Summary: In the forest of Mirkwood, alliances are made, played out, and broken. But not only among elves…and life is proven more important than evil, even for creatures of darkness.
It is quieter this morning than it has been for days under the silent canopy of black trees that forms the forest. Morning is when most animals are stirring, because of the brighter atmosphere and because of the need to break the monotony of night. But today, for whatever reason, the prey is wary, and they are mostly in their dens and holes, choosing to stay hidden rather than risk appearing to find a predator’s waiting jaws. Wise of them, I would say, but the hunting has been similarly bad for many days, and my spiderlings are hungry. They are too big now to ride on my back as I go; through necessity I left them alone while I came out to hunt, and so I must go quickly and get back to them, or some of the baser members of the colony might think they look a tasty meal. Usually we don’t eat others’ young, but in these times…anything that cannot protect itself (and even some things that can) is fair game, including spiderlings.
Regard for my young ones quickens my feet as I move silently through the angrily whispering forest. In my roving I have wandered a little too close to the Great Cave where the elves den. The game is more plentiful here, but it is also more dangerous to hunt here. Oftentimes the elves are here as well, with their bows that shoot faster than any spider can run, and their skins and armor that resists our fangs. It is best not to come here at all.
I learned that a long time ago, through the death of my mother and many of my siblings. Life has always been hard in this forest, as the early demise of my mother not too many years ago showed. We were hungry after that, my siblings and I. The braver ones, or the more foolish, wandered into elf-territory…and never returned. The rest of us went wherever we could to find food. And now the leaves have turned and it is I that am a mother. I will do my best not to fail my young ones the way my mother once failed us, be it intentional or no.
My musings are interrupted by a sound we are taught to fear and dread from very early in life: the sound of elven feet. To most creatures their light tread is nearly undetectable, but to us, their most hated enemies save orcs, perhaps, and the Black Master himself, their footsteps are always easy to detect.
From the sound there is at least one elf and a Man. At a slight distance I see a glint of fair hair entangled with a long bow and many arrows, and on the waist of the man a long sword, with fingers wrapped tightly around it. They are cautious and strong warriors. I am hunting and I have no reinforcements. Now is not the time to attack.
I take to the trees and sling from branch to branch with my long legs and the help of a few judiciously placed strands of web, doing my utmost best to stay silent and a little distance from the elf and man. If they hear me the elf will shoot me, and my children will be left alone. But I will try to get ahead of them – if they are going hunting but do not manage to make a clean shot and kill their prey instantly, I may be able to follow it and drag it away once it dies but before they can find it. It is not a very good plan, but it is better than wandering through the forest waiting for prey to come to me.
I scramble for speed, moving my eight limbs in a blur of coordination that gives me a fierce kind of joy, knowing that I move without thought as I spring through tree after tree and the sounds of elf and human laughing together goes faint far behind me. I follow the path trod by the pair, though, which I know they will follow until they come to a likely spot to wait for prey. There is a meadow some way ahead still. Perhaps they will go there.
As I swing through a temporary opening in the trees that border the path, I hear the faintest noise of rustling below me. It is the sound of something stiff brushing across bare dirt; whatever it is lies on the path. I am interested; is it the sought-for prey? I circle back to the sound and perch carefully in a tree, close enough to the path to see what stirs below but not close enough that I can easily be spotted by anything or anyone who walks the path.
I do not have a clear enough view. All I can see is a vaguely moving shape, which convulses in short movements, lies still a moment, and repeats the process. Is it injured? Dying? Is it small enough for me to drag away? I cannot even tell what it is!
I move to a new tree, this one closer to the path but still out of sight unless one knows what to look for and doe so very closely. I hiss in surprise, tapping five of my legs in a fluidly nervous motion against the tree limb I perch on. It is another spider, a male. He has picked not only an inopportune time to molt, but also a very inopportune place. From the look of the skin that was beginning to separate from his body, he has been putting it off for a while, and now had no choice but to molt.
“Ah, but Legolas, you see –”
I whip my head back the way I came. The voices of man and elf are louder now, and I can hear the man’s tromping footsteps, though those of the elf’s are as of yet too soft to detect, even for my keen hearing. The elf laughs, the bright sound grating on my sensitive ears. I turn my head back to the male’s prone form. His thrashing has increased in pace now; he hears the coming-closer sounds and know what they will mean for him if he is still there when they come across him, lying weak and helpless on the forest path. But there is no chance that he will be able to completely shed his skin and free enough feet to get away before the pair of two-leggers finds him. Even if he could complete his molting with such unheard of speed, he would be too weak to move. Still he makes a valiant effort.
What to do? By helping him, I endanger my own self, and there is no guarantee that he will survive molting in the middle of the forest, outside the safety of his colony. If I help him and pay for it with my life, I will abandon my children as surely as my mother abandoned us as spiderlings. But if I leave him in the forest path, he will certainly die, and perhaps he has family of his own to look after.
I gaze down at the male, still undecided. I must act quickly, whatever choice I make. Now I can hear the elf’s footsteps as well, and they cannot be more than a bend or two in the path away.
That decides me. I cannot risk my life with the two-legged pair so near. I must get to the clearing where they are most likely to hunt for prey, and carry out the rest of my plan, and get back to my spiderlings, and I must do so now.
I tense my legs and prepare to spring to the next tree, leaving the male to his fate. But I make the mistake of looking down at him one more time.
The male has stopped even trying to molt, knowing now that there is no hope for him. Instead he stares quietly up at the canopy as though wanting to die looking at the sky, which legends tell we will one day climb into, away from the reach of all two-leggers and their pointy weapons. I told that legend to my starving young ones this very day before I left for the hunt, unsure whether or not they would be eaten while I was away, or succumb to hunger while their spirits climbed to the sky ahead of the living as we believe.
For a moment something changes before my eyes, and the male spider is replaced by one of my own little ones, eyes filmed over in gruesome death, limbs curled tightly in premature death.
In a split second I am out of the tree and scuttling through the trees, and then I am on the path. To my left I can hear the laughing voices, and I know that I have perhaps a minute before both our lives are forfeit. Not enough time, but I am here and I might as well.
The male’s eyes widen when I spring onto the path, and then he scrabbles his legs inside his sagging skin as I come near. The idiot probably thinks I intend to poison him to make him easier for the elf and man to kill, and then come back later once he is dead to eat his remains. Perhaps in other circumstances I might have, but that is not what I intend today.
I put my two front legs on him and heave, rolling him towards the opposite edge of the path. He rolls, but not far enough, and the time I have before the two-leggers round the last corner is nearly up. I push again, and he shudders, propelling himself a little further toward the edge of the path as he realizes what I am doing. Now he is on the edge of the path and resting in the shorter weeds that line it, but we still have to get behind a bush or tree before we are seen. I fasten my jaws on the flabby skin of his neck and pull him into the undergrowth, he having enough presence of mind to keep himself from dragging through the dead leaves and weeds as best as he can to avoid making much noise. I position him behind a bush just as the elf and man round the corner. For a moment, the elf looks around suspiciously, but then he follows the beckoning man further down the path. For a moment I fear the bright-eyed elf will see we two spiders huddled behind the bush, one incapacitated and the other unable to fight both him and his friend at once, but both elf and man pass us by as we hold ourselves perfectly still and silent behind the bush.
We make not a move for a moment more as the elf and man pass us by on their way to the clearing, and then, as the sounds of first the man’s footsteps, and then those of the elf’s, fade into the distance, we begin to stir again.
I back away from the male, who has renewed his struggles to molt. “So, then,” I say slowly in my sibilantly high voice, regarding the male as carefully as he regards me.
I can think of nothing else to say, so after a moment I bound into the trees to find somewhere else to hunt. After my close brush with the two-legger pair, I decide I don’t care to hunt near them anymore.
After about an hour’s worth of hunting, I manage to bring down a small deer, large enough to feed all my young ones with a little left over for me. In another hour I manage to drag the animal back to my colony, where my spiderlings caper uncoordinatedly around me in anticipation, none of them missing. Once I have warned the other members of the colony away, I let them at it. Normally we hang our meat for a day or two from a tree, but in times of hunger, like now, we might not last long enough for the meat to cure. There is something about fresh blood, as well…
Once my spiderlings have all eaten their fill, I consume what is left before we suck the marrow from the bones, seeking and taking the last bit of nourishment found in any body before piling the cracked bones at the base of a tree and climbing into our web to sleep off our unusually large meal in a huddled mass of too many limbs.
For a while after that day, the hunting picks up, and no more members of our colony are eaten or die of hunger. Even the elves slack off a little, choosing instead to prepare for the impending winter months. We take advantage of this reprieve to do a little stocking and storing of our own, killing as much prey as we can and bundling into webs to cure in our webs for consumption in the hard months of winter. Most nights now it frosts, so the meat does not rot, and soon we have quite a stockpile in our colony.
All too soon the first deep snows of winter fall, and we reinforce our webs as best as we can with extra strands to keep out wind and snow, and huddle together in familial masses to shelter each other and share what body heat we can, emerging only as often as we must feed so as not to wear down our food supply. As food grows low, we have a few days in which all adults and the older spiderlings hunt to replenish our stores, and then back into the webs we go, to huddle together for a few more weeks before repeating the process.
Winter is always the most miserable time of year, and this year I am unfortunate in that many of my spiderlings succumb to cold, or to hunger when hunting is scarcer. We eat them, of course, in an effort to preserve our own lives and to hoard food, and also to honor the fact that through their deaths the rest of us may well survive the winter. Being as my dead spiderlings are not even half-grown, though, they do not make very filling meals for the rest of us, and so the passing of their small spirits to the snowy sky has little use and is made all the more sorrowful for that.
It is a few more long weeks before the sun begins to shine again, the days lengthen, and the nights warm; it is even longer before it snows no more and green begins to show through the slowly melting snow on the ground, and during this half-winter time I lose two more of my spiderlings, but eventually spring does come, and the colony emerges from our respective webs to feast on what meat we have left over from winter before it rots in the warming sun. Most of us are somewhat thin, and our numbers are sadly reduced – one mother has only two spiderlings left to her, and none more than eight – but now is not a time for sorrow; it is a time for gladness that spring has come again. So we feast, and think not on our passed children and older ones, and make hunting plans and jump from tree to tree with a liveliness that comes from freedom the way we do every year. The younger adult spiders even begin hasty courtships in the heat of the moment. I, however, am not approached by any males, nor do I seek any. I mean to regain some flesh on both my exoskeleton and those of my children before searching for a potential mate, and I put this idea to action as soon as the brief festivities are over, springing into the trees to hunt as my children begin to clear the family web of the extra padding I put on it in the winter.
So the pace of life resumes as spring comes and prey is plentiful for the first time in months. Even confrontations with the elves are few and far between. A very nice spring, all things told.
Eventually, though, things turn, and the times get hard again. It was a bad winter, with thick snows. Our prey feels the effects of this as well as we do; deer do not give birth in numbers as great as the previous years, nor do rabbits or squirrels. Though the weather is warm, this is as much curse as blessing; meat cannot be stockpiled for more than a day at most, or it will rot and be useless.
In the light of this I put off mating again and again, until all the eligible males of the colony are taken, and I will go the year without any spiderlings once my own four remaining children move into webs or colonies of their own in another few months. In the mean time, I am preoccupied with teaching them how to hunt as best I can with the limited amount of prey available for them to practice with.
Eventually, though, they get the knack of it, and then I send them from the web to build their own and find mates among the newly grown spiders of their year, who wait to mate for the first time until late spring or even early summer. It is almost lonely for a while in the empty nest, but it is also liberating not to have to feed so many extra mouths, and so I rapidly adjust, even though at this time of year I usually have a mate and eggs in an egg sack.
It is a fine summer day soon after I send my newly grown spiderlings from my web to make their own homes that I am out hunting in a sunny strand of the forest. I am now not hunting only for myself but for another mother, who recently gave birth and has twenty-six new mouths to feed. On top of that, she has molted only recently, and so is too weak to be of much use hunting. Her mate’s carcass will only feed the voracious little ones for another hour or so, the way they are attacking it, and if they do not have fresh meat soon they will come after their mother, so I have volunteered to find a deer or something large enough to feed them at least another meal, and then it will be another mother’s turn. In such a way we will continue until the new mother has her feet back under her again and she can hunt for her own family. Sometime later in the year, when she can, she will return the favor.
So it is that I hunt for larger prey than I have grown used to stalking, and I have once again wandered too near to the elven paths. Around this time every year a great festival takes place in a large clearing; it is a warrior’s festival, where bows and spears and swords are in ready attendance, and it is best for all hated by elves to stay away for several days from that clearing. I come within sight of the warriors before realizing my most naïve mistake, and by then it is too late to rectify it easily. The warriors do not see me yet, but several are frowning and looking around, reaching for arrows, and nudging their friends, trying to locate me. I make to edge away slowly from the clearing, but one of them shouts and I know I have been spotted. I prepare to spring away and make my escape through the trees, but before I can do so something whizzes through the trees with a noise like death, flying straight towards me. An arrow!
I jerk and leap slightly to one side, trying to dodge, but only succeed in keeping it from striking me squarely in the chest. Instead it pierces my left foreleg and emerges on the other side, making that leg nearly ineffective as far as using it goes until I can try to remove it.
Unfortunately, another arrow follows straight away. I do not have the presence of mind to dodge this one, though, and it strikes me squarely in the stomach, low enough that it may not kill me, but high enough to be life-threatening all the same. I shriek in pain, my sight blurring for a moment before I leap clumsily into the next tree over, fall from the branch I land on, and scuttle away into the forest as best as I can with my maimed leg, while the arrow in my stomach sends bolts of hot pain through my entire body every time I take too wide a step.
I listen behind me as best as I can for the telltale sounds that will mean I am being chased, but hear none. They must have thought me dead when I fell from the tree. Well, I may end up dead yet, if I cannot get back to my colony and get these arrows out, and if the bleeding will not stop…
There are too many ifs in the situation, and so I cut off my thoughts and focus on wending my painstaking way back to the colony, all thoughts of hunting forgotten. Hopefully someone is willing to hunt for me as well as for the new mother with the twenty-six spiderlings.
I am still several miles from the colony when my leg begins to weaken and my breath begins to quicken to an unhealthy level. Blood drips past the arrow down my leg and stomach, leaving a trail for any animal to follow, should any be interested in eating a spider. There is no chance I will make it back to my web before I collapse, that much is clear. And if that happens, I will almost certainly die before I am found, one way or another.
As I think this, the moment comes: I collapse onto my injured stomach, sending another hissing scream up to the sky before I can force myself to be quiet and roll over to my side. I must try to take the arrows out myself. I have done this many times before for other mothers of the colony. I know what to do. I just hope I can do it.
I decide to remove the arrow in my foreleg first. I snap the arrow head from the shaft and let it fall to the floor, then swiftly pull the shaft from my leg, leaving an oozing hole where the arrow used to be and sending another shrieking scream into the canopy. Shakily, I drop the leg into a pile of leaves. Caring for the leg further will have to wait until someone back at the colony can help, or I fear I will lose consciousness.
Next comes the harder part: the stomach wound. There is nothing for it but to draw the arrow out of the wound, but it is sunk deeply into my flesh, and it will hurt badly. Once that is done, I will limp my way back to my colony as best as I can on seven unsteady legs while I try to keep from slowly bleeding to death in two places. Impossible, yet it is what I must at least try to do. I have no spiderlings to take care of, so that will be all right, but I would still like to come out of this encounter alive, and the only way to make for that goal is to first remove the arrow. I take a deep breath and begin.
Inch by painfully searing inch, I drag the arrow out of my wound, sometimes releasing cries of pain when I cannot keep silent any more, losing momentary consciousness once or twice, bleeding freely throughout.
At last I come to the top of the arrow head. One more pull and my body will be free of the elven arrows, and then all that will remain is to get back to my colony in one piece before nightfall. I take as deep a breath as I can, then pull, feeling the arrowhead slide from my body, tearing me on the way out even as it did on the way in. Then I lose consciousness again, and I cannot say I am sorry to feel the blackness swallow me.
I wake what may be a minute or an hour or a day later, to find another spider standing over me. I hiss a warning before I recognize the other: it is the male I rescued from the two-legger pair that day so long ago. He holds something in his fangs: a thick strand of web, which he wraps around my leg without looking at anything but that leg. He disappears from my line of sight for a moment before reappearing with another, larger rope of web, which he wraps around my stomach, again without looking at me. This done, he steps back and watches me as I watch him. There is silence for a moment. Then I gather my legs under me, holding the injured one gingerly out from my side, and attempt to stand. I manage it, barely, but I try not to let the male see how little I can do. Yes, he has a debt to pay, but outside of colonies we are not usually interested in paying them or giving assistance. It is usually considered enough of an effort to not eat a wounded spider on the spot and allow them at least a chance at life. Most do not offer active aid. What makes this one different? Is there even a difference? I decide not to find out.
“So, then,” I say to him, words of gratitude that any other culture might appreciate sticking in my throat. And then I turn away and begin to make my painstaking way through the trees back towards my colony. I go perhaps fifty yards, feeling his eyes on my back the entire time, before he rustles behind me. I glance back to see empty forest, reassuring myself that he is gone, and then continue on. I make it to my colony and my web, though just barely, and collapse into my web. Another mother rather begrudgingly takes on the hunting duty which I had been given that morning; I immediately fall asleep.
When I wake it is nearly dark outside my web, a pile consisting of three fresh squirrels sits near me, and the dim shape of another spider crouches in a corner of my web. I hiss my wordless appreciation and quickly devour the squirrels, feeling some strength return to my limbs as I ignore the shadowy form of the other spider, who I have taken for the mother who went out to hunt. When I look up again from my meat, I expect the mother to be gone, but she is not. I whistle, a questioning noise. The other whistles back in a lower pitch than mine: the tones of a male. It is the male spider. He followed me after all.
I abandon our own spidery language for the blend of Westron and Black Speech we learned from the orcs, and he does the same.
“May I den here?”
“An elven party.”
Enough said. If elves had come to a colony, there was nothing left; no exceptions. The forest is not safe without a colony to return to, even for a spider with venom in his fangs. I huff and settle down for the night, the effort of eating and holding a conversation tiring me again. He takes my wordlessness as consent and settles down as well, sending vibrations down the web to me until he is still in his corner, and I fall asleep and know no more.
Over the next few days the male continues to den in my web, taking over my hunting duties (to the relief of the other mothers) and watching my wounds heal, helping me with them when he can and accommodating them the rest of the time. Over the nights he gradually shifts his resting place closer and closer to me, now sleeping only a few feet from my side. But it is not until the male begins to bring me butterfly’s wings and disregarded feathers from molting birds that I realize what he is trying to do. The male is courting me! And this late in the year, when any eggs will hatch just before the winter!
But I tell myself that if I make known that his advances are not welcome, he might leave and find somewhere else to stay, which would not be to my benefit while I still heal, nor would it be to his, for a spider alone in the forest for very long is a dead spider. This is what I tell myself, and if this perhaps is not the whole of my interests, I do not let on to anyone, not even myself.
So the male stays, and day by day I grow stronger, and day by day he brings me more little tokens and hunts for me and provides for me the contact I have missed this past year, and he is safe in my colony for the time being. And then comes the day I am fully healed, and need wear bandages no more, and can hunt again.
On my first hunting trip since I had been shot, I manage to bring down three rabbits and a squirrel. When I return to my web, it is late afternoon, and most of the colony is either out hunting or dozing in their webs. I leave two of the rabbits at the web of the mother who hunted for me the day I first reappeared in my colony wounded as part of the payment for the meat she brought me, then enter my own web. I am not surprised to find the male spider gone, though perhaps I am a little sad. Not sad enough to go without eating, though – I still have much of my strength to gain back.
I eat and then fall asleep to any empty web, though I do my best to quell any feelings of loneliness I feel at the male’s leaving. It was for the best.
I wake up some time later to the dappled moonlight that streams through both trees and web to shine upon me. But it was not the light that woke me; it was the vibrations that danced and shuddered through my web. I peered; the male spider had returned! He crouched, distant once more, in the corner of the web I had first found him in. I whistle; he whistles back. And then we speak.
“May I den here?”
I sigh, and then I stand and make my way to him. I stand over him for a moment, and then sink down by his side.
He heard the acquiescence in my words for more than his question, and gave his consent as well. And so that night we made love, he and I, and he became my mate. I gave myself to him the way I suspect all females give themselves to their males, and once it was over we rested for a brief moment before he lay back under my touch, and gave himself to me in return: I killed him, and ate him, and sent his spirit into the sky while his shell remained with me, providing nourishment and the only touch of their father my spiderlings will ever know. Soon I will lay my eggs and wait for their time to come, and while I wait I will mourn my mate less and less every day, so that when my children hatch they will know only me and not a even a distant shadow of their father. He will never be mentioned again.
I think back one more time to the first time I saw him and decided to help him, and remember how he repaid me, and then I let the memories float away from me like his spirit climbs to the sky, lightly and freely, and now even if I wanted to I could not speak of him. The recollections will not come in anything but faint images and sounds and feelings, just like with all of my other mates over the years.
And life in Mirkwood goes on.