Monday, April 10, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 6

Of the Hunt for Lebrennil

Meresday, 7th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-Reckoning
A Campsite Somewhere in the Old Forest
It's a good thing I'm keeping this journal if for no other reason than the fact that no one would ever believe the things I've seen, even only one week into my adventures with this strange Company. Frankly, I don't know if anyone will believe them even now that I've written them down, but this book has become very precious to me and I'd hate to think of losing it.

It is with great excitement I record today's events. I awoke in the house of Tom Bombadil, the bright fire still roaring nearby, as if it had been fed during the night. I was quite stiff from sleeping on the stone floor, but that's the price one pays for going to bed soaking wet due to fainting in a pool the night before after being accosted by an unruly willow-tree. Anyway, as I was pulling myself out of sleep, I could hear the voices of Tom, Gaelira, and Luean speaking in the kitchen. It was apparent I was catching the end of a long conversation.

"Then our choices remain three," I heard Gaelira saying. "We either make for Rivendell by way of the Great East Road through the Lone-lands and the Trollshaws, we aid the people of Buckland with their troubles, or we take the more direct route up the Greenway and into the North Downs to seek the Rangers -- and eventually aim for Angmar."

"Angmar is a dark, bad place," Tom answered gaily. "What ye be wantin' to go there for? Let the evil Men weave their webs of sorcery in black hills, as they've done now for many a year! There be troubles enough here at home for the like of ye and me."

"Be that as it may, I know Angmar to be the true goal of this Company," Gaelira replied. "Those evil Men will not be content to sit in the black hills much longer, not if half the rumours coming out of Esteldin and Trestlebridge are to be believed."

"Maybe! Maybe," Tom chuckled. "But to Angmar ye cannot go yet, not unless ye plan on leaving the young ones behind. And even then I would say to you: Beware the defile that lies about Carn Dum! It looks not the same as when you last passed that way, my Fair Folk!" Tom laughed heartily. I was very confused as to why he would find this topic so amusing.

"What does our esteemed rune-keeper think of the matter?" Tom asked, meaning Luean. "Methinks he knows the things that trouble this land, and those are enough -- unless ye all be heroes of great might whose hearts never falter?"

"I do," I heard Luean reply, "But I would not speak of such things here in your merry house, Master."

"Then let us speak not of them," said Tom, "And yet ye are no nearer to deciding your course, it seems."

"I say we make for Angmar by the straightest path," Gealira said. "Every day we spend on any other path is a distraction from our purpose."

"I do not agree, Gaelira," came Luean's response. "The path of Destiny is anything but straight; it winds much ere its ending can be discerned, and even the very Wise cannot tell how it may come there. More importantly, we must not leave the young ones behind, as Iarwain has rightly pointed out -- to do so would surely mean the ruin of both our Company and whatever aim it seeks to achieve."

There was a silence. I could not begin to fathom how Luean could be so sure of his last assertion, but there was no trace of the rune-keeper's usually playful tone; he was in the most solemn earnest. After a short time, Bombadil's laugh pierced the air.

"Cast off your cares, my merry friends! I've not seen Elven faces so long since they heard the pleas of the Onodrim carried across many lands on the wind! But even the longest road must be traveled one length at a time: find Lebrennil, and then ye will know the answer to many questions. But now I can dawdle with you folk no more today -- Goldberry's rain has washed the trees and the hills, so now is the time for singing!"

I heard Tom break into another of his ridiculous rhymes as his yellow boots thumped out the back way. At this point, the voices of the two Elves were lowered, and I struggled to catch what was said next.

"This course seems ill-advised to me, yet I can see the wisdom in Iarwain's guidance." Gaelira sighed.

"Seeing the wisdom in his guidance is seeing wisdom," said Luean.

Suddenly, something hit me in the side of the head. I looked around for what had struck me and found a small loaf of white bread. It had come from Drodie, who has already gorging himself at the breakfast table which had been prepared for us.

"Fill up on that, Master Hobbit!" said Drodie in his usual boisterous way. "As fine a loaf as you could ask for. And be sure to sample this honeycomb! I don't think even the Beornings' could compare!"

I have no doubt the Dwarf was only trying to be helpful, but I was unable to catch anything else that was said between the two Elves. I wondered very much who Lebrennil might be and how they could help us on our journey, but I had a feeling I was going to find out sooner or later.

Shortly thereafter, Gaelira and Luean emerged from their discussion in the kitchen and Nephyn also came to join us. We spent a jolly time at breakfast talking about our adventures so far and also our plans for the day. Unlike previous talks where we might jointly decide our next move, it seemed evident today that we would be heading to Buckland with the purpose of assisting the locals there with some trouble they were rumored to be having. I admit I was rather perplexed by this as I, of course, have served as a Bounder there many times (especially recently) and even passed through there on my way to Bree about two weeks ago just before I met up with my current companions. There had been no talk of any great trouble that I had heard, but then I wasn't looking for it either: where hobbits are concerned, you have to account for keeping up appearances.

With that settled, we prepared to head out. Luean surprised us by announcing he would be staying behind, but would meet up with us again in Buckland. He wished to remain there and speak further with Old Bombadil.

"I cannot express to you the joy I feel being here," he told us as we got ready to leave. "It is as if I am young again and the Two Trees of Valinor are still in flower!"

I had no idea what he was talking about, if anyone else did, but we bid him a cheerful farewell and felt certain we would see him again soon. We had spent much longer than we expected on the preparations, and the Sun was already turning westward when we finally left the House of Tom Bombadil.

I needn't give much description of our journey to Buckland from that point: we managed to find our way north through the twisted trunks of the watchful trees until finally they thinned and the sky opened out before us. We struck the Road with no difficulty and proceeded to make good time toward Buckland. It was late in the afternoon when we trudged up to the Buckland Gate, where I saw the same Bounders as always, leaning wearily on their spears. But just beyond them, waving at us and smiling broadly, was none other than Raviron the Elf.

"Well met once more, my friends!" he hailed us. "I am happy indeed to have found you, for I think we have much to discuss."

We grasped his hand and told him we were most happy to see him too as we walked through the quiet streets of Buckland. More than a few of the locals eyed us suspiciously and dark looks were cast at us from behind many a hobbit-hole's window, but I did not pay them any mind. Hobbits are naturally distrustful of outsiders. The Bucklanders much less than most, but our unusual Company would not go over well in any part of the Shire. I also sensed an uncommon tenseness in the air; as if something had recently unsettled that quiet landscape. What that could possibly be I could not begin to imagine, and so I put the thought out of my head. Instead, I became very interested to hear Raviron's account of himself.

It seems the Elf felt some sort of summons of out the West, although I'm not clear on what he meant, exactly. He did apologize for departing so suddenly with no explanation, but he said he was not expecting to see us again once he had completed that last journey. Once he had left Bree, however, his path took an unexpected turn: he decided to cross through the Old Forest instead of taking the Road in order to converse with Bombadil on the way, but he was waylaid first in the Barrow-downs and again in the forest itself, which made him divert from his intended track. After spending a good while trying to find his way out, he finally emerged into Buckland through the Old Forest Tunnel, which is the westernmost entrance into the Old Forest. We had showed up shortly thereafter. All of us considered this turn of events most curious and the fact our paths kept crossing was of particular interest. Raviron himself never diverged from this point.

"I thought I was leaving Middle-earth; certainly that was what I intended," he would say. "But now I can see that Fate has other plans for me. My trip through the Old Forest was enough to make me realize that my part to play in this Story is not yet at its end."

Odd sort of remark, just like an Elf. In any case, we were happy to have him with us again, especially since we were headed right back into the place from which he had just managed to escape. Evening was deepening and the lights of Buckland were being kindled in the windows and street-paths. The thought of travelling in the Old Forest at night was not something which appealed to me, but I hid my displeasure as best I could. What was quickly becoming of more importance to me was our reason for going there in the first place.

"The people of this land clearly do not wish to speak to me," Raviron said (and I can't say he was wrong on that point), "But I have been able to learn somewhat of their fears. The Old Forest has long been of concern to them, but lately things have gotten far worse. Spiders have been seen in great numbers within, and many of the bears appear sickly, as if some unknown malady has afflicted them. I think we should find the source of whatever is ailing the wood here."

"Indeed, Bombadil had suggested that as well," Gaelira said. "Although I'm not sure Lebrennil would really be the source of the kinds of troubles you describe. Still, there can be no doubt she is responsible for the spider infestation."

"Ah, so Lebrennil is a spider then?" I asked. I had been slyly listening to all the talk to glean the answers to my own little riddles along the way. "What of that? The Bounders can deal with spiders on their own; they need no help from us." Nephyn laughed at me.

"I think they could do with our help, Padryc," she said, "And I doubt you would disagree, if you knew the danger Lebrennil presents to this little land -- and to us."

"Pshaw! So it's a spider-queen, is it?" I waved my hand in dismissal. "We hobbits can deal with those -- why, just last year a whole colony of spiders took over the Quarry in Scary and we were able to rout them out with no help from Outsiders."

"This Lebrennil has a foul name," said Gaelira. "Her reputation has spread quite widely; I think you should not dismiss her out-of-hand, my friend. The spawn of Ungoliant have been known to grow to immense size in their evil and hatred."

"Well, I don't know who Ungoliant may be," I replied, "But I've dealt with a few spiders myself, you know. Like as not this Lebrennil doesn't even really exist -- I'm sure there's a queen lurking in there somewhere, but you make her out to be the size of a small house, and that's just rubbish. It's just a lot of nonsense the women tell their uppity children to keep them quiet."

"Then you shouldn't mind if we go looking for her," Nephyn laughed. "But I will wager you five silver pieces this spider-queen is larger than any spider you've yet seen. I'd say possibly the size of a large bear, or maybe even a moose!"

"Ha! Make it 10 silver," I shot back. "Everyone knows spiders don't grow that large!"

"We shall see," said Nephyn.

By now it was well on toward evening. We had a few words with some of the hobbits who were still about, but none of them were much interested in talking to a horde of outlandish strangers like us. We did learn that the greatest concentration of spiders was being reported by hunters and trappers in the southwestern reaches of the Old Forest. With that in mind, we plunged into the Tunnel and began our hunt for Lebrennil.

I had already traveled once under the boughs of the Old Forest by night, but doing it a second time did not lessen my dislike of the place one whit. There were no crickets, no birds, no fireflies, no frogs. Nothing. Just stillness and watchfulness. And wrath. I can't explain it, but I would wager everything I own that the trees there despised us with a bitter hatred, though I know of no reason why they should do so. Still, we plodded on, the sound of our footsteps falling dead in the deep and springy turf.

We continued on in this manner for a good ways while Nephyn and Raviron kept looking about us and behind them. I'm not sure they had a good grasp on just where we were going -- the tales in both the Shire and Buckland have long said that the trees here shift and move about in a most unnatural fashion. Most of the stories involve those who wander in becoming lost and trapped by the trees. On the whole, though, we kept moving in a southwesterly direction, which as you recall was the way we wanted to go. Whether our hunters had an excellent sense of direction or the trees did not wish to hinder our progress so long as we went that way, I could not tell you.

All at once we found ourselves on the banks of a large stream. Willow-leaves blanketed its smooth and barely-moving surface.

"This must be the Withywindle," said Raviron. "It is the same stream which begins at the falls behind Bombadil's house and flows through the center of the forest."

"Lovely," I muttered. The Withywindle has a bad reputation among Shire-hobbits for it is regarded as the source of all of the queerness to be found in the Old Forest. Those few who ever prod into the place avoid the Withywindle whenever possible. To make matters worse, the sight of all of those willow-leaves was bringing back to me some rather unpleasant memories of the night before.

"We will have to cross if we are to continue on our present course," Nephyn said, eyeing the far bank. "It does not look deep to me, but hold onto my back anyway, friend Padryc, just in case."

The water was not deep at all. My feet were never even in danger of touching the water as they dangled at Nephyn's sides. Once we were across, I hopped down and we proceeded onward. We twisted and turned several times, but our way forward always seemed clear to us. I might have been inclined to think all those tales about evil trees were just poppycock after all, if it weren't for the fact those trees were probably letting us pass because we were walking a road that led straight into the den of a spider-matron the size of a horse.

We turned another bend and there before us was a wide glade where the forest canopy opened in a ring. We could see the night sky clearly as tattered clouds raced overhead on a breeze we could not feel there under the trees. We walked into that glade and noticed, to our right, a small clutter of dark objects that did not look like undergrowth. As we approached them, it became clear they were tents, and around them we began to discern an old campfire, some crates, and a few other oddments. We whispered among ourselves about who or what would dare to make camp so deep inside the Old Forest. That's when I saw a backpack discarded among the rest of the scene.

"Look there!" I said, much more loudly than I probably should have. I bounded heedlessly toward the pack I had sighted, figuring we would find anything we needed to know about the camp and its current (or former) inhabitants within.

"Padryc, WAIT --" Nephyn cried, but it was too late.

I was suddenly tackled from above. I crashed to the ground and felt a set of horrible things poking at me. I realized I had been attacked by a spider (or more than one) which had descended on me from the treetops as I foolishly ran into the abandoned camp. Angered at my own stupidity and fair bursting with excitement, I violently twisted myself face-up, coiled my legs, and gave a terrific push. The spider flew off of me, its legs coiled up to brace for its fall, and it crunched into the shrubbery about six feet away. I leapt to my feet and saw several more of the disgusting insects dropping from the trees or skittering toward us at ground-level.

The rest of the Company lost no time: Nephyn and Raviron had already dispatched two each with their bows and now drew their swords as the things got closer. Gaelira had impaled another with her staff and hurdled the carcass into a second. Drodie was attracting a great deal of attention as he clanged his sword on his shield. I was suddenly confronted by my original attacker, which had recovered its footing and returned to try and make a meal out of me. But I am no longer the slow, timid hobbit I was a week ago: I grabbed my hammer and prepared to defend myself. It was mostly point-work -- keeping the thing at bay with the spike on the hammer's tip -- but I managed to land a swing now and then. The problem was I didn't seem to be doing the thing any real harm since these spiders have an outer shell which can be difficult for weapons to penetrate unless they are wielded with a sufficient amount of strength, and that is something most hobbits simply don't have. I won in the end, though: the spider eventually got frustrated as the fight wore on and reared up to hiss at me (or something, whatever it is spiders do). I took the opening at once -- I swung under-handed as if I was taking a golf-swing and caught the little brute full in the mid-section. That sent it flying backward several feet. I chased after it and finished it off with a sturdy thrust of my spike. The spider let out a nasty, screeching cry and lay still. Breathing heavily, I turned to see how my friends fared. The fight was already won as Drodie was chasing most of them off himself while the archers picked off stragglers at will. In a moment, all was quiet again, though we all knew perfectly well the colony was watching us from the trees above us.

"Master Hobbit, I do hope you've no plans for doing anything like that ever again!" said Nephyn as she sheathed that peculiar sword she had lifted from the Blackwold Headquarters. I sheepishly apologized to them all.

"What's the worry?" laughed Drodie, who was obviously enjoying the exercise. "We've a dozen fewer of the little buggers to bother about and there's no harm done." He wiped his sword in the grass.

"At least the camp is now open to us," said Raviron. "Let us go and see what our Halfling as unveiled!"

The camp itself told us very little. There were tents, crates, and a cold fire, as I mentioned before. The traveller's pack I had sighted earlier turned out to be empty except for a few vials of milkthistle (an effective if awful-tasting counteractive for poison). This alone indicated that whoever made the camp had expected to encounter a few spiders. We were just about to leave the campsite when Nephyn kicked something metal in the dirt.

"Look at this!" she said, pulling the thing out of a tussock. "Why, it's a woodcutter's saw!"

It was indeed. It was one of those longish, two-hobbit saws, the sort one would use for felling a good-sized tree, but it was too small to be a Man-saw. This seemed most peculiar: why on earth would a pair of hobbits travel this far into the forest for timber? To say nothing of the fact hobbits don't like the idea of gathering timber from the Old Forest at all, and neither does anyone with any sense. I was asked my opinion on the matter several times, but I hadn't (and still haven't) the foggiest notion as to why those items would be found there. Nephyn examined the ashes of the campfire and judged it had been abandoned less than three days ago. We all cast our eyes about us. Were the loggers still nearby? Or would our fate soon be theirs?

We knew it would not be wise to linger overlong in that place, so we continued our journey. We hadn't far to go: on the other side of the glade, the trees became black and absolutely covered in sticky webs. I've heard stories of Mirkwood and, while this might not be as bad as that forest, it must have been comparable. A pungent stench emenated from somewhere deeper within that den and we all covered our mouths and noses, but we plunged in. The darkness seemed to close around us like a shroud.

I can hardly describe to you, Dear Reader, what went through my mind as we walked there, in the Weaver's Den. Night was about us and we could hardly see enough to make our way. My feet sometimes caught on trailing bits of web and I had to pull myself free. I kept expecting to feel another of the beastly spiders crash on me from above again, but the silence just kept growing. I could see little points of light all around us, above us, and behind us. Eyes, eyes of those loathsome creatures as they lusted for our flesh and blood and marrow. My toes and fingers went numb as I thought about what might happen to us there, but still we forced out feet to carry us forward. Drodie managed to hack off a dead tree branch and fashion a crude torch with my flint and tinder. If it hadn't been for that, we might have met a very unpleasant end there in the bowels of the Old Forest.

Raviron and Nephyn were in the lead, scanning the ground for any sign of our quarry. The Woman held up her hand and motioned us to come closer.

"There," she whispered, pointing to some divets in the dirt about the size of a large tea kettle. We all understood. I felt my heart skip a beat. We pressed on in the direction of the tracks.

Suddenly the ground fell away, as if into a small dell. I slipped and slid down to its bottom and, though it wasn't far, ended up in a mess of spider web. I untangled myself quickly although good amounts of it stuck to my clothing. As my companions joined me, I could see from the light of Drodie's torch multiple cocoons down there. Then I saw what could only be a hobbit's corpse. It was (mercifully) face-down in the webs and obviously deceased. It's skin was a sickening, pallid color and its clothes had been torn. Just behind it was a stunted tree growth. My eyes were drawn toward it and I saw, caught in a web that stretched between its dead and rotting branches, the other dead hobbit. My stomach lurched involuntarily and I turned my head away from the sight.

"I think we have found our woodcutters," Drodie said quietly. "Are you all right, Padryc?"

"I feel sick," I croaked.

Just then we heard a crunching away to our left. We followed it cautiously, but we could hear the skittering of many spiders above and around our troop moving alongside us. It sounded as if something large was moving through the underbrush up ahead. We turned left and then right, and that's when we saw her.

She was bigger than a horse -- a good size bigger. Maybe if the horse was one of the fabled war-steeds of Rohan it might have measured up to Lebrennil, for she was a monstrous creature. Easily eight feet tall, with long, spindly legs, a steel-gray body, and her horrible, many-clustered eyes were lit with a blood-red light. When we turned the last bend we had walked right into her path, and now there she stood about a stone's throw away. She shrieked in her anger, and all the trees above us came alive with hissing and movement. She had summoned her children to the attack.

"Raviron! Aim for the eyes --" I heard Nephyn saying as she strung her bow. But Raviron was not there: he had vanished into the darkness without a sign or a trace. We were only four facing the fury of Lebrennil. I whipped out my hammer. Gaelira spun her staff. Drodie dared the advancing spiders to come at him. Nephyn released her bow, but the arrow skipped harmlessly off the spider-matron's armor-like exterior. Lebrennil began moving toward us while her brood closed in from behind. Drodie was waving his torch around like a firebrand, although we couldn't yet see any of the smaller spiders.

That's when several landed right in our midst! I suppose they must have dropped in from the branches above us using their sticky lines, but we were hard put to it. I caught a couple with my hammer. Gaelira's staff sent one spider after the other flying. The swords of Nephyn and Drodie were everywhere. I saw Gaelira reach into her belt and draw something forth. There was a quick spark and then she threw something on the ground behind us. There was a burst of flame and swirling embers erupted from that spot and the smaller spiders gave way to the fire.

I barely had time to gape at this Elf-magic when I heard Drodie shout, "The queen! She comes for us!" Lebrennil was enraged at seeing her broodlings slain and burned and was charging us! All four of us stood frozen -- rooted in place out of awe and terror.

Suddenly there was a metallic SNAP! One of the spider-matron's claws went flying through the air and her gore speckled us all. Lebrennil stumbled. Even though we had no idea what had happened we immediately went on the offensive: Drodie and Nephyn hacked at her legs, severing two more. Gaelira was locked in a struggle with three smaller spiders as they tried to take the she-Elf down and I was utterly helpless, for I was staring directly into the terrible, terrible eyes of that monster.

"Padryc!" Gaelira called to me as she fended off her attackers. "Stab out the eyes! Do it NOW!" Even the desperation I heard in Gaelira's voice at that moment, something I never thought I could ever hear from someone so strong and so sure, was not enough to move me to action. I only saw my own death as those dribbling pincers drew nearer to me.

Then, one of those hideous eyes went dark and the spell was lifted. An arrow protruded from it and Lebrennil screamed in agony. Aiya! Earendil! The cry came from behind me and I saw Raviron leap over me, fire another arrow into the spider-queen's cluster of eyes, draw his sword, and plunge it straight into the beast's head. Lebrennil's legs lashed for a moment, but then her entire body fell to the ground and twitched grotesquely before going completely still. Instantly, the lesser spiders skittered away, leaving us alone and breathless in that awful den.

I collapsed to the ground. Lebrennil was dead and, although I was unhurt, I was thoroughly exhausted. I don't remember much of what happened for a while after that. It seems Nephyn carried me as the Company left the Weaver's Den. We met no resistance as we backtracked to the spot where we had first crossed the Withywindle. We felt it best to make camp on the north side and to rest from our adventure, even though the light of day was broadening in the skies above us.

As Nephyn set me down, I felt I was recovering a bit. I also felt extraordinarily hungry. We all began to rummage in our packs for something to eat. Very shortly afterward we started discussing the day's events, but for the moment I was content to let others to the talking, asking, and explaining while I ate and listened.

"Wherever did you disappear to, Raviron?" Nephyn asked. "I was afraid you had suddenly decided the Grey Havens were a more desirable holiday destination once again!"

"Who could argue that point?" Raviron laughed. "But no: I knew the element of surprise would likely be our only advantage against that creature, so I slipped off just before she spotted us and set a few bear-traps in the ground. Then I retreated and waited for the right moment to commence my attack. The trap proved extremely useful, but I do not think you really needed my help after that; the rest of you had very nearly taken care of business before I made my entrance."

"You always were one for an entrance," Gaelira laughed. There was no trace remaining of the frightened edge in her voice, but I don't think I'll ever forget it, either.

"Aye, and you'd ruin all my fun!" said Drodie. "For my part, I agree the Elf was superfluous and I should get credit for the kill. I was closest to its body, after all."

"Have it your own way," Raviron said, smiling. "I am just glad to know such a monstrosity no longer stalks the depths of the Old Forest. Wild as it has become in recent times, this was once a broad and majestic woodland that stretched from here to Dunland in unbroken array. It does my heart good to know this threat to its memory has been removed."

"On behalf of the folk of Buckland, I thank you too!" I said, feeling more myself after an apple and a biscuit. "I suppose it means I owe Nephyn some coin, but I do not begrudge her the wager. Were none of us injured in that awful place?"

It turned out some of us were. Nephyn suffered a few scratches, but nothing major. Gaelira had taken some bites and a few stings since the spiders seem to have fallen upon her more than any of us, although I'm not sure why. I was very concerned for her, but she just laughed and told me her kind does not need to fear spider-poison in most cases. She did allow me to bandage her flesh wounds, but she insisted she had no need of milkthistle or any other antidotes.

Even though the Sun was climbing toward midday, we decided to take a rest in the middle of the forest. We have done the people of Buckland (and Old Bombadil, I reckon) quite a service today, and I was feeling mighty proud of our success, though I must admit I played virtually no part in it. All the same, I wouldn't say that I'm the hobbit who rode out to Bree on a lark to hear some tales of great deeds, nigh on one week ago. I could do with a nap right about now.
Just one last thing before I nod off which I can't seem to get out of my head: what in the world were those two hobbit woodcutters up to? They couldn't have gotten themselves that deep into the forest just to fell a few trees for firewood. Most curious...

No comments:

Post a Comment