1: Mirkwood Blues
THE WORDS THAT TWANGED and thrummed their way to Nth said, New food coming, and he stirred, resettling his legs to take the measure of the message: how far, what direction, who originated it. Mother’s Brood was large. Some of her children were more reliable than others.
New food. Different food. That had everyone’s interest. Across the span of the web, that was strung in mistlike sheets from tree to tree across their forest, he felt the others rousing, rising from their torpor. There was always food, even for so many bodies as Mother’s Brood ran to, but variety was welcome.
In the dark wood, the deer ran in their many herds, feeding in the clearings under the shadow of the webs, and being fed upon in turn. Mother saw to it that there were always clearings, where the great trees had been poisoned and weakened. There would always be deer aplenty.
In the trees there were monkeys, and they were clever and often escaped the hunt or the web, but this, too, was Mother’s plan. The monkeys were just clever enough that there would always be enough monkeys. They were aware enough to realize their fate, when they were caught, and that gave their juices an extra savor.
There were no wolves, no stalking cats. It was not that the flesh of these things was unpalatable, but they were wasteful. They consumed too many deer and monkeys for their presence to be tolerated.
New food, though. Nth waited for the words of the web to tell him that this prize was taken, so that he could beg Mother for a taste.
More speech came from the hunters, a constant commentary as they shadowed the intruders into the dark wood, hurrying above them while their siblings wove traps and barriers to channel them and funnel them.
New food. Man.
Men sometimes strayed into the wood. Nth had an understanding that there were places beyond the wood that were Man places. Those of the Brood that strayed beyond the wood frequently did not return, and this was placed at the door of Man. Those Men who strayed in the wood were served similarly. As now.
Nth felt the trap primed, a score of the best hunters of Mother’s Brood hiding among the branches, ready for the ambush. The weavers were already retreating, broadcasting that they had done their work well.
Then the web was ringing, dancing, and he could not find words in it, just a roaring of undifferentiated noise coming to him through his belly and his feet, so that he scuttled from roost to roost, trying to rid himself of the cacophony, trying to understand.
Fire! came a word that stopped him. Fire was friend to Man, no friend to Mother’s Brood. Then another sibling had found a secure post to speak from and the message jumped and bounced to Nth: We die! They come to prey on us! Protect Mother!
Instantly Nth was moving, by web and branch, surefooted and swift, scurrying toward the source of the disturbance. His very tread told those nearest him, I am coming, and the same words came from all around. Mother’s Brood was mobilizing to crush these intruders, these Men.
As he ran he felt the quick, fierce words rattle beneath him:
They have severed the web. They have destroyed the trees.
Few. But they have much Fire, and a light that burns worse than the sun. They can strike from afar.
Destroy them! Protect Mother!
And a dawning horror even as Nth crept and reached from tree to tree, stop-start, stop-start, because the Men were pressing deeper into the forest; because they were slaying many of the Brood. Because they were headed straight for Mother.
Ahead of him another swathe of web crackled and parted, shriveling to nothing in a sudden burst of heat. His clustered eyes caught the glare of it, little more, but he changed course. The Men were traveling faster than word could keep up, leaving the Brood constantly off-balance. Every time their fire flared they were striking Nth’s siblings dumb by destroying the lines and nets that they spoke through.
Then he was close to them, seeing only the pattern of their movement, the knot of Men like a single many-limbed entity to his weak eyes. At the fore it had metal claws, and those of the Brood that attacked them, mad with their fear for Mother, were pierced and cut, limbs hacked from their bodies, innards spilled and strewn and trampled as the Man-creature moved on.
There was a tremble in the ground that