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27
Along came a spider

These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was written for pleasure and not for financial gain.

With very grateful thanks to Raksha who wrote by far the greater part of this chapter, including the confrontation with the spider.

Warning - This chapter contains violence and may disturb arachnaphobes

Along Came a Spider – Traditional Rhyme


~~~

Curled up quietly in the cool comfort of her burrow, well fed from a meal of fresh, juicy kitten, she is startled by noises outside the lair. Frogs? Beavers, or the impudent otters? Surely not weasels, for she has rid her riverbank of those rival predators. She awakens fully and extends her senses.

Men! Loud, rude Men! Can they not give her a day’s peace, the noisy, brutish things! The sounds and shudders continue. Something knocks at the trees and rocks that shelter her. A horse is snorting a challenge to her. And beyond, she hears the voice of its master.

Well, he will soon learn to walk wide of Shelob’s daughter; that is, if she leaves him living to walk at all. Perhaps she has been too forbearing. She has stung Men mostly in defence, since their presence has assured her penned animals to easily capture, especially their juicy young fowl and rabbits. She is too small and immature to feed upon most of the Men as well, though one day she will take them as she pleases. Yet it seemed they would not respect her territory. They must be taught a lesson! Small she might be, but no cloddish Man could match her for skill and speed. Just two days ago, she had felled a female and would have had borne its tender manling to her larder, but for the coming of a great herd of stomping farmers. But another such Man? Little hazard to her! And the few horses they had here were skittish and dull-witted.

She extends her forelegs, feeling their bladed hairs bristle, ready to throw. Lifting her back, she charges out of her lair.

Faramir’s stomach lurched as the creature scuttled from the burrow with surprising speed. At his command, Zachus had reared and struck the nearby ground with battle-force in his strong front legs. The spider had reacted as planned. What a monstrosity it was, larger than even he had thought, the size of a small wolf! He could see the long stinger and the vicious beak of which Samwise had spoken of as Shelob's armaments. Faramir manoeuvred the reins so that Zachus blocked the spider from escape, yet paced out of the reach of that stinger, visible even from the gelding’s back. Eight legs, evil horned head, covered with black and brown bristles except on the barer back; the spider paced and watched them. He could swear that there was a malignant spark of awareness in the clustered eyes. This was no mindless beast; the thing could think!

This is no farmer! The spider backs up fast. She has never seen so furious a horse. Those pounding legs could actually hurt her! She must get behind, or between the legs, jump at it, get a good sting in its hide. Then it will go down, and she'll settle with the rider. She knows that one, the tall West-Man who smells faintly of Elf. She'd already given him what-for when he'd troubled her lair before; though her juice no longer courses through him to mark and hold him as hers. Better fire off some darts to slow them down!

The spider backed up, hissed and rose up slightly on limbs half as long, when stretched, as Faramir's own legs. The Steward barely had time to rein in Zachus and turn him back a few paces before he felt something sharp slam into his cheek. Aragorn had learned from Legolas that young spiders could throw their own body hairs as weapons. Something wet trickled down his face; probably blood. The skin hurt where it had been cut; but the shot was less strong than an arrowhead and less damaging. He had no time to feel for it now. Faramir felt Zachus twitch and shudder beneath him. He looked down to see a light trail of blood on the brown shoulder. Faramir bit down his rising rage; unwound the rope that he had coiled round his saddle horn, and looped an end around his wrist. Leaning forward, he whispered encouragement to Zachus, and then turned him back toward the spider. "Now!" he cried, moving the horse into a gallop and lashing out and down with the rope.

Skhshaaaaaaa! That hurt! The nasty West-Man has a sting of his own. There is no time to throw more bristles; the rider is striking out with his rope, flailing her. She can't get past or behind him; the horse is too fast, the hooves too big to risk a sideways charge. What to do, what to do?

"Good, Zachus; Faramir crooned under his breath; "toward the willow, go!" Their plan was working! The spider was confused, too beset to strike back, and they were almost at the place they needed her to be.

Aha! A sudden inspiration comes. The spider hops as the rope stings her; but does not recoil. Instead, she leaps up, seizes the rope, and pulls with all her considerable might. She shrills a victory cry as the West-Man tumbles from the horse's back down to the ground. The spider marches forward to reclaim her errant prize. This time she will not leave him alive.

The first thing Faramir saw, as he struggled for breath; was the spider; making a steady and deadly approach. It looked much bigger from the ground! The first thing he heard was Zachus' war-cry; followed by the sound and sight of the gelding rearing up between himself and the monster. Faramir scrambled to his feet as Zachus pounded the earth in fury, narrowly missing the spider. There was no time to mount; they had to keep pushing it, not much farther now. "Forward!" Faramir told the mighty bay. Zachus obeyed the command, pawing the ground as he slowly edged onward; prompting the creature to edge backward. Faramir forced his bruised shins to work; danced ahead, around and behind, and snatched the rope back from where the spider had dropped it. He hastily looped the rope around his hand and then attacked the spider with a shorter length, whipping at the legs, keeping out of reach of its visible stinger, working with Zachus to drive her toward the largest of the willows.

She starts to worry; for this Man is far quicker, far more hardy, than any she has encountered in her travels west from the mother-nest. Wait, wait for it; now, there it is, a sudden pause in that stinging line of his as he shifts position. She rears up and fires off more darts; five of them this time. Ah, she's pricked his neck, right below the jaw. And she's struck the cursed horse as well; the beast's scream of pain pleases but does not distract her. While the West-Man stops to pull at the dart, the spider charges full at him. Now she has him in her sights! He's moving again, but not fast enough! He is almost beneath the biggest willow tree; is he fool enough to think it will shelter him from her? She shrills a victory cry as she scores the West-Man's lower leg with one of her claws. His pain gives her precious moments before he can wield the rope again to sting her. She scrapes again, and again, cutting through the coverings on his legs. This time, when he falls, she is close enough to pounce on the Man's foot and seize the ankle in her claws. He struggles, but she pulls with all her might, bringing that ankle closer and closer to her beak and the venom behind it.

"Away!" Faramir cried out to Zachus, gritting his teeth through the pain caused by the spider-bristles' sting and the turned ankle in the spider's claws. The horse was hurt, and would only get in the way now. One more pace, and the spider would be put in the right place. Faramir scrabbled forward, and yanked his captured leg hard. There! The right place, but he was still caught. The creature is horribly strong for its size. He could not get purchase, could not right himself to attack the spider that held him. "Elbereth," Faramir called out, his breath catching in wearied lungs. " A Elbereth Gilthoniel..."

"Release him, spawn of darkness," Aragorn's voice cried, stern and commanding, from above them. The spider swivelled to look up at the source of that call.

Aiiii! What trick is this, the spider questions as she screams. A foul wetness has poured down upon her, burning her very eyes. She can still see, barely, but it hurts to look. She shuts three of her wounded eyes; and recoils, releasing her grip on the West-Man, as something big alights from one of the large tree's branches. The sun burns her eyes even further, nearly blinding her as it comes out from the clouds. She cannot see this new assailant; and wonders briefly if it is one of those monster Eagles she had glimpsed when she had flown from the mother-nest as a terrified youngling. She strains with her tiring eyes: It is a second Man; even more dangerous than the first! She can smell Elf-taint on him in greater measure; not just any Elves either, but the worst kind, the High-Elves. Best to flee now, back to her burrow, where she can tunnel down to fastnesses so dark and deep that they will never find her. Then she can sleep and heal her eyes. She will grow bigger and stronger, too strong for either of these Men or any other to hurt.

The spider turns, but the willow-leaves rustle; and a huge shape comes through. It is a great horse. He moves with fearsome speed, blocking the path back to her burrow; head lowered, whispering warnings of Elven death. The Man advances upon her. He brandishes what looks like a length of light, sharp and cruel. She turns to face him and raises her back high, ready to sting.

"In the name of, Elbereth, Arien and Eärendil; I proclaim that thou shalt die here,” Aragorn vowed in Quenya. Faramir, who had pulled himself up on shaky legs, noted approvingly the use of Quenya and the names of the bringers of light, a fitting pronouncement to doom a monster of so demonic and dark a lineage. “I, Heir of Isildur son of Elendil, send thee back to the darkness that spawned thee, for the pain and death thou has dealt to my people." With that, Aragorn sprang forward, swift as an eagle upon its prey. Andúril flashed once, then twice, in his hand.

The spider's last scream faded to a hiss, ending with its final twitch. It lay still, its greenish-yellow blood sinking into the grass. Faramir leaned against the willow's thick trunk, weary but satisfied. Their plans and preparations had worked! He blessed the hours of training he had undertaken in the past to learn Rohirric rope-work. "Aragorn, are you well;” He asked his friend and king, who was wiping Andúril with a fold of his cloak.

"Very well," answered Aragorn with a smile; "now that this evil-spawned monster is dead."

“You have done it!” said Faramir, reaching to embrace Aragorn in a warrior’s arm clasp.

“We did it,” Aragorn amended; then embraced his friend. He stared down at Andúril and wiped a final speck from the blade. “There were times I wondered if I would ever draw this sword again,” he murmured as he sheathed the weapon. “Yet Andúril feels like part of mine own arm. The sword has not forgotten me even though I almost forgot it.”

“Years of skill and practise do not vanish overnight,” Faramir replied, gladdened almost beyond words by the proof that Aragorn had lost none of his old prowess. He sank back against the tree trunk. His ankle throbbed and he could hardly stand. Something was amiss. Zachus; where was the faithful steed who had served him so well today? "I must find Zachus; his hide was pierced by the spider's bristles."

"As was your own,” replied the King. Aragorn came over to Faramir and gently took his chin in his hand, turning Faramir's head slowly back and forth.

"Not badly;" Faramir said; "but Zachus was spooked by those evil darts. I would find him ere he hurts himself. And what of you, mellon nîn? You have blood on your face."

" ‘Tis nothing, a mere scratch. I think you were hurt worse; Faramir. Zachus has just gone down the bank a ways, to drink. I will fetch him back. Bide a moment, but do not touch your wounds; ion nîn,” commanded the King. He walked over to Roheryn, his gait somewhat stiff to Faramir's concerned eyes. Aragorn mounted the stallion with less than his usual ease, and they trotted off through the willows and wild grass.

Faramir glanced down at the creature; glad that the evil thing was dead rather than sleeping like its victims. Andúril had nearly cloven the spider's head from its body. He sighed; for the pain in his cheek and neck was rising, like ten or more wasp stings at once. And his ankle throbbed; though he could still put weight on it, so it was neither broken nor sprained. He was fortunate to have a King who was a healer as well as a warrior. And Aragorn's guess that a tincture of athelas mixed with water would hurt and distract the spider had proved true.

Looking at the spider's lifeless form, Faramir remembered again the horror in the voice and eyes of Master Samwise when the hobbit had told the tale of his battle with Shelob. It must have been so much worse for him than this day's brief skirmish! To think that the child-sized gardener had faced a monster that was four or five times the size of this spider, and hundreds, if not thousands of years older and more cunning. Both he and Aragorn had begun warrior's training in early childhood; but Samwise had not. Samwise had had only the strength of hand and heart, and a small sword he barely knew how to use. Faramir resolved to write a letter to his halfling friend when he returned home. Samwise would be glad to know that the telling of his great deed had helped rid this vale of one of Shelob's get.

Faramir felt every one of his aches and pains, and a sudden desire to sleep. He could not relax though, not so close to the foul thing, dead as it was. The birds chattered loudly; as if emboldened by the death of the unnatural creature.

Aragorn returned with both horses. He dismounted, tethered Zachus, and then approached Faramir. The bay was sweat-streaked, but seemed otherwise unaffected, aside from the evil looking cut across his powerful shoulder.

“Your wounds need tending, ion nîn,” Aragorn said firmly. He assisted Faramir to sit on the grass.

“Zachus is hurt too,” the Steward protested.

“He has a thicker hide than any Man,” said the King. “And Legolas has told me that the hairs of the Mirkwood spiders, though painful, carry no poison. I removed the spider's hairs from Zachus' shoulder; and there is sufficient athelas here to treat you both." He extricated the spider bristles from Faramir's skin with a needle taken from his healing kit, then took up the bottle containing the athelas and water mixture and gently dabbed some on the Steward’s wounds. "Are you hurt anywhere else?” he enquired.

Faramir shook his head. ”Only my ankle.” He swallowed hard as the stench of the spider’s blood, likely the blood of Shelob and the demonic Ungoliant herself, fouled the air. He started to feel dizzied.

“I will treat your ankle back in the village,” said Aragorn. “We need to leave this place.”

“Should we not take the spider back with us to show the villagers?” Faramir enquired.

“We have nothing to carry it in, and the stinging hairs could cause further injuries, even though the creature is dead. Better that we should ask Tasariel for some oil and I come straight back and burn the foul corpse,” Aragorn replied, applying some of the athelas mixture to the bay gelding’s shoulder. Zachus snorted, but otherwise patiently permitted his ministrations.

“But should the villagers not see the creature?” Faramir persisted. “They need to recognise it lest any more of its kind lurk in these parts.”

“I will ask Borlach to summon them here, then,” Aragorn said firmly. ”’Tis but a few minutes walk. There, that should ease Zachus, I will help you mount.” He supported Faramir as the Steward hobbled toward the horse; and helped ease him into the saddle.

000

Tasariel stared in alarm as Aragorn and Faramir rode back to the centre of the village. “Are you hurt?” she enquired anxiously. “What is that vile fluid? Your clothing is drenched with it!"

“We are well, Mistress,” Aragorn assured her. “’Tis but the spider’s blood that spatters our garb.”

“The Valar be praised!” exclaimed the Healer. "Your 'son' is bleeding though, the poor lad is hurt!"

“His wounds are but slight His skin was pierced by the spider's stinging hairs. We have slain the creature; yet we must return to the riverbank with Master Borlach and the other village elders. The remains of the spider need burning as quickly as possible. But first, I would have your people see the entire corpse, so they know we spoke the truth, and to better watch out for any others that might lurk nearby.”

Tasariel espied a girl leaving one of the huts, carrying what looked to be her father’s lunch in a basket. “Go and fetch Master Borlach from the fields,” she ordered. “Tell him it is a matter of grave import for all the village.”

“It will take her a while to fetch him,” the woman said. “His fields are past Beleg’s on the other side of the village. You both look like death! What you need is a good wash, a change of clothing, and a nice cup of my tea. I have some salve for stings too.”

“That will have to wait, Mistress,” said Aragorn. “Apart from the linens you are kindly washing for us, we have no other garments save what we are wearing.”

“That is easily remedied,” Tasariel said firmly. “Now get down from those great beasts of yours. One of the lads will look after them. Your linens are ready for you, and I have breeches and tunics you can borrow. Go to your hut and I’ll fetch you some water.”

Aragorn felt too weary to argue and realised the sense in her words, maybe more even than the good woman knew. Prolonged exposure to the juices of any of Sauron’s creatures was known to be harmful, and though the Dark Lord’s power had been broken, he preferred to be free of all traces of the vile creature. He was starting to feel somewhat nauseous too. He helped Faramir inside the hut. They both sat down heavily upon the straw.

To King and Steward’s surprise, Tasariel, together with another woman brought two bowls of hot water, soap, a pot of salve, their clean linens, towels, and an assortment of clothes. “Call when you are ready and I’ll bring you some tea,” said Tasariel, placing a bowl on the table.

“And some of my good fresh scones,” added the other woman. She put the second bowl on the floor beside Faramir. She looked vaguely familiar to Aragorn. He realised she had companioned Tasariel the night Faramir had ran naked through the cornfield. Obviously she was a near neighbour.

King and Steward began to remove their clothes as soon as the women had departed. They could hardly wait for the soap and hot water, rare luxuries of late.

Aragorn was unlacing his boots when he was startled to hear an exclamation pass Faramir's lips. But when he turned to see what had provoked his friend, he saw that Faramir, seated on the ground, was smiling.

"Look what was nearly fell into the bowl," Faramir announced. Aragorn bent down to see. There, on the Steward's outstretched palm, skittered a small and thoroughly common long-legged spider.

~~~

Author's Note: The appearance and behaviour of our spider is based mostly on Shelob's performance in the book ROTK. Additional sources of inspiration were the goliath bird eater spider (largest spider in the world, or one of them) and the Sydney funnel-web spider, which was reportedly a template for Shelob in the ROTK movie (Peter Jackson has an aversion to the critter). Poetic license has been used in the spider's firing off leg hair bristles as projectiles - they can do it, but from the backside, not the legs. However, Shelob and her get are exceptional; and Sam noted the scary bladed hairs on her legs. In our story, as noted within this chapter, it is only the juveniles who have the use of these "urticating hairs". Further info can be found in "Return of the King", by you-know-who (no, no, not Voldemort); and "wikipedia dot com". - Raksha



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