They set off across the hall in silence. As Estel followed his brothers and the dwarfs, he cast a final look back at the gaping chasm and shivered. Although the sense of dread and oppressive darkness had eased a little, the memories lingered and he knew he would never lose his horror of this place – the orcs, the rockfall and Elrohir’s injuries; the nightmare of the crawl through the water-filled tunnel and the heart-stopping terror when it seemed that Elladan had fallen to his death. And poor, poor Náin.
With a shudder Estel hurried to catch up with the others. The blackness behind him was absolute, and orcs or no orcs, he did not wish to become lost in this accursed pit again. The idea of wandering through the never-ending maze of tunnels and passages in eternal, unyielding darkness terrified him even more than the orcs did. That thought brought him back to Náin again – tumbling into the chasm and falling endlessly through darkness …
Estel knew he was not the only one in a sombre mood. The dwarves trudged ahead silently, lost in their own grief, and his brothers too were silent. He was worried about them. Apart from one or two brief stops there had been no real opportunity for any of them to rest, and the long dark journey was taking its toll.
Elladan walked slowly at his side, his injured arm obviously paining him far more than he admitted. He held it stiffly and bent close against his chest to avoid jarring it, and even in the dim, flickering torchlight Estel could see dark patches of blood already seeping through the bandages. As he watched Elladan grimaced and cradled his arm with his free hand.
Elrohir lagged behind them, his steps slow and dragging. He was limping again and not making any attempt to conceal it – either he no longer felt the need to hide any weakness from the dwarves, or he was too tired to care. He looked grey with exhaustion, and the bruises left from the rock fall stood out starkly. Estel stopped and waited for him. “Elrohir? Do you want to stop?”
Elrohir shook his head tiredly. “No. Just keep going, little brother. The sooner we are out of here the better – and the sooner we can all rest.”
Estel nodded. He had no intention of pressing the issue – he was only too anxious to leave Moria far, far behind. The way ahead was clear now and they moved across the hall to a distant archway, on the lookout the whole time for some form of pursuit. Estel was taut with tension, waiting for an attack that never came. The orcs had vanished, and the caverns were silent apart from the heavy tread of the dwarves’ boots. As they climbed a series of wide stairways a pale glimmer of light grew, revealing intricate carvings on the walls and pillars. The air – which had been stale and dank for so long – began to freshen, and Estel caught the faint scent of clean, cool rain. His heart lifted a little and his steps quickened. Soon they would be out of this dreadful place – and he hoped he would never return.
“We have come to the main caverns again,” Farin explained, speaking for the first time since they had left the bridge. “We are near the outer world here.” At the head of the final stairway they saw ahead of them the first hall they had entered so long ago. Daylight streamed in through the open doors, dazzling their eyes after the long journey in near darkness. They crossed the hall and passed the threshold of Moria, emerging at the top of the steps.
Pausing, Estel glanced back through the massive door pillars. It felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He was not alone – at his side, Elrohir lifted his face to the breeze and drew a deep breath, and a little of the exhaustion in his face eased.
Dimrill Dale lay before them, peaceful and serene. Patches of grass and leaves on the stunted trees glistened with droplets from a recent shower of rain. The air smelled fresh and clean, and a light wind stirred the branches of the fir tree at the bottom of the steps, shaking loose a glittering spray of raindrops. The dale lay in deep shadow but away to the east the trees of Lórien were tinged red and gold by the fading sun.
“I think we are safe here,” Estel said at last, “but we should move out of bowshot in case there are any orcs that might still be lurking somewhere in Moria.
Farin raised his arm and pointed further down the dale. “There is a place a mile or two from here. We can stop there and rest before we go on.”
Estel glanced at his brothers and nodded. “Then lead the way.”
They trudged in weary silence, following the track away from the gates of Moria past tumbled mounds of stone and outcrops of rock. Finally they halted on a smooth stretch of grass that overlooked a small lake. “I think we should all stop here,” Estel suggested. “We all need rest – and we can never hope to reach Lórien by nightfall.”
“No, we must press on!” Elladan protested. He was very pale, and the bandages on his arm were bright with blood. “I want to report our findings without delay. We must tell Celeborn and Galadriel what we discovered.”
Estel sighed. His brothers were each as bad as the other when it came to sheer, bloody-minded obstinacy. He glared at Elladan. “Stubborn does not even begin to describe you – or Elrohir!” he snapped. “You look exhausted – both of you. A few hours’ delay will make no difference. Your arm is still bleeding, and needs stitching. How far do you think you will get before you collapse from loss of blood?”
Elladan stared at him.
“Listen to me! Sit down and rest – and let Elrohir rest as well,” Estel added slyly. Elladan might ignore his own needs, but he would be far more likely to stop for Elrohir’s sake. “And let me look at your arm!”
“Valar, Estel - you sound just like Father,” Elladan said in astonishment.
Elrohir gave a tired grin. “And he is right, El. Sit down, and stop arguing! I told you that arm needed stitches.”
“But there may still be orcs …”
“Then we keep watch, as we always do. But listen,” Elrohir urged.
Estel listened, but could hear nothing except the sighing of the wind, the trickling murmur of the stream that fed the lake and the clear trill of a blackbird.
“The birds have returned,” Elladan observed.
It was true, Estel realised. The oppressive silence and sense of dread that had hung so heavily over the dale when they had come to Moria had lifted, and a feeling of peace had returned. “Does it mean the dragon is gone?” he asked hopefully.
“Gone, dead or fled,” Farin replied. “Down to the depths of Moria or into the tunnels and caves far to the north.”
Elladan nodded. “It seems to have gone for now,” he agreed cautiously. “I can no longer sense its evil.” He hesitated, and Estel hid a smile.
Elrohir settled the argument by dropping to the ground with a weary sigh, stretching his leg carefully. “While Elladan is still making his mind up, you go and snare some rabbits, Estel. Enough for all of us – and I will roast them.”
Elladan glared at them both, then dropped his pack on the grass. “I can see I am outnumbered,” he grumbled. “Very well – perhaps we can halt overnight. But then we must return to Lórien without delay to take word to my grandparents about the dragon, the orcs, and everything we found there. And we must warn them to send messages to Mirkwood as well – if the dragon has fled from here, it may well reappear elsewhere.” He turned to Farin and Bilbur. “Will you come with us? You will find rest and ease there.”
Farin shook his head. “No. The offer’s kindly meant, and I thank you – but I doubt we’d find much welcome. Besides, Bilbur and I must return home. We have a duty to Náin’s family to tell them of his loss. I must report our findings to Balin, too.”
Estel looked around the dale. Smooth green grass sloped down to the pool, and a broken pillar stood beside the water. “What is this place?”
Farin walked forward to stand by the pillar and stared into the dark water. “This is Kheled-Zâram – or the Mirrormere in your tongue.” He shot a glance at Elladan and Elrohir. “Of course, the elves probably have yet another name for it. But it is an ancient and sacred place for the Dwarves.”
With an inward sigh, Estel abandoned all thoughts of swimming in the lake to wash off the filth and dirt that covered him. He would not dream of defiling a holy site, and had no wish to offend Farin or Bilbur either – and in any case the water, ice melt from the mountains, would probably be too cold anyway. “Can we take water from the pool to drink?” he asked carefully.
Farin gave a bark of laughter. “Aye, Durin would not mind that!” He looked at the lake again, and then turned away. “I’ll make a fire, and Bilbur can catch some rabbits. Bilbur!” he called to his sister. “Supper!”
She nodded and disappeared into the bushes.
“And you,” Farin added to Estel, “see to your brother.”
While Farin and Elrohir gathered fallen branches and twigs, and dry undergrowth from beneath the bushes, Estel rooted through their remaining kit for additional bandages, needles and suturing thread. As the fire blazed brightly he set a pot of water on it to heat and carefully unwrapped the bandages on Elladan’s arm. The deep cut still bled freely but it was clean.
“At least the skin isn’t jagged or torn,” Estel noted. “It will heal quickly without much of a scar.” While the water boiled he cleaned the gash again and smeared it with a pale ointment to numb sensation. Just before he placed the first stitch he paused and glanced at Elladan. “Are you sure you don’t want Elrohir to do this?”
Elladan pointed to where Elrohir sat by the fire, his injured leg outstretched, helping Bilbur to gut the rabbits she had caught. “He is busy. And besides, you are quite capable, little brother.”
Estel felt a warm glow of pride at Elladan’s words of praise. “Nearly as good as I am,” Elladan concluded.
“You could always do it yourself!” Estel snapped. He resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to jab the suturing needle into Elladan’s arm, hard. It would be unprofessional, he told himself firmly. And childish. And … He suddenly realised that it did not matter. It was wonderful just to have Elladan’s teasing once more – for a long, terrible moment he had feared he would never hear his brother’s voice again. In silence he began to work, trying not to think.
Elladan broke into his thoughts. “Estel? You are very quiet.”
Estel kept his eyes fixed on the neatly stitched cut. “I hated that place. I will never forget it – I thought you were dead, Elladan! And Elrohir – I thought – I thought …” He stopped, not wanting to admit his fears.
Elrohir looked up at the sound of his name. “I know what you thought, little brother,” he said gently. “I am not quite sure what I would have done if Elladan had been killed – but I do not think I would have leapt into the void after him. And I would not abandon you, Estel.”
“You knew, though – that Elladan was still alive.”
Elrohir shook his head, an emptiness in his eyes as he remembered. “Not at first. When I saw him fall …” A shudder passed through him. “But then I realised that somehow he was still alive. I was just not quite sure how long he would manage to stay that way.” He looked at Estel a little sheepishly. “I am sorry if I hurt you, Estel.”
Estel shrugged. “You didn’t. And anyway, I understand. And neither one of us was thinking very clearly.” He finished stitching Elladan’s arm, cleaned it again, and reached for a roll of bandages.
Elladan inspected it critically. “Very good,” he said in approval, flexing his hand carefully. “Very neat – well done, Estel.”
“You were lucky.”
Elladan nodded sombrely. “I know. Luckier than poor Náin. I wish …” He fell silent.
“Elladan, there was nothing you could do,” Estel protested as he rebandaged Elladan’s arm. “You tried – but everything must have happened so quickly. You should not blame yourself.”
Elladan nodded. “I know that, and I have seen more than enough comrades die to know when to place blame – but it does not stop me from regretting his death.” He climbed stiffly to his feet. “Elrohir! Are those rabbits ready yet?”
They ate in near silence, pooling what provisions they had – herbs, a little salt, cheese and waybread, with water from the lake to drink, clean-tasting and icy cold. There were a few wrinkled apples to follow – rather soft, but better than nothing. As he tossed his apple core into the fire, Farin suddenly chuckled. “Do you remember,” he said to Bilbur, “how Náin would eat the whole thing – core, pips and all?”
She nodded. “I used to tell him that one day he’d find an apple tree growing in that bush of a beard of his!”
“I was told that apple pips were poisonous,” Estel commented.
Elladan raised his eyebrow. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
Estel pointed an accusing finger. “Elrohir.” He gave his brother a sidelong look.
“I did? When?”
“When I was little, when I swallowed a pip one day. I was terrified I’d die!”
Bilbur nodded in commiseration. “Older brothers can be a terrible trial,” she agreed.
Elrohir chuckled. “Oh, I agree,” he said with a nod in Elladan’s direction.
They fell silent again, but the silence was no longer tense and solemn but more companionable. Estel looked up at the pillar that loomed above them. “Farin? What is Kheled-Zâram? Why is it sacred?”
Farin got to his feet. “Come and look into the water, and you will see,” he invited.
Estel followed him to the edge of the pool and gazed down. The still surface was smooth and glassy. The peaks of the towering mountains were reflected against the evening sky. “I can see why it is called Mirrormere,” he said. “I can see the mountains, and – oh!” He turned to Farin. “I cannot see our reflections.”
Farin merely nodded. “What else can you see?”
Puzzled, Estel looked into the water again. “Stars?” He looked up into the clear grey twilight. Dusk was falling, but there were no stars yet visible.
“That is Durin’s Crown,” Farin explained. In a low voice he began to chant. “The world was young, the mountains green …”
Estel listened to the tale of Durin, and of the splendour and majesty that had been Khazad-dûm long ago. “The darkness dwells in Durin’s halls,” he repeated softly as Farin ended his song. “It does now. But what a glorious place Moria must have been then. I do hope that Balin will be able to return here and make Moria great again.” He glanced at the dwarf. “If he does, will you and Bilbur come with him?”
Farin shrugged. “That depends. We have our own home in Erebor. My father and I make armour, and Bilbur is a stonemason. We have more than enough work there – but we both wished to see the glory that was Moria at least once.” He stared at the water again, then looked up the valley towards the mountains and the Dimrill Gate, now hidden from view. “I think perhaps that Náin’s brother will be one who comes here – but first, we must return home and break the news to him.”
Darkness was falling rapidly now, so they settled for the night by the side of the mere. Elladan, with only a token protest, agreed to let Estel take the first watch, followed by Farin or Bilbur. “But remember,” Elladan mumbled as he lay down, “wake me when you need to.”
Farin woke them all as dawn broke. The dale was flooded with early sunlight, reflecting off the mirrored surface of the pool in a dazzling glare that made Estel narrow his eyes. The broken pillar cast a long, sharp black shadow over the water. Estel crossed to it, running his fingers over the rough surface. The stone was worn and weathered with age, encrusted with lichen and moss; but he could feel the faint outlines of unfamiliar letters.
Elrohir joined him, tracing the unseen writing. “It feels like Dwarf runes,” he said. “But then, it would be. I wonder …” Taking his knife, he scraped very carefully at the surface, scratching off the dry, papery growth. Brushing away the dust and debris, he felt the inscription on the pillar again and squinted at it. “Yes – it is the Angerthas, the writing the Dwarves use.”
“Do you think Farin or Bilbur would translate it?”
Elrohir smiled. “No need. It says …” he paused, concentrating. “Durin the Deathless, oldest and fatherless. Here …” Elrohir hesitated for a moment, and then continued. “Here lies his … crown for all time.” He shrugged. “There is more, but it is too worn. I cannot make it out.”
“Show-off,” Elladan commented as he stooped to fill their water bottles from the pool.
Estel stared at Elrohir in amazement. “Where did you learn Dwarf runes?” he demanded.
“You know the Angerthas?” Bilbur added.
“Yes. Ori taught me, when he and Thorin and your father came to Imladris. He wanted to learn the Elvish script, and taught me the runes in return,” Elrohir explained.
Farin nodded. “Ori is one of those who will come with Balin, and Óin. They will lead the others here.”
“You seem very sure that they will still come here, despite the dragon and the orcs,” Elladan commented.
Farin nodded again. “I know Balin. He will not let a little thing like a dragon stop him!” He shouldered his pack. “But he will still want to hear what we found here. Let us be on our way!”
They left Mirrormere behind them and continued down the dale to the point where the track divided, one path leading north to the vales of the Anduin and the Gladden Fields, while the other followed the river Celebrant south-east towards Lórien. Farin and Bilbur were some hundred yards ahead and paused as they reached the parting of the ways, waiting for Elladan, Elrohir and Estel to catch up.
Suddenly an elf clad in grey slid like a shadow from the stunted trees, his bow drawn. An arrow hovered mere inches from Farin’s chest. “Halt, Naugrim filth!” he hissed.First > Previous > Next