat picking up the rhythm, hurried, panicky. For a while she managed to lose all thoughts, concentrating on her steps, on her breathing, on Elentar's hand firmly holding on to her, on the cats still streaking down the trail ahead of them.
So there were woods between the worlds... dark woods... with spider webs like circus tents. She tried not to think about what other spider stories besides Bilbo's haunted the legends of Middle-earth. A name came to mind. Compared to the other spider stories, Bilbo's arachnid adventures were positively cute.
She quickened her pace once more. She did not want to drag along behind him in this forest. When she was hurrying along right next to Elentar, the almost painful pressure of his hand around hers lessened somewhat. In spite of the exercise his skin was cold. He was scared.
The trail was growing even narrower ahead of them. Soon it would be impossible to walk next to each other. She chanced a look up at the sky. But there was no sky, only the darkness of trees and the sense of silky strands floating from above. And still the cats were running along in front of them.
Her foot caught. She stumbled, went almost down. For less than a second she stared into the gloom between the tree trunks. For barely a breath she was looking into the eyes of darkness personified. Many eyes were hidden in the shadows, cold, dark, glistening eyes, gazing at her, watching her every breath, watching every blink of her eye, biding their time...
Then Elentar's iron grip pulled her up, dragged her on. Yelping with pain, she limped on as fast as she could. The leg was not giving out under her. She ignored the pain and started running.
"Are you ok?"
"I think so." She was gasping and the ankle hurt, but she didn't want to slow down again. She didn't want to stand still one second in these woods between the worlds. She bumped up her backpack a little, then narrowed her eyes to concentrate on their feline guides. In the twilight of the woods it was becoming difficult for her to identify the grey silhouettes of the cats.
"Can you still see them?"
A moment of panic made her shake even as she hurried along next to Elentar. The path was almost too narrow to run side by side, but she didn't want to be behind him or in front of him.
"Yes, easily. My eyes are... what did he call them? 'keen Elvish eyes'?" There was just a hint of derision in Elentar's voice. Elentar still didn't breathe faster. He sounded almost as if he was lying on the sofa in front of the TV. Almost. She must have come to know him very well, she thought, if she was able to detect that faint hint of fear in his voice, that crack of worry, that tart tinge of ...
"Will these woods never end?" Another memory. A song, a scene she had always enjoyed. She gulped. She knew in her guts that it was as ill-advised now as it had been then to sing about trees and darkness ending. She tried to unthink the name her subconscious had dragged up from reading the Silmarillion once too often. She tried to un-remember a memory of water-colour paintings that didn't do reality justice.
"I think it's getting lighter in front of us."
"Yes?" She mustn't think of the name. She mustn't think of the name. Of the meaning. If she did, it would... that was stupid. She was an adult woman. Only because she was thinking of the name of a nightmare wouldn't make that terror come true.
"Hurry, Elentar." Panic was washing over her now. She knew she was losing hold of the ability to distinguish between reality and fear, succumbing to primeval brain chemistry designed to have unreasoning panic save her life when cool logic failed. Elentar put his right hand over their joined hands, then let go with the left, so he could slip his left arm between her back and her pack. He was effectively pushing and dragging her along now. Ahead of them, the cats were picking up speed, sprinting sleek shadows, quicker than the night amassing behind them.
"Oh God," she gasped. The woods rustled around them with the hissing sound of suppressed laughter: God? Which God?
But it was really getting brighter ahead of them. Mina stumbled again, but Elentar never lost his stride. For a moment he simply picked her up and carried her, then let her slide down and into his rhythm again.
Were that golden leaves shimmering through the gloaming? And there, a silver trunk that reminded her of a beech tree? That gnarled old tree, was that an oak?
All of a sudden, the trees were parting again, the path broadening ahead of them, the air smelling sweet now, dusty and warm.
Now the trees were falling back behind them. The twilight of the trees turned once more into the sparkling interplay of sunshine and shadow, of bright green leaves fluttering in a soft breeze. Only a few yards ahead a sunlit meadow beckoned, dotted with flowers, just waiting for butterflies and deer to come visiting the peaceful vista.
Her heart was still pounding, weakness in the wake of panic softening her stride.
We're leaving the woods behind us, she thought. We're almost there.
An icy gust grazed her neck, a cold caress. She did not want to look back. She was too afraid of what she might see. But for some reason she could not keep her eyes ahead on their path. She glanced backwards across her shoulder. Just a quick glance back to where they had come from.
Darkness seemed to flow behind the trunks of the trees, a darkness of many shapes and many eyes. Again she heard that voiceless laughter, and even as she stumbled against Elentar for the third time, the name was painfully clear in her mind.
"Run!" she screamed, and now it was Mina who dragged Elentar forwards, forgetting about the cats, forgetting about the path, panic propelling her forwards, only away, away from the woods, away from the night with many eyes.
They collapsed in the middle of the meadow. In the sunshine. In the bright, warm, golden sunshine.
"Oh God," Mina whispered. Her voice was hoarse, her eyes closed. The blood in her eyelids pulsed warm, red, alive. Soothing. "Oh God."
But somewhere in her mind a voice still whispered, syllables of gloom, syllables of darkness, sounds of death: Ungoliant.
For a long time they lay in silence in the sunshine, unheedful of their awkward, uncomfortable position, with the backpacks hard und unwieldy below them, side by side, with Elentar's arm still at her back.
"I didn't know that spiders can laugh," Mina said finally and opened her eyes again. Sunlight. A blue sky. White clouds. Wherever they were, it looked nice. Familiar. Peaceful. Perfect.
"Some spiders obviously can." Elentar slid his arm out behind her back. He winced, shaking the stiffness from the limb. "That was close."
He turned, looking into the direction where they had come from.
"The forest is gone!" he cried. "Or... it has drawn back." He squinted his eyes. "It looks as if it's still there, but at the horizon, like the distant shadows of night."
"Gone?" Mina remembered something else and clambered to her feet laboriously, staring around in alarm. "Not only the forest is gone! The cats are gone, too!"
With a fluid movement that belied the weight of his backpack, Elentar was at her side. "Indeed." He exhaled. "Well, nothing to be done about that. They are gone. But I don't think we have to worry about that now. It seems you were right. They did exactly what the story said. They found their way home."
"Then we are in Middle-earth now? Are you sure?" She looked around again. Then she smiled. "Flowers... sunshine... quiet... it looks perfect."
Elentar smiled back at her, but she could see that his mind was elsewhere. All at once his smile faded, leaving a concerned frown in its wake. "Perfect... Quiet..."
He bent down, picked a flower. Staring at the flower in his hand, the frown turned into an expression of fear. "Mina, it's not perfect. Everything here, everything is dead!"
"What?" she gasped.
"The flowers. They are dead. They... everything... is dead!"
He pressed the flower into her hand and rushed over to a bush, its twigs heavy with pea green leaf buds and trailing yellow blossoms, then Elentar turned back to her, horror widening his eyes.
She turned the flower over in her fingers. It looked like a daisy. It looked perfect. The colours, the texture.
But close up it didn't look like any flower she had ever held in her hands before. Unless she counted the expensive shock-frosted and desiccated ornamental roses she had once admired in a florist's shop. They had looked lifelike, perfect, and yet, they had been dry and dead. Just like this blossom. Soft, sweet, dry and dead.
"As if it was frozen at the height of bloom, dehydrated, and dried," she whispered. "Are they all like that?"
"Yes," Elentar replied. "No flower, no blade of grass is alive in this meadow. And what's more: listen! Do you hear any insects? Any bees humming, any flies buzzing, any birds singing?"
The flower fell from her fingers and floated to the ground.
"The quiet," Mina said. "It's too quiet."
"It's utterly silent." Elentar lowered his voice. "Your heartbeat is noisy like a drum."
"Do you know where we are? What can have caused this?"
"I have no idea."
And, in her mind: Silent now. I hear something. Someone is hiding behind those bushes over there.
"I dare say we'll find out, sooner or later. But whatever is the cause, I need to take a quick break now." He raised his eyebrows slightly at her, and dropped his pack on the ground.
"A quick snack wouldn't be a bad idea either," she said. But she thought: Be careful.
He was quick like lightning. One second he was standing beside her, the next he was fighting a form obscured by the bushes.
"An elf!" a female voice cried out in Sindarin. Elentar's opponent stopped struggling. "Who are you? You're not one of his..."
Mina did not understand the last word. Suddenly Elentar's voice was in her mind providing the translation: minions.
"Who are you? What happened here? Where are we?" He dragged the other person out of the bushes and onto the meadow. The newcomer was an Elvish woman. She was rail thin and dressed in rags. Her hair was a silvery stubble, shorn down to a skin that was streaked with blood. A deep gash graced the right side of her face. From the look of it the cheek bone was broken.
"She's human!" the Elf gasped in surprise, when she was standing before Mina. Elentar's mind-voice supplying the translation instantly.
"How is that possible?"
Elentar kept a hold on the Elf's upper arm, encircling it easily with one hand, so thin was she.
"I caught you; I get to ask the first question."
Silver eyebrows arched in amusement. But her eyes lingered on Mina. For a moment the eyes - silver tinged with blue - darkened, as if simply looking at Mina had given her essential information about the two travellers. A certain tension drained from the Elf's body.
"Where are we? And who are you?"
"Those are two questions."
Elentar must have tightened his grip on her, for she winced slightly.
"I said I would answer, hên. You are in Aman, the Damned Realm. And you have picked a very bad time for your visit. And for who I am?" She straightened, her eyes on fire. "I'm Celebrían, daughter of Galadriel and Celeborn, formerly wife of Elrond Peredhel. Now runaway slave and leader of our army, or whatever is left of it."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.