Title: At the Last It Biteth
Theme: Tying Up Loose Ends
Elements: Galion: What happened to him after the Dwarves escaped? Did the King find out about his inebriation ? Was he punished? How did he explain himself?
Summary: Galion, the King's former butler, struggles with spiders and wine.
Word Count: 2,042
Irony. That was what it was. Smelled like wet wood and wine, felt like a rough barge pole in his palm, sounded like water lapping against barrels. He’d been sent where he would be reminded of his mistake every second of the day. It was a sharp pain and yet he could hardly complain, for it was light punishment, far lighter than he might have received if the King were less merciful.
“Eddy,” said the Man on the raft. Galion followed his direction, steering the vessel around the dangerous spot. It responded only slowly, heaving and groaning like an animal dragging its feet. At least he and the raft had something in common: reluctance.
The Man’s name was Firth and he spoke little, tossing out single-word commands like stones. He stole frequent glances at Galion, curious no doubt as to what an Elf was doing at this kind of work, and outside the forest to boot. He asked no questions, however; and for his part, Galion cared not in the least what led his companion to be a river man, whether choice or circumstance or necessity. The lives of Men were too short and rough to be of interest. If he had to trespass in their world to atone for his weaknesses, he would remain as aloof from it as possible.
They were coming up under the eaves of Mirkwood, where the shadows lay heavy on the water and the stream narrowed, intensifying the current. The river grew louder and Galion braced himself, lodging the pole securely in its rocky bed before pushing. It was not terribly taxing, physically, but the feeling of coming to Mirkwood from the outside, like an exile – he hadn’t grown used to it.
Galion could see from the way Firth gazed at the trees that the Man feared the forest. A strange thing for someone who traveled up and down the river so often; but aside from the tension around his eyes, he betrayed no hint of his trepidation.
“To the left,” Firth said. “Hug the bank.”
“We should stay away from the trees,” Galion said. This part of the forest was known to be resistant to trailblazing and construction, and the creatures living here were watchful, though not as bold and hostile as the ones that dwelt in the heart of Mirkwood. The border gave the impression of being awake, keeping an eye on the passage of Men and Elves. It required careful handling.
“There’s been too much rain,” Firth said. “The current will be too difficult.”
Galion shrugged and nodded. He could hardly expect a Man to understand about the moods of a forest. In any case, there was no real danger here.
They poled their platform of lashed-together wine barrels left of the stream. The canopy closed over them all at once; they slid into the embrace of a cool and murmuring tunnel, the air nearly as liquid as the water. The familiar wild eeriness of the forest washed over Galion and he felt a small touch of comfort, a bit of the ease that comes with being in one’s element. The Man, he saw, was alert as a hunting dog, dividing strained attention between the water and the dark branches above them. It wasn’t far to the switching station, where the raft would be given over finally to Elvish hands. And Galion would have to turn back to ride an empty barge downstream and find his next charge, once more watching Mirkwood recede behind him.
The thought made him bitter and thirsty. He could the smell the wine in the barrels beneath his feet – fermented forgetfulness. He did long for it, but the desire came with a pang of shame: his own actions had poisoned what had once been one of his greatest pleasures. He longed for it all the more now that he had so few other pleasures left.
“Do you see that?” Firth asked. The sharpness in his tone snapped Galion’s attention back to the present. He looked where Firth was pointing, at a black patch among the deep green leaves. To the Man’s eyes, it probably appeared to be only a shadow, but Galion could see the individual fibers spun together into a dark bundle. He had seen such things before.
“Impossible,” he said. “Not here. We’re barely within the forest.”
“What is it?”
The bundle was small and unmoving. Some dead animal inside, most likely. He would have to tell the barrel handlers at the station, have them pass on the information. Someone should be sent to take a closer look.
“Cobweb,” he said.
The grim line of Firth’s mouth tightened. “Spiders? I’ve heard tales—”
“Exaggerated, no doubt,” Galion said. “We should hurry.”
“Perhaps we should go back and return with more men.”
Galion resisted the urge to snort. “My people should know of this as soon as possible. Do you lack the courage to continue? It’s only a little spider.”
Firth turned to look at him, meeting his gaze with unflinching eyes for the first time. “I lack nothing you have.”
Galion doubted that, but he said only, “Then let us go on, quickly.”
Firth gave the raft a push with perhaps more force than was necessary. In the calm at the edge of the river, the barrels slid forward with little resistance. The trees floated by with sudden speed and then Galion saw it, so slight and delicate that even his eyes had missed it in the gloom: a thin tendril of spider’s web spanning straight across the river.
“Down!” he said to Firth. Not soon enough: he was too much of a stranger for his companion to act instantly on his word. Firth’s head jerked around and before any other reaction was possible, the cobweb caught him full across the chest. He shouted – a hollow, muted sound in the forest tunnel – and dug his pole into the riverbed, falling to the knees. Something moved in the corner of Galion’s eye and he caught a glimpse of a fat body, multiple skittering legs, the gleam of eyes – the trap-maker come to see what had stumbled into the trap.
“Get it off!” Firth gasped, swiping at the cobweb with his free hand, “I can’t—it sticks like a spell!”
He hadn’t seen the spider, Galion realized. It was probably better not to inform him. He experienced a moment of pity for this Man, suddenly entangled in a terror straight out of one his bedtime stories, no doubt. But the spider was still coming, and there was no time for thought.
The web was too thin to support even an Elf for more than a second, but it was strong enough to launch him onto the closest branch. He crouched there, the barge pole becoming a staff in his hand, and called:
“What has made you so brazen now, vile thing? These trees are not yours!”
“Sting?” the spider hissed, “’As it got a sting?” It pirouetted around the tendril of web; the shockwave sent Firth, still caught, crashing onto his face on the raft.
“No, but I shall be your death without one just as well,” Galion replied.
The spider stopped short, its many eyes finding him in the shadows: not a frightened Man, blind in the dark and unfamiliar with the forest, but an Elf from that Kingdom that had kept the spiders subdued and fenced into the remotest corners of Mirkwood. Its hiss rose in pitch to almost a whistle and it tossed a rope of web higher up into the branches, ready for a retreat. Too slow, for Galion had swung his staff with a quick, deft movement and sent it flying, legs and web flailing, into the center of the river’s stream.
It hit the water with a splash and a scream and floundered, half pulling itself out. Galion leapt down on the raft with ease and thrust the staff hard onto the spider’s head, pushing it down into the current. He waited, watching; it didn’t come back up.
“Is it—dead?” Firth panted. He had risen to his hands and knees again. The strand holding him had snapped, but the stuff of the web clung to his jacket and hands, tying him to the barrels.
“Yes,” Galion said. “Killed by its own intended prey. Though I wonder what made it so audacious as to come to the very edge of the forest. Spiders aren’t exactly famous for their courage.”
“What did it say to you?” Firth asked, his voice returning somewhat to normal.
“Something about a sting.” It meant nothing to Galion, and he was troubled by it. The spiders weren’t known for speaking to anyone, anymore than they were known for venturing all the way to the border and attacking Men. He wondered what had stirred them up; perhaps his people would know, at the court. Then his bitterness returned when he remembered that he was in no position to ask. He could only hope that someone at the switching station could and would enlighten him when he told them about this encounter.
“You’ll have to lose the jacket,” he said to Firth, who was still brushing at the mess of web stuck to his torso.
Firth complied, freeing himself at last only by stripping to his shirtsleeves. He tossed the soiled clothing into the river and watched it float away until, waterlogged, it sank.
“Let us go, if you’re ready,” Galion said when it seemed to him that they were both recovered.
“Do you think we’ll run into more of them?”
This time, Galion refrained from asking the whereabouts of his companion’s courage. “If there are others, they will know that we killed this one and leave us in peace.”
Firth, still sitting, gazed up with an odd look in his eye and said, “It has always seemed supremely strange to me that such a fair folk chooses to live in this dark forest full of such foul creatures.”
Galion almost laughed in surprise. “Do you think we are so tame, too soft for the shadows?”
“I said nothing of tame. You leapt into the trees like a wild thing—I almost thought you flew—but you are civilized, nevertheless, like Men.”
“We are not like Men.”
Firth answered slowly, with care. “I think we are more alike than you may wish to believe.”
Galion shrugged. “The thoughts of a Man do not concern me.”
“Then why are you here, on this raft, instead of in your King’s hall?”
Galion bit back a sharp response. Not out of care for Firth’s feelings, but because it would be too telltale. He smiled instead.
“I’m the King’s butler. I’m learning to guard his wine.”
If Firth picked up on the irony in Galion’s tone, he made no comment about it. He reached out a hand, and when Galion pulled him to his feet, said, “You saved my life and I’m grateful for it. If I can do you any service, tell me what it is.”
“There is nothing,” Galion said. He released Firth’s hand, uncomfortable at the undertone of awe in the Man’s voice. He thought he understood better, now, why someone might choose to enter Mirkwood again and again despite fearing it; and he was ashamed that he, of all his people, should be a representative of the Elven Kingdom, even if only to an insignificant barge man. Another powerful desire for a drink of wine washed over him. The energy the fight with the spider had lent him drained away and he wanted nothing but to sleep for a while and not have to think.
“There is nothing,” he said again, and turned back to his work. Firth joined him, silent again but not as distant as before. Galion found the thought that he had made a friend no comfort. He belonged to Mirkwood, not to Dale; he was no more a creature of the borders than the spider. A fleeting terror made his skin prickle: that this river would drown him as well, weigh him down and carry him far away. He shook it off, chiding himself for such silliness.
But in the silence, his errant thoughts grew and ripened, and even dreams of wine could not dispel them.