Riding beneath the first boughs of the forest, Elrohir glanced upward. “It feels no different than before,” he commented. “The darkness is still far away, thank the Valar. I had begun to fear that Lasgalen was unrecognisable.”
“But the darkness is still there,” Elladan pointed out. “Far away, but it is there. Do you recall how peaceful it used to be? When we could ride out with Legolas when we were mere elflings?”
Elrohir smiled at the memories. “Yes, when the only dangers were so-called friends with fake spiders. Or wolf cubs with an over-protective mother. Or the time I nearly drowned in the Luithaduin. Or sudden blizzards that nearly froze us to death. Or –”
Elladan laughed. “Very well. There were dangers of another sort then. Especially for adventurous, reckless elflings. But it is called ‘Mirkwood’ now for a reason.”
“Perhaps.” Elrohir turned on his horse and looked back at his brother. “But El, I would be careful using that term in the hearing of Legolas or Thranduil. I think you would find danger of another sort then! How you like our home to be given a name of such ill omen?”
Elladan shrugged. “Ah, you are right, of course. Lasgalen, then.” He stared pensively at the trees. “Yet I can still feel the darkness. A foreboding.”
They rode on through the forest, beneath beeches and oaks and birches. Sunlight slanted down, shining in bright patches on the forest floor and burnishing the autumn leaves to brilliant coppers, bronzes and reds. Squirrels darted up and down the trees, gathering acorns and hazelnuts, scrabbling in the leaf mould as they buried their hoard for the winter.
As dusk fell they halted beneath an ancient oak whose branches spread protectively across the path. The path was wider here, and the light of a half-moon shone down, casting sharp leaf-shadows on the ground. Elladan cast their bed rolls down while Elrohir vanished into the forest to hunt for their supper. He soon returned with two buck rabbits, and began to roast them over the fire Elladan had kindled. They ate swiftly, and drank from their water skins, filled that morning at a spring next to the entrance to the forest. Elladan seemed restless, and began to pace to and fro beneath the great oak. Suddenly he turned to Elrohir.
“El, do you want to stop? Or shall we go on? I feel ... uneasy about this place. The sooner we reach Thranduil’s halls the happier I shall be. There seems something wrong.”
Elrohir hesitated. To ride on through the night would be no particular hardship, though he would prefer to rest for at least a few hours. But they trusted one another completely, and he trusted Elladan’s instincts now, for he seemed to have inherited more than his fair share of their grandmother’s foresight. His brother’s premonitions of danger had been proved right many times. He nodded. “Then we continue. But keep alert – many of the hunters in this forest are nocturnal. And if you are right, there may be something drawing near.”
Swiftly, they gathered together their belongings, and strapped the packs back onto the horses. The small fire was already dying, and Elladan stamped it out before pouring a little of their water over the ashes.
They rode carefully, for the horses’ night-sight was not particularly good. But the moonlight shining down illuminated the path well enough, and they made good progress. The night was full of noises. A pair of owls hooted softly to one another from adjacent trees, and the sharp, eerie cry of a fox came from the south. There was nothing abnormal to be seen or heard, yet Elrohir found his own apprehension growing. Some of it was the overspill of Elladan’s unease, but Elrohir could sense the oppression of the forest himself.
Towards midnight Elrohir heard the faint sound of hoof beats. He and Elladan stopped their own horses in the same instant, moving to a patch of black shadow in a curve of the path. Elladan glanced at him. “Two, I think,” he whispered softly.
Elrohir nodded. “Yes. They have stopped now as well.” He listened intently, attention focused on the horses and their riders ahead. All was silent now. “What do you think – elves?”
“Yes,” Elladan agreed. “But Thranduil’s patrols do not usually ride at night, do they?”
“No, we do not,” stated a voice above them. Two warriors dropped soundlessly to the ground in front of them. Elrohir cursed silently. He had forgotten how stealthy the wood-elves could be in their own trees. “However, times are increasingly dangerous. We were sent to look for you.”
Elrohir glanced at his brother as they walked with the two warriors to where the other horses waited. “You were sent? Who sent you?”
“Prince Legolas.” The guards mounted, then the first turned back to them as they rode on. “I am Amandil; my companion is Nólimon. Several large groups of spiders were seen yesterday, moving north towards the path. They must be seeking territory to establish new breeding grounds. Legolas has taken a patrol after them, and asked us to warn you. Come. We will cross the river, then halt until morning.”
A short way further on they reached the Luithaduin. A narrow bridge crossed the water, and they would only be able to ride in single file. Amandil turned to them again. “This is the Luithaduin. Be wary in crossing it – the waters carry enchantment,” he warned. “It will cause deep sleep and forgetfulness if you were to set foot in it.”
Elladan nodded gravely. “We will take care. Remember that, El – do not fall in!”
Nólimon laughed, speaking for the first time. “Have you never heard the tale, Amandil? One of these two fell in once, long, long ago, when the rope swing broke! Which of you was it?”
“Me,” Elrohir admitted over Amandil’s laughter. He smiled. “I fear I recall little of the event myself. I am glad the tale still amuses you, though.”
Elladan scowled. “It was not funny at the time,” he snapped. “Elrohir nearly died. And he never has regained his memories of that day. You must find it most amusing!” He lapsed into silence and rode across the bridge, as the others stared after him in surprise.
They made camp for what remained of the night a little further on. Elrohir drew his brother aside as they unloaded their horses again. “El? What is the matter?” he asked quietly. “That was not like you. You have told the tale yourself – at my expense – many times. So what is wrong now?”
Elladan gave a deep sigh. He rubbed at the back of his neck, twisting his head slightly. “I feel tense,” he admitted. “Something still feels wrong. Their arrival,” – he gestured at Amandil and Nólimon – “has made it worse.”
“What have you seen? What do you fear will happen?” Elrohir asked. “Do not try to hide anything this time, El, in an attempt to spare my feelings!”
His brother nodded. “I cannot see anything clearly. But there are spiders – very many of them. A battle – I think we will have our spider hunt at last!” he added with an attempt at humour. “I see the two of us tending someone who has fallen to the spiders – but I cannot see who it is!” he ended in frustration.
“Do you know when?”
Elladan shook his head. “No. Nothing is ever clear; you know that. If it was, I would try to prevent things before they happened – despite grandmother’s warnings about doing that. But with the warning they brought about the spiders – soon, I think. And someone is going to be hurt.”
Amandil and Nólimon insisted on sharing the watch between them. As there were only a few hours until dawn, there seemed little point in arguing, so Elladan and Elrohir settled on their bed rolls, wrapped in their cloaks. Looking up at the trees, Elrohir pondered what Elladan had said. He had had these visions and premonitions before, but they could be unreliable. How much importance should they place on it this time? As he drifted into sleep, he wished he could ease Elladan’s burden, but was immensely grateful that he did not share this so-called ‘gift’.
Some time later, Elrohir snapped awake, his senses warning him of some danger. He saw Elladan looking straight at him, awaked in the same instant. Simultaneously, Amandil gave a cry of warning. “Spiders!” Elrohir threw his cloak aside and leaped to his feet, snatching up the weapons which lay at his side.
Spiders came swarming through the trees, very many of them. As they came to the break in the trees that marked the path, they began to drop to the ground, descending on long, thick strands of spider-silk. Elrohir sheathed his sword and drew his bow. If he could kill these creatures at a safe distance, so much the better. The air sang with the hum of bowstrings and soft whisper of arrows, then soft thuds as the arrows struck home. The spiders had been silent as they approached, but now began an odd hissing and clicking as they attacked.
They moved incredibly quickly, and with an odd, jerky gait that made it very difficult to strike them square on. Elrohir was used to enemies that rushed straight at him, when he knew where they were, where they were going, and how long he had to kill them. Some of the spiders made straight for him, but others scuttled sideways, or backwards, or if still attached to their threads would suddenly drift upwards. Others would drop without warning from above. He fought grimly, alternating between killing the spiders on the ground and aiming for those still in the trees. He jerked his head up at a shout of warning from Elladan, and saw a dark shape descending on him from the trees above. Dancing to one side, he was about to fire at the creature when another arrow struck it. The spider fell, and he suppressed a shudder of revulsion as it brushed against him.
Hearing a faint creak behind him, Elrohir spun around, barely in time to avoid a spider that had crept up on him. It reared up, and he saw the flash of its fangs poised to bite him. He stabbed his dagger into one of its many eyes, and stepped back as a spray of black blood splattered him. His own blood ran cold as he heard a cry to his left, but he knew instinctively that it was not Elladan. Turning back to meet the main onslaught, he killed two more of the hideous creatures, then paused. Quite suddenly, there seemed to be no more coming at him – at any of them.
The ground was littered with dark bodies and darker blood. Elrohir retrieved his dagger and wiped it on the grass, then looked around. Amandil knelt by Nólimon, who was lying on the ground, shaking violently. As he and Elladan converged on the two, Elladan glanced at him in concern. “El, are you hurt? You are covered in blood!”
“Not mine, fortunately,” Elrohir replied.
Amandil looked up as he tended to Nólimon. “Be careful you do not get any in your mouth, or on any cuts or scratches,” he said absently. “Their blood is poisonous, too.”
Elladan took one of their water skins and rinsed the blood from Elrohir’s face and hands. Then they knelt by Nólimon. Sickened, Elrohir recalled Elladan’s words only hours earlier. ‘I see the two of us tending someone who has fallen to the spiders,’ he had said. “How is he?” Elladan asked now in a dull tone. He too remembered.
“Not good,” said Amandil soberly. “He was bitten.” He leaned over Nólimon. “Easy, my friend,” he soothed. “We will get you back to Lasgalen – you will soon be fine.” Nólimon did not appear to hear him. His face was very pale, beaded with sweat, and he was shuddering uncontrollably. A low moan escaped him.
Elrohir drew Amandil to one side. “My brother and I are both healers,” he explained. “But we have not encountered this before. What can you tell us?”
Amandil glanced over his shoulder at Nólimon. He bit his lip, then turned back to Elrohir. “You know there are two species of spider here? The black ones are more common, and fortunately far less dangerous. They can kill, but more usually cause only sickness and dizziness. It is unpleasant, but not serious.”
Elrohir listened to what he was not saying. “These were not the black spiders, were they?” he asked flatly.
“No. We call them the Gorliante. Their bite is nearly always fatal, although a few have survived.” Amandil looked again at Nólimon. Elladan was wiping his face with a damp cloth and trying to urge him to drink as he listened to Amandil’s quiet words. “The poison causes intense pain. Agonising pain. There is usually a very high fever, hallucinations and convulsions. Death – death comes as a mercy. If you have drugs that will ease his pain, or make him oblivious, that will be the best you can do.” He turned away from Elrohir, returning to Nólimon’s side.
With a heavy heart, Elrohir went to his pack, extracting his medical kit. Once again, Elladan’s premonitions were correct, but lacking sufficient detail to avert this tragedy. He knew how his brother blamed himself, how he hated being unable to prevent such events. Locating the medicines he needed, he stood, then froze.
A spider, larger than any they had seen before, was scuttling silently towards Elladan’s unprotected back as he and Amandil knelt over Nólimon. Elrohir’s hand moved automatically for his bow, even as he realised that it lay out of reach, on the ground by Nólimon. He still had his sword though, and leapt towards the spider as he tossed the medicines to Elladan with a shout of warning.
He stabbed the sword deep into the spider’s vulnerable underbelly. Even as he thrust, he felt a sharp pain in his arm, but withdrew the sword and stabbed again. The spider twitched once and fell, its legs curled beneath it. With an effort, Elrohir pulled his sword free, plunging the tip into the ground. It seemed too heavy to hold. Then Elladan was beside him, shouting something, pulling at his forearm and pushing the sleeve up.
Elrohir stared disbelievingly at the two tiny punctures on his arm. They were marked by his own blood, and by some black substance. He could already feel the searing pain, and looked up into Elladan’s face, noticing how white his twin looked.
“Oh, gods, El – it bit you. It bit you!” Elrohir nodded, then wavered as dizziness struck him. His knees shook, and he sank to the ground slowly as Elladan clutched at him. “Elrohir – no!”
To Be Continued
Author’s Notes: The ‘Luithaduin’ is the Enchanted River. Elrohir’s tale of woes at the beginning of this chapter are all detailed in ‘With Friends Like These’ or ‘Mid Winter’s Eve’.