Part 9

by Cassia and Siobhan

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    Above, Aragorn felt the stones beneath him trembling, which he did not understand because the rockslide had already stopped, fully blocking the entrance just as they had planned. It took him about a half a minute to realize that perhaps they had done more than merely seal off the cave. Apparently they had made it unstable enough that the whole thing was about to come down on itself.
    "Legolas!" Aragorn shouted his friend’s name aloud in concern as he scrambled across the rumbling, shaking outcropping towards where the secret entrance they had found opened up to the outside world.

    Legolas felt the earth trembling around him and tried to move faster, fighting with the spiders' webbing that was trying to entangle his ankles and trap his legs. He couldn’t help remembering his past experiences with cave-ins now, in Moria, in Dorolyn... and Aragorn wondered why he hated caves!
    "Legolas!" He heard Aragorn’s voice calling to him from up the tiny passage. The ranger’s head appeared as he looked in and saw Legolas.
    Quickly, Aragorn hung down into the shaft, scrambling partway in, despite Legolas’ warnings to get out. Grabbing his friend's hands, Aragorn pulled backward, helping the elf break free of the spiders’ webs and scrabble out of the hole just moments before it and everything else came down.
    The two friends backed up a little distance, breathing hard.
    "Well, that was unexpected," Aragorn said, leaning forward and resting his hands on his knees as he caught his breath.
    "Just as well, I never liked that cave," Legolas remarked as he cleared the last of the spider web off his boots. He glanced sideways at Aragorn. The last time he had been pulled out of a collapsing cave like that it had been Elrond who saved him; it was somewhat ironic that something similar had happened again, this time with Aragorn by his side. "Why don’t you wait a little longer next time," he added with a dry grin. "You may be able to age me before my time yet."
    "It wasn’t my fault," Aragorn protested, actually a little remorseful. "I was held up."
    "I noticed," Legolas grinned to let him know that he was jesting only. "Well," he unslung his bow once more. "Our work is not yet done."
    Aragorn nodded and they headed back into the ravine. There were more spiders yet down there, but it was down to more manageable levels and for the better part of a half hour they did battle with the remainder until most of the spiders were either dead or had retreated and no longer pressed them.
    Their battles had brought them deep into the ravine as the spiders retreated until they were in the very heart of the nest and close to where the mother spider herself lurked. They had yet to see hide or hair of her, and they knew their job here would not be done until that menace was taken care of once and for all.
    They had separated slightly in their search for the hidden lair and Legolas turned when he heard Aragorn calling his name from nearby.
    "Legolas, over here!" Aragorn called out. "I think I found it!"
    The elf followed his friend’s voice until he stood beside Aragorn, regarding the dark, imposing mouth that yawned at them from the ground on their right.
    The spiders they had heard arguing earlier had spoken of Tairach’s underground lair and the instant that Aragorn saw this place, he felt sure that they were getting close.
    Legolas sighed inwardly. More caves. Why did it always have to be caves...?
    There were still spiders scattered here and there in the trees, but after the decimation that had been wrought upon their numbers they hung back now, afraid to venture too close. As a warning, Aragorn and Legolas heaped a number of the dead spider carcasses and set them afire. The remaining spiders pulled back even farther.
    Lighting two torches from the pyre they had created, Legolas handed one to Aragorn and motioned to the dark, gaping maw. Tairach’s nesting chamber was no more than a dank hole dug out of the earth itself. The sides of the cave were layered with spider webs. The silken threads that ran the length of the short passage were stiff and hard to the touch and they did not give when pressed. Their structure gave integrity to the walls and kept the burrow from collapsing in on itself. The small entry opened up into a large main chamber that adjoined Tairach’s personal nesting room.
    There was a rank odor in the air, a musky moldy scent that marked the spiders. The younger arachnids lived in the surrounding forests, choosing to make their homes and nests in the trees far above the ground or strung between the firs near the center of the southern forest. But this was Tairach’s home and she was the matriarchal spider. She had lived as long as Legolas could remember but never had she, nor her spawn, ever ventured as far into the northern woods or become as aggressive as they had since the elf prince had left Mirkwood’s borders and the king’s despondency had caused the protection of the realm to falter. The audacity of the creatures incensed the young lord and he determined to end the spiders' forays into the northern woods once and for all.
    Elrond had made mention that some elves had even been taken by the spiders of late, and the argument they had heard earlier between the spiders seemed to concur with the notion. That in itself was unacceptable and Legolas hoped they would not be too late.
    As they stole into the nesting chamber he was faced with the brutality of his answer.
    "What are these?" Aragorn whispered to Legolas as he stepped into the main chamber of Tairach’s lair. He held up his torch before him, illuminating dozens of white oblong shapes hung from the ceiling, attached to the top of the room by a single thick silken thread. As the ranger approached the one nearest him, he could tell they were actually spider silk spun tightly around tall objects, but what they encased was a mystery to him.
    He turned towards Legolas as he heard the elf gasp. The prince stood in the entrance to the spider’s burrow, his face a mask of horror. Slowly he met the ranger’s eyes and his voice was haunted when he spoke, "They are cocoons."
    Leaning forward Aragorn touched the lacy white shape in front of him, pressing his palm against its outer casing. He could barely feel heat emanating from it. As the meaning sunk in, he stared wide-eyed at his friend, "They are alive."
    "They are elves." Legolas thrust his torch into the wall near him; it stuck fast in the hard webbing that lined the room. Slipping his knife from its casing, he gently ran the blade perpendicular to the heavy strands. They separated with a distinct popping sound.
    Aragorn imitated the prince, carefully drawing his sword up the side of the cocoon he faced. As the webbing fell away he could barely make out the image of an elf inside the casing. Something was familiar about the long, serene face and, with a start, he recognized the warrior trapped inside.
    "Legolas, it is Raniean!" He re-sheathed his sword and tore at the tendrils of spider weaving, breaking them away from the elf’s face, as Legolas ran to his side. Aragorn forced his way into the cocoon and gently wrapped his hands around Raniean’s neck, pressing his fingers against the warm flesh, feeling for a pulse; he found it, slow and steady but definitely there.
    "He lives!" Aragorn turned to the prince.
    "Get him out! Now!" Legolas ripped at the sticky net that enfolded his friend and between the two of them they had freed the warrior in minutes. Aragorn helped the elf prince gently lay the unconscious warrior on the dirt floor.
    "Will he be all right?"
    "Yes." Legolas was quickly looking over the elf for any wounds or broken bones. A small bite mark on the warrior's neck indicated the point where he had been injected with the spider’s poison. "Remember what Trelan told you: the poison does not kill, but only puts one into a deep sleep. He’ll wake soon." Legolas glanced around the room at the remaining cocoons. "Tairach is obviously not here. We have to free them all before she returns, quickly. Help me!"

    They had freed nearly half the imprisoned elves before Tairach returned. Raniean’s whole troop of warriors had been overcome by the spiders. Those that had been released were regaining consciousness and had begun to help the two friends free the others, when a soft, sticky, tapping sounded up the passageway. It was the sound of a many-legged creature walking towards them down the earthen hall.
    Aragorn froze and looked towards Legolas. The elf crouched low in the dark room and quietly reached for his bow, unslinging it and notching an arrow against its string. The rest of the elves flattened themselves down close to the ground and watched the entry.
    The quiet scratching sounds of the spider’s descent stopped. The silence was more intolerable than the sound of the insect’s approach and it took all of Aragorn’s nerve to wait patiently.
    Slowly Tairach’s luminous eyes came into view. The bulk of her body was still hidden in the passageway. She was aware of the intruders in her chambers and she could see that the meals she had saved for later no longer waited for her as she eyed the elves stirring quietly on the floor as they woke slowly from her poison. Her keen sense of smell caught the hints of a different scent. Not elf, not dwarf, nothing she had come into contact with before. In her tiny evil mind she associated the smell with the death of her children outside and with the violation of her private nesting. Rage built within her dark heart. Gathering her legs beneath her, she sprung into the room.
    Aragorn was caught by surprise as the large black projectile that was Tairach launched itself at him. He ducked at the last possible moment, barely hearing Legolas’ shouts of warning. By instinct he raised the sword in his hand and thrust it at the black creature. The blade bit into the soft underbelly of the monstrous insect and she fell with a piercing shriek to the floor.
    It was hard to see in the dim lighting that the two torches afforded, but Legolas reacted to the dark shape releasing his arrows at the evil creature.
    However Tairach hadn’t lived as long as she had without encountering elves before. Her reflexes, though somewhat slowed by the blow Aragorn had dealt her, were still inhumanly quick and she skittered sideways narrowly avoiding the broadhead. A wicked hiss emanated from the arachnid as Legolas notched another arrow. Not waiting on the elf, the spider scurried to the back of the room and entered the darkened antechamber.
    Aragorn straightened slowly from where he was crouched down. Black, thick, ichor dripped from his sword and he grimaced as he cleaned the blade, wiping it off with a scrap of cloth he found on the floor.
    Legolas was running towards the remaining cocoons. With Tairach in the lair they were out of time. He needed to get the elves on their feet and out of the nest quickly. He only hoped that her brood was still too frightened by their latest losses to come to her defense.
    "Go!" Legolas turned and yelled at the ranger. "Find Tairach. Kill her. If we destroy this nest, the fledglings will be scattered and easier to kill. We’ll free the last of the elves." Raniean and Trelan joined the prince shouting orders at their men as they worked hard to shake off the effects of the spider poison and help free their companions and began to herd the waking elves out of the nest to safety.

    "Be careful!" Aragorn warned them and ran into the darkened cave that the spider had retreated to.
    He looked wildly about him; he knew Tairach was hidden in this inner room somewhere and the ranger had the odd sensation that this was where she would put up a fight. He waved his torch slowly around the room peering into the oddly cut out corners, trying to see through the labyrinth of spider silk that covered ever inch of the cave. The room was pitch-black and the dim firelight did not penetrate well as it refracted off of the silvery threads that hung about him.
    The skitter of rocks behind him caused the ranger to jump and look back towards the entrance of the lair. His momentary inattention was all that Tairach needed. Silently she slid down a length of web; reaching down with one long multi-jointed leg, she hooked her claw-tipped foot around the human’s neck and jerked him off the floor.
    The stranglehold caught Aragorn by surprise and he dropped the torch he held; it clattered to the earth floor and sputtered. He tried to pry Tairach’s foot from around his throat, but the small barbs on the insect’s sticky footpad dug into his neck. The barbed tip pierced just below his collarbone as he kicked, struggling to free himself and he cried out at the inflicted pain.
    "Legolas!" The ranger knew he was in trouble as a second appendage wrapped about his waist digging into his hip. "Legolas!" His words were choked off as Tairach pulled him closer to her, tightening the hold she had on her prey. As his breath was cut off, Aragorn lost his grip on his sword and it fell to the floor with a clang, out of reach, as Tairach scuttled towards the ceiling of her lair dragging the human with her.

    The elf prince heard Aragorn’s strangled cries from the inner room. He quickly lowered the last cocoon to the floor and handed his knife to Morifwen, who was just reviving and gaining his feet. Pressing the handle into the warrior’s hand, he motioned to the still trapped elf and instructed the dazed survivor, "Cut him free." He motioned to the remaining cocoon, "I’ll be right back."
    Legolas ran into the darkened room, his bow in hand and readied, but there was no one to be seen. The cave was completely empty except for the torch that Aragorn had dropped. It lay in the middle of the lair, still burning in the dark denseness of webbing that coated every wall of the hollowed-out burrow. Picking up the torch, the elf weaved the firebrand around the interior of the room. The soft light caught the blade of Aragorn’s sword imbedded in a thick web to Legolas’ right. Shouldering his bow, the elf retrieved his friend’s weapon. There was no other entrance or exit from the room and he knew he had seen Aragorn enter. His panic heightened with every second.
    A soft struggling echoed from above him and he heard the sounds of labored breathing. The elf thrust the torch over his head and peered into the vaulted space of the inside of Tairach’s burrow.

    "Help." The answer was choked and whispered. It was getting harder to breathe with Tairach’s leg wrapped around his throat and the ranger was starting to see yellow spots dance in front of his eyes. He could hear the distinct quiet sounds of her prehensile jaws clacking as she drew him closer to her mouth.

    Legolas barely caught sight of Aragorn dangling from the spider's grasp feet above his head. With a lunge he threw the torch into the silky threads to the left of the spider's position. The webbing burst into flames, the fiery tendrils swiftly spreading from where the torch had stuck in the natural netting.
    Tairach screamed and released her hold on Aragorn. The human fell to the cavern floor and lay motionless for several seconds as he gulped air into his oxygen starved lungs.
    In moments the room was on fire. And sparks of fire rained down around the two companions as the spider's silk ignited, exploding with the heated touch and eating up the supply of oxygen in the earthen cave.
    Legolas leaned down and drug Aragorn to his feet. "Now, Strider! We must leave!" He shouted to the human over the roar of the flames.
    Staggering to his feet, the ranger was forcefully pushed out of the nest by the elf as the intricate webbing overhead came crashing down on the very spot where they had stood.

    The elves in the outer chamber that had been released were just gaining their feet, their senses returning to them slowly as Aragorn and Legolas were thrown from the inner room by the heat of the blast.
    Aragorn curled into a ball when he hit the ground, covering his head with his hands as the flames blew out over their heads. The screams of fear from the retreating elves sounded in his ears and were echoed in the unearthly shriek of Tairach. The huge arachnid leapt into the doorway that separated the adjoining rooms. She reared up on her back legs, her screams of rage spiking fear through the human. He rolled onto his back, trying to get away from the horrific creature as she advanced on him. He had no weapons to fight her off and was still attempting to force air back into his lungs.
    Tairach screamed in rage, towering over the gasping, prostrate human who had once escaped her already.

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