“She is my sister.”
“Your sister?” Elladan echoed in amazement. He knew how rare it was for dwarf women to travel far from their homes – and even rarer for them to be identified as such. He swallowed his surprise and turned to Bilbur. “I am honoured to meet you, madam.”
She nodded. “Likewise,” she answered gruffly. “And thank you, master elf. I owe you the debt of my life.”
Estel was staring at her in wide-eyed awe. Elladan elbowed him, hard. “Shut your mouth, littlest brother – you look like a fish!” Lowering his voice, he added in a whisper, “You never did believe us about dwarf women, did you? Now will you listen to us?”
Estel flushed a little, the colour vivid on his pale face. “It would not have been the first tall story you told me, though!” he retorted under his breath. Turning his back on Elladan, he nodded at Bilbur. “Estel, son of Elrond, at your service.”
“Bilbur!” Farin called. “Come and sit by the fire and get yourself dry!”
Náin had heated a pan of water on the fire, brewing a dark, foul-smelling tea. He carried some across to Elladan and Estel and thrust two mugs at them. “Here,” he muttered. “Drink this – it’ll warm you up.”
Astounded by the kindly gesture, Elladan nearly dropped the cup. “Thank you,” he managed.
Náin hesitated, his hands clenched together. “Thank you,” he said again. “For saving Bilbur, I mean. You didn’t have to do that – why did you?”
Elladan shrugged, not really understanding the question. “She would have died,” he explained helplessly. “My brothers and I are healers. If we can save a life, we will.”
“You would do that for a dwarf?”
“Well, yes. We would do it for anyone.”
Náin shook his head. “I don’t understand why an elf would risk his life for a dwarf – but you have my thanks. Perhaps I was wrong about you.” Suddenly he thrust his hand out and seized Elladan’s in a tight grip, as he shook it, then bowed. “Náin, son of Bain at your service.”
“Elladan son of Elrond at yours.”
With another shake of his head Náin turned away again and returned to the fire.
“He doesn’t like having his prejudices challenged,” Estel whispered very quietly.
“Of course not,” Elladan agreed, watching as Náin poured another cup of the tea and took it to Elrohir. “Who does? But at least he has the courage to admit he could be wrong. I can think of several elves who could not do that.” He joined Elrohir where he was sorting through the supplies stored in the cave.
Elrohir looked up with a grin as Elladan joined him. “Estel looks like he cannot believe his eyes!”
“There was always a slight doubt in his mind about dwarf women – and even we have never knowingly seen one!”
Elladan frowned at the poor response and picked up the mug of Náin’s tea. “Drink this, little brother – you should not still be shivering!”
Elrohir cupped both hands around the cup and took a sip of the nearly black tea. “Well, at least it is warm. But Valar, it is foul! It tastes more like tar than tea. How can they drink it this strong?”
“Do not change the subject, El! How do you feel? I mean it – you should not be shivering like this!” He clasped his own hands around Elrohir’s. “You are too cold.”
Elrohir shrugged. “But it is just cold – nothing more. I will feel a great deal better when we leave this place! I mean it, El – we should leave as soon as possible. We need to pass on what we have learned.” He glanced across to where the three dwarves were whispering together. “Farin! When we reach the outer world, will you leave here? Are your explorations finished?”
“Aye, nearly. There are still a few questions I have – I’d like to know how unstable some of the tunnels are – but I already have most of the information I was sent to gather. I know Balin will be able to found a colony here, orcs or no orcs!”
Elladan shook his head. “Rather them than me,” he murmured, and took a sip of his tea. He shuddered. “This is terrible,” he whispered as he poured it away into a dark corner of the cave.
After a few hours’ rest – not long enough for any of them, but better than nothing – they continued in single file along the narrow tunnels. The only illumination came from the torch Farin carried, and smoke from it drifted back into their faces. Estel, immediately behind the dwarf, coughed, and Elrohir felt his eyes stinging. He blinked, his eyes watering, and dropped back a little further. The path was so narrow he could easily touch both walls with his arms by his sides. The rock was damp and roughly hewn, with none of the skilled stonework he had seen in the upper tunnels. There was none of the pale algae either, and without Farin’s torch the darkness would have been absolute. While he usually had no fear of such dark, confined places, there was something about the oppressive blackness and emptiness behind him that filled him with dread. He shuddered at the thought of anyone being lost in the maze of cold, dank tunnels, wandering in the eternal darkness, and closed the gap between him and Bilbur again. Smoke in the eyes was a small price to pay.
They had gone a mile or two, or perhaps more – it was difficult to judge distances down here – through a long, low tunnel with several blank, black side passages opening off it. The strain of walking with his head permanently bowed to avoid striking it on the uneven roof was taking its toll, and sweat trickled down his back. These low, narrow tunnels were very different to the wide, lofty halls and passageways above, and felt much older. When Farin paused ahead to consult with Náin about their route, Elrohir dropped to a crouch, straightening his back and stretching as best he could, rubbing his stiff neck. He leaned against the wall, closing his eyes wearily. His strength was returning slowly, but he was still stiff and aching, and the damp chill did little to help.
He wished Farin would hurry and move on. Although he welcomed the respite, he felt tense and uneasy. His head throbbed, but at least the rock he leaned against was pleasantly warm.
Startled, his eyes snapped open. The rock he leaned against was pleasantly warm. He placed his hand flat against the wall, feeling the slight warmth radiating from it. “Elladan!” he called softly. “Estel! Farin!”
They turned, and Elladan knelt by his side. “El? What is it? Are you well?”
“Yes! But feel this – put your hand on the wall.” He stood and moved out of the way, then stopped again, peering down the tunnel that branched off beside him, plunging downwards. It was not wholly dark down there – somewhere far ahead there was a very faint glow of red, flickering dimly. “Look!”
A sense of evil flowed from the passage, and a wave of hot, foul air drifted up from the depths like the breath of some hideous beast. A low noise throbbed around them, a noise so low it was felt more than heard. “I think maybe we’ve found our dragon,” Farin murmured as he stepped back from the tunnel.
Estel stared down the passageway wide-eyed, then turned to look at Elladan and Elrohir. “Can’t we go after it?” he pleaded.
“And do what?” Elladan enquired. “A dragon is not the easiest thing to kill – and do you really want to alert the orcs to our presence? Remember, Estel – the important thing now is to find out all we can about the threat here, and report back.”
“Believe me, lad – you don’t want to rouse a dragon!” Farin said firmly. “I never saw Smaug myself, but I was in Dain’s army and saw the destruction he wrought. Dragons are terrible creatures!”
Elrohir smiled, remembering how he and Elladan had longed to see a real dragon when they were younger. “Never mind, Estel,” he consoled. “Perhaps another time?”
They set off again, with Estel casting a last longing look down the tunnel before finally rejoining them. “I know you are right,” he mourned, “But I just wish I could see it …”
“I always wanted to see a dragon too,” Elladan whispered. “But now is not the time!”
The path began to climb steeply again, and a growing noise like thunder throbbed through the air all around them. “What is that?” Estel whispered.
“I have no idea,” Elrohir whispered back. Ahead of them, the dwarves were also muttering together. Farin thrust the torch into Náin’s hand and rummaged in his pack, pulling out a much crumpled sheet of parchment – a map, Elrohir realised. He edged forward. Farin and Bilbur consulted the map, tracing their route until Bilbur jabbed her finger down.
“We’re here,” she decided. Farin nodded in agreement.
Unable to resist, Elrohir moved closer and crouched beside them. “What is it? What is that noise?”
“It’s the river,” Farin explained. “There’s a river than runs underground, fed by the waterfalls that flow down the Dimrill stair above Mirrormere. Here, you see?” He pointed at the map. “We’re nearer the gate than I realised! It’s not far now.” He placed his hand against the wall and paced along it, stroking it gently as if it was a horse or a dog. “Yes – just behind here – I can feel it …” he murmured to himself.
Elrohir studied the map, seeing a maze of tunnels, hallways and immense caverns drawn below a sketch of the mountain. The map had been made with great skill, for he could see the different levels within the mine, and the branching, twisting passages. He could see the underground river, the great cave that could be the dragon’s lair and the tunnel they were in. He half expected to see six tiny dots clustered there. “Remarkable,” he said. “Even without moon letters or fire runes, every detail is clear.”
Bilbur sat back on her heels and regarded him with astonishment. “What do you know of map runes?” she asked.
Elrohir grinned. “I helped my father to decipher Thrain’s map,” he explained. “But what is this?” Their route appeared to curve round and cross a great cave – a side chamber of the very cavern where the dragon could lurk.
Bilbur leaned forward and squinted at the map in the dim light – Náin had taken the torch to examine the wall with Farin. She swore. “Farin!” she barked. “El …”
“Elrohir is right. Look! I want to go ahead and see where we’re going.”
Farin cast a cursory glance at the map and nodded, distracted. “Very well. You go ahead. I want to look at this.” He turned back to the wall of rock that contained the underground stream.
“I’ll go with you,” Estel stepped forward and nodded at Bilbur, casting a swift glance at Elladan.
Elladan hesitated for a moment. “Yes,” he agreed. “You go, Estel. Come back and tell us what you find.”
Elrohir stared at him in surprise.
“What?” Elladan added irritably.
“You are sending him ahead to scout out our path?”
Elladan sighed. “Why not? You were right – he is no longer a child. He has done well on this journey, El – very well.”
Despite himself, Elrohir could not help worrying as Estel and Bilbur vanished around a turn in the passageway. But he had to trust Estel – so far on this dark journey he had proved himself brave and quick thinking, and was more than capable. He sighed, laughing at himself. He had chided Elladan for not allowing Estel enough responsibility; yet when he did, he fussed like an old mother hen. Determined not to fret, he turned to watch Farin and Náin, deep in a muttered conversation together. “Is something wrong?”
“Hmm. Maybe. The stream is dammed behind this wall, but it is wet – do you see? The rock is porous, and the water seeping through in places. I think that in a year or two – maybe more, maybe less – the dam will break and these tunnels will be flooded.”
“There’s a fair force behind that river,” Náin observed. “I wouldn’t want to be down here when that happens!”
Elrohir shivered. “Nor me.”
“The rock down here is different than in the upper tunnels. All the lodes and seams of ore have been worked, so there are lots of fissures and cracks. It’s why there’s so much water in these parts of the mine, and why some of the tunnels are unstable. It’ll be why they had to shore up the passages, and why that rockfall happened. It’s not safe – I’ll have to warn Balin to keep to the upper levels. There’s nothing down here of worth anyway.”
Soon they heard low voices and the clump of heavy feet as Estel and Bilbur returned. Despite their worried looks, Elrohir could not help but feel relieved that they were back, unscathed.
“What did you find, Estel?” Elladan asked.
“Trouble.” Estel replied. “The tunnel ahead opens out into a cave, and the path continues along a narrow ledge, high up on one side.”
“And?” Elrohir prompted.
“And the cave was swarming with orcs – it seems to be their main living quarters! I saw sleeping areas and small cooking fires. Another cave opens off it, and I saw more fire there.”
“Which may or may not be the dragon,” Bilbur added. “It could be forges or smelting fires.”
“There was something down there,” Estel insisted. “I couldn’t see it, but I felt it. There was something.”
Náin snorted. “Elvish fantasies,” he muttered to himself.
Farin ignored him, stroking his beard. “Bilbur?”
“He’s right. There was nothing I could see, but something I didn’t like the feel of.”
Náin snorted again.
“But the point is,” Estel added, “If just one of the orcs we could see looks up, they’ll see us. We’d be easy targets.”
“And there’s no other way unless we go back through the water trap,” Bilbur concluded.
“Then we have to go on,” Elladan decided.
Elrohir rubbed the back of his neck. He still felt tense and uneasy, and knew that Estel was right – there was something near. “Can we distract them?”
Elladan nodded. “If we can cause a diversion to keep them occupied, we would have a much better chance of escaping their notice.”
“A diversion. But what?”
The perfect, but surely impractical solution occurred to Elrohir. He glanced at Farin, and a slow grin spread across the dwarf’s face as the same idea came to him.
“A diversion?” he rumbled. “Aye, I reckon we could arrange that!” He rolled the map up and pushed it back into his pack. “We send the river down into the orc caves. There’s enough water to douse any dragon’s fire, and it’ll give the orcs something to think about too.”
Bilbur gave a fierce grin, “I like that idea!” she agreed.
“But how will you do that?” Estel asked the question Elrohir had been wondering.
Farin shrugged. “We are dwarves. We work with stone,” he replied – which did not really explain anything at all, Elrohir reflected. The three dwarves began to pace along the tunnel wall, listening and tapping the rock here and there with their axes. They consulted in their own tongue as they worked, the deep, rumbling words blending with the muffled thunder of the water. Three times they walked the length of the wall, seeming to pay more attention to one particular spot – and after a while, they paused together.
Farin tapped the rock one more time, and they all nodded. “This is the place,” he announced. “The rock is weakest just here. We can break through to the river. And then the slope of the tunnels will funnel it nicely just where we want it to go!”
He drew a narrow metal spike from his pack and drove it into the wall with a few blows of his hammer. “Right!” he said with deep satisfaction. “That’s it.”
“That’s it?” Estel echoed. “What – is that all? What will happen now?”
“First, I suggest we move,” Farin advised. Water was already seeping around the peg. “We don’t want to stay here! Then watch.”
They moved up the steep tunnel towards the second cave until Farin stopped again. Glancing back, Elrohir could see a steady trickle of water running down the wall, growing all the time. Tiny rivulets joined it as other cracks formed, and soon a small stream flowed from the wall and down the steep tunnel.
“Any moment now …” Farin muttered to himself.
With a thunderous roar that made everyone but the dwarves jump, the wall burst apart. Water cascaded into the tunnel in a torrent, foaming and bubbling like a mighty waterfall. The level rose as the backflow eddied about the fallen wall, swirling around the tunnel before pouring down into the shaft that led to the orcs’ cave. Even above the roar of the water Elrohir could hear sudden cries of alarm, rising to a tumultuous chorus of despair. The red glow flickered and went out, and then there was only darkness and the rage of the unleashed river.First > Previous > Next