Mothlin was the first one to wake up the next morning – mercifully with no swords at his throat this time. He stretched leisurely and opened his eyes to the darkness of the forest. Blinking to see out of them, he massaged the kinks out of his neck and glanced over to his left. Elenanar was still asleep, with her face pressed against Tari’s blanket and her red hair the only bright thing he could see. Mothlin grinned and decided she had acquitted herself so admirably last night that he would let her sleep. At least until breakfast was ready.
Mothlin got to his feet and walked carefully across the dark ground to where he’d set Tari’s saddlebags down. He rummaged through them, and the results were not as good as he had hoped. There was still some cheese left, but not much, and the lembas was catching his eyes more and more as the rest of the food slowly diminished. With a sigh, Mothlin fished out the last two apples and the remainder of the loaf. He shook his water skin – the small slosh from inside it was not encouraging either. He’d have to ask Elenanar to find them a stream safe to refill it from.
Apples, bread, and water skin in hand, Mothlin walked back to the sleeping Elenanar. He placed the food on his cloak, which still bore the imprint of his body from where he’d slept on it, and shook Elenanar gently, calling her name. “Elenanar,” he whispered softly, “wake up.”
She was still for some moments, but finally she stirred, and her breathing became louder. Mothlin shook her once more. “Elenanar, time for breakfast,” he said. Unconsciously he watched her face beneath its cloak of her hair, waiting for her to open her eyes. “Come on,” he coaxed, “just open your eyes to the glory of your dank, dark, miserable home.” She gave a sleepy laugh, and Mothlin went on, encouraged. “Open your eyes and see the darkness all around you, and then go down to the barracks for an early morning practice session with dear Berne -“
“Say that again and I’ll have to hurt you,” Elenanar muttered.
Mothlin laughed. “Good morning to you too.” He sat back on his heels and scooped up an apple from his cloak, placing it close to her face. She opened her eyes and saw the apple, and then she sat up, pushing her hair back, and bit into it happily. She sighed deeply as she ate it. Mothlin reached for the rest of the loaf of bread, tearing it into what he estimated to be halves, and he set her half next to her. “Don’t gulp it down,” he warned. “That’s really all the decent food that’s left.” Elenanar stopped in mid-bite, staring sadly at him. “Next comes the lembas,” Mothlin sighed. “So relish that apple and the bread.”
“Oh, I will,” promised Elenanar. She lifted the apple back to her mouth, and then stopped, staring at him. “You didn’t – you have one too -“
“No, I didn’t give you the last apple,” Mothlin assured her. “There were two. One more for me.” He raised it, and she nodded and tucked heartily back into her food. Mothlin took the first bite of his apple, and they ate breakfast in companionable silence while slivers of light broke the forest canopy around them.
The rest of that day was fairly uneventful, as was the next day and the day after that. Elenanar assured Mothlin that they were making excellent time, and again and again he was impressed with her tracking skills. “The one part of being a patrol guard that I’m good at,” she had called it the day they met, and if anything, she had underrated herself.
Over and over she spotted an almost-concealed trail when Mothlin would have tried to hack his way through the forest, and she knew most of the safe streams. “There are no safe bushes in Mirkwood,” she confessed on the second day, “but the lembas will last.” On the evening of the third day, Elenanar told Mothlin as they set up their makeshift camp that they could reach Dol Guldur in two or three more days. That night Mothlin’s heart was lighter than it had been for the entire journey.
Elenanar’s a good traveling companion, he thought sleepily as he wrapped himself in his cloak. It wasn’t simply that she could find streams and trails, or even that she knew her way around this gloomy maze that called itself a forest. Mothlin had found during the last three days that she had almost unflagging energy, and it was pleasant to be in her company. In fact, Mothlin admitted to himself, I’m more at ease with her than I am with most of the Elves my age in Rivendell.
Thinking of Rivendell inevitably made Mothlin think of Laureloth, the beautiful Elf he had danced with on the night Cilyawen had been captured. He closed his eyes and tried to picture her, but he found to his dismay that he could no longer perfectly visualize her face. He could see her well enough when he didn’t insist on detail, but when he attempted to bring her face in with greater focus, it faded away like a wisp of smoke.
Not a little disturbed by this, Mothlin rolled onto one side. It took him a while to fall asleep.
They stopped for a midday meal by a stream that Elenanar pronounced safe. Mothlin filled their water skin and Elenanar bit off a piece of lembas before she passed the bread to Mothlin. For once her cheery conversation did not lift Mothlin’s spirits. He sat in silence, wondering why he couldn’t visualize Laureloth as he had been able to do before.
Maybe it’s just because I haven’t seen her in so long, he thought, trying to ignore the fact that Cilyawen’s face swam constantly in his mind in perfect detail. When I get back to Rivendell, I’ll be able to picture her again. Absentmindedly and hoping that he was right, Mothlin ate a bite of lembas.
“Mothlin?” Elenanar asked. “Mothlin, are you all right?”
Startled, Mothlin looked up from the lembas. “What? Oh, I’m fine.”
“You haven’t said a word all day,” she persisted. “You can tell me, I won’t laugh.”
“It’s nothing!” Mothlin snapped, more harshly than he’d meant to. Elenanar’s eyes widened in surprise at his tone, and she said quietly, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize!” Mothlin told her. “You can’t do anything about it.” He glanced at her, annoyed at her for being so nice, then turned away from her on the rock he sat on. Resting his forehead on his hands, Mothlin stared moodily at the stream.
The two of them sat there in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes until a rustle of leaves reached Mothlin’s ears. Alert instantly, he sprang to his feet and threw a glance at Elenanar. She too had heard it, because she was up on her feet and reaching for her bow, her face pale with fright and in stark contrast to her flaming hair. Mothlin stepped noiselessly over to where Tari cropped grass and removed his weapons, strapping his daggers and sword around his waist and slinging his quiver over his shoulder. The bow he carried, quickly running his hands along the wood to make it warm and limber before he strung it. Elenanar was trying to string her bow, her breathing coming shallowly as she fought with her stiff bow and her eyes darting around the surrounding forest.
So she was the one caught unawares when the spider web dropped without warning from the trees above them.
“Look out!” Mothlin shouted, throwing himself away from the sticky strands. Elenanar barely had time to look up before the web was wrapping itself around her. She cried out in horror and tried to slice through the webbing with the points of her arrows, but more webbing cascaded from the trees and imprisoned her arms.
Mothlin leaped back onto his feet and ran for her, tossing his bow over his shoulder and ripping his daggers out of their sheaths. Elenanar’s continued but useless efforts to sever the webs around her were growing more panicky by the second as the never-ending webs draped over her like a macabre cloak. She twisted her head up and caught sight of the enormous spider that was making the webs – and she saw it shift position to aim its next shot of webbing at the annoying other creature coming to free its prey.
“Mothlin, duck!” Elenanar screamed as the spider released the webbing. Mothlin hurled himself onto the forest floor, and the webbing slithered down to lie next to him. Satisfied that Mothlin was dead, the spider proceeded to gather up the cocoon that encased Elenanar and to fasten it securely to the trees far above Mothlin’s head. “Stay still!” cried Elenanar, hoping wildly that he was not as caught by the web as he looked.
Mothlin slowly twisted his head to look upward. He saw the white sticky mess that was Elenanar high in the treetops. His hand clenched in rage on the hilts of his daggers, but he lay still as she had told him, grinding his teeth in immobile anguish for her. He saw it give the cocoon a blow, and he nearly gasped as the white mass sagged with a tiny cry. Above his head he heard the spider click to itself, satisfied. He heard the rustling of the leaves as it moved around. He could just make out its dark bulbous shape slowly maneuvering away from Elenanar.
Very cautiously, Mothlin lifted his head. Elenanar was still hanging there limply. Trying not to rustle the leaves underneath him, Mothlin got to his feet and peered into the darkness of the forest. The spider, it seemed, was gone.
Without wasting any more time, Mothlin made for the tree. He had to move at a maddeningly slow pace to avoid making noise, but he finally stood at the base. Mothlin thrust his daggers back into their sheaths, made sure they and his sword were secure, tossed his quiver onto the forest floor, and reached up to grab the lowest branch. His cheek pressed into the rough tree trunk, and Mothlin grunted as he hoisted himself slowly upwards. Branch, flail for a foothold, another branch, flail for another foothold – so went his climb, almost as slow and much more noisy than his walk to the tree. Mothlin avoided looking at Elenanar. If he thought about her caught, limp and lifeless, in the spider’s cocoon, he would not be able to continue. The only way that he could keep slowly climbing was to keep his mind blank. Don’t think about the spider coming back, don’t think about Tari, don’t think about Elenanar, just climb!
He thrust his hand through the mass of leaves, and at last it brushed the sticky webbing. With a grunt of satisfaction, Mothlin pulled himself up to sit on a branch near the cocoon. He shook it tentatively, whispering, “Elenanar?”
There was no answer. There wasn’t even any movement.
Don’t think! he commanded himself. Don’t think about what the spider might have done to her! Mothlin drew the right-side dagger, and with his left hand carefully patted the cocoon until, through the mess of white strands, he felt the top of Elenanar’s head. He set the dagger to the cocoon and sawed through the webbing, taking pains to avoid the area around his hand so that he didn’t cut her.
His palms grew sweaty and his breath labored as he cut through the cocoon as delicately as he could. When he had most of it around Elenanar’s head gone, and he could see her red hair, he gave a gasp of relief and sheathed his dagger. Mothlin pulled asunder and brushed away the rest of the web around her head, until she was free up to her neck. “Elenanar!” he hissed urgently. “Elenanar, wake up, please be alive!” He took her by where he thought her shoulders were and shook her. “Come on, wake up!” Lightly he slapped her face on both cheeks.
Her eyelids fluttered, and Mothlin noticed with immense relief that there was still a pulse in her throat. “That’s it,” he coaxed, gently brushing sticky webs off the top of her head. “That’s it, now open your eyes. Open your eyes and look at me.”
“What?” she whispered.
“Open your eyes!” answered Mothlin. He felt like cheering. She’s all right! The spider didn’t hurt her!
Very slowly Elenanar’s eyelids lifted. She blinked a few times, and then her eyes found Mothlin, and she smiled.
That smile was the most beautiful thing Mothlin had ever seen.
“Hold still,” he cautioned her quickly, reaching again for his dagger. “I’ll cut away the webs on one side and give you my other dagger so you can help.” Elenanar held perfectly still as Mothlin hacked at the web on her right side. Now that she was awake, she helped by shaking off the webs from the inside, so the right side was free much faster. “Here,” Mothlin said, pressing his dagger into her hand. “I’ll do your feet -“
It was at that time that the spider decided to return.
Elenanar was reaching for the dagger when she suddenly froze. “Listen!” she hissed. Mothlin, too, froze mid-slice, and his heart turned to ice when the sound of the spider coming back came to his ears.
For one moment he was stiff with fear – the next, he made an instantaneous decision. He seized Elenanar’s free arm in a tight grip, forced himself not to think of the distance to the ground, and leaped out of the tree. Elenanar screamed as the fall tore her carelessly out of the cocoon. Air rushed over Mothlin’s face, and he closed his eyes to the fall and tugged Elenanar to him so that he could cushion her impact.
With a smack that rang through all of Mothlin’s bones, they collided with the ground. He promptly lost all of the air in his lungs and shoved Elenanar off him to gasp it back in. His back was screaming in interesting tones of red, and his left leg was shrieking. Elenanar lay on the ground, weak with a combination of shock and pain. Mothlin twisted onto his side to look at her. “I’m sorry,” he offered weakly. She didn’t move, only lay face first on the ground gasping.
“Come on,” Mothlin groaned, forcing himself to his knees. “We need to get away from that spider.”
“Where’s – Tari?” Elenanar asked. Her limbs trembled as she too pushed herself to her feet.
Mothlin stared around the clearing. “I left her over there,” he muttered, blinking to clear his eyes of spots and pointing to the small circle of cropped grass – the only sign that Tari had stood there.
The spider’s clicking walk drew nearer. With a colossal effort Elenanar took Mothlin’s hand and pulled him to his feet. “Whistle for her,” she suggested. “Here, lean on me and we’ll go find her -“
“Where’s my bow?” Mothlin asked wearily. “It’ll be useful – if the spider – come back…”
Elenanar slowly bent down and picked up his bow, which had slipped from his back when they fell from the tree. “Here,” she said, helping him slide it back over his shoulder. “Put your arm around my shoulders – we’ll help each other walk -“
But no sooner did Mothlin set weight on his left leg than he gasped and stumbled, clinging to Elenanar so completely that she overbalanced, and they both toppled back onto the ground. “I’m sorry!” Mothlin gasped, releasing her and grabbing for his leg. “I’m sorry – my leg – I can’t walk on it -“
Elenanar’s face was paler than ever. Mothlin could just make out the spider now. It had left the trees and was coming closer to them on the ground. “Whistle for Tari,” Elenanar urged him. “She’ll come, and we can get away.”
Mothlin put his fingers to his lips and blew a shrill whistle. The spider jerked to attention, but there was another sound, from far off, a sound that seemed very like hooves on grass. Mothlin summoned his remaining strength and whistled again, louder. The spider squealed in triumph, but now the hoof sound was definite. “She’s coming,” Mothlin gasped, and sank back onto the ground. “And so is the spider.”
Elenanar whirled around. Mothlin saw her whole body stiffen. Then he saw her hands reach wildly for a weapon – a dagger, a bow, anything! – and he shrugged his bow and quiver off his shoulders and held them out to her. “Use these,” he whispered.
She took them, and Mothlin closed his eyes. He was weak, and his leg hurt too much for there to be any fear in him. There was only the fading but present throb in his leg and the utter weakness in every part of him. He didn’t even fear his approaching death – he only thought it would be a release from his pain. Dimly he heard Elenanar’s voice crying out something – a yell of joy, a frustrated curse, he didn’t know what. There was only darkness, and the presence of Elenanar standing over him, and a beat in the ground that felt like a galloping horse.
And then Elenanar was grabbing his arm, shaking him mercilessly and screaming words he could not understand at him. She tugged him to his feet, and he opened his eyes in time to catch her as she sagged against him, pushed to her limit. Tari was standing in front of them, and there was something approaching fast from behind – something sticky dropping onto his hand. Mothlin reached down and lifted Elenanar onto Tari – she wrapped her arms around the horse’s neck and lay limply against it. Then he climbed on himself, unsure where or how he got the strength to do so, and by reflex nudged Tari in the flanks. With a whinny she burst forward, and Mothlin threw himself over Elenanar, ducked the flying strands of web sent after them, and didn’t think.