He had only one option.
It took a mere eye-blink to reach his decision. His hand tightened convulsively on his dagger, and he leaped forward, drawing the knife as he moved. His attack startled the orc facing him, and it did not even have time to raise its own sword in defence before he slashed his dagger across the creature’s throat. It gave a gasping cry, and staggered backwards into its companion. Stepping over the fallen orc, Estel faced the second. It glanced dispassionately at its comrade, then back at Estel and gave a leer. “Feisty, are yer? Good – that’ll be more fun for me!”
It lunged at him, its short sword held low, and stabbed it towards his stomach. Swaying to one side – there was no room to leap out of the way – Estel dodged the sword, and moved closer to the orc, seizing its wrist and slamming its hand hard against a projecting stone in the wall. The orc gave a snarl of pain and dropped the sword with a clatter. He still held his dagger, and he thrust it forward under the creature’s ribs, driving the blade hilt-deep up and in as hard as he could as the orc gave a shrill cry. A gush of black blood poured out over his hand and he jerked back in disgust, stumbling over the body of the first orc and falling backwards.
The training that Glorfindel, the twins, and even Elrond had instilled into him so patiently – and at times not so patiently – drove him to roll and surge to his feet before he even knew he had fallen; but the danger was gone. Both orcs lay dead at his feet, dark blood pooling about them. Apart from his own harsh breathing, silence hung in the tunnel, and he listened intently for any sound, any indication that the brief fight had alerted orcs – or anything else – to his presence.
The silence remained, and he stared down at the dead orcs, feeling a little sick. Their stench and the smell of their blood choked him, and he swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. He had never killed before, and had only once before had to fight for his life. He and his brothers had been attacked by outlaws as they crossed the borders of Rohan – but when Elladan had slain their leader, the others fled in dismay. Now, he felt as if he had crossed some invisible threshold into adulthood.
He shook his head to clear it of such fanciful musings, for the danger might not yet be over. Stepping over the bodies in distaste, he moved to the end of the tunnel and cautiously peered out into the other passageway before emerging. It was deserted and silent. In one direction the passage curved slightly to the left, and in the other it ran straight, sloping slightly downwards, to where a torch showed the tunnel branching into two. Another torch burned on the wall beside him, casting a wedge of black shadow across the tunnel entrance.
He knew he could not explore further. Moria was a maze of twisting, interconnecting tunnels and passages, and it would be easy to become hopelessly and permanently lost. He had to retrace his steps to where he had last seen his brothers, and could only hope that they would refrain from killing him.
Returning to where the orcs had fallen, he held his breath as he bent and dragged the bodies further in. He was not sure if they would be missed, but would delay discovery for as long as he could. Here they would be out of sight in the darkness unless anything actually came down the tunnel. The dagger was still clutched in his hand, the blade black with blood. His hand, too, was foul and grimy, and he wiped it shakily on the orc’s clothing before cleaning his dagger as best he could.
Straightening, he looked around. He could still barely see in the dark tunnel, but was satisfied that the orcs were hidden as well as they could be. He turned and retreated back down the passage. As he neared the end he tensed again as his ears could a soft whisper of sound – the sound of a dagger being drawn somewhere ahead. At the end of the tunnel the light was slightly stronger, and by it he could see a dark shadow approaching him. He tightened his grip on the dagger and waited, ready to fight again, when he recognised the figure.
It was Elrohir. He let out a sigh of relief, then tensed again as he saw the utter fury in Elrohir’s expression.
As they left the foot of the stairs, Elrohir followed Elladan silently. The evil they had sensed before hung all around him, tainting the air with its malice. They were still no nearer finding the source of the malevolence, but he somehow felt it drawing closer. He felt tense and ill at ease, and found himself looking at the walls and roof for anything lurking and spying there.
There was almost a complete absence of any sound in the tunnels now. The silence was broken only by a faint drip of water filtering through the rocks, and their own soft breathing and footfalls. Suddenly it struck him that he could hear only two sets of footsteps – his own and Elladan’s. He could not hear Estel, who had been behind him
only minutes before.
He spun around, and peered back along the tunnel. His eyes were accustomed to the gloom now, and in the faint light of the algae he could see that the passage behind him was completely empty.
He had a sudden clear memory of a terrifying story he had heard as a young warrior once long, long ago; about an unseen, unnamed menace that had stalked a patrol, picking off the hindmost elves one at a time and silently whisking them away to an unknown but hideous fate. He shook his head against such foolishness, and called to Estel softly.
“Estel!” he repeated, as loudly as he dared. There was no reply, and he turned back towards Elladan.
The passage in front of him was empty too.
There was a split second of mindless horror – the story was true! – before he controlled his vivid, unruly imagination with a muttered curse. Elladan appeared from the shadows further down the tunnel. “Estel? Where is he?” he demanded sharply.
“I do not know. One moment he was behind me – and the next he was gone,” Elrohir replied tersely.
“And you did not notice?” Elladan snapped, his voice sharp with worry. “Come – we go this way.” He jerked his head back down the passageway. They searched swiftly, calling quietly but receiving no reply. The tunnels distorted the sound of their voices, and echoes came back at them from odd directions. Narrow side passages branched off the main tunnel, but all were silent save for the echoes. Some were blocked by debris and filth, and others obstructed by collapsed roofs and walls. There was no sign of Estel in any of them.
By the time they reached the base of the steps that led down from the upper levels, Elrohir’s heart was thumping. Where was Estel? He could have fallen victim to some hidden horror, the same evil they had come into Moria to find. Or he could have become lost, and was even now wandering aimlessly, drawing ever further away from them, deeper and deeper into the black void of the mines.
Elladan stared back up the stairs, and along the other tunnels. “Look down there,” he instructed, pointing to the narrow passage that led back beside the steps. “I will go this way.” He glanced at Elrohir. “El – be careful. I do not want to have to search for you as well!”
“We will find him,” Elrohir vowed. “We must.”
Elladan nodded grimly. “Aye. And if I find he has wandered off, I will kill him myself, and save the orcs the trouble!”
Elrohir nodded, recognising the fear and worry underlying his brother’s anger. “We will find him,” he repeated. He set off up the tunnel. It was narrow and low-ceilinged, and he had to stoop low. The tunnel was damp, and smelled of moisture and stale air – and something else. There was a bitter, metallic smell that he was only too familiar with. Orc blood.
There was a slight sound ahead, and his knife was in his hand before he was even aware of it. He held his breath, listening, and stiffened as he heard a soft footstep. A figure appeared just before him and he tensed before letting his breath out with a sigh of relief.
It was Estel
The relief that flooded him was replaced by a wave of anger at his brother’s idiocy, and he stepped towards Estel angrily. “Balrog’s balls, Estel! Where have you been?” he hissed in fury. “Come here!” He seized Estel’s arm and dragged him forward. “El! I found him!” he called quietly. Turning back to Estel, he glared at him. “Where have you been?” he demanded again.
Estel batted Elrohir’s hand away. “I thought you were behind me – I asked you to wait,” he pointed out. “Elrohir, listen to me!”
As Estel spoke, Elladan emerged from one of the other tunnels and joined them. He regarded Estel silently. “Well. What have you got to say for yourself?” he asked at last in a cold voice.
“I heard something – orcs. There were two of them – they knew we were here, Elladan, they smelt us!” Estel explained rapidly. He sounded rather panicked. “And if they knew, there may be others.”
“Orcs? Where?” Elladan demanded sharply. His hand dropped to grip the hilt of his sword, and he turned to look swiftly down the tunnels.
Estel pointed. “Back there. But they’re dead – I killed them,” he explained. “They would have raised the alarm. I don’t know how long it will be before they’re found, though.”
Elrohir stared at him, his worry and anger beginning to be replaced by concern for his brother. “You killed them? Well done. But Estel, are you hurt? Did any of their weapons touch you?”
“No. One tried to stab me, but it missed.” Estel’s hand drifted to his side, and his eyes widened as he found a long, jagged cut in his tunic.
“Let me see that!” Elrohir demanded tersely. He pulled the tunic up and touched Estel’s side, then gave a sigh of relief. “You were fortunate. It did not break the skin. Their weapons sometimes have poison on them – even a scratch can kill if you are unlucky.”
Elladan returned his gaze to Estel. “Never mind that now. Estel, what were you thinking of, wandering off like that? You know better! You could have become lost. You could have been killed. You could have led the orcs straight to us. You could have disturbed whatever else it is that is lurking down here!” He sighed, and shook his head. “Estel, you are not a child. You know we face dangers here – but if you cannot obey orders, I will take you back to Lórien myself!”
“Enough, Elladan!” Elrohir said sharply. “Leave it. This is not the time, nor the place to discuss this. Leave him.”
Elladan drew breath to respond, then stopped. He spat an exclamation of disgust instead, and glared at Elrohir, then Estel. Finally he shrugged, obviously making an effort to rein in his anger. “Come then,” he snapped. He set off again without a backward glance.
Estel hesitated, staring after Elladan in dismay. Elrohir touched his shoulder briefly in reassurance. “Come, little brother. We had better not be left behind!”
Subdued and silent, Estel followed him. The tunnel ahead twisted and turned, with side passages branching off at irregular intervals. As before, many were blocked, but some climbed steeply upwards, or gave onto stairs plunging even deeper into the roots of the mountains. The silence and oppression grew ever stronger, and Elrohir felt his skin crawl. Estel drew a little closer to him. “Elrohir?” he said softly. “I’m sorry. It was foolish. I should have stayed with you.”
Elrohir sighed. “Yes, you should,” he agreed mildly. “I do not know what put it into your head, or your heart, to do that. But perhaps it has turned out for the best. You said the orcs knew about us. If they had raised the alarm, every orc in Moria would have been after us. We would have had little chance of escape. But it was dangerous. If they had caught you …” he shivered, haunted by memories, then turned to smile at Estel. “You did well, little brother.” He ruffled Estel’s hair in the way he had always done – the way he knew Estel hated – and placed an arm around his shoulders. “You did well.”
“Did I? I was terrified,” Estel admitted. “Elladan was right. I should have listened to you. I should have followed orders.” He sighed. “He is so angry!”
“He was worried. Well, we both were, but El holds himself responsible for all of us. He says it is because he is the oldest.”
Estel grinned. “I know. It’s why he always calls you ‘little brother’.”
“And Elladan, as he likes to remind me, was born first. It makes no difference really – we are twins, and that is all that matters.” Elrohir glanced ahead at Elladan, and shook his head. “Do not take it to heart, Estel. He worries – and when the danger is over, the relief he feels turns his fear into anger.” He grinned at Estel. “It is usually directed at me, when he feels I have taken some foolish risk!” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “One day, I will tell you about our first patrol. It was very nearly Elladan’s last!”
Elladan clearly heard this comment, for his back stiffened. He said nothing, though. Estel, clearly aching with curiosity, stared at Elrohir. “Really? What happened? What did he do?”
Ahead of them, Elladan threw a glance over his shoulder. “Estel, stop chattering! Now hurry!”
They walked for several hours, penetrating deeper and deeper into the mines; all the while keeping track of the branching tunnels and passages. The sense of darkness and foreboding that they had all felt the night before still lured them on. The shadow had grown and spread, dissipating throughout the mines, and it now hung over them like a cloud, formless and shapeless.
At times they passed junctions where two or three main thoroughfares crossed, and often there were small guard rooms set up to watch the passages. Although it was impossible to tell in the interminable darkness and silence, it was surely past nightfall when at last they stopped by one of the guard rooms.
“We will rest here for a few hours,” Elladan announced. “It must be night outside.” He thrust the torch into the remains of a rusted iron bracket and turned. “Estel, get the beds ready.”
Silently obeying Elladan’s command, Estel began to place their bed rolls and blankets against the walls of the tiny chamber. Elrohir watched for a moment, then rounded on his brother. “Elladan, what is the matter with you? When are you going to stop punishing him?”
“I am not punishing him! But he has to learn that this expedition is not a stroll through the woods of Imladris for a picnic. There, it did not matter when he kept wandering off – it does here! Elrohir, he could have been killed – or worse!”
“I know that! Do you think he does not? Can you not see that?”
“He is not a child, Elrohir!”
Elrohir nodded. “No. He is not a child – so stop treating him like one! He is young though – he made a mistake, and will learn from it. Can you tell me that you have never made a mistake?”
Elladan flung his hands up in disgust. “Ah! You are as bad as he is!” he snapped.
Estel joined them. His face was strained, and he was trying hard to look as if he had not just heard every word of their argument. “Elladan. Elrohir. Let me take the watch tonight. Please.”
“No!” Elladan snapped monosyllabically.
Elrohir hesitated. He was reluctant to agree to the request – Estel needed the rest far more than he or Elladan did – but Estel was clearly anxious to make amends and assuage his guilt. He needed to prove himself worthy of their trust. “Yes,” he agreed at last. “You can take the first watch. El, let him do this!” he added swiftly to forestall Elladan’s anticipated protest.
Elladan gave Estel a long, considering look, then nodded curtly. “Very well.” He sighed. “Estel – if you hear anything, anything at all, wake us. Do you understand?”
Estel shot him a dark look. “Yes, I think I can manage that,” he responded stiffly.
Elrohir gave Elladan a glare of his own, and sighed. “Goodnight, Estel,” he said pointedly. He dozed restlessly, still uneasy at the looming oppression. He and Elladan had been in some dark, unpleasant places many times before, but none had affected him like this. It was the not-knowing that troubled him most – the evil surrounding them felt totally unfamiliar. He wondered again what – if anything – they would find. But if they did not find anything the next day, or the next, then they would have to return to the outer world and send word to Lórien. They could not wander aimlessly in this dark warren for ever.
He had not slept for long before he became aware of Estel standing over him. “Elrohir. Elladan. Wake up – I can hear something!”
Elrohir came alert immediately. Estel was already standing by the door of the chamber, peering out into the tunnels that merged there. Elrohir and Elladan joined him, listening carefully. The sound was faint but clear – and unmistakable. It was the heavy tramp of many booted feet – orc feet. The sound echoed and reverberated off the walls and roofs for the tunnels, seeming to come from all directions at once.
Elladan listened, then pointed. “That way.”
“No, that way,” Estel corrected him.
Elrohir listened again, and his heart sank. His brothers were both right. Two separate groups were approaching them. “Both ways,” he confirmed.
“Move out,” Elladan whispered. “We do not want to be trapped here.”
Estel was already stowing their bedding, shoving it carelessly into the packs. “Ready,” he breathed.
They left the guard room silently, and moved to a narrow, dank passage littered with loose, crumbling rock. It appeared unused. Elrohir ventured further along the tunnel, but did not get far. It ended in a sheer drop, as before, opening onto a cavern even larger than the one they had seen before. Orcs worked at the rock face with pickaxes and hammers – and watching them, directing the work and overseeing collection of the worked ore, were other orcs, much larger than the workers, and a group of trolls. Elrohir stared down into the cavern for a moment, then drew back into the shadows. “They will not be coming this way,” he whispered. “It is dead end. But there is another cavern back there – orcs and trolls as well. And there was a breed of orc I have never seen before.”
<>Elladan considered this information. “We should follow them,” he decided. “I want to find out where they are going, and what they are doing. And if there is a new breed of orc …” – he stopped and gazed at Elrohir and Estel – “Who is creating them?”
Elrohir nodded. “We do not attack unless they detect us,” he agreed. “We need to find out. Estel?”
Estel also nodded in agreement, and they retreated a little further down the narrow, damp tunnel. There was a sharp, musty smell, and the walls gleamed with moisture. Despite their mutual agreement, Elrohir held his sword half drawn, poised to fight. It irked him to wait meekly while orcs passed by so very close.
The thud of the orcs’ feet grew louder and nearer, and he could hear their low, growling voices. A dim, flickering glow grew brighter as they approached. He tensed, controlling his instinctive urge to leap forward and attack by calling on long years of discipline and training. The first group of orcs had nearly passed them when one paused near the end of the tunnel. It stared around in the flickering light cast by the torches they carried, and sniffed.
An orc behind gave it a violent push. “Hey! Get a move on!” it snarled. “I wants to get back!”
“Wait!” the first orc hissed. “Can’t you smell it? Somethin’ like elf – but not quite. There’s somethin’ else as well.”
“Elf?” the other queried. It licked its lips. “Where?”
Elrohir did not wait to be discovered. He, Elladan and Estel burst out of the narrow passageway, swords drawn, and launched the attack. The two speakers were dead before either could voice another word.
The battle was brief and bloody. Orcs were vicious fighters, and these were no exception. They were no match for the skill of the twins and Estel, though, and soon the first patrol lay dead. The second troop, drawn by the commotion, pressed forward more slowly and reluctantly. As they watched the slaughter of their comrades, two orcs at the rear of the group gave shrill cries of dismay and fled.
With a lightning movement, Estel drew an arrow and fired. One orc dropped to the ground with a rasping gurgle. The other gave another screech and darted into one of the many side passages. Elladan pointed after it. “El! Do not let him get away!”
Elrohir nodded and turned. He ran after the creature, but the low-ceilinged passage twisted and curved, making it impossible to draw his bow. At last he stooped and pulled a dagger from his boot, throwing it at the fleeing orc. The dagger caught it at the back of its neck, just above the thick leather jerkin it wore.
The orc fell without a cry, stumbling forward into one of the roof support beams and knocking it aside with a crash. As Elrohir reached it he dropped to one knee, groping with distaste at its filthy neck for a pulse. The creature was quite dead, its open eyes gazing sightlessly at the ground. He tugged the dagger free and wiped it on the orc’s grimy sleeve with a grimace.
Estel joined him, glanced down at the orc briefly, then ventured further down the tunnel to listen for any further sound of pursuit. He turned back to Elrohir and shook his head. “Nothing,” he whispered. “I cannot hear anything. He cannot have alerted the others.”
Elrohir glanced up as he gave his dagger a final clean and returned it to his boot. “Good,” he began softly. He blinked as grit and dust drifted downwards, and raised one hand to shield his eyes. The shower of debris increased, and he glanced upwards at the roof of the tunnel. Estel looked up as well, and he gave a cry of alarm.
“The roof is collapsing!” he cried. “Elrohir, get aw …”
Elrohir heard nothing more of the warning, for a thunderous roar echoed in the narrow tunnel. A cloud of dust enveloped them, and the rain of small rocks, stones and coarse sand intensified. He coughed, choking on the dust as it filled the air and blinded them both. Then the roof of the tunnel, already weakened by the constant trickling water, and further damaged by the fallen support, dropped towards him with a cacophonous crash and he fell.First > Previous > Next