Being the continued record of Applecider Bolingbroke, for debriefing & delineation by the Honorable Bounders (they'll be receivin' me cleanin' bill fer this) ...
* * *
Four or five Gobbos what’d managed to dodge Tuffin’s orders hurried us deeper into the caves. Lance an’ I ‘ad NO idea what were happenin’ now, or what were meant by “the Queen” (weren’t this Black Star Elf dead?). But Halros were shoved onward, an’ we rolled with it.
That is, we rolled with it till the slick stone floors started to turn gummy underfoot. Halros sputtered an’ spat (his face bein’ nearer the ceiling). An’ I realized the stickiness had a stringy quality to it.
“..... A’ight, thar’s far enuff,” I says, flatly. – I WHOPPED the nearest Gobbo to me.
Lance clobbered another. The Green-Hood snapped ‘is hands free o’ the trick knot behind ‘im, an’ took the other two with the knives hid at the back of his belt.
“Half a moment’s warning, possibly? Next time?” – Bob’s your Uncle: We were alone in the tunnel.
Mister Halros buckled his weapons back on. All around us were ... well ... I’d call it “cobwebby,” but cobwebs be fragile. This were more like boogies made o’ quilting thread. I ‘ad an ugly suspicion, which I believe were shared by all.
Lance picked up the Gobbos’ torch, and held it up.
The hair on me neck stands on end even now, recallin’ the moment:
A sink-hole – the opening barred over with a crude iron grating – crawled with Spiders.
Spiders of all sizes, from “little’uns” the size o’ me hand, to others as big as a sheep. The vile maw, openin’ 30 or 40 feet below our toes, were alive with arachnids. I were both nauseated an’ fascinated by the whole brood of ‘em. For thar be precisely what we’d stumbled on: The clutch.
An’ where thar be a brood .... thar be a mum.
The torch flickered. Its soft light reflected – once, twice, four! – MORE! – Eight times! Eight glassy black mirrors, big as a tea saucer each – gleamin’ in the very heart of the sinkhole, each lookin’ back at us. Like every Hobbit-child’s nightmare.
The Queen. The Mother-of-All-Hatchlings.
“By the Bounders’ Nine Solemn Pledges ...”
She were so horrifyingly big, I had ter look away fer a minute, jus’ to get me bearings an’ resettle meself.
Polearms leaned against crude cages all around us ... an’ Gobbo bodies lay within. Whether dead or unconscious, who could say? They was dinner. And bait.
THIS be where all the giant Spider stingers fer the massive Cook-the-Gook Operation were coming from. They were breedin’ ‘em underground! When they gots big enough fer their stingers to be harvested, they were lured into the enclosures with bait Gobbos, an’ taken out to the cookin’ pots.
It were a veritable Venom-Perpetuatin’ Production line.
Halros suddenly gave a strangled cry. From one o’ the cages, he hauled the limp form of a Big bloke: bloody, and beat to within an inch of ‘is life. He were dressed like any other scrappy thug. But Halros frantically cut ‘im loose, openin’ his collar, an’ clawin’ shrouds o’ webbing from the Man’s face. “Amlan,” he called ‘im by name as loud as ‘e dared. “Amlan!”
Lance an’ I gaped. The Green-Hoods’ “inside man.” What’d left footprints indicatin’ a bloke on the run, an’ left a message written so hastily ‘e didn’t even pause to encode it.
Somehow, he figured out Twilight Lake were the end-target, an’ got word out. But … seems he got too close, an’ were found out, I guess. Like Mister Crane. Likely he got the stuffing pounded out of ‘im for information, I s'ppose, an’ then gots thrown to the spiders.
Mister Amlan were sticky with webbing. I ‘ad a feel of ‘is throat. T’were a weak pulse. ‘E were in a horrid state. We ‘ad to get ‘im out.
Exactly how were a bit of a puzzler. A whole team o' Green-Hoods, in theory, were outside the camp at the cave mouth. But thar were an unknown multitude of Gobbos, an’ Will Tuffins, between us an’ them.
I truly wonder what I ate recently that’s put me on such a streak fer absolute nutter ideas. …. I s’pect both Lancey an’ Mister Halros have come to dread the sound o’ me laughter, too. Cause I started gigglin’ again. An’ they just looked at me as though waitin’ fer an inevitable explosion.
Who says WE gots to do the work 'o clearin' out the caves, anyway??
* * *
I fears we may’ve taken a few years off the life of all o’ Mister Halros’s mates. They witnessed what they took fer one o’ their brethren taken in enemy hands. They’d spent nearly an hour desperately tryin’ to break in an’ save ‘im, when they knew all along the camp were impenetrable...
... Probably didn’t help ‘em to then hear the resounding chorus of shrieks from within the earth, only to see dozens of Gobbos an’ a small handful o’ scruffy bandits, all come flyin’ outta the cleft in the hillside, scatterin’ like caffeinated cockroaches, with enough GIANT SPIDERS to web up half the Shire, all a’scuttle behind ‘em.
Sheer chaos reigned. When all began to quiet, Gobbos an’ Spiders alike were scattered. Only after that did they hear the last thing they expected from the recesses o’ the Gobbo camp – Mister Halros’s signal be, apparently, the call o’ the cardinal.
T’weren’t a perfect plan, I grant you. – Or a very tidy execution. After flinging the grating off the sinkhole, an’ throwing in our torches to induce the swarm, Lance, Halros, an’ I actually shut ourselves in the ironical safety o’ Mister Amlan’s cage fer a while to wait out the ensuing pandemonium. The Queen ‘erself took ‘er own ominous time, an’ me stomach still turns, recallin’ the sight of ‘er slowly emerging. I swears to ye, she looked us over as she passed us. As if to say we’d talk more later.
But our hopes were justified: the swarm o' Spiders we released did clear out the Gobbos. At length, we made our way back out very cautiously, weapons at ready. Gobbo an’ Spider bodies were everywhere. Halros whistled ‘is mates – thank Bullroarer’s Bookkeepers they had the sense to retreat when the mayhem started – an’ a dozen of ‘em warily re-approached the camp.
Their fellow haggard Green-Hood emerged. Mister Amlan were slung over ‘is shoulders, an’ two scruffy companions trailed ‘im. Only when Mister Halros sharply barked "HOLD FIRE!" though, did it occur to us we should probably yank off our helms an’ hankies, showin’ us fer the Hobbits we were.
Will Tuffin troubled us no more: He ran into the Wood, fleein’ the Queen, where he were pot-shot by some bloke called Saeradan. We never did find the Hobbit-rustler with a telltale leg injury.
What we did find though, were a disturbingly sound victory fer Shire an’ Green-Hood Bounder alike. Fer the lot of us banded together, and investigated the caves that were now ours to declare impounded an’ condemned. An’ in the utmost depths, we found everything we feared and wanted:
Barrel upon barrel. Keg upon keg.
Stacked to the ceilin’. Redolent with the acrid arachnid smell of Gobbo-de-Gook we’d come to know far too well by now. All awaitin’ distribution an’ deployment. It were the most ghastly sight ever to give a Hobbit cause fer satisfaction.
We’d found the Trove. – The waters o’ the North were safe.