When late summer comes to middle earth, conversations in the taverns and marketplaces of Anduin naturally turn to the most hideous forms of arachnoid death. As the oppressive heat of summer fades from Mirkwood’s dim reaches, to be replaced by the moldering stillness of autumn, and the first red tips can be seen on the leaves atop its dense canopy, the great spiders reach the end of their spawning season. In the long hot days of July and August, their chitterlings still small, these hideous beasts could satisfy themselves with the blood of small woodland creatures that they caught in light webs scattered in wide orbits around their central nests. But by the end of summer their squirming horde of new grotesques are large, and hungry. They have already eaten the smallest of their brood, and as their many eyes turn a hungry regard on the remainder of the nest their parents set forth to snare larger prey. In Anduin around the Mirkwood the cooler harvest months of September and October are also called the gorging season, for that is what the spiders do. All of Mirkwood trembles with the fear of these merciless predators stalking in the lower shadows of the dense woodlands, and the folk of Anduin discuss the ways they can die. Is it better to be taken at the end of autumn, by which time the spiders are sated, to be stocked in their larder for weeks of slow bleeding, perhaps with a little hope of rescue, or to be run down and sucked dry in a brutal orgy of bloodlust in the undergrowth?
Opinions differ on this urgent question. These grizzled old woodmen and girlish scouts have all heard the stories – though of course none have met the man at their centre – of the survivor, who lived by licking rainwater from the webbing that held him, perhaps snapped on an occasional bug, crying out occasionally for help (better to do this after the chitterlings have fed on a nearby deer or boar, so as not to draw their attention) and praying to whatever gods can hear desperate whispers through the impenetrable canopy of this godforsaken forest; until after some weeks a miraculous rescue is mounted, and a band of Orc hunters or late-autumn woodcutters frees him from the web. This man had hope, or so they have heard. But all of them have seen with their own eyes the frenzied hunting packs, heard the desperate cry of their comrade and rushed to his aid only to find him writhing on the forest floor beneath a squirming, raging, chitinous mass of venom and death, his fate sealed. It is best then to run, your own survival guaranteed by his sacrifice, but your sleep forever after to be disturbed by the haunting sound of his weakening, desperate cries, the final gurgle, and then the clicking and slurping of feasting monsters.
This conversation will repeat itself in the taverns of the wood folk all across the wide banks of the Anduin. Perhaps someone will brush away a tear; someone else will turn their gaze to the rose blush of sunset over the distant trees, dark memories stirring. Then all will come to agreement – best not to go into the great wood at all during the gorging months, and avoid either fate.
So it was that the Fellowship decided to avoid the deeper paths of Mirkwood altogether on their journey to the lonely mountain. They met at the eastern end of the Mirkwood road and traveled north on the plains, cutting east of Mirkwood in the lightly wooded hills and valleys of the dale lands. Our story starts as they reach the long lake at its eastern end, where the ruins of Old Lake Town stand silent and watchful in the autumn mists. The Fellowship has four members:
- Annunon, a wood elf, veteran of the battle of five armies
- Durin, his friend, a dwarf who is also a veteran of the battle
- Aregisel, a woodman scout the two hired to guide them through Mirkwood
- Roderick, a barding squire whose father fought with the dwarf in the battle, and sent him to learn wisdom with the veterans
Their aim was Dale, where in the first snows of winter the five armies would enjoy a reunion to relive their valiant victory and bicker over who was bravest. Annunon and Durin were returning to the scene of their first (and only) glory, where their bond of friendship was forged atop a blood-slick pile of orc corpses, and to hasten their journey they had engaged the services of Aregisel; Roderick was a burden thrust upon them by old friends.
Having recommended a path that would draw them clear of the spiders commonest haunts, Aregisel had led them north to the lake. Here they camped on a promontory, enjoying the late autumn evening, while Aregisel scoured the lake shore for treasure. At this point the burnt and shattered remnants of docks and warehouses lay crumbling in the water, interspersed with the bleached bones of the dragon, and it was Aregisel’s hope that some treasure might remain – perhaps a merchants stash dislodged and drawn to shore in the summer storms, or a gem broken off the dragons scales and gleaming in the shallows, somehow missed by looters in the chaotic days after the destruction of Lake Town. He found nothing though, except a memorial coin minted to commemorate the occasion of the mayor of lake town’s fifth election victory – a prize of a kind, but none left alive to appreciate it. Satisfied this part of the lake had been scoured clean, and unnerved by the mists hanging over bones of city and dragon alike, Aregisel returned to camp before dusk.
The next day they headed west towards one of the lakes crossing points, a remote and little-used raft crossing that Aregisel expected to be quiet and cheap. They traveled without structure, expecting no trouble and setting no guards, enjoying the cool air of the valleys and the joyful bird song of late summer. But even this close to Dale there are wild things and wild men, and some hours’ journey after the midday break they heard yelling and telltale cries of altercation from just the other side of the slope they traversed.
The Fellowship are men of action, if not of wisdom, and both Durin and Roderick ran for the hilltop at the first sound of conflict. Annunon and Aregisel, none the wiser but much less courageous, melded into the brush at the side of the road and moved more cautiously forward. On the other side of the crest they saw before them a classic tableaux of rural banditry: Three roughly-dressed men carrying swords were harrassing an aging merchant. He had backed against a tree, leading a pony laden with supplies, and was holding off one of the men with a rough piece of wood grabbed from the trail side. A small boy clung to one arm, and as the Fellowship watched one of the men pushed the merchant back at the tree, yelling threats of death and worse.
Never known for their wisdom, Durin and Roderick rushed to intercede, marching down the hillside and yelling threats. One of the men stepped forward, sword drawn, while two others maintained a wary guard on the merchant. Roderic, resplendent in mail hauberk and a tower shield passed down from his father, tried to impress the rough-cut bandit with his poise and authority, but the bandit merely laughed off posturing by a man so fresh from childhood that he had yet to muster a proper beard. Durin, dwarven veteran, sported a resplendent beard and a menacing manner, but before he could assert himself the man threatened him dourly, “This ain’t no biz o’ yers, git gone now ‘afore I cut ye a new mine.”
Now Roderic recognized the trio, notorious bandits from Dale who had a reputation for elusiveness and viciousness. He tried threatening back, but the man was having none of it; he simply spat in the youth’s direction and grunted “Git gone, yer little twerp, or I’ll ‘ave your balls and your mammy’s too.”
Of course the man had not counted on the two hidden in the shadows of the verge. They both let fly with their bows, but both missed. Shocked, the other two men moved forward, and battle was joined. Durin and Roderic both tried striking the leader and missed, but Aregisel’s second arrow struck true, piercing the lead bandit’s chest and passing straight through him in a burst of broken fletching, then hitting a pot on the merchant’s pony with a resounding clang. The bandit fell, killed instantly by the blow, and a moment later Annunon’s arrow pierced the second bandit’s hand, pinning him to a tree. The third took one look and turned tail, bolting for the cover of the trees. Aregisel tried to shoot him in the foot but missed, and before anyone could make chase the fleet-footed bandit had disappeared into the shadows.
“No matter,” Aregisel called to the others, nocking another arrow and surveying the surroundings carefully. “Soon it will be dusk, and ’tis the gorging season.”
Battle done, they descended to talk to the merchant and hear his sorry tale. He was grateful for the rescue, and revealed to them that this sorry band of reprobates had been his employees, paid to escort him to the hall of the elf king, and had turned on him once they reached the isolation of the long lake. He had been given the choice of handing over all his money and goods or losing the boy, his only son. He was on a mission to collect trade goods from the elves and transport them to the woodfolk, and these treacherous knaives had been offered 2 treasure each to take him there; he had already paid 1 upfront, and if he did not complete this trade mission by winter he would be ruined. Would the Fellowship assist him?
Seeing a chance to make a name for themselves and a little money, as well as to help a good man in need, the Fellowship agreed, after some negotiation. Aregisel searched the body of the dead man and found nothing – not even his broken arrow could be salvaged from that carnage – while Roderic convinced the merchant to offer them 8 treasure regardless of how many survived the trip. They left the body where it lay, released the man pinned to the tree on his bond, and set out down the path to find a good campsite before sunset.
Somewhere in the forest, a man ran for his life – and the great spiders stirred as the lazy evening of autumn bled into night…