Tightly now the trees closed in around them as they proceeded carefully into the valley. Iaun watched the sky for as long as he could before all light was snuffed out by the overhanging, tangled branches. Sérelókë’s feet and Certhasath’s hooves found the path and held to it, but treacherous it was and full of roots and stones and brambles, clutching at them, tripping them.
Certhasath whickered nervously, but quietly. He too seemed to understand the importance of stealth.
“He does not like this place,” Iaun observed pointlessly. “I don’t like it either.”
“I find it useless to expend any of my will on feeling any emotion about it whatsoever,” said Sérelókë tartly.
Iaun gave a surly little grunt and sat silent for a few moments, listening to what few sounds came their way. There was the rustling of their clothes and the creaking of quiver and boot and sword-belt, breath that resonated too much in the darkness. There were Certhasath’s muffled hoofbeats in the loam and dead leaves that were still too loud for their liking, and the voiceless sounds of the forest itself: repellant unexplainable drippings, rustlings of unknown creatures, and the deep, unhappy groans of great trees unsettled in their own woody bulk, though there was no wind to stir their branches.
“Can you see anything at all?” Iaun ventured in a quiet voice.
“I can,” Sérelókë admitted. “A little.”
Now that his own keen Elven eyes, trained to long years of starlit forests, had adapted as far as they ever would, Iaun could see a little too - the hillocks and rises and twists of the treacherous path, the swollen bulks and and hairy vines of the great trees - and from time to time, a tiny gleam of escaping starlight on a shiny, veil-like substance that made him shudder.
And when Sérelókë turned to him, he saw another source of light there - his eyes, mostly silver-blue now, ringing white points of starlight pure and sharp. They seemed to wax and wane as he turned away at times and then back again. Uncanny eyes. Iaun had never quite seen the like of their colour and shine.
“If it would reassure you to know,” Sérelókë said quietly. “I can make us little lanterns of a sort, in case of great need. I would prefer not to otherwise, for it will make us blind beyond their range, and would attract the notice of those I would prefer to avoid.”
Iaun could see the wisdom of that, and yet he hoped that before long, he would have a look at the sort of light that Sérelókë could make.
The land grew flatter as they walked, and now from time to time Iaun thought he could catch a glimpse of the stars if he kept his eyes fixed straight above - here the trees’ canopy was not so sullenly interlinked.
He hearkened to his companion muttering low: “O Yavanna,” Iaun thought he heard Sérelókë say. “Long it has been since you walked here among your works, that once were fair. Would you even recognize your own handiwork now?”
Iaun finally put his voice to it, in a near-whisper. “What say you?”
Sérelókë just shook his head, lip bitten, brow furrowed. “Circumstances change quickly here,” was all he said, and it was more to himself than to anyone else.
The wood itself had opened a bit, but that did little to improve the air, which was stuffy and thick. The glimpses of the sky overhead provided dim light, but little comfort - the stars were rarely visible now through a creeping smoky haze. The northern horizon between the peaks of the girdling mountains had a sickly reddish glow.
The unsettling rustling and chittering sounds in the surrounding thorny brush were growing more frequent and louder.
Certhasath’s agitation was undeniable now, and Iaun felt both regretful that such a noble horse should be brought here, and uncertain of his own seat. With some rearranging, he swung his bow round and held an arrow ready to string - familiar, taut, and reassuring, though he was not sure he could trust his own draw and aim.
He saw that Sérelókë’s pale hand curled lightly around his sword-hilt as he scanned the wall of trees.
As Iaun expected, there was no healthy growth here. But the twisted plants grown wild, fed by the defiled waters that flowed poisoned from the North, grew in profusion, with their smell of rot and glowing deadly fungal growths that gave forth a sickly light, a mockery of the stars.
Sérelókë held up his hand when the rustling grew overwhelming, and now that horrid chittering had taken on a certain steadiness, as though it were some sort of abhorrent language.
Iaun thought he could see open land between the boles now, and he felt his muscles tense instinctively - if he had his way, now Sérelókë would vault up on the great horse behind him. Or at least be ready to run fleet-footed as was his wont. As long as they could get free of the brambles and trees, they could at least fight and die in the open air rather than penned up and tangled in the darkness, and Iaun knew he would prefer that.
“Be still,” Sérelókë muttered. “This is the most dangerous time.”
Now a thick silence fell as the darkness deepened. Even Sérelókë’s eyes flickered side to side in vain.
Without prelude, a creature lunged from the shadows, forelegs reaching and jaws clattering. A monstrous spider it was, moving with unnatural speed toward Iaun and his mount. Certhasath reared and gave the creature a mighty blow with his hooves, and still Iaun held on.
The terrified horse wheeled and charged down the path toward light, seeing too late the veil of webbing strung between trees. Too late Certhasath reared again, and executed a horrible sort of bucking twist that drove him and Iaun on his back into the very center of the binding web that blocked the path. As the sticky strands entangled them, Iaun struggled to get his arm free to get at his sword, but the web clung to him with a grotesque sort of weight and used his own movements to bind him.
Certhasath gave a horrible scream as the spiders closed in. There were so many of them. Wildly Iaun tried to see behind them, for any glimpse of Sérelókë - had they caught him already, were they devouring him even now? Oh, Iaun wished with all his being that he had pleaded harder against taking the road through this valley. For the Girdle of Melian kept her own realm safe, but it acted also as a wall against which foul things gathered in greater densities than anywhere else south of Angband.
So many, so many - Iaun’s vision started to swim in the sight of so many loathsome hard-shelled bodies with their spiky arched legs and their clattering jaws dripping venom. Certhasath’s thrashings kept them at bay for moments, but Iaun knew that couldn’t last long. Still it did not seem right that such a noble animal should die in such a fashion, so Iaun renewed his struggles for the horse’s sake, desperate to free his pinned arm. His wounded shoulder popped and protested, but Iaun fought with all he had against the strands of deadly silk as the spiders regained their courage and closed in.
A blow from Certhasath’s hooves seemed to do for one, and it lay there horribly twitching, leaking ichor from its broken face. Iaun managed to clear away enough strands to get the horse halfway free, and realized with horror that he should have fallen off his back to the ground, but he could not fall - he was bound and suspended by spiderweb from every limb.
“Go, go, go,” he muttered to the horse. “Find Sérelókë. Go free if you cannot. Do not let them take you.” He sliced at the webbing and Certhasath kicked, now slightly calmed enough that his struggles served to free him and not to bind him further. “Yes, yes, like that, fight the web, don’t fight me. See if you can trample a few of them for me, won’t you? Go!”
With a scream of triumph and rage Certhasath burst out of the web to trample spiders, and just as Iaun had suspected, he himself still hung in the web as if he had never been on a horse at all.
But when the great grey-dappled horse mowed through the vainly snapping, snatching spiders, Iaun saw something that amazed him.
The spiders recoiled at first from a strange dancing light, and then seemed distracted from Iaun, their certain prey, for a moment to stare at this thing - it seemed to hurt them - they would certainly blink if they could, as sparks of shining blue fire emanated out at them.
And then at the center of it came a voice - chanting, taunting, sing-song, unbelievably annoying - and the sparks seem to dance with it, prickling and burning the spiders into madness.
Iaun couldn’t make out half the words, or the half-regal, half-barbaric tongue they seemed spoken in - or be sure that the taunter wasn’t making most of them up on the spot - but he thought by now that he would know that voice anywhere.
Eight-legged belly brainless and bloated
Camlost craven shadow-cowering
Ungwë spinning unlight useless
Empty hunger hiding sightless
Forsaken, feckless cannot find me
your own hemp-holes with a hound of hunting
and eight claws to bind me!
Doubtless the spiders could not see Sérelókë, because of the flickering effect of the blinding light, brighter and closer than any the spiders would have ever known. Iaun resolved not to be distracted by them himself, and worked closely with sword and dagger at the revolting threads that held him pinned limb by limb.
The spiders seemed unsure whether to temporarily abandon their safely caught prey for the uncertain other, so just for a moment Iaun let himself lie limp, hoping they’d think him far more securely captured than he was. The spiders couldn’t have been very bright, for it seemed to work, and they turned away again at another fresh offensive rhyme.
Slothful she-slobs dung-fly suckers
Bungling ungol beetle-bothering
Married long to middling meat,
Now cannot know a nicer treat
Far juicier for your jaws I’d be
Were you not too slow to fetch me
Finest flavored flesh have I
But you can never catch me!
That got them, especially the sounds of rustling leaves leading farther and farther away. The boldest of them had turned and were chasing this new distraction, for at least they seemed sentient enough to recognize the stranger meant them insult.
“That all you got? Still scared? Holding back? What cowards you are. Come on, you fat morons, come get me. You lower the intelligence of the whole forest! Come on, leave that little nothing snack alone and get the real meal, over here!”
Almost there, Iaun thought, moving his arms more freely now, almost able to reach entirely around himself.
The spiders had nearly all turned their backs on him now, and the bolder ones had charged forward towards the flickering lights. Iaun tried not to laugh too hard as the taunts continued.
“Not afraid of you. I could take you all in a flash, you’re nothing, you hangers-on in Orc latrines.”
The light grew brighter and Iaun was dazzled and delighted to see cups of bright blue fire in Sérelókë’s hands, shining on his wild and animated face. “Come at me, ye nithings, I’m not afraid of you. Come at me. I stomp on your kin on the paving stones of my city. Come at me. I’ve handled poison worse than yours for a thousand Tree-turns. Come at me. I FUCKED YOUR MOTHER.”
With that, the spiders lunged, hissing and almost roaring in their rage. Sérelókë seemed to grow to three times his size, and the cold flames in his palms illuminated the trees in a blinding display.
And that was light aplenty for Iaun to spike the spiders through with arrow after arrow, his arms at last free enough to shoot. Not up to the speed he’d had before his wound, but good enough on distracted targets.
And when the spiders stilled, Sérelókë ran to Iaun as fast as a blink, and finished cutting him free. He stood around and paced as Iaun took his slow time reclaiming his arrows from the pierced spider bodies, knowing that every one was precious and would be needed. This took so long that Sérelókë finally deigned to lower himself to help with the tedious work.
“I suppose I should feel some emotion,” Sérelókë muttered. “Considering it’s possible that some of these dead were my children.”
Iaun turned to look at him in horror.
Sérelókë was laughing. “Do you believe everything you’re told, Iaun?”
Wiping his arrows clean one by one and making a great fuss of arranging them properly in his quiver, Iaun finally brought himself to smile. “I confess I am having trouble knowing what to believe,” he said. “Now that legends I only half-believed before seem to be coming to life around me.”
He dreaded for a moment that he had revealed too much of his mawkish heart, but Sérelókë only nodded. “Well, Iaun, if you cannot come to the West, then at least some of the West is coming to you. But not the kindest and gentlest of it, I fear. Only the most interesting.”
Now, to himself, Iaun began to wonder if Sérelókë might not be one of the Valar himself, come to walk in native disguise. Certainly there was power within him that his form barely contained. And yet, if he were that mighty, why disguise himself at all?
“I have not made a study of how long these spiders’ eggs incubate or how long it takes them to grow to this size, but I’m very certain not nearly enough time has passed,” Sérelókë could be heard to mutter to himself, a look of amusement upon his striking face.
You are wary and slow to trust. Iaun heard those words echoing again in his mind, and well he knew the truth of them. Was this trust he felt so quickly towards this fearsome stranger once they had passed through a peril together? No, he was certain it was not - not yet. Not trust, and still a great desire to follow him further - a certain knowledge that Iaun’s heart could not rest without seeing more that Sérelókë had to show him. For up ahead loomed far greater trials than the one they had just endured, and the old fears that Iaun had long carried grew renewed strength in his mind.
Iaun started and twitched at a rustle in the forest, but his heart rejoiced to see that it was Certhasath, unharmed and clearly glad to see them, whickering softly. “Let him lead us,” Sérelókë said. “I do believe he has found a way out of this maze and into the open starlight. What little of it the foul forges of Angband will leave to us, anyhow. Come. We have lost much time, and the battle rages on without us. Fell deeds are afoot, Iaun!”
Iaun grinned as he vaulted himself back onto Certhasath, for he now perceived that Sérelókë’s uncanny enthusiasm for observing mayhem was a strange form of something long missing from his weary forest watch: joy.
And if Sérelókë’s otherworldly light, his unsettling form of beauty, brought to Iaun’s eyes what his adventurous will brought to his heart, well, so be it. Though Sérelókë led them into danger and he might be unpredictable and fey, Iaun would gladly follow, for better a short life in this light than a long dreary fading in the shadows without it. And soon that light would shine on the darkness of the marches of Angband, and only fate would tell if it should prevail, or fall into shadow. If Iaun could be of aid, then he was certain that he must; from this chance at destiny, there was no turning back now.