The roar of the water gradually diminished as the river found its new path, and slowly the level dropped away leaving a tide line of fine grit and dust near their feet. Ahead, the path they had climbed was submerged beneath a foaming torrent.
After a moment or two, Farin got to his feet. “That’s that!” he said with satisfaction. “Shall we go on?”
They walked on to the end of the tunnel in silence, awed by the force of nature that had been unleashed. Peering down into the cave they saw dark, swirling water surging below them, and debris floating on the surface. Among the flotsam a stray leather bucket bobbed up and down in the current.
Dark, still shapes of drowned orcs were everywhere, but here and there some still struggled weakly against the current. There were some orcs who could swim, but they had all had been helpless against the torrent of water. As Elrohir watched he saw one drawn remorselessly towards an eddying whirlpool in one corner of the cave. The creature scrabbled helplessly at the walls before being sucked down as the water flowed on into the lower tunnels.
Elrohir shivered. Although he hated all orcs, those he killed died swiftly and cleanly. This slow, struggling death in darkness and fear filled him with horror and an odd pity.
“Do you think they all drowned?” Estel asked, his voice quiet.
Farin shrugged. “Most of them,” he agreed.
“There are bound to be some who escaped,” Elladan warned. “Maybe some who were patrolling the upper tunnels or perhaps managed to flee the flood – but how many?”
“And what about the dragon?” asked Bilbur.
Elrohir peered into the darkness of the caverns. The red glow of firelight had gone, and the caverns were dank and cold. The only light came from the torch Farin held as they gazed down on the black waters. “Gone,” he guessed. “Gone back into the deep places of the world where it came from.” The taint of evil still lingered faintly, but it seemed more distant more – cleansed, perhaps, by the rushing water.
“Is it dead?” Náin questioned.
“Who knows?” Farin replied. “That would be too much to hope for, I think. But perhaps its fire is extinguished for a time. We will warn Balin to be wary! But now we need to move on.”
The ledge around the cave was narrow indeed, as Estel had warned. Elrohir guessed that it had once been much wider, but the rock had been worn away over time until it was little more than a rim around the side of the cavern.
He stepped onto it cautiously, pressing his back against the wall and trying not to look down at the dark waters below him. The rock was crumbling and unstable, and littered with grit and debris. The constant trickle of water down the rock and over the ledge had left a thin green slime in places which made the path even more treacherous. In places the rock had fallen away completely, leaving great gaps to step across – easy for him, but hard for the shorter legged dwarves. Edging sideways, he slid his foot along the ledge, feeling for firm footing and whispering encouragement to Bilbur behind him, taking her hand and helping her across the widest gaps.
The uneven cave ceiling dropped low at times, forcing them to duck and bend forward while still trying to keep a balance on the narrow ledge. In one such place they came to a halt as Estel encountered a spur of rock that jutted out into the cave. As he tried to edge around it his foot slipped on the treacherous, crumbling surface. A stone broke loose, splashing down into the black water far below them, and Estel pressed himself back against the wall, breathing hard. He glanced back over Farin’s head towards Elrohir, panic in his eyes, but Farin thrust out a sinewy arm and gripped Estel’s wrist tightly. “Easy, lad,” he reassured. “I’ve got you. Just keep going.”
Elrohir breathed again as Estel negotiated the spur. This was easier for the dwarves – shorter, and more closely rooted to the earth, they could slide beneath the outcrop without difficulty. Past this obstacle, the ledge widened again, then plunged into yet another tunnel that climbed even more steeply.
“It’s not far now,” Farin called back over his shoulder as he once more led them on. “There’s a hall ahead, and a bridge, then a long flight of steps. Then we’ll reach the main hall, and the way out.”
“Thank the Valar for that,” Estel breathed. “I hate these tunnels! I hope I never, ever, have to set foot in them again.”
Elrohir nodded. He too longed to be free of this place; to see the light of sun and stars and feel the wind and rain upon his face. “Not far now,” he echoed, trusting to Farin’s knowledge of the mines.
The path climbed, crossed a wide corridor, and then climbed again. The rough walls had given way to dressed stone and the floor was more even underfoot. They reached an archway at the end of the tunnel and Farin stopped again. “Be careful across here,” he warned. “You’ll soon see why!”
They emerged into another wide, echoing hall. It stretched away on both sides, the emptiness broken only by pillars marching into the distance, supporting the vast roof. It seemed to be some sort of meeting place – several arches opened onto the hall, the tunnels or steps behind them lost in darkness. Farin led the way across the hall, then turned. “Careful,” he warned again. “There’s a long drop!”
A great chasm opened before them, a pit of blackness that seemed to have no end. Like the hall itself it ran endlessly to the left and right, vanishing into the gloom. They stopped on the edge of the abyss, and Elrohir leaned forward, peering down. The blackness before him was so complete that his eyes seemed to play tricks on him – was the drop before them merely a few feet or a few fathoms, or far, far greater? He could not tell.
Estel appeared at his side. Glancing at Elladan for permission, Estel held the nearly extinguished torch he carried above the chasm, then dropped it. Elrohir watched as the flame flickered more and more faintly as it fell, finally dying away into a dim spark before the darkness swallowed it. “How deep is this?” he asked in awe.
Farin scratched at his chin. “No one knows. It’s said to be measureless. If you’d fallen in there, you’d still be wondering when you’d hit the bottom!”
Above, the rock soared upward as the chasm continued. Other halls and chambers opened onto it above them, but the chasm cut through them all. Far, far above them there was a bridge, a single narrow span that leapt across the gap. Apart from the bridge, the chasm was featureless and endless.
“How do we cross?” Estel asked. He pointed upwards. “Do we have to climb up there?”
Farin shook his head. “No. There’s another bridge on this level. There’s only the two. Follow me!”
They followed Farin along the edge of the abyss towards a narrow, flimsy looking rope bridge. Despite his relief that they would soon be out of the countless caves and tunnels, Elrohir felt a prickle of unease growing again. He slowed and looked around. Beside him, Elladan also drew to a halt.
“Come on!” Náin urged impatiently. “I thought you wanted to be out of here?”
“I can hear something,” Elladan explained softly.
“Aye,” Elrohir agreed, wishing they were both wrong. “Orcs.”
“Orcs? Are you sure?” Farin demanded.
Elladan gave a single nod. “Yes.”
An orc appeared far behind them across the hall. Its howl of glee as it saw them echoed around the hall, then ended in a choked scream as Elladan’s arrow felled it. Another leapt over the body, only to stumble and fall with another arrow in its chest.
“Damn,” Elladan whispered. “I knew they had not all drowned.”
More and more orcs poured into the hall. Whether the creatures had come from the same tunnel they themselves had used, or from one of the many other archways, Elrohir could not tell – he only knew that there were too many to fight. Reflex and training made him reach behind for arrows – but his own weapons were lost, broken in the rock fall. And although dwarves could be doughty fighters, these had neither bows nor arrows. They could expect little support from Farin or his companions. On that thought, a small axe whirred past his head as Náin hurled it at the orcs, sinking deep into the chest of the nearest orc. He glanced down at Náin with increased respect. “Nice shot,” he murmured.
“It’s a throwing axe,” Náin explained. “Small, but perfectly balanced – and with a long range. I could hit …”
“Never mind that now!” Farin shouted. “Come on – this way. To the bridge!”
They ran along the side of the chasm towards the bridge. A mesh of fraying ropes supported worn, narrow wooden slats, some of which were missing. It sagged as it crossed the chasm, and looked as if it would collapse beneath the slightest weight. “We cross that?” Elladan demanded.
“It’s an ancient defence,” Farin explained breathlessly. “There are only two crossing points, and both are narrow. Enemies must cross in single file.”
“And so must we,” Elladan muttered. “Estel! You go first!”
Estel hesitated, looking back at the pursuing orcs. “Go on!” Elrohir shouted. “We have to get across. You will have to give cover from the other side.”
Estel nodded, and stepped onto the bridge. It swayed and swung beneath him, the ropes creaking as they stretched. It dipped even more as he moved further out over the abyss, and he gripped the ropes tightly, casting an uncertain glance back at his brothers before continuing as quickly as he dared. Bilbur followed him, and the bridge sagged even lower. She shuffled across slowly, eyes fixed on her feet as she inched forward, clutching at the rope hand rails.
“Right – you next!” Farin instructed, turning to Elrohir.
Elrohir hesitated, as reluctant to leave Elladan as he was to step onto the bridge – it did not look sturdy enough to support three of them. As he looked back, Elladan dropped to one knee and fired a stream of arrows at the pursuing orcs. As those in the lead fell, the others slowed their pursuit a little – but not enough.
“Go on, El – I cannot hold them off for long!” Elladan shouted.
Elrohir stepped onto the bridge with Farin close behind him. It grieved him to flee, but he knew they could not stand and fight. There were too few of them, and too many orcs – and it was vital that they reported back on the discoveries they had made.
The bridge creaked and groaned ominously. The ropes were old, fraying in places, and felt dry and coarse beneath his hands. The wooden slats were thin and splintered, and some were missing entirely. Through the gaps he could look down – at nothing but blackness. He could see nothing, but a chill, dank air flowed up from the depths. Treading carefully, he stepped across the cracked boards and soon caught up with Bilbur, still plodding ahead slowly and steadily.
“Bilbur, for Aulë’s sake hurry up!” Farin roared from behind.
“I’m going as fast as I can!” she snapped back. “You know I don’t like heights!”
“You can’t see the drop below us, so what difference does it make?” Farin demanded.
Despite their tense situation, Elrohir grinned. The sibling squabble sounded so very familiar. It could be Elladan and Estel, or him and Arwen. Quite how the short, stocky dwarf woman reminded him of his elegant sister he could not have said – but she did.
“It’s still there!” Bilbur retorted with an infallible logic that reminded him even more of Arwen. She also had a way of sweetly pointing out the obvious.
As the orcs drew closer, arrows flew among them. One struck Bilbur on the back but it fell away, deflected by her stout chain mail. It had the effect of spurring her on a little, but most of the arrows fell short, the orcs’ bows too puny to reach far. Estel had finally reached the safety of the far side and shot a series of arrows across the chasm, felling some of the orcs in the lead – but he too had few arrows left.
Elrohir glanced back. Elladan still held the orcs at bay, but he had nearly exhausted his supply of arrows. As he watched, another orc fell with Elladan’s last arrow in its throat. Elladan turned and ran for the bridge with Náin at his side. As they reached the crossing, Náin turned and hurled another axe at the orcs, then started across the bridge with Elladan close behind him.
More arrows fell among them, and Elrohir’s back crawled as he half expected to feel a black feathered shaft between his shoulders. One struck the rail of rope supporting the bridge, slicing through the strands. One by one, they began to fray and unravel. At last Bilbur reached the far side of the chasm and pulled herself up onto the stone ledge. “I’m glad to feel solid ground beneath my feet again!” she grumbled to Farin as he joined her.
Elrohir looked back. Elladan was halfway across now – but the pursuing orcs had reached the bridge. They poured across it, swarming like rats climbing up a mooring rope. Nimble and fast, they soon began to gain on Elladan, caught behind the slower Náin. Elrohir’s fingers itched for a weapon, but he was helpless to do anything but watch. “Hurry, El!” he shouted.
As more and more orcs began to stream onto the bridge it began to creak and sway alarmingly. It dropped lower as the ropes supporting it stretched. Some strands snapped and began to fray as the ropes began to unravel.
“There’s too much weight on it!” Estel whispered. “It will never hold!”
Elrohir did not reply. All his attention was focused on Elladan, and willing him to safety. He began a silent chant, then realised he was whispering: “Come on, El. Keep going. Just a little further …” As he watched, a rope on the furthest side snapped completely. The bridge lurched sharply to one side, then dropped in a series of jerks as one rope after another broke, ending with a mighty jolt that threw Elladan and Náin off balance and flung several orcs screaming into the abyss. Elladan fell to his knees, clinging tightly to the rail ropes. Elrohir took an instinctive leap forward, but Farin gripped his arm, holding him back. “There’s nothing you can do. Let’s just hope it lasts long enough.”
Náin began scrambling across the bridge as fast as he could go, hampered by the heavy boots he wore. Elladan pulled himself to his feet and closed the gap between them, keeping a sharp watch on the orcs. The orcs on the bridge had stopped their pursuit and seemed to be trying to retreat to safety, but they were overwhelmed as more and more of their comrades swarmed onto the bridge, seeming oblivious to the danger. As they fought to pass, trampling each other in their haste, many more fell to their deaths.
The net of ropes supporting the bridge began to pull apart, unravelling like knitting.
Another rope snapped and one side collapsed, causing the bridge to tilt wildly. Screaming, wailing orcs fell into the abyss, but Elladan and Náin still clung on grimly, half climbing and half running towards the end.
It would not be enough, Elrohir realised. The bridge continued to collapse beneath them, and the final few ropes were not strong enough to support it. He whirled around. “Estel!” he commanded. “Your rope – quickly!”
Estel stared at him, stunned. “Yes, of course!” he cried and dropped his pack on the floor. He tore it open and hauled out the rope they had used through the water tunnel. Holding the coil in one hand he ran to the edge to cast it across to Elladan.
They were too late. As Elrohir watched in horror, the strain on the bridge became too great and it broke apart. The two ends fell away, plummeting down into the blackness and shedding wailing orcs like leaves in autumn – and taking Elladan and Náin down as well.
Elrohir gave a last, despairing cry. “Elladan!”First > Previous > Next