Náin leapt to his feet at Elladan’s revelation. “I knew it!” he roared. “Bloody elves! They’re in league with the witch!”
Elrohir glanced at Elladan with resignation, then dropped his head to his knees. “Did you have to tell them that?” he asked mildly. “It may have been better left quiet.”
“You would keep this news secret? Are you her spies, then?” Náin demanded.
“No!” Elrohir protested. He sighed. What was the matter with him today? With Elladan? They were both normally far more diplomatic and eloquent. They had acted as envoys for their father on many occasions, either alone or together; and had brought many awkward – even hostile – situations under control. Why were these dwarves proving so difficult to handle? He was bone-achingly weary, but that was no excuse. No, it was the atmosphere in this place – it was still weighing on all of them. And from the glares that Náin was directing at Elladan, he suspected that words had already been exchanged between them earlier.
“My grandmother is not a witch,” he explained carefully, trying to sooth the tension. “It is true that she has the ability to see into one’s heart, to tell if you enter her realm with evil intentions – but she cannot read minds at a distance. We have no such powers ourselves, nor are we her spies. But we would warn her of this peril as soon as possible.”
Farin stared at them, considering, then nodded slowly. “Aye, I can see that,” he conceded. “As soon as possible? Are you leaving, then?”
“We are,” Elladan agreed. “Since my brother is injured, we have decided to explore no further, but to return to Lórien and report what we have seen so far. We were making our way back to the Dimrill Gate when we met you.”
“The Dimrill Gate? You’re a little off course, then. We are several levels above the Gate.” Farin thought for a moment, his brow furrowed. “We will show you the way,” he announced. “We can find the best ways, the secret ways that the orcs will not know. We will leave when you are ready.”
“Thank you,” Elladan replied. Elrohir nodded in agreement, rather surprised at the offer of help from the still-suspicious dwarves.
Náin muttered under his breath. “You would aid them? Why? They are elves!” he grumbled to Farin.
“That is still no reason to refuse help!” Farin argued. “The orcs are enemies of us all. And their father is Elrond, who aided the great Thorin Oakenshield in his quest. It was Elrond who discovered the moon-letters that led Thorin to the door into Smaug’s lair. If we do this, I can repay my father’s debt to him.”
Elladan nudged Elrohir. “It was you who gave Father the idea to look for moon-letters on that map!” he whispered with a grin.
Elrohir nodded absently, listening to the dwarves’ discussion. Farin had lowered his voice, but it was still clearly audible. “And remember this, Náin. The sooner we show them the way out, the sooner they will be gone from these halls. Or would you rather they were still prowling around the realm of our fathers?”
Náin glowered, but nodded a curt agreement. “Very well!” he snapped. He turned a still-unfriendly eye on them. “Are you ready?”
“I think we had better be ready, my brother,” Elladan murmured very quietly. “Can you manage?”
Elrohir nodded, but accepted Elladan’s hand as he pulled himself to his feet. He knew just how far he could push himself, and he was not at the limits of his endurance yet. Not quite. The brief rest – short though it was – had given him the strength to continue. “We are ready,” he agreed. “Estel?”
Estel nodded from his position by the door, where he had been keeping watch. “I’m ready.”
As they set off skirting the edge of the great hall, Farin pointed ahead to a pillar at the side of the hall where a wedge of shadow loomed black against the darkness. “We go this way.”
Elrohir moved stiffly towards the dark corner Farin had indicated, still limping slightly. He became aware of Náin watching him closely, and instinctively tried to hide his pain and weariness with all the pride and stubbornness he could muster – the pride and stubbornness which Elladan frequently declared were his worst failings. Privately he acknowledged the faults, but he was still reluctant to reveal any weakness to the dwarves.
“Your brother said you were injured in a rock fall,” Náin said at last.
Elrohir glanced at him in surprise. “Yes,” he agreed.
“Hmm. I’m sorry to hear that,” Náin admitted. Before Elrohir could reveal his shock at this unexpected expression of concern from the hostile dwarf, Náin added regretfully, “Rock shouldn’t fall like that. It shows bad workmanship in digging the tunnels, or faults in the strata. It could prove a problem for Balin. We’ll have to survey the mines carefully if he’s going to bring our people here. Hmm.” He fell silent again, deep in thought. “What caused the rock fall? Do you know?”
His memories of the incident were a little hazy, but Elrohir related what he could recall. “… and when the orc fell, it knocked the roof support struts out of place. The roof collapsed soon after that.”
“Hmm. Roof supports. So they knew there was a problem. Hmm.” Náin drifted into silence, and did not speak again.
Elrohir dropped back to Estel’s side. “Estel? What happened when you met the dwarves? How did you meet them? I have the impression there is something I missed. Why is Náin so hostile to us?”
Estel grinned as he related the incident with relish. “Elladan called him a stunted dirt-digger!” he ended.
Elrohir winced. “El said that?” His twin was usually far more polite and even-tempered. “He must have been upset! He does not normally lose his temper like that.”
“Náin seems very … suspicious. He doesn’t trust elves – not at all. Farin is a little wary, but seems friendly enough. He’s prepared to accept us because of father.”
Elrohir nodded. He had come to the same conclusions, but it was interesting to hear Estel’s observations of the situation. “And Bilbur?”
“Hasn’t said anything yet. He just watches, and listens. I think it’s the first time he’s ever seen elves. He’s not quite sure what to make of you – or me!”
Elrohir laughed. “Few people are! We call you brother, but it is clear to anyone with half an eye that you are not.”
The pillar Farin lead them to concealed a dark opening in the corner of the hall, so well hidden it was unlikely to be discovered accidentally. “We go this way,” Farin said again. He looked consideringly at Elladan, Elrohir and Estel. “It’s a bit low for you. Mind your heads.”
‘A bit low’ was something of an understatement, Elrohir realised. The roof of the tunnel was barely high enough for Farin, the tallest of the three dwarves, to walk upright. He stared at the tunnel with distaste, but knew there was little alternative. With a glance over his shoulder at Elladan, he plunged into the tunnel after Farin.
Stairs led steeply down. Elrohir followed Farin with difficulty. The steps were designed for the shorter legs of dwarves; the treads narrow and the drop between them a little too small, and Elrohir soon found that his legs, back and neck ached from the unaccustomed strain.
At length the stairs ended, and the path levelled out. The passage stretched ahead of them, narrow, low-roofed; the walls glistening with wetness and patches of some slimy green growth. It was dark, and rough underfoot, and the torch Farin carried streamed an acrid smoke that stung his eyes.
After a mile or so the tunnel began to slope downwards again, and the ceiling above their heads dropped even more steeply so that soon Elrohir was bent double. His back – still sore and bruised from the rock fall – ached fiercely, and he kept striking his head against the rough stone of the roof. This route was quite unlike the wide, spacious tunnels they had travelled in the other parts.
At last Farin halted. Elrohir raised his head cautiously to peer past him and sighed. The passage ahead was blocked. The roof sloped down to the ground here, forming a wall at the end of the tunnel. A pool of dark water lay before them, lapping at the wall. Elrohir stared at it in dismay. To have come so far, and under such difficult conditions – and now they would have to retrace their steps back to the upper levels. He sighed – why had Farin bought them this way? – and turned his head reluctantly. “El. Estel. We have to go back.”
Farin left his study of the pool and turned. “Go back? What for? This is where we swim.” He began to gesture with his hands, drawing the shape of the tunnel – a wide, shallow ‘U’ – in the air before him. “It’s a water trap. The passage dips down here, then rises again a few yards further on. Water collects at the bottom – sometimes you can wade through, but sometimes – like now – it’s deeper.”
“How deep?” Elrohir asked him.
Farin shrugged. “Difficult to say. Deep enough to reach the roof, certainly. How far this goes – I can’t tell. We’ll have to swim to the other side, down through the dip in the tunnel and up again on the other side. I’m not sure how far it will be – several yards, at a guess.” He stared at the flooded passage, muttering into his beard. “It’s too wet. It shouldn’t be like this. Not now. Not yet.” He glanced at Elrohir, then at Elladan and Estel. “I hope you can hold your breath!”
Náin snorted behind them. “I hope they can swim! If not, we’ll just leave them here.”
“We can swim.”
“I’ll go first,” Farin decided. “Give me a few minutes, then you follow.”
“How will we know if you’ve made if through?” Estel asked.
“You won’t,” Farin replied shortly. “Just wait a while, then come through.” He began to lace his jerkin closed and tightened the straps on his pack.
Estel watched him. “Wait!” he protested. “Look – take a rope. That way, we can pull you back if we have to, and you can pull on it to say you’re on the other side.”
Farin gazed at him, considering, then nodded. “A good idea,” he agreed. “Have you got a rope?”
“Yes – here.” Estel handed him a coil of fine rope.
Farin took the rope, running it through his fingers and feeling it carefully. “It’s a bit thin,” he said dismissively. “Light, too. It won’t be very strong. Have we got anything better?”
“It will be more than strong enough,” Elladan assured him.
Farin merely grunted in response, and tied the rope to his belt, tugging on it to test the knot, then waded into the water. It rose swiftly to reach his knees, his waist, then he turned and dived out of sight into the black murk.
Estel watched with a shiver as Farin disappeared. There was something about the thought of the black unknown and swimming into the darkness that chilled him and filled him with fear. Half-forgotten stories drifted back to him, legends of the creative malice of Melkor, of the hideous creatures he had bred. Some had roamed the land, some the waters. Who knew what horrors could still lurk here in the deep places of the world?
He touched Elrohir’s arm. “Do we have to go that way?” he whispered, staring at the dark pool apprehensively.
Elrohir shrugged. “I see no other way – do you? Farin said it was either this, or go back.”
“I would rather go back,” he muttered. “The though of swimming through that – I dread it. It is dark. It is narrow. How do we even know what lies on the other side?”
“If Farin can get through, then so can we. Do not worry, Estel.” Elrohir squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “There is nothing to fear.”
Estel sighed. “That’s easy for you to say. You and Elladan aren’t afraid of anything!”
Elrohir gave a short laugh. “Then we hide it well. Of course there are things we fear, both of us. I …” he broke off as Farin reappeared with a splash and a gasp, and a string of curses.
Náin knelt by the water. “Farin? What’s the matter? What have you found?”
Farin took a deep breath. “The passage is partly blocked – boulders and rubble have fallen, and rest at the bottom of the dip. We can still get past, but it will be a tight squeeze.” As he spoke he unfastened his pack. “I’ll have to push this through first. Náin, you come next. Bilbur, you go last. Make sure nothing is left.” With another deep breath, he plunged out of sight again.
Estel took the coil of rope and began to pay it out, counting under his breath as he measured the distance, trying not to think about what lay ahead. Farin’s words had made his vague fears far worse. He tried not to picture the pitch black tunnel, filled with icy water. He tried not to think about creatures of darkness with long snake-like tentacles that ensnared the unwary. He tried not to think about wriggling and twisting through the narrow gap left by the fallen debris. He tried not to think about what would happen if he became trapped, wedged below water in the dark and cold, desperately struggling to free himself while he became light-headed from lack of air and slowly drowned …
“Estel, do not worry,” Elrohir said softly and reassuringly. “I will go after Náin, then you, then Elladan. You will not be alone – not even there.”
Estel gave Elrohir a grateful look, then returned his attention to the rope in his hands. The slow and steady pull on it as Farin inched his way through the water-filled tunnel had stopped. He nearly dropped the rope as he felt two long, deliberate tugs on it – the signal that Farin had reached the far side. “Náin. It’s your turn,” he said, his voice steady. “It’s about twenty yards – further than we thought. Are you ready?”
“I’m ready,” Náin rumbled. “And you’d better hurry – we’ll not come to look for you if you get stuck or become lost! We won’t wait for you.” With that he plunged into the water in his turn and disappeared from view.
“He’ll wait,” Elladan muttered to Estel. “He’ll wait for Bilbur, if not for us!” He glanced at Bilbur who sat, still unspeaking, at the water’s edge.
At length another tug came on the rope, and Elrohir slid into the water. “Valar, it is cold!” he gasped. “Estel, come through straight after me – not too close though; I do not want to kick you. El, look after him.”
Estel stared at the black water, his heart beating fiercely. He had to do this, he knew. They could not go back. And if the dwarves could do it, so could he. He would not humiliate himself in front of them. He took a deep breath.
“I will be right behind you, littlest brother,” Elladan murmured. “Are you ready?”
Estel nodded. He took another deep breath, then stepped into the water, diving downwards immediately so he did not have time to think about what he was doing. The cold was agonising. He had been numb with cold in the past, but this was far worse – it burned like fire. He opened his eyes but could see nothing in the pitch darkness, and the cold bit at his eyes painfully. He closed them again, and groped his way downwards, thrusting his pack before him with one hand, clinging to the lifeline of the rope with the other.
All was dark, and cold, and silent. He kicked his way deeper – far deeper than he had expected – groping ahead with one hand, feeling the tunnel walls closing in on him all around, and nothing but water in front. Then his outstretched hand touched rock ahead as well. He tried to feel along the rope and trace the path it followed – but realised that his hands were so numb with cold that he had lost his grip on the rope. He felt all around for it, finding no trace, and no way out, and began to panic – this was a dead end, and Farin had lead them all to a watery grave. Then, above his head, he felt a small gap – far too small, surely, to swim through? But Farin must have made it, and Náin, and Elrohir – so he could as well.
He pushed his pack through the narrow gap, and forced himself after it. It was tight, even tighter than he had feared, and he could feel the rough stone scraping at his hands and head, catching at his clothes. The tunnel seemed to turn to the right, and he twisted his body, feeling the tunnel roof closing in on him. He twisted again but found to his horror that he could not move. His shoulders, the widest part of his body, were wedged in the narrow space, and he was trapped.
Panic flared. He twisted again, kicking his feet and groping with his hands ahead for some purchase on the rock so he could pull himself through. He had dropped his pack, but did not care – his only thought now was to free himself. All his fears and horrors had come terrifyingly true, and he would die here, alone in the cold and dark. Already his lungs were burning from lack of air, and he wondered how long it would be before he succumbed to the darkness.
A touch on his foot, a hand clasping his ankle, gave him renewed hope. Elladan. He was not alone, and he began to twist again, wriggling and turning his body, and kicking out. He inched forward a little, and then a little more – and then he was through, swimming upward to the air, to the other side of the tunnel, where Elrohir waited.
Red speckles danced in his vision and he began to fear he was on the edge of passing out. He swam more desperately, and at last his head broke the surface. Elrohir knelt anxiously above him, his hand outstretched to pull him from the water. He could see his brother, he realised – Farin had, somehow, lit a torch which spluttered red sparks over them.
Estel took a deep, gasping breath and allowed Elrohir to seize his hand and haul him up and out of the bitter water. He knelt, resting on hands and knees, drawing in shuddering breaths of the dank air; and slowly the ache in his chest and the pounding of his heart subsided.
There was a slight splash behind him, and Elladan joined them. “Estel? What happened?” he demanded. “Are you all right?”
Estel nodded wearily. “I got stuck,” he gasped. “It was a little too narrow. I nearly didn’t make it through.” He paused, just breathing again, then added, “Thank you, Elladan. I knew you were there. It gave me the strength to go on.”
“Well done, little brother. Well done,” Elrohir murmured. “Now, Farin has lit a torch, as you can see – apparently they keep kindling and tinder by all these water traps. There is a cave a little further on where we can dry out before continuing. As soon as Bilbur arrives …” he stopped, and they all stared at the dark pool.
“Where is Bilbur?” Farin snapped.
“He was behind me,” Elladan said. “Right behind me. He was already in the water as I dived.”
They waited, but the black surface of the water was still and unruffled. No ripple marred its inky surface, and Bilbur still did not appear.First > Previous > Next