"What a pity to have yet another barrow turn up nothing useful for us," I griped as I munched on an apple from my pack. I was not feeling very adventurous after my fright.
"I would not say it yielded nothing of value," Gaelira said. "It brought the long-forgotten name of Othrongroth back to my mind. As Nephyn pointed out, that place is the greatest of all the tombs in the Tyrn Gorthad, and quite likely the very place our adversary has ensconced himself as he grows in strength and gathers his forces."
"Which means we ourselves will need to go there, sooner or later," Drodie offered. "That's just grand. Does anyone know anything about this Great Barrow? Would we be walking into an ambush?" No one answered right away.
"For myself, I can only say it is supposed to lie somewhere in the Southern Barrow-Downs," said Nephyn slowly. "It is said to be the resting place of many of the ancient kings of Cardolan, so I suppose that would make it a very large network of tunnels connecting multiple individual tombs. Apparently, even this barrow from which we just emerged used to be connected to it, long ago, and we are still in the northern half of this land."
"Then we must find another entrance," said Luean. "And that will be wearying work, considering all of the mounds which dot the landscape here." I didn't like the sound of that!
"Isn't there anything we can do?" I pleaded. "Surely you're not saying we'll have to poke our noses into each and every one of these loathsome holes!"
"We shall see," Gaelira answered. Then she turned away from us and walked several steps. She raised her hands to her lips and let out a strange, throaty call. If there were words in that cry I could not catch them. Gaelira remained staring southward while the rest of us watched and waited. Several minutes passed.
Suddenly, from around the curve of the hill to our left, there came whirling a large black bird. It landed on the ground in front of Gaelira and hopped toward her. The she-Elf motioned back to us to remain where we were, and we all obeyed while we watched the proceedings with great interest. Gaelira knelt and seemed to be speaking with the bird. After only a short time, she stood up and returned to us. The black bird cocked its head and watched us intently.
"Fortune is with us," Gaelira said as she strode up. "It seems someone does indeed know where to find our enemy!"
"That thing?" asked Drodie in disbelief, pointing at the animal. "I wouldn't trust a crow, nor anyone who does! Like as not it'll just lead us into a pit and leave us there to pick at our bones once we've died of thirst!"
"That 'thing,' Master Drodie, is a raven," said Gealira patiently, "An altogether different sort of bird, as your kindred at Erebor would readily tell you. Come, we follow his lead."
The Company swiftly collected itself and stomped out the little fire. We fell in line behind Gaelira who was watching the raven as it returned to the air. Then we started off at a quick pace behind it as it led us southwards. The raven was obliged to alight many times as we struggled up and down the hills, but always it led us in the same direction. After some time we came to what looked like an ancient path that wound up to the top of a high ridge. Once astride this high point, we could see the entire lower half of the Downs stretching away before us. The Sun was beginning its western descent just as we began ours down the southern face of the ridge.
"So this raven is leading us to the Great Barrow?" I asked Gaelira as we picked our way down the ridge-wall.
"I think so, but I cannot say for certain," came the she-Elf's answer. "I asked if he knew of any evil creatures of great power here in the Barrow-Downs. I am assuming there is only one such being for us to be concerned with and I am also assuming that creature resides within Othrongroth. Neither assumption may prove true, but Hremm certainly was eager to lead us the moment I mentioned what we were seeking."
"Hremm?" I asked, confused.
"That is the raven's name," Gaelira replied. I heard Drodie snort loudly from behind me as he stifled a laugh. Gaelira did not look around.
"The ravens are noble animals which have aided the Free Peoples for many ages. There are far fewer now which retain the ability to communicate with us, but there are still some, especially in sequestered places where hammer and anvil have not driven them from their ancestral homes."
We reached the bottom of the ridge without incident. Here, the ground became boggy in some spots and we were forced to turn westward for a short time, but we resumed our southerly course as soon as we could. We passed over yet more mounds and then began to climb a gentle rise. We were headed up a large, sloping hill the top of which appeared to be crowned with ancient and crumbling stonework, as though there had once been a sizeable city there, many long years ago. By the time we finally reached level ground again, the sky was a bright orange: the Sun was preparing to set and there was still no sign of our adversary. I heaved a great sigh and rubbed my stiff knees. We all looked around at the centuries-old masonry that lay before us. Perhaps, at one time, this place might have been a pleasing settlement for the Men of Cardolan, but now it looked positivley dead, as if the ruins themselves were the bones of the earth lying shattered and forgotten upon this wind-swept hill.
We were high up enough to see the treetops of the Old Forest marching awway from us in ranks to the west. As I looked, I also saw Hremm (the raven) perched on a partially crumbled archway, watching us. It began hopping excitedly and crying at us. I cocked my head at it, wondering what had it so bothered. Then it occurred to me we might have reached the place it was leading us! I turned to the rest of the Company.
"Do you think --" I began, but suddenly the ground in the midst of us erupted, spraying turf and gravel everywhere! I covered my face with my arms and hands and stumbled backward into a stone pillar. When I looked up, I beheld a terrible sight: the bones of some long-dead Man encased in bits of rusted and decrepit armor was raising itself from the earth! The empty eye sockets burned with a furious fire and the fleshless, grinning mouth laughed at us with a shrill and pitiless voice.
Ha! Bow down, slaves -- the Bone Man will rend your flesh!
The apparition held in its skeletal hand a longsword very much alike in design to Nephyn's, but clearly not made of the same material. We had the thing surrounded since it had emerged from the ground right in our midst. Gaelira lowered her staff at the wight, her mouth twisted in a look of utter repugnance.
"Your efforts end here, foul one," she said. "Tell me why Angmar sent you here and I will hasten your passing." That high-pitched voice cackled again.
I will tell you nothing, she-Elf. I shall enjoy tormenting your withered spirit here in the Mortal Lands. Now die!
The Bone Man's joints creaked as it raised its sword to smite Gaelira down, but the she-Elf, quick as a cat, darted in and delivered a blow with her staff to the wight's sword-arm. The entire arm came off, with sword and bones skittering across the stones. The wight looked at his missing arm, then at where they were flung to. We did not back down.
"I give you one last chance," Gaelira said, menacingly. I gripped the handle of my hammer and prepared to join her in pounding this revolting thing back into the earth.
But then the dismembered arm and sword slid along the ground and re-attached themselves at the wight's shoulder! I saw Drodie's eyes (as he was across from me) become as wide as dinner plates.
"Uh, oh..." he muttered.
Warriors! To me!
There was a rumble from beneath us and the earth exploded at several places behind us as half a dozen barrow-wights emerged. Now we were the ones who were surrounded!
|The Bone Man|
Two of the wights immediately seized Luean, their bony hands groping for his throat. I saw Drodie engaged with two more as he used his shield to turn their axes. Gaelira was locked in battle with another. Nephyn was parrying the attacks of the Bone Man and I had the last wight to myself! Horrified, I backed away from the thing, but it followed me. I kept backing up until my feet touched on nothing! I glanced back and there was a dreadful drop off the side of the hill. In front of me, the barrow-wight raised its sword for the kill, but at the last second I darted to the right. The wight's momentum carried it forward and over the edge! I heard the bones crunch onto the rocks at the bottom as I raced to help my friends.
Gaelira and Drodie were still trying to defend themselves against three wights while Nephyn continued her struggle against the Bone Man as Luean cried for help. A thrill of fear ran through my body. In a flash, I thought how our Company might find its end here, alone in these haunted hills. But I would not let it! Not this way!
Seeing how Luean was in the worst plight, I sprinted over to where he was being held down by the two wights. With my hammer, I swung with all of my might at their knees. Two bony legs were broken in half, and the wights' grip on Luean was loosed! He shoved the damaged skeletons away from him and strode with purpose toward where the Bone Man and Nephyn continued their fight. The two injured wights crawled after him, undeterred. I retreated behind a pillar. Drodie and Gaelira continued their losing battle to one side.
From where I was, I could see Luean's front. His face was a thundercloud of fury like I had never seen it before. Reaching into his satchel, he produced a rune-stone and held it high over his head.
ELE! AHA NGOLDOULIEN AVANIER!
The rune-keeper's voice echoed off the hillsides like thunder in the mountains. The remaining wights froze and turned toward him. Gaelira raced to his side and raised her staff.
Suddenly, the bones of the five lesser barrow-wights collapsed to the ground. Whatever dark spell had fused their undead bodies together appeared to have been broken. The Bone Man looked around, realizing he was now alone. Together, we once again surrounded it and Gaelira planted herself in its face once more.
"Now then," she said, mockingly. "Where were we?"
Fools! I was summoned here from Carn Dum to bring ruination to these lands. And nothing you can do will stop me!
The Bone Man raised its sword to stab at Gaelira, but suddenly its head shattered into a million pieces: Nephyn had swung her Barrow-blade clean through the rotted helm. There was a shrill cry from that undead mouth, and all of the bones and ancient armor fell to pieces. Somehow or other, we had won.
"A curse on this miserable land and everything in it!" Gaelira fumed, stalking about in her anger. I was thoroughly confused.
"But... but didn't we defeat it?" I asked hesitantly.
"No!" came her furious response. "No, they have retreated, but they are not gone. They are only waiting to spring another ambush on us in the dark of night -- and the Sun has nearly left us! There is no way we can escape these hills before She sets."
There was a loud croak from behind us. We looked and saw Hremm the raven take to the air again. He wheeled back and forth several times: it was clear he wished us to follow him.
"Let us see where he is leading us!" said Luean. We started off.
"Straight into another trap, I shouldn't wonder," Drodie growled. "Why, that infernal bird was the one as led us here, and very nearly to our deaths! I say we leave by the route we already know."
"Gaelira is right that the Sun will set long before we can hope to reach the northern pass," Nephyn said as she watched Hremm's flight. "We have no choice but to trust the bird."
It was well that we did. The raven led us eastward to the outer fences of the Downs where we discovered a passage leading to the outside! We emerged into the Andrath, roughly two miles southwest of Bree-town just as the early stars were beginning to prick the skies. Relieved, we began our walk to the Prancing Pony. Along the way, we talked about what we had experienced and learned during the day.
"You Elves always continue to surprise me!" I said to Luean. "What sort of spell was that you unleashed upon the barrow-wights?"
"Spell?" Luean looked at me in confusion. "That was no spell, little Shire-hobbit! I was merely informing the unclean spirits that they had incurred the wrath of the Elves, specifically, one of which happens to be a High Elf of Noldorin heritage."
"O!" I said, comprehending virtually none of this. "But how did you cause them to fall to pieces like that?"
"I did not," came the reply. "They did. Or, to be more precise, the spirits feared what we might do to them and decided to abandon the skeletal bodies they had inhabited for the purpose of destroying us."
"Are you saying they got scared and ran off?" I asked, somewhat apprehensively. Luean frowned in thought.
"Well, yes, I suppose you could say that."
"But how did you know that would work?" I persisted.
"Oh, I did not know," Luean laughed. "It was quite the gamble. But luckily for us, it did work!" I was so amazed I could think of nothing else to ask.
"Unfortunately, I do not think we can count on something like that working again," Gaelira said. Her mood had not improved much, even considering Hremm's effective short-cut out of the Barrow-Downs. "It is clear we are still no closer to accomplishing our objective. This Bone Man is not the source of the unrest in the Downs or in the Old Forest. He said he was 'summoned here from Carn Dum,' that is Angmar, which means he must have come here at the behest of something else. That something else is our true adversary, which remains unknown and unfound."
"That is all true, but I would argue we are in fact closer than we were," said Nephyn. "We have not yet found where the Great Barrow lies, and there are many signs indicating that is where we should seek our quarry."
"I agree," Luean said. "If we can locate Othrongroth, then we will be much nearer our goal. In the meantime, we have confirmed whatever is disrupting these lands is connected to Angmar."
"Aye, and we've also bested its hand-picked champion!" said Drodie triumphantly. "No thanks to that dratted bird, of course. I still say it led us into that ambush."
"Don't be absurd. The raven was leading us to what it perceived as the greatest threat it knew," Gaelira countered. "But that does not mean it was not an ambush: I fear that more may be known about us and our movements than I would wish."
That got us all thinking, and the rest of the trek back to Bree was a quiet one. We got our usual rooms at the Pony, but the Company's money was starting to run low -- we would have to either find some source of coin, and soon, or we might have to start camping out-of-doors. I settled down to begin my journaling while the rest of us either turned in or sat quietly in the parlour as the Moon rose overhead. Each of our minds were spinning through the questions our return to the Barrow-Downs had spawned, but none of us had any answers. Only one thing seemed certain: the Great Barrow loomed over everything like a putrescent cloud. Sooner or later we would have to face that dark tomb.