Rulf drew the company near and, in a hushed voice, spoke. ‘Come, we must delve further, if we dare.’
Theodoras glanced uneasily at the distant and darkened passage on the far side of the wide chamber. He was altogether feeling quite wretched and cold as he glanced towards the archway that showed blackness in the heavy gloom of the unfriendly place. He now wished to be anywhere but there in that gloomy, spider-infested barrow and was wholly cursing himself for his rather rash decision back in Bree.
And yet, as much as he wished nothing more than to turn round and flee out as fast as his furry feet could carry him, Theodoras quickly pushed it away. He very much wanted to seem brave and competent in the eyes of the dwarves, and the feeling grew as he looked at the silent faces of his companions in the dim light. With a sigh, he straightened his pack and swallowed hard.
Under the low archway went Rulf, his torch one held aloft in one hand, followed shortly by Hemni and the hobbit, and behind came Hergof. The darkness of the far passage seemed to flow around them like a chilled mist and the still air fell all about at once. But the heavy dark veil receded from the flickering torch held in the dwarf’s hand which shone in a globe of space enclosed with utter blackness.
The wall of the passage sprang out before them, and was swiftly engulfed in the inky blackness ahead. Without a word, Rulf strode forward, followed swiftly by Hemni. Theodoras peered ahead then stumbled after them; he could see little but for the dim flickering flame of the torch and the shadowed hoods of the dwarves some paces in front.
They had not gone far when, before them and within the radius of the torch-light, were two openings; here, the company halted for the right turned quickly away, while the one forward went straight on only a little narrower than the tunnel behind.
Rulf stood uncertain at the crossroads for a moment; he peered first forward and to the right shaking his head. ‘Confound it!’
Theodoras shuddered as he passed his hand over his brow. Hemni took a step forward to stand beside Rulf and whispered in a low, guarded voice. ‘Do you hear anything?’
Rulf turned slightly to his kinsman, his eyes glittering in the flickering light, but said nothing, and shook his head slowly. He motioned for his companions and stepped carefully into the side passage. Hemni looked down to smile at the hobbit before hastening forward. Theodoras took in a deep breath and hurried after them. Behind, Hergof stepped to the intersection, and paused to listen, his head tilted to one side; then he hastened to follow as well.
After a few moments, Theodoras felt a sudden void on one side as the wall of the passage fell away from his reach and into emptiness. Here was another opening in the passage, a bit wider but just as dark. He was about to pause and call for the dwarves, but he watched as Rulf strode past the archway and onwards ahead, followed closely by Hemni. For a moment, the hobbit froze with hesitation, glancing down the side passage with nervousness. Then he felt a heavy hand upon his shoulder. ‘Do not worry little one,’ said Hergof in a gentle tone. ‘Rulf will not lead us blindly.’
Theodoras nodded slightly and skipped to catch up with the other dwarves, who were already vanishing in the deep gloom ahead. Presently, the company came to what could only have been yet another fork in the tunnel; at least in the deep darkness that is what could be seen.
Here, Theodoras froze once more, as a sense of evil so strong came upon him that he felt faint. He reached out grasp Hemni by the arm. ‘There’s something in there,’ he whispered ominously, not liking the look of the right-hand tunnel one bit. Here too came a strange odour, a repellent taint in the air and there could be heard faint stirring in the darkness.
‘Let us leave this foul place,’ whispered the hobbit as he turned to step back from the tunnel. Then, not far down that tunnel, he saw a gleam. He stopped to watch as it advanced from the darkness very slowly. Suddenly he cried out as the realization set in that they were eyes; two great clusters of eyes. Whether they shone of their own light or whether the radiance of the flickering torchlight was reflected in their thousand facets, Theodoras could not guess. And the first set were not alone, for much to the hobbit’s rising horror he could clearly see a number of other awful spiders issuing out of the crevices and darkness of the tunnel, all hurrying forward like a sickening tide.
‘More spiders!’ cried the hobbit with horror even as the dwarves let forth a rousing cry. At once the spiders swarmed all about the dwarves and hobbit and in the dim flickering light of the torch there came the gleam of slashing axes and the stab of short blades.
Turning round to form a tight circle of steel and iron, the dwarves hewed at the sickly legs or stabbed at the fat bodies of the spiders if they drew too near. This was too much for the spiders and for a moment they fell away towards the darkness of the far tunnel, only to returning more fiercely than ever.
‘So many spiders!’ cried Rulf as he cleaved the head of one from its sickening and bloated body. Hergof, who stood beside him, said nothing, his eyes gleaming a fiery brightness. He brought back his axe and in a wide sweep shorn the legs of a fat disgusting spider from its corpulent body as it sprang up the wall.
Theodoras too did the best he could, although he was felling quite out of place at the moment. His one hope was that he would not be mistaken for one of those horrible spiders in the darkness to be cleaved by an axe. Once or twice he stabbed past a dwarf with his short knife when a spider drew too near.
To the poor hobbit, it seems a terrible unending business that had no end; but the venom and nimbleness of the spiders was no match for the dwarf blades and iron axes, and soon the darkened tunnel fell silent.
‘Such a sinister and foul place!’ groaned Hergof as he leaned wearily upon his axe. Rulf nodded silently as he reached down to brush off spider webs from his heavy leather boots. The dwarf then fitted an arrow to his crossbow and began creeping down the gloomy tunnel, motioning the others to follow.
They had not gone far when before them appeared a widening of the tunnel filled with a greyness, heavy and dull, which the light of the torch seemed not to penetrate. Casting their heads about, the dwarves stepped carefully into the chamber; all across the walls of the room were thick grey webs, orderly as the webs of house spiders, but far greater, each thread as thick as the hobbit’s finger.
‘A dead end it seems,’ laughed Hergof grimly. Hemni poked at the spider’s body lying on the stone floor, its legs curled above, and then gave it a swift kick. ‘But thankfully no more of the foul creatures,’ he said with a chuckle.
Rulf circled the chamber slowly before turning to his companions. ‘Come, there are no pillars here.’
Again with Rulf in the front, the company turned back down the tunnel until they reached the round angle of the intersection. First looking down into the gloom to the left, Rulf stepped into the other passage quietly. He had gone no more than a dozen steps when the passage suddenly entered a narrow archway in the rock. Up and away climbed stairs into darkness; some were well-worn and smooth, while others were cracked and broken.
After a short climb, they reached the top and found themselves in a deep dark passage once more. To the left another stairs fled down into darkness and to the right a tunnel, equally dark, went away along an even floor.
Again Rulf paused, first glancing at the steps and then down the darkened passage to the other side. ‘Down is no good,’ he said quietly with a whisper. Carefully the dwarf began to creep down into the darkness.
At once the tunnel ahead opened out and sprang high before them. Above their heads loomed a roof and wide pillars of stone rose from the floor of the wide chamber, and all about lay the thick grey shadows of deep webs.
Theodoras blanched as he raised a hand to his nose; out of the chamber that lay before them came a most unwholesome reek so foul that the hobbit nearly reeled. For a moment, the company stood in silence, mouths gaping wide as they peered fearfully into the chamber.
Then, from out of the darkness to the other side, there came the monstrous and loathsome form that any had ever witnessed. Spider-like it was in shape and form, but huge as any wild beast, and more terrible because of the malice and evil purpose that glinted in its eyes. These eyes were many, clustered atop its head, and each held a baleful light. Upon great legs it walked, the hairs stuck out like steel spines. Its round swollen body behind its narrow neck was bright blotched with pale livid marks and its bloated body was orange-pale and faintly luminous as its eyes. It stank to be sure, and moved with a sudden and horrible speed running on its long legs.
This was Gwigon, though the dwarves or hobbit could not name it, a great creature in spider form such as once lived in the Land of the Elves in the West of Beleriand that is now under the Sea. All light of this beast snared and wove into impenetrable and darkened webs. Pale-fleshed, many-eyed, venomous it was, older and more horrible that the black creatures of Mirkwood. And it was wholly wicked and no one, not even the Wise, knew its true intentions or nature.
Theodoras shrank back in mortal fear, even as the dwarves surged forward with a cry, but the great spider made off, springing nimbly backwards and out of reach. Theodoras let out a cry of triumph, but it quickly died in his throat as the horrible forms of smaller, more numerous of Gwigon’s brood issued from out of the webs that clung to the walls.
At once, the dwarves found themselves in a sharp fight, as the children of the great spider swarmed about them. The dwarves lay about in all directions with their axes and blades, scattering the smaller spiders with a sudden fury. But it was then that Gwigon choose to strike. Gathering it’s massively- repellant body, it sprang forward with a great leap, green venom dripping to hiss and sputter onto the stone, to fall among the surprised dwarves.
With a pale leg the width of a small tree, Gwigon lashed out, sending Rulf sprawling onto the floor, his axe clattering away and out of reach. Spinning round with amazing speed, the great spider struck at Hemni with its long fangs. Hemni kicked at the horrible head with a heavy boot before he was borne backwards by the immense weight of the spider. Turning to face Rulf once more, Gwigon raised its blubbery body high up into the air even as the dwarf rose to one knee, glancing frantically about for his axe.
At that moment, Hergof leapt forward, hewing at the flabby underside of the spider with his axe. But Gwigon was not as dragons are; no softer spot it had save for only its eyes. Its age-old hide was knotted and pitted with corruption but ever thickening with layer upon layer within. The axe sprang back with a resounding ring in the air, and Hergof faltered nearly off-balance.
With a rush, the spider came at him with a flurry of legs and fangs. Hergof cried out as he brought up his axe and hewed at the great cluster of glittering eyes. Gwigon stopped its rush to shudder wildly as if in great and awful pain before springing back and out of reach once more.
Rulf leapt to his feet, his axe now held tightly in both hands to stand beside Hergof; and he was swiftly joined by Hemni. The dwarves turned to gaze at the great spider with keen eyes as it stalked the far side of the wide chamber, the foul blood of its dimmed eyes mingling with the venomous dripping of its great fangs onto the stone beneath it.
In all of this, Theodoras cowered nearer the tunnel, too afraid to move or utter a sound. He watched in horror as the great spider shook its ruined head and from it came forth an almost overpowering sense of malice and hate. Hergof raised his axe above his head and cried aloud. ‘Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!’
As one, the dwarves rushed the great spider, turning aside leg and fang to hew at its great head and cluster of eyes. Again and again the axe and blade of the dwarves rose and fell. Suddenly all went silent and the dwarves slowly lowered their weapons.
Gwigon seemed to crumble like a vast bag, its legs sagged and slowly, painfully it backed from the dwarves. With a monstrous shuddering, the great spider crumbled to the floor, the baleful light of its shattered eyes growing dim and then went out altogether.
Hergof staggered backwards to clutch at a wound upon his arm; it was enflamed and foul venom welled from it. He waved away the worried look of the hobbit as he began to wrap it with a fresh strip of linen. Meanwhile, Rulf and Hemni had begun to walk about the walls of the chamber until Hemni called out in a low voice.
‘Over here! Another pillar or I am an Elf!’
The others rushed forward to look on as Hemni deftly cut away at a dark alcove where a great and ancient-looking pillar of web-wrapped stone stood.
‘Is this what we need?’ squeaked the hobbit. Rulf knelt beside the pillar and traced his fingers over faded script chiseled into the stone and then nodded silently.
‘Good heavens for that then!’ gasped the hobbit. ‘Quickly, get a rubbing and let us leave this place!’
The grey, mist-blanketed sky outside was still dark when the company emerged at last from the barrow. The air felt at once felt heavy and oppressive but they fell onto the wide stones that led up to the barrow with relief. There they lay for some time, puffing and panting and no one spoke for some time. It was Rulf that finally broke the silence.
He let out a cheerful laugh as he climbed to his feet and clasped his hand upon his companions’ shoulders. ‘Well…that was a trial to be sure!’
‘We made it!’ added Hemni with a grin. ‘What monstrous evil to be found dwelling in there!’
Rulf lifted up his bulging purse; it jingled full of many gold and silver trinkets.
‘Evil indeed, but profitable!’ laughed Rulf.
‘I have never seen such creatures in the Blue Mountains,’ said Hemni in a low voice.
‘You have not yet seen enough, my good minstrel,’ answered Rulf. ‘There are creatures such as these in the ancient elf-ruins east of Gondamon.’
‘Ahh, the rewards are great, master Rulf,’ added Hergof. ‘Though I had expected much more riches than this, I must say.’
Rulf nodded knowingly. ‘This is only the first of many barrows to be found here. We shall see what we make out of it…not to mention the payment to the rubbings themselves.’
Theodoras, who had said nothing until now and still lay on the ground, looked up at the dwarf with blinking eyes.
‘Wait..what was that, Rulf? What do you mean more barrows!’