They paused just within the doorway, listening carefully. “Which way now?” Estel whispered nervously. He felt apprehensive – and was not sure whether it was reassuring or worrying that Elladan and Elrohir were both clearly ill at ease as well. Elladan raised one hand, motioning him to wait, then placed a finger to his lips. Estel waited obediently, watching and listening, but he found his gaze being drawn to the left, where he could see steps leading down – down into the depths of Moria.
Elladan was also studying the steps, and Elrohir, and Estel realised that all three of them could feel the same sense of evil welling up from the caverns. He tried hard to focus his attention on one of the other tunnels, to see if the same unease affected the whole of this place – but again he felt his eyes drifting to the steep steps on the southern side of the chamber. He took an incautious step forward, knocking a loose fragment of rubble with his foot. The clink of stone on stone echoed throughout the hall, reflecting from the walls and high ceiling, sounding unnaturally loud in the dead silence.
He froze at the noise, and Elrohir turned on him with a glare. “Estel! Keep still!” he breathed. “I shall send you back to Lórien if you cannot be quiet!”
“Sorry!” Estel mouthed without speaking. He did not move again, but listened intently to see if anything had been disturbed by his clumsiness. There was nothing. The silence hung over Moria as unchanged as ever, as heavy and oppressive as a shroud.
At last Elladan moved, gesturing towards the steps on their left. “That way,” he whispered. He glanced back at Estel and Elrohir. “Let me go first. Estel, stay close.” They moved soundlessly to the head of the steps. Estel was careful to pick his way over the loose rock on the ground carefully, and was pleased to note that he made no more sound than his brothers. They paused again at the head of the steps, and peered downwards. The stairs ran straight down, growing dimmer and dimmer and gradually descending into utter darkness, until by about the sixtieth step Estel could see nothing at all. “We will need light,” Elladan murmured. “Estel, see what you can find.”
Relieved to be doing something constructive, rather than just following his brothers’ lead, Estel rummaged in his pack and found a torch. Removing the protective layer of cloth, he struck a spark and lit the torch, then passed it down to Elladan.
Slowly, they began to descend the stairs, which were wide and evenly spaced. They passed carved brackets on the walls, some of which still held the remains of dry, desiccated torches. Elladan was in the lead, with Estel about three steps above him, and Elrohir at the rear. It did not escape Estel’s notice that he was in the safest position, but he found he did not mind. Even with Elrohir behind him, Estel’s back crawled with tension, and he kept imagining creatures with bony, grasping hands reaching out from the walls to grab him and drag him into their lair. As they moved downward, the sunlight from above faded, and they walked in a flickering circle of torchlight that cast treacherous shadows on the steps.
A hand closed on his shoulder, and Estel leapt, stifling a cry that he would have been ashamed to voice. He turned to glare at Elrohir, his heart pounding. “Don’t do that!” he hissed. “You scared me to death!”
“Sorry, little brother,” Elrohir murmured, sounding supremely unapologetic. “Listen!”
From far below, there was a dull rumble that set the air throbbing. It was the real first sign since they had entered Moria that something was astir. “Not imagination after all, then,” Elladan said softly.
Below them, the steps levelled out for a few yards into a landing before plunging downwards again. Side passages branched off to the left and right, running straight for as far as the eye could see. A stench of decay flowed from the passage on the left. “I think there is something dead down there,” Estel muttered in distaste.
“Aye. Long dead, and far beyond anything we can do,” Elrohir agreed.
Estel peered along the second passage. He blinked, and looked again. A faint light showed there – very faint and dim, but light. “Look,” he whispered to the twins. They stood tensely, listening again, staring down the steps into the black depths. As they turned their attention to him, he pointed to the tunnel. “Do you see that? What is it?”
He stepped cautiously into the tunnel. An eerie greenish glow cast a sickly light on his brothers’ faces, and he realised that the light came from the walls themselves. He touched the wall curiously. It was slightly damp, and slimy with algae. The light came from the algae, he saw – a dim phosphorescent glow that illuminated the passage just enough to see the ground beneath his feet. “Elladan, put the torch out – or at least move back a bit, so I can’t see it,” Estel asked.
When Elladan and the circle of light had gone, he could still see Elrohir in the pale glow, standing at his shoulder and studying the algae curiously. “Interesting,” his brother commented. “It does not give much light, but enough to see a little. And it grows in a straight line. I wonder …” He traced his fingers along a section of the wall. “Yes – feel here,” he instructed. “Can you feel it?”
Estel touched the wall where Elrohir indicated. He could feel a small, regular groove cut into the wall where the algae grew. It seemed to extend along the wall as far as he could see. “Interesting,” he agreed.
Elladan rejoined them. “What have you found?”
“This,” Elrohir showed him. “It must be naturally occurring originally, but it has been grown along these grooves purposely. I think the Dwarves farmed the algae, to give them light even when their torches failed.”
“Clever Dwarves,” Elladan commented. “That could be useful.” He pointed on down the passage. “Before we go further down the steps, I want to see where this leads us. Can you feel a slight flow of air?”
Now that Elladan mentioned it, Estel could feel a faint stir in the air about him. It came from the far end of the passage, and as he listened carefully, he heard very faint, very distant sounds – much too dim to determine what they were. Elladan extinguished the torch, and they continued down the tunnel, using the algal light to guide them. The flow of air grew stronger, and the sounds clearer. Soon they could hear a rhythmic hammering, and harsh voices raised in a discordant parody of song.
Elrohir stopped. “Orcs,” he breathed. “Be careful. They are still some distance away, I think – but we should keep together. Estel, stay close.”
“Orcs?” Estel repeated. “Is that what we could sense last night?”
Elladan shook his head. “Not just orcs,” he said quietly. “There was something else too. El and I have encountered orcs often enough – but I have never felt that sense of dread before. No, whatever lurks here, it is more than just orcs.”
As they moved on, the light grew stronger; and slowly the pale glow of the algae was replaced by the flickering red of torches and firelight. They moved more cautiously now, alert for orcs moving in their direction or other dangers like patrols or sentries. Yet the passage remained empty, and they encountered nothing. Elrohir paused, and scuffed his foot across the ground, looking down at the floor. “The ground feels gritty – and look, there are no footprints here. Nothing has come this way for a very long time. Although the orcs are close, they do not come this way. Why not?”
“Listen,” Estel said suddenly. “Listen to the sounds – the echoes. They’re in a much bigger cavern – not this tunnel.”
Elladan nodded. “And not far ahead now,” he agreed. “They sound close.” They moved a little further on, and the red glow of firelight grew brighter. The light ahead wavered fitfully, but did not penetrate far down the passageway. “Wait here,” Elladan whispered. “Let me go first.”
While Estel and Elrohir waited tensely, Elladan edged forward to the end of the passage. He stopped, and they could see him silhouetted against the dim light, looking down at something. Half-turning, he beckoned them forward. “This is why none of them come this way. It goes nowhere. Not anymore.”
They stood high up on the side of an immense cavern, with a sheer drop below. Once, a wooden walkway had run along the cave wall – broken supports still jutted from the rock in places, and here and there rotting planks clung to the beams. Estel knelt at the edge and peered out and down. The mouths of other tunnels opened blackly at intervals around the cavern, all of which must have once led onto the walkway. Now they led only to thin air, and certain death for anyone unwary enough to step out of the passages.
The sound of renewed hammer blows made him look down again. The mines of Moria were once again in use, for below them, orcs hammered and chipped at the walls, while others loaded the ore into wheeled carts and hauled it away. The carts made a dull rumbling as they were dragged over the uneven ground, and the orcs chanted harshly as they heaved and pulled. Moving away from the edge, Estel looked back at his brothers. “What are they mining?”
“The Dwarves mined mithril here. There is iron as well, so the orcs could be after that. Their numbers are growing again, after their defeat at Erebor – they will need weapons, and armour.” Elladan paused, and glanced own at the orcs again. “We need to report this at once. If they are preparing for war, Celeborn and Galadriel must be warned. The passes will no longer be safe.”
“Wait,” Elrohir urged. “There is still more to be seen here. We have not found all the answers to our questions yet. I think we should go on a little further. Estel?”
Estel hesitated. While he still felt uneasy in this place, and longed to return to the open air and the golden light of Lórien, his sense of dread was tempered by the thrill of exploration and discovery. What was more, he could not help feeling it would somehow be slightly cowardly to retreat now, when there was more information to gather. “We should continue. I think we need to find out as much as we can before we go back.”
Elladan nodded. “We go on, then. But stay alert. I still feel a sense of darkness here – and I do not mean the lack of light.”
They returned to the main stairway and began to descend again. Elladan lit the torch again, so that they could see their way more clearly, and they began to see more and more passages and tunnels branching off. At last the steps ended, and the passageway divided into four. Dark tunnels led off to the left and right, and another lay straight ahead. Behind them, a narrower passage ran back, parallel to the stairs they had just come down. At the foot of the stairs there lay a small chamber, its entrance a simple archway. Stone benches lined the other three walls, and in the centre of the room there was still an iron brazier, most of it crumbled into rust and dust now. Elladan sniffed. “The air smells fresher down here,” he remarked. From a hidden shaft or chimney somewhere overhead a breath of air came, bringing with it the scent of rain. He held the torch above his head, but the shaft remained hidden.
“Which way now?” Estel queried as they left the chamber.
The twins both pointed to the right. “That way,” Elrohir suggested.
With a shrug, Estel began to follow them, but then stopped. He had heard something – but what? He listened again, but the sound did not come again. There had been something, though. He turned, and retraced his steps to the narrow tunnel at the foot of the steps. “Elladan, Elrohir – wait. I hear something!” he called softly. He slipped into the tunnel. It was smaller than the others they had explored, narrower and lower. He had to duck his head slightly to avoid the rough ceiling. A little of the algae grew here, but only in isolated patches, so it was difficult to see, but somewhere ahead there was a red flicker – either firelight or a torch. He moved on carefully, and bit back a curse as he knocked his head on a low beam supporting the roof. Raising his hand, he touched the rock curiously. It felt gritty, and crumbled slightly beneath his fingers. It was clearly a different type of rock to that which he had seen in the upper levels. It was damper down here as well. As he edged along the passageway he could touch the walls on both sides, and the rock felt wet and cold. All at once he shivered, suddenly feeling the immense weight of stone above his head, and aware of the vast mountain range above that. He felt very small and insignificant.
“Elladan? he whispered. “Do you think we should go on?”
Silence answered him. He turned, and saw only the dark, narrow tunnel behind him. “Elladan? Elrohir? Where are you?” he murmured. “Elladan! Elrohir!” he called, as loudly as he dared. The silence remained, and he realised that he was alone.
He hesitated, fighting down panic. There was no reason to worry, he told himself. All he had to do was retrace his steps to where the passageways met, and turn to the right, and he would soon find his brothers. They were probably looking for him already, and he guessed they would not be too pleased. About to turn back, he stopped again as he heard harsh, guttural orc voices drawing nearer. Another passage crossed the end of the tunnel where he hid, and the sounds came from there. Sheltering behind one of the roof supports, and flattening himself against the wall, he listened intently. The twins had taught him a few words of the black tongue – ‘You never know when you may need to understand what orcs are saying, Estel,’ – and he might be able to find out what the orcs were doing here in Moria.
To his great surprise, they spoke in the common speech. He recalled Erestor telling him how orcs of many tribes had come together for the Battle of Five Armies. If these were the remnants of that battle, Westron could well be the only language they had in common.
“I tell you, I could smell somethin’!” one grunted. “Just now, when I was comin’ past the steps. Elf, I know it was!”
Estel froze in dismay. The orcs knew they were there. But just how much more did they know?
“Now, I knows we’re supposed to take ‘em straight upstairs,” the orc continued. “But if we catch ‘em, why don’t we have some fun with ‘em first? It won’t matter – they’ll be dead soon enough, anyway! Too soon, usually,” it added in a regretful tone.
Estel shuddered. He knew what orcs did to captives. The orc spoke so casually of torture and mutilation – the torture and mutilation of him and his brothers. He had to warn them.
“That’s a very interesting remark,” a second orc sneered. “I may have to report that. Thinkin’ of disobeying orders, are yer?”
“Orders? From that lot upstairs? Why should they get all the fun? I just reckon it’s our turn!” It sniffed, then sniffed again. “Hold on. I can smell it again! Down ‘ere.”
Estel began to back away as the orc’s looming shadow darkened the end of the tunnel. The orc spoke again, sounding gleeful. “Well. Here’s one of ‘em – and he’s all on his own! What was that you was saying about orders?”
The second orc grunted. “Orders? I don’t remember no orders. Bring him out here, an’ let’s see what we’ve got!”First > Next