Written by daw the minstrel at Nilmandra's request and then beta read by Nilmandra.
I just ran with the plot points Nilmandra had already set in motion, and I thank her for inviting me to play with them and her OCs. Any help I gave in finishing this story is my get-well gift to Nilmandra, who's been hit by about six different kinds of nasty invisible beasties this year. From both of us, the chapter is a birthday gift to Dot.--daw
Sharp voices and hurried steps sounded in the hallway. Tathiel's head snapped up, though her hand still hovered over the herbs she and her two apprentices had been sorting. The door burst open, and Bregolas strode into the infirmary, a limp figure in his arms. Lathron, Tathiel realized. She jumped to her feet.
"What happened?" she asked.
Bregolas set Lathron down on one of the high beds. "Spider bite," he said, voice tight, words clipped. He ripped open the lacing on the front of Lathron's tunic to reveal two gaping, oozing wounds about a hand's width apart.
She bent over Lathron's immobile body. "Fetch the antidote, and set up a brazier," she said to the apprentices who were already in motion. She laid a hand on Lathron's head. His skin was cold and clammy, and his face had as much color as the sheet under him. More alarming, he struggled for each shallow breath, his chest barely moving.
"That was all?" she asked. "Just the one bite?"
"Yes." Bregolas dragged his sleeve across his sweaty forehead. He must have ridden hard.
Tathiel kept her face calm, but her heart fluttered in dismay. She had seen more spider bites than she cared to think about, but she had never seen anyone as sick as Lathron seemed to be after being bitten just once. She wished Camnestra were not away visiting his daughter. She would have felt better with the older healer working beside her.
Again steps hurried down the hallway, and Thranduil came through the still open door. She had expected that. The king would have known his son was hurt even before someone flew to tell him. But her heart nearly stopped as he entered. She had not expected Legolas to be sprawled in his father's arms.
Evidently Bregolas had not expected it either. "The spider bit him?" Bregolas cried. "He said he was all right."
Thranduil set the elfling down on another bed. "Then he was mistaken. He has a bite on his shoulder."
Legolas moaned and huddled over onto his side, hand clapped to the shoulder that must be the hurt one.
Tathiel fought her urge to hurry to Legolas's side. "See to him," she told the apprentice who had just set up the brazier near Lathron's head. At least Legolas was moving, in pain, but reacting as she had seen others react to a spider bite. Lathron was still as a wax doll. She looked at the door, willing Emlin to come through next.
"Where is Emlin?" Tathiel set a pot of herbs to boil on the brazier.
After an instant's silence, Bregolas said, "Are you asking me?"
She darted a look at him. "Yes. She and Legolas were together."
Bregolas stiffened. "Not when we found him. We were on our way home and felt a disturbance in the trees. We found Lathron and Legolas, surrounded by spiders, but Emlin was nowhere in sight."
Panic clawed at Tathiel's stomach. "Where is she then?" The pot of herbs rattled on its stand. She yanked her fingers away from the handle, and it stilled.
"Could she have come home before Legolas did?" Bregolas leaned one hand on a table. "He was with Lathron."
The apprentice pried Legolas's hand off his shoulder and prodded his wound. He cried out and tried to wriggle away. Thranduil put an arm around him to hold him steady. He looked at Tathiel. "Is your bond with her disturbed?"
Tathiel groped for the feel of her daughter's bright presence and let out a trembling breath. "Fear. I sense fear."
Bregolas lunged for the doorway. "Every elf in the stronghold will be out looking for her." He skidded to a halt. Rawien stood in the doorway, face set, looking straight at Tathiel.
"Emlin," Rawien said.
"Come," Bregolas said. "We will find her." He shoved past Rawien, and Tathiel heard him running down the hall, Rawien at his heels.
Tathiel trembled with the urge to run after them, to search for her frightened daughter. Instead she dipped a cloth in the hot herb water and washed out Lathron's wounds. He lay inert under her hands.
Legolas had quieted. Tathiel darted a look his way and found him limp under the apprentice's hands. He must have fainted. Thranduil eased him onto the pillow and came to stand on the other side of Lathron's bed. A line appeared between his brows as he looked down at his son's still form. Tathiel fleetingly wondered what his bond with Lathron told him.
"He is much sicker then he should be, my lord. I cannot understand it."
"Camnesta said his reaction the last time was serious and any future bites might be worse yet. He said this type of sensitivity worsens with each encounter," Thranduil said. "
She jerked her head up. "His what?"
Thranduil blinked. "His sensitivity to spider venom. Surely you knew."
"No! How would I know? No one told me."
"It was long ago," Thranduil said slowly. "He nearly died. Camnestra must just have taken for granted that you knew."
She bent over Lathron. She eyed his chest, rising and falling no more than the width of a bow string as his breath wheezed in and out. The wheezing dwindled to a whisper.
Tinánia sped along the river path, clutching Emlin's hand in one fist and the club in the other. Emlin stumbled, and Tinánia realized she was half dragging her. She slowed as much as she dared. She glanced over her shoulder. Was that Lathron she had heard? Her heart thudded like an alarm drum.
"Tinánia," Emlin panted, "the trees."
The trees thrummed with fear. "Dark! Dark!" they rustled, and Tinánia knew they meant a darkness other than the night now settling around them. She felt it too. Something very wrong twisted her guts, wrong even beyond the chaos that always churned around any giant spiders.
She skirted something gray on the path, a pile of shiny fragments around a huge shallow cup. She groped for recognition, the very strangeness of the thing adding to her terror.
A deeper darkness plunged through the air. Tinánia dug her heels into the dirt and yanked Emlin back just in time. Two spots like glowing coals swayed and bounced gently in front of them.
"Meat." The spider sounded pleased as an elfling with a finger in the honey jar. It spun out a little more thread and dropped lower.
"Go away!" Emlin screamed.
Tinánia hefted the club, her muscles burning with hot desire to smash the foul thing to jelly. She hesitated. She had Emlin to think of.
From their left came the gurgle of the river. Tinánia plunged off the path, holding the club up to shield herself and Emlin from the bushes whipping at their skin. "The river," she urged, looking back at Emlin. "The spider will back away from the water."
Emlin set her mouth and pushed through the underbrush.
They broke free of the underbrush right on the lip of the river. For an instant, they teetered on the edge. The river swept past, a good five yards below. The tree overhead shuddered. Its leaves rustled and an angry clicking rattled the darkness. Tinánia's heart leapt. She flung the club aside, picked up Emlin, pinched the elfling's nose, and jumped.
Water closed over their heads. Tinánia's body flinched from the cold, but she kept hold of Emlin. Skirts tangling around her legs, she kicked as hard as she could. They bobbed up out of the water into the starry night. Emlin coughed. Tinánia put a hand over her mouth. "Shh."
Emlin looked near to tears, but she nodded.
Tinánia shook her wet hair out of her eyes, looked around, and struck out desperately for the dark space under the bank, holding Emlin under one arm. They needed to get out of sight, and they needed to do it quickly.
"I can swim," Emlin said in her ear.
Tinánia knew that, but she hated letting Emlin out of her grasp. She released the elfling but grabbed the back of her tunic. Emlin's arms flashed white against the moving water. Together, they struggled against the pull of the frigid water. They had entered the river only a few yards from its edge, but Tinánia's arms trembled by the time her hand struck slippery rocks on the river bottom. She staggered to her feet, pulling Emlin with her.
They stumbled up the slanting bottom until they reached a narrow muddy strip the river had hollowed out under the overhanging bank. Tinánia fell into it and pulled a shivering Emlin against her side. She pulled her belt knife from its sheath. Being prepared for trouble was always a good idea, but they would be out of the spider's sight here, and that should give them some respite anyway. Lathron would bring help as soon as he realized she and Emlin had not reached home.
At the thought of Lathron, panic flared in Tinánia's chest. Where was he? He and Legolas should have been right behind her and Emlin. She struggled for breath. Her heart felt as if the cold of the river had crept into its core.
Emlin wriggled out of her embrace, picked up a rock, and came back to squat next to Tinánia. "If that spider comes after us, it will be sorry," she said in a shaky whisper.
"It cannot swim," Tinánia assured her.
"I know," Emlin said, but she sent a sidelong glance at Tinánia's knife and kept hold of her rock.
Tinánia bit her lip. The spider. Where had it come from? "Emlin, how many spiders did you and Legolas see?"
"Two. One tried to catch me, but Legolas stopped it." Emlin shuddered. "Then you and Lathron came."
Two, Tinánia thought. She and Lathron had killed one. Was this the other? If so, Lathron and Legolas were safe. Maybe there were more than two. But how could more than one or two spiders come so close to the stronghold without being seen?
Her worry over Lathron deepened to something almost like pain. She searched inwardly for their newly formed bond, stiffened, searched again. A cold mist shrouded what should have been her warm sense of her husband. Realization dawned. For Emlin's sake, she smothered a cry. The feeling of wrongness that had been nagging at her was not caused by the spiders. That deep wrongness was not outside her, but inside.
Something was the matter with Lathron.
A soft whoosh sounded over the river. The spider hovered in front of them, bouncing on its thread.
"There!" the spider squeaked happily.
How could it be here? Was the fool thing too stupid to fear the water?
Tinánia stared at the gray thread from which the spider hung. It was the same color as the shell she had seen on the path. Insight came in a flash. The spider was indeed too stupid to fear the water because it had just hatched. What she had seen on the path were the remnants of the egg. No one had seen spiders here because they had not been here. What had been here, hidden somewhere, were the eggs. Now they were hatching. And there were undoubtedly many more than two or three.
"Hungry," the spider said. It shifted its legs, and the thread began to sway in wider and wider arcs, coming closer each time. "Whee!"
Fire throbbed and twisted in Legolas's shoulder. It bored into his muscles. His head swam. His stomach heaved.
From far away, he heard Ada shouting, "Lathron! Breathe, Lathron!"
Something went thump, thump, thump. Legolas opened his eyes into little slits and saw Tathiel beating her fist on Lathron's chest. Why was she doing that? The spider bit Lathron, and now Ada was shouting at him and Tathiel was hitting him. Had Lathron done something wrong?
"Ada?" The word came out thickly. He was having trouble moving his tongue.
A healer stepped between him and his brother. She lifted his head and held a cup to his lips. "Drink, Legolas. It will counteract the spider venom."
He swallowed the stuff, pleasantly minty at first, then bitter in the back of his mouth.
The thumping stopped, and a moment later, Ada came into view, and the healer moved away. "How do you feel?" Ada's voice sounded odd.
Legolas struggled to speak. "My shoulder hurts. Did the spider bite me too?"
"Yes, it did."
"Will Tathiel hit my chest?"
Ada stroked Legolas's hair. "No. Lathron was having trouble breathing, but apparently you have escaped that particular problem. Thank the Valar."
"Trouble from the spider bite?"
"To their venom, yes."
"Is he all right?
Ada hesitated. "For now."
What did that mean? Legolas bit his lip. He never should have chased that stupid squirrel.
Lathron labored to let air trickle in through his nose, the smell of the herbs being held near his face familiar. At least, his father had stopped shouting, and Tathiel had stopped pounding on his chest. The wounds there hurt already, and the pounding had made them agony. Voices floated above him.
"Is he conscious enough to drink?" someone asked.
"He might be," Tathiel said, "but swallowing would be a problem."
Lathron tried to tell her he was awake enough to drink the antidote, but he did not seem to be able to speak or so much as flick his finger to draw her attention. Something was wrong. He felt it in his blood and bones. Something very frightening was happening.
Abruptly, he saw Tinánia, crouching in a dark place with Emlin pressed to her side. He heard her quick breathing, felt the rapid beat of her heart. She was clutching her knife, peering out into the dark, watching for danger. Tinánia was in trouble.
Let me see, let me see, he silently urged. Let me watch with you.
He was looking out over the river. An ink-dark shape swung toward him, ripe with the stench of joy in destruction.
His father's deep voice penetrated his vision. "How is he?"
"His breathing is improving, but he should be able to manage his body better than this." Tathiel spoke from somewhere far away. "It is as if his attention is wandering. He needs to draw his strength back to himself."
A familiar warmth touched the ice in Lathron's chest. Tinánia, he thought. The warmth slid over him like her caress.
"Be well," Tinánia said. "Be there for me. Let go."
She vanished. He searched for her in the nooks and crannies of his mind, then surrendered and lay clinging to the warmth still fragrant on his skin.
"Let go," Tinánia murmured. She willed a last spurt of love and strength along her bond to Lathron, then deliberately closed herself off to him. The confused feel of him made her heart throb in her throat. He was badly hurt. She was sure of it. Her fear and even more the malevolent presence of the spider would weigh on his slender strength if she shared them with him. She drew herself in and concentrated on the spider, swinging closer and closer to her and Emlin.
"Shall I throw now?" Emlin's voice trembled, but she let go of Tinánia and cocked her arm back to hurl her rock at the spider.
"No! Get behind me, Emlin."
"I can do it. I can knock that spider right down into the river."
"No. You have to be brave and do what I tell you."
Emlin hesitated, then slid behind Tinánia, still clutching her rock.
Tinánia gripped her knife in a hand slippery with sweat. Hastily, she tried to wipe the hand on her soaked skirt. She would have only one chance.
The spider swung again, close enough that she felt the breeze of its passing on her face. It loosed one leg and reached toward them, testing the distance. Involuntarily, she flinched away. It was close enough that she could see its fangs dripping. The spider shifted its weight and flew away in the longest arc yet.
"Whee!" the spider said. It swung toward them again, two legs probing, ready to jump.
Tinánia flung her knife. With the softest of snicks, it sliced through the gray thread. The spider fell, its scaly legs flailing.
"Uh-oh," it said, just before it splashed into the river and shriveled in on itself. It bobbed once in the rushing water, then sank out of sight.
Tinánia stood frozen, arm still extended. Emlin still held her rock. Then Tinánia let out a shaky breath and dropped her hand to her side. The rock rolled off Emlin's fingers. She flung her arms around Tinánia's hips. "I knew we could do it," Emlin said.
Tinánia wrapped an arm around her. "Shall we see about finding a way out of here?"
Emlin nodded vigorously, sending dripping rattails of hair tapping against her forehead.
Tinánia moved to the water's edge and studied the bank above them. It rose three yards or so over her head, slanting toward the river. Tree roots protruded in a tangled mix of fine and thick strands. "If I boost you up, can you hang onto those roots and climb?"
Emlin came toward her at once, arms extended.
Tinánia hoisted her up to thread her arms and feet into the roots. This low on the bank, Emlin almost lay on her back. Tinánia hesitated before letting go. "When you get to the top, watch for spiders. If you sense anything wrong, run away. Do you understand?"
"You mean leave you? No!"
"You have to run home and get help. Promise me, Emlin."
Emlin set her jaw. "All right." She scrambled upward.
Head tilted, hands raised below Emlin's back, Tinánia edged toward the river until she teetered on its brink. As Emlin move unhesitatingly from hold to hold, Tinánia opened herself to Lathron again. Instantly, he was there, his spirit flickering weakly, like a fire about to go out. The flame leapt at her touch. I am coming, she told him silently. Be there!
Emlin reached the top. She threw one arm over the bank, then the other, and kicked her feet free. For a long moment, she dangled there. Tinánia held her breath. Then Emlin swung a leg up onto the bank and pulled herself over. Almost instantly, her flushed face appeared over the edge. "No spiders. You can come up now."
Tinánia flexed her knees to jump for a handhold. She paused. Emlin wore legging, but she herself was in a dripping skirt that clung to her legs. She crouched, grabbed the front and back of the hem, and tied them between her legs. Then she leapt to grab a root. She worked her way carefully toward the top of the bank. The roots that held Emlin would not necessarily hold her, and if she fell into the water, Emlin would be left alone. And Lathron. What would happen to Lathron?
She reached the top. Emlin seized her wrist, dug in her heels, and pulled. Tinánia dragged herself over the edge and sprang to her feet, yanking at the knot in her skirt. She grabbed Emlin's hand. "Run," she urged.
The two of them sped through the night, Tinánia's heart and feet keeping the same rapid beat.
"Emlin!" someone called. "Emlin!"
"Ada!" Emlin dropped Tinánia's hand and stopped. "Ada, I am here!"
Feet pounded on the path in front of them, and Rawien burst into sight, with Bregolas and two other warriors right behind him. Rawien snatched up his daughter and held her to his chest, his face buried in her shoulder. He lifted it to look at Tinánia. "Thank you, Tinánia . I did not ever realize you were out looking for her, given Lathron's injury."
Tinánia 's stomach twisted.
"Tinánia was with me all the time," Emlin said.
Bregolas gestured to the two warriors. "Go tell the other searchers we have found her."
"Wait," Tinánia said.
The warriors hesitated.
"You have to keep looking, Bregolas," Tinánia said. "I saw pieces of a spider egg. These spiders are just hatching. The eggs must be hidden somewhere near that old flet."
He blinked, then rallied. "Summon the warriors searching," he told the other two. "Tell them what we are looking for and where. Send everyone else home. I will be near the flet." They scattered. Bregolas turned back to Tinánia, Rawien, and Emlin. "Go home. Tathiel will want to see Emlin."
He started off, but Tinánia stopped him. "Lathron?" she asked.
Bregolas looked grim. "Go home. Waste no time."
Lathron's body throbbed with pain. Every beat of his heart sent it pulsing through him. He let it be and focused on the sense of Tinánia drawing closer.
"Breathe, Lathron," his father ordered, so he did.
Legolas was crying. Their father soothed him.
"Let me try to give him the antidote," Tathiel said.
A door banged open. "Emlin!" Tathiel cried.
Tinánia flung her arms around him. Her tears were hot on his face. He wished he could smile. He drew a deep breath.
Two days later, Lathron lay in his own bed with Tinánia seated in a chair by the bedside. She closed the book she had been reading aloud and lowered it to her lap.
"Are you tired of reading?" he asked. He had been enjoying both the story of the First Age and the sound of her voice.
"Not really. I want to ask you something." Her face was serious.
"Lathron, why did you never tell me about being bitten and how sick the spider venom made you? I should have known. You never should have gone near the spiders. You should have been the one to take Emlin away.
"I would have told you if I thought of it," Lathron said. "It was long ago."
She raised an eyebrow. "Do you have other secrets?"
He grinned. "Many." He patted the bed. "Come sit by me, and I will tell you them all."
She laughed and moved to the bed, sitting propped up against the headboard. "At least I can refrain from worrying for now. Bregolas is certain they destroyed all the eggs. They tore down that old flet too. It was too good a hiding place."
"Ah, my flet."
"I built it when I was about Legolas's age." He laughed. "Even then, Celebrinduil would have been appalled by it."
She frowned. "That flet is too far from the stronghold to be a safe place for elflings to play. Your parents allowed that?"
Lathron shrugged, then winced at the pull on his chest. "Times were less dangerous then, but Adar felt I spent far too much time alone, too much time dreaming. I assumed they knew about it and Naneth had convinced Adar to let me be, but I never told them."
He pulled her down to lie against him. Careful not to touch his still sore wounds, she laid her head on his shoulder and smiled. "How daring of you."
He kissed the top of her head. "I had had my first vision and did not know how to talk about it. I wanted dream space, a place to learn about them."
She spoke slowly. "Did it bother you to be so different, to have visions then and later to know you could never be a warrior?"
He brushed her hair out of her face, still struck by the marvelous knowledge that she loved him. "No. To be a warrior was never a calling on my heart, and my naneth knew it. Yet, I would have followed Bregolas and served the realm and my adar as a warrior, if not for this. Fortunately, Adar was good about valuing the strength in each of us, even when he did not understand." He tightened his arm and rolled her over so she was half on top of him.
"Your wounds," she protested.
He nuzzled her neck. "I think you should kiss them and make them better."
"Do you want him to go back into his room?" Ada asked Tathiel.
"No, I can examine him here on the balcony." Tathiel smiled at Legolas. "And I suspect Legolas is happy to be outside again."
Legolas held still while Tathiel loosened the neck of his tunic and examined the wound on his shoulder. Emlin leaned around her mother and stretched onto her toes to see too.
"When I grow up, I am going to be a healer like my nana," Emlin said.
"I thought you were going to be a warrior like your ada and Tinánia ," Legolas said.
Emlin's mouth briefly pinched. Then her eyes widened. "I will be a healer and a warrior."
"You will be busy," Ada said.
Tathiel pulled Legolas's tunic into place and tied it for him. "You have to rest for another day, Legolas. Then if you continue to heal this well, you can go out into the garden."
"Thank you," Legolas said fervently.
Ada and Tathiel both laughed.
"Come, Emlin," Tathiel said.
"I want to stay and play with Legolas," Emlin said.
"He is going to rest soon," Tathiel said. "You can play tomorrow."
Emlin hugged Legolas, then skipped after her mother, leaving Legolas and Ada alone on the balcony.
Legolas thought Ada might make him go in right away, but Ada sat quietly, looking out at the treetops visible across the Green. The day was fair, and the trees were singing in contentment.
Legolas squirmed a little. He thought Ada might have been waiting to talk to him about what happened and was getting ready to do it now. "Are you angry, Ada? I am sorry I went farther away from home than I should have. And Lathron told me to run, but how could I leave him?"
Ada eyed Legolas as if considering what his answer should be. "No, not angry. Bregolas told me you saved Lathron's life. You were very brave."
Legolas's face grew warm. "It was not bravery, Ada. I just could not leave Lathron."
Ada's mouth curved in a small smile. "Love can make us brave sometimes."
Legolas looked out at the trees. "I did not know about Lathron and the spider venom."
"The danger it poses is the reason he is not a warrior."
Memory stirred in Legolas's mind, of Lathron returning home from a trip with sword and bow, like any other elf warrior. He had never seen his brother with weapons before that and had never wondered why Lathron was not a warrior. He was just Lathron. He did remember what Lathron had told him, that every elf needed to be able to defend himself, and that if there were need, he would use those weapons to defend their people.
The leaves of the ivy growing over the balcony shook, and a white head popped up over the railing. Bright button eyes regarded them.
"The moon-squirrel!" Legolas said. He clamped his mouth shut then, so he would not frighten the little creature off.
The squirrel hunched on the railing for a moment, then scampered down onto the balcony. It paused, nose aquiver, watching Legolas and Ada suspiciously. Its eyes shifted from side to side.
Quick as a snake, it darted through the open door into Legolas's room. Legolas jumped to his feet but before he could chase after the squirrel, it ran out again, a shiny, metal circle clamped in its jaws.
"Hey!" Legolas cried. "That comes from mannish armor. Bregolas gave me that!"
The squirrel scurried up onto the railing and dove over.
Legolas lunged to look over. "Bring that back, stupid squirrel!"
The ivy rustled and fluttered. The squirrel leapt to the ground and ran off into the garden.
Legolas blew out his breath. "All right. You can have it. But stay in the garden where you will be safe!"
Ada came to stand behind Legolas and ruffle his hair. "You too, elfling."
Legolas twisted to look up at Ada. "Stay in the garden? Even after I am well?" He could not keep the dismay out of his voice. He hadn't been confined to the garden since he was younger than Emlin!
Ada smiled. "No. I think we will set some boundaries for you though. You are curious and a bit of an explorer, and in time, that will all be to the good. But for now, I need you to stay safe and close to home."
Legolas leaned against Ada. "I could be safe in more places if I had a sword."
Ada laughed. "I think just now the place you need to be is in bed. Come." He put his arm around Legolas, and together, they went back into the palace.