Storm Front - Chapter 9
Arwen gasped as she awoke, coming to her senses just soon enough to hear the dying echoes of a loud, piercing scream. To her right, she heard Eowyn sit up. Maida was hurrying to the horses, working quickly to calm the agitated animals. The eagle, which had settled on one of the horses during the night, let out a squawk of surprise. Arwen heaved herself into a sitting position, looking around for the source of the noise.
Days had passed since they crossed the Anduin, and ever since then they had followed a trail that was steadily growing warmer. From clear footprints in the dust to a dead, bloodless lizard that was still warm and limp. When Arwen had looked back at the others, she had seen excitement growing in their eyes. Eowyn and Maida had stopped voicing concerns on her condition as they rode on, traveling through the day and night.
On this night, they had planned on stopping only for a few hours, just long enough to allow the horses a chance to rest. As Arwen watched Maida and Eowyn scramble to calm the horses, she realized that all three of them had nodded off, at least for a few minutes.
"What was that?" Maida asked, gripping Canassa's reins.
Before anyone could answer, another sound echoed. To Arwen, it was plainly the cry of a horse. The eagle abruptly let out a loud screech and took flight, and Bregan, startled by the eagle's sudden movement, reared up. Eowyn was almost jerked off her feet.
"Easy!" she shouted. "Easy, Bregan!"
The eagle had swooped upon Arwen, and she cried out when she felt its talons sink into her shoulder. It flapped its wings ferociously, squawking into her ear. Maida, who had succeeded in calming Atego and Canassa, ran over to her and waved the eagle away.
"What in Arda is going on?" she snapped, crouching down to examine Arwen's shoulder. "Are you hurt?"
"Scratched," Arwen replied, shaking her head. The eagle was circling low above them, still very agitated. "I. . .I think it wants us to keep moving."
The eagle continued to swoop and squawk as Eowyn and Maida assisted Arwen up onto Atego's back, then turned and led the way northward. Completely bewildered, Arwen was forced to spur Atego into a hard canter just to keep up with it. She didn't have the slightest idea what was upsetting the eagle, nor did she know where the sounds had come from. Did this have something to do with Faye?
Arwen groaned involuntarily as Atego carried her over a low hill, the jarring ride irritating the sore muscles of her back and legs. To her relief the past days, the baby had shown no sign of imminent birth, but what was increasing was her level of discomfort. She knew that if the babe's birth didn't stop her, her back giving out would.
Suddenly, Arwen realized that the border of Mirkwood was fast approaching, the eagle making a beeline for a dim form that moved back and forth along the trees. As Atego cantered closer, Arwen gasped when she realized that the form was a pony. A pony she recognized.
"Maida," she said, pulling Atego to a walk. "It is Bill!"
Arwen could have recognized that pony anywhere. She remembered full well the day Aragorn and the Hobbits had come to the Valley, bringing with them the pony that stood before her now. As Aragorn had told her, they had released him before entering Moria. How is it possible that the same pony that had assisted in the first leg of the Fellowship's journey was the same one that had been following Faye?
"Easy, Bill!" Arwen said, bringing Atego around and reaching out for the clearly frantic beast. "Easy. We're here to help."
The pony snorted and turned to look at her, his sides heaving. The eagle had settled on his back, and was chirruping encouragingly.
"By the Valar," Maida breathed, coming up beside her. "Is it really Bill? Why, Master Samwise will be delighted to know that he is still alive."
Bill snorted again, swinging his head from side to side in clear agitation. Arwen looked towards the dark trees, trying to find Faye's entrance point. It was clear to her that Faye had gone in there, and Bill had been unable to follow. Finally, she saw a small patch of bent undergrowth, and pointed it out, silencing Eowyn with a wave of her hand before she could protest.
"It will be far easier to track Faye in the forest than it has been in the dust," she said flatly. "We're almost there. Faye must have been the one that screamed."
"Then she must still be in hearing range," Maida replied. She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Faye!!"
Filling with sudden hope, Arwen quickly took up the call, Eowyn following suit moments later. For several minutes, the three of them shouted Faye's name, but there was no response.
"She may not know enough to respond to her name," Eowyn suggested.
"We have to catch up," Maida said, beckoning to Arwen. "Go on. You follow trails better than us."
Arwen took a moment to gather a length of rope from one of her saddlebags and tie it into a makeshift halter around Bill's head, then led the way into the forest. She knew her grandfather had been working to purge the forests of the evil that had resided there in Sauron's reign, and had been successful for the most part, but she could still feel the weight of fear on her chest. Not everything had been put right.
Travel was slow, the path ahead almost impossible to see. Arwen held her breath, straining to catch any sound that would give away Faye's location. All was uncomfortably silent, save for the rustle of hooves on damp, twig-strewn soil. She could feel Bill press the side of his head against her leg, and she took a hand off of Atego's reins to scratch his ears. The little pony had done well. Arwen would make sure he was richly pampered when they returned to Gondor.
The hours passed, and finally the first feeble glows of sunrise began to illuminate their path. Arwen rubbed her tired eyes, exhausted from squinting through the shadows for so long. She glanced back at the others. Maida was gazing at the ground wearily, and Eowyn seemed almost asleep in the saddle. Arwen smiled slightly, and opened her mouth to reassure them.
She never got the chance. With a loud snort, Atego suddenly came to a halt, throwing his head wildly. Bill pawed the ground, jerking against the rope that bound him. Behind her, Arwen could hear Canassa and Bregan reacting as well. A hiss of metal on leather sounded, and Arwen knew Eowyn had unsheathed her sword. Arwen was quick to follow. The eagle, barely able to keep a grip on Bill's back, flapped its wings frantically.
Maida, who had lived in Mirkwood most of her life, appeared almost frantic with fear. Arwen turned and stared at her.
"Beware, Arwen!" Maida cried. "This could mean that. . ."
Before Maida could finish her sentence, a loud thud echoed, and Arwen turned to stare into the most hideous visage she had ever beheld. Atego blanched, rearing up almost vertically as the monster hissed. It was a massive spider, a horrific beast with long, hairy legs and a maw filled with pointed fangs. Arwen barely hung on, realizing that such a violent fall would be disastrous for both her and her baby. The spider swiped at her, and she swung her sword around, cutting into the horrid appendage and causing the beast to screech and stumble backwards.
Bill was plunging wildly, fighting against the rope that bound him to Atego's saddle. Arwen quickly cut the rope, but instead of running off, the pony galloped forward. Swinging around, he kicked at the spider's legs, causing the creature to stumble and collapse, off-balance. The eagle screeched and took wing, just barely avoiding another frantic swipe from the spider.
"Arwen, run!!" Maida screamed.
Arwen saw Eowyn ride past her, standing between her and the spider, which quickly regained its feet. Eowyn's sword flashed, then vanished as she plunged it into the spider's torso. The beast screamed and thrashed, knocking Bregan off his feet and spilling Eowyn onto the ground.
"Eowyn, hang on!" Maida cried, also riding forward.
Maida tried to grab Eowyn's hand, but suddenly the spider swung around again, and this time it did not miss. One of its hairy legs struck Maida full in the chest, and she was thrown from Canassa's back, striking a tree with enough force to split the trunk. To Arwen's horror, she slumped to the ground, blood trickling heavily from her nose and mouth, and did not move as the spider advanced. Arwen tried to spur Atego forward, but the horse refused to move, instead stumbling backwards in blind panic.
Bill suddenly reared up, shrieking loudly and pawing the air. The spider, distracted, turned from Maida, and Arwen clumsily dismounted and rushed to her side. Eowyn scrambled to her feet and positioned herself before them. The spider continued to approach Bill, thick milky fluid dripping from its fangs. The wound on its torso bled heavily, but it seemed not to notice. Bill was cornered, and the pony twisted around frantically, clearly desperate for a way to escape. Arwen dug her fingers into the soil, quickly digging up a small stone, which she threw at the spider with all her might. The spider hissed and turned, its many eyes whirling with hunger.
Suddenly, a loud, piercing roar echoed through the trees. Something was charging towards them from deep in the forest. As Arwen watched, the shadowy being gave a great leap, soaring through the air like a pouncing cat and landing upon the spider's back. The spider shrieked and began to struggle, sending debris into the air as it desperately tried to throw its rider. Arwen stared at the figure, her heart pounding, watching as it tore into the spider's back.
Even after five hundred years, she could still recognize her beloved guardian.
* * * * * *
Faye had known almost at once that she was being followed, and not just by the pony. Other horses' hooves sounded in the darkness. Faye had avoided them, irritated that they would dare disturb her when she was fighting so hard to find sense in her wayward memories. Finally, with a low growl, Faye scrambled up the rough trunk of a large tree, perching upon one of its steady boughs. Dim light was slowly starting to flood the forest, but Faye was confident that she had chosen her hiding spot well. Her hunters would not be able to see her here.
Faye waited, expecting to see them appear below her at any time, but they did not come. Instead, a loud commotion sounded, shrieks and screams echoing into the forest. Faye growled in surprise, leaping onto another branch and attempting to see what was going on, but they were too far away. The trees obscured them.
For a moment, she wondered what had happened. She could hear, in the midst of the sounds, the voice of the pony that had followed her tirelessly. It was obviously in trouble. Faye paused, continuing to listen as the pony's calls grew more frantic. In the distance, new sounds were echoing, showing that Faye was not the only one alerted, and she growled again. She wanted to turn away, to keep running until she could no longer hear the noise, but she could not. The pony had risked its life following her. It had put its trust in her. Faye could not bring herself to abandon it.
So, Faye dropped back down to the ground and started to run, charging towards the source of the sounds. Soon, she could make out the hulking form of the largest spider she had ever seen, and she unleashed a roar of challenge. Bounding forward, she attacked the spider, seeing the pony out of the corner of her eye as the creature began to thrash about. Faye clung to its back, digging her hands and right foot into the tough, coarse flesh. Thick, putrid blood flowed from the spider's wounds, and Faye soon spotted the hilt of a sword sticking out of its side. Still grasping the spider firmly with one hand, Faye tried to reach for the weapon.
Faye turned, stunned. Someone was shouting at her. It didn't take long to spot the three women huddled at the base of a tree. One appeared to be unconscious, and another was heavily pregnant. Faye stared at the pregnant woman, seeing the desperate look on her face. This woman recognized her. She was the one screaming her name. And, somehow, she seemed very familiar. Did she know this woman?
Her thoughts made her lose focus, and she lost her balance when the spider jerked abruptly to the right. She tumbled to the ground, momentarily stunned by the impact. The spider was upon her immediately, and Faye screamed in pain and rage as the monster's fangs pierced her left leg, lifting her off the ground. A fiery pain flowed into her limbs, and her muscles immediately began to spasm uncontrollably. She shrieked again, hearing the pregnant woman scream, and flailed about, forcing herself to bend upward. With a roar of rage she plunged both her fists into the spider's face, clawing and puncturing several of its opalescent eyes. The spider screamed in agony and released her, and she tumbled to the ground once again. She could hear the thunder of pounding hooves approaching, and knew that in a matter of moments, another hunting party would arrive.
Scrambling to her feet, and without a second glance at anything else, Faye started running. She dimly heard shouts, and the sounds of the spider letting loose a dying howl, but she did not turn back. Blood flowed from the wound on her leg, and the spider's venom burned through every inch of her, but she fought against it. She plunged through the forest, struggling against the venom's paralyzing effects with every step. Soon, the only sound that echoed was the pounding of her feet against the ground. She had left the spider, the women, and the pony far behind.
Her body finally gave out just as she was crossing a shallow, muddy stream. In mid-stride, Faye felt her arms and legs seize, and she collapsed heavily, water flowing over her wounds as she lay there, helpless. The shadows shifted around her, a soft breeze rustling through the trees. Somewhere high above, a bird chirped.
Faye did not know how long she remained there. All she realized was that suddenly, she was no longer alone. From the far side of the creek, a swaybacked mule had appeared, lead by a gruff-looking woman in worn travel clothes. The mule snorted, and the woman approached.
"What is this?" the woman said, wading into the creek and crouching over her. "How did she get here?"
Faye tried to growl, to warn the woman away, but no sound escaped her lips. She felt the woman touch her neck, then roughly roll her onto her back.
"That'd be a spider bite, Jent," the woman said, apparently speaking to the mule. "And you know what. . .I think this one is still alive."
The woman grasped Faye by the shoulders and pulled her out of the water. Faye stared up at the woman, looking into her worn features and dull brown hair. She clearly had lived a rough life, something Faye could relate to. She felt the woman slap her cheeks.
"This one has been down for a while," she said, still speaking to the mule. "The venom should be wearing off soon." The woman examined her, shaking her head. "She's practically crippled. How can she possibly walk on those mangled legs? And her hands. . ." Faye felt the woman lift her right hand. "We'd better get her back home, Jent."
Faye saw the woman move to bring the mule closer, but then a new figure emerged from the trees. To Faye's surprise, it was the pony, its sides heaving as it approached her. High above, an eagle circled.
"Is this your master, beast?" the woman asked, approaching the pony and grasping the length of rope dangling from its head. "Well, come on, then. You can carry her."
The world around her was starting to fade into blackness. Faye dimly felt the woman lift her onto the pony's back, securing her with what felt like rope. The pony, surprisingly, did not try to escape. Faye felt the warmth of its heated skin against her body, and she let out a deep, shuttering sigh.
Faye didn't know what was going to happen to her, but she realized that she had no control. As the pony started walking, tethered to the mule's saddle, she sank into the beckoning darkness.
* * * * * *
The predator's sudden arrival to fight the spider had been a great relief to Bill, for he had feared that the moment of his death had come. Three other horses were also standing nearby, paralyzed in their fear, but he ignored them. He could only watch as his protector overbalanced and fell, only to be immediately trapped in the maw of the great monster. Bill trumpeted, lashing at the ground with his hooves, but before he could charge the beast again, the predator had escaped it, and was running into the darkness of the forest.
The spider hissed and spat in pain, twisting around maniacally at the loss of its eyes. Bill had to leap aside to avoid one of its blind swipes. He had to escape. He could not lose the predator again.
Suddenly, a mass of horses and riders appeared, riding towards the spider with weapons drawn. Bill bolted behind a wide tree, watching as the new arrivals surrounded the creature and brought it down, killing it with sword-swipes and arrows. A rustle of wings and a sudden pressure on his back told him that the eagle, his beloved friend, had finally returned.
"Go, my brother!" the eagle said. "We must find her!"
Bill obeyed willingly, galloping off in the direction the predator had gone. This time, it was not hard at all for him to follow her trail. She was bleeding, and that smell mixed with the stench of spider blood kept him on a steady pace. The rope still dangled from his head, the edge whipping his chest and shoulders. He shook his head, but the rope was firmly secured.
After a while, the trail grew heavier, and Bill slowed to a walk. He could hear water flowing ahead. The eagle suddenly took flight, soaring into the trees and out of sight.
"She is there!" he called back.
Bill continued, confident in the eagle's words. However, when he stepped out into the stream, he was astonished to see the woman and the mule already tending the predator. He quickly crossed to his protector's side, seeing the woman turn to look at him.
"Is this your master, beast?" the woman asked, gesturing to the predator. Bill stared at her, then gave a snort when she approached and grasped his rope. "Well, come on, then. You can carry her."
Bill remained still as the woman, showing impressive strength in the process, managed to lift the predator up and sling her over his back. For one moment, he considered bolting. He had a creature very capable of killing him on his back. However, he forced himself to remain calm. He should have known that he would be called upon to bear her at some point. She hadn't attempted to hurt him yet. There was no way she was going to do so now, especially when immobilized by the spider's poison. He allowed the new woman to secure the predator with rope, then willingly followed along behind the mule as she started leading them away. He could hear the eagle flying above them, and knew that he too would follow.
Bill didn't know what was going to happen to them under this woman's care, but he had found no reason to be afraid, and so he would not be.