Elladan turned and waved a final farewell to the lord and lady of the Golden Wood before the final twist of the path hid them from view. “Well, littlest brother,” he asked. “Are you looking forward to heading for Imladris again?”
Estel nodded. “Yes – I will be glad to see my mother again. She worries. And Father will be glad to see the two of you in one piece for once!”
Elrohir laughed. “Remember, we are not quite home yet! But another week should see us there.”
“It will be good to be home – but I have enjoyed this journey with you,” Estel confessed. “Thank you. Maps and stories and Erestor’s teachings told me much about the lands – but to actually see the places I learned of is quite different! There is so much I never knew.”
It had been a long journey, and had taken many months. To mark Estel growing to manhood as the rangers counted such things, they had travelled south from Imladris through the foothills of the Misty Mountains – surveying the terrain, collecting information from ranger patrols through the area, and helping Estel to hone his skills. He was growing increasingly confident in tracking, and in picking out a safe route across treacherous ground. They crossed the Fords of Isen and passed through the Gap of Rohan into Rohan itself, where they met with the horse lords. As lords of Imladris and sons of Elrond, they had been welcomed by Thengel himself in the Golden Hall. From there they rode north, past Fangorn until they reached Lórien itself.
It was a pity, Elladan reflected, that they had missed Arwen by a mere matter of weeks, but Elrond, for his own unfathomable reasons, had decreed that Estel was not to meet her – not yet. And so they had delayed their travels until Arwen had returned to Imladris. As a result, their stay in Lórien had been all too brief, and it was already time for them to leave again.
By late afternoon they reached the borders, and followed the Celebrant upstream towards the mountains. Elladan drew alongside Estel, and pointed to the cleft in the mountains that marked their route. “You see the waterfall there?” he asked. “It is the Dimrill Stair. The path climbs steeply beside it, then rises to the pass of Caradhras.”
“Caradhras? The Redhorn pass?” Estel questioned. “Surely that’s where …” he trailed off uncertainly.
“Where Celebrían, our mother, was waylaid,” Elrohir said flatly. “I know. We do not like to take that route – it holds too many evil memories. But it is the most direct path from here to Imladris.”
Elladan nodded. “And we want you to learn, littlest brother – the roads and tracks, the secret ways and hidden paths, the towns and villages, the names of all the places we see.”
“In Sindarin, Westron, and Khuzdul,” Estel repeated patiently. “I know, Elladan.” He sighed, then pointed to the distant peak. “Caradhras. The Redhorn. Barazinbar.” He swivelled, and pointed to another mountain, its top cloaked in mists. “Fanuidhol. Cloudyhead. Bundushathûr. And there – ”
“Enough!” Elladan cried. “You have made your point. You know the names.” They climbed higher and the path began to rise steeply as dusk fell. As the track reached a small dell, it widened and levelled out slightly. Elladan drew to a halt. “We will stop here tonight, and reach Dimrill Dale in the morning. By evening we should be well into the pass.”
Behind him, Estel murmured, “Dimrill Dale. Nanduhirion. Azanulbizar.” Elrohir laughed, and Elladan turned to give both his brothers a quelling glare. They set camp in the dell bordered on one side by the stream, and by rocky scree and stunted, scrubby trees on two more. Beyond the mountains the sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell. They had seen no game, but saved their provisions for the journey through the pass, and supped on wafers of waybread, handfuls of withered berries gathered from the low-growing bushes, and water drawn from the stream.
Silence grew around them as the breeze died, and the snap and crackle of the fire sounded loud in the quiet night. Elladan took the first watch, and sat quietly by their little fire as Elrohir and Estel settled themselves to sleep. He shivered as he gazed up at the mountains above him. There lay Caradhras and the Redhorn Pass, a place that would always fill him with horror. Yet as always, he and Elrohir would face their nightmares, and travel through the pass. To give in to their dread would be to grant the darkness yet another victory. And, on a purely practical note, it remained the quickest, shortest route between Lórien and Imladris.
As he sat by the flames, feeding the blaze with twigs and small branches, he felt increasingly tense and uneasy, and kept turning to look over his shoulder – not up at the pass, but towards the head of the valley. Elrohir and Estel were restless too, and tossed and turned as they slept. Whatever shadow hung over this valley was affecting them as well. He had been a warrior for long enough – too long to ignore this growing disquiet. He trusted his instincts. It was not imagination, nor lingering memories of Caradhras that so chilled him.
The longer he sat here, peering out into the darkness; the longer he listened to the intense silence; the more his sense of dread grew. He got to his feet, pacing the edge of the dell, searching the night for some clue. Where did this foreboding come from? It was nothing like the visions that at times afflicted him. The visions came in the form of images – pictures of the future, of what might occur, flashes of who, where, when – though nothing he saw was ever clear. What he felt now was something he had never experienced before. But what was it? Where was it coming from?
He closed his eyes briefly, and turned slowly, gradually coming to face the direction that held the source of his unease. Opening his eyes again, he found himself looking not at the cleft in the mountains that marked Caradhras, but towards the rough, long-broken track that led to the ancient Dwarf realm of Moria.
Once there had been a thriving city beneath the mountains, and well-travelled paths led east and west to Hollin and Tharbad, northward to Dale, and south to the lands of Gondor. They had been busy trade routes, and dwarves had once been frequent, welcomed visitors to Imladris. But the mines of the Dwarrowdelf had long since been abandoned, amid rumours of an unnamed evil that the Dwarves had awoken. The roads became empty, trade infrequent, and while Durin's folk were still welcome, they rarely came to Imladris now.
He found himself wondering just what it was that the Dwarves had disturbed so far below the Misty Mountains. There was a restless malice there, like nothing he had felt before. His father, perhaps, would know it – or at least suspect – but he had no idea of what may lurk in the deep places of the world.
As he pondered, Elrohir became increasingly restless, and before long, he flung back the cloak that covered him, and joined Elladan by the fire. “I cannot sleep,” he whispered. “I do not like this place – something feels wrong.”
Elladan nodded. “I know. But I cannot tell what. El, I want you to listen, then tell me where you sense this darkness coming from.”
Elrohir sat quietly, his head tilted slightly to one side, then raised his hand and pointed towards Moria. “There,” he said in surprise. “Not Caradhras as I thought – though I have never felt this sense of darkness even there.”
Elladan sighed. “I feel it coming from there as well. I just wanted to see what you thought.”
“Have you foreseen anything happening there? Any visions?”
Elladan shook his head. “No. Nothing. And I do not know if that is for good or ill. But something is wrong there.”
As Elrohir nodded, Elladan peered into the darkness that surrounded them, and listened again, his senses alert. All was quiet. Indeed, it was too quiet – all the usual, familiar nocturnal sounds were missing. “Can you hear anything?” he whispered.
Elrohir shook his head. “No. And we should be able to. But there is nothing – no birds, no animals. Nothing. All the creatures have fled, and any that remain are silent.”
They sat in silence, staring into the night as the sense of oppression deepened. After a short while Estel joined them, looking dishevelled and tired. “You cannot sleep either?” he asked. “What is wrong here? There is a sense of – of some evil I have never felt before.” He paused. “It comes from Moria, doesn’t it?
Elladan nodded curtly, then turned his head and cupped his hands around his mouth. He gave a low call like the hoot on an owl, then repeated it twice.
Estel stared at him questioningly. “Was that a signal? Who are you calling?”
“The Lórien patrols. If any are near, they will answer that, and we can meet them. They may know something …” he stopped as another owl responded, its cry subtly different in tone, but faint and far-off. Nearby, a third owl hooted from a little way down the valley.
“That way,” Elrohir stated, pointing south, in the direction of the second call. He kicked dry soil over the fire, and bent to collect his pack.
“That way?” Estel echoed. “Why? That last call sounded much closer. Surely it would be quicker to meet with that patrol?”
Elladan grinned. “That, littlest brother, was a real owl. I fear we may have confused it.”
They broke camp quickly, and urged the horses up the side of the dell, skirting the loose rock. In the dead silence, even the breathing of the horses sounded too loud. Riding slowly over the uneven ground, they made their way across the trackless foothills and steep slopes for a few miles. At length, Elladan halted his horse and gave the owl call again. This time it was answered immediately, from near at hand, and four elves emerged from the shadows. Clad in the soft silver grey of Lórien, they were all but invisible against the rocky terrain.
Elladan dismounted, and stepped forward. “Greetings,” he said softly. The elves glanced from him to Elrohir, and he saw the flash of recognition in their eyes. They regarded Estel with curiosity.
“Greetings, my lords Elladan and Elrohir.” The leader nodded in their general direction. “I am Orophin. You summoned us to meet with you?”
“Aye. We have come from the vale of the Celebrant. There is something – a strange shadow on the land there, a deep unease we all feel. What can you tell us?”
Orophin looked swiftly at the rest of his patrol, then gestured to a small grove of twisted trees, long dead, growing on the barren hillside. “Come. We will sit, and I shall tell you what we have seen.” He glanced at Estel. “Who is your companion?”
“This is Estel, our brother,” Elladan replied.
Orophin stared at them in surprise. “Your brother? How can this be? Lord Elrond has only two sons, and a – ”
Elrohir interrupted smoothly. “He is our foster brother. We are related by love, not blood.”
“Elrond took my mother and me into his house when my father was slain,” Estel added.
The Lórien elves looked little appeased. Then Orophin shrugged. “If he has already travelled through the wood with you, then he is welcome. Your lady grandmother would have my head if I refused to help you.” He gestured to his companions. “Two of you keep watch. Thalos, join us.”
As they sat in the shelter of the stunted trees, Elladan turned to Orophin. “You said you would tell us what you have seen. Do you know something of this shadow? What is it? Where does it come from? What have you seen?”
“My scouts have reported the same shadow as you – an unseen menace that they cannot explain. Smoke has been seen billowing from vents on the mountain, and there are times when a dull rumbling is heard.” He paused. “What it is, I do not know.”
Elladan listened to his words in silence. Away from the darkness of the Dimrill Dale, he had almost been able to make himself believe that the shadow and forebodings were borne of the deep disquiet he and Elrohir felt at travelling through the pass. Estel, used to their moods and knowing the story, could easily have sensed their unease. Yet if this scouting patrol had seen similar puzzles, then he could not dismiss it so easily.
Glancing at Elrohir, he spoke what was in all their minds. “Something beneath the mountain has awoken.”
“Aye. But what?”
They pondered the question for what remained of the night, but could draw no conclusions beyond the obvious. Somewhere beneath the ancient Dwarven realm of Moria an unknown, unnamed evil stirred. Whether it was the same menace the dwarves had disturbed, or some new threat – or both – its malign influence was already spreading out to corrupt the land.
At last Elladan stirred. He glanced at Elrohir, then Estel, and saw the same determination in them both. He nodded, then began to speak, choosing his words carefully. Technically, in the absence of Galadriel or Celeborn, he and Elrohir had the authority to command the forces of Lórien – but this would be more tactfully phrased as a request. “Orophin, my brothers and I will investigate this matter. Would you return to Lórien, and alert the patrols? Warn Galadriel and Celeborn of what we plan and have found so far, if you please. Take our horses as well – we cannot take them into the mines.”
Orophin nodded. “Yes, my lord.” He hesitated, then added, “And would you please be careful? I do not wish to have to report bad news to Lady Galadriel!”
Travelling on foot now, and carrying small, light packs that bore only the most essential items, Elladan, Elrohir and Estel set off northward, retracing their steps to the Celebrant. Dawn was breaking as they reached the dell where they had first stopped for the night, but the familiar chorus of birdsong was eerily absent. All around them the land was still and silent. The only sound they could hear was the soft murmur of the stream that flowed ever downwards. At the top of a steep track, they reached the source of the Celebrant, a deep well fed by a spring of bitterly cold water. Refilling their water skins, they clambered on towards the gates.
As they waited for Estel to catch his breath, Elrohir stared at the sky curiously, then nudged Elladan. “Look.” He pointed to a dark cloud that seemed to flow from the head of the valley, a cloud that thickened even as they watched, casting a shadow on the ground where they stood, then swooped on towards Lórien. “Bats,” he said blankly. “They were bats.”
“Bats?” Estel echoed as he stared after the swarm. “How could they be? Bats fly at dusk. It’s dawn, Elrohir – and they were flying away from the mines.”
“I know,” Elrohir replied thoughtfully. “Why?”
Drawing near the gates, they ceased speaking even in whispers, and moved silently into the shelter of a great fir tree. Nothing stirred. Even the breeze had dropped, and a heavy silence lay over Dimrill Dale. Ahead lay a series of steps, the treads smoothed with age and slightly dished in the middle, worn by centuries of heavy dwarven boots. At the top two great doors lay smashed and broken. Climbing the steps, they paused on the threshold, and looked back down the vale of the Celebrant towards distant Lórien.
Then, as the sun’s first rays touched the great stone doors, they stepped over the ruin of the doors and entered Moria.Next chapter