Hevensday, 13th of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Prancing Pony, Bree-land
|The Skeleton king|
"This fear... the evil here is so heavy I can almost see it," the rune-keeper said. "It reminds me of --"
"Of the evil that turned us away from the Blackwold Headquarters in the Chetwood," said Gaelira.
"It reminds me of the darkness that overcame me in that wood before I was made a prisoner," Nephyn said quietly. I shifted my weight uncomfortably.
"I can see there is a tale worth hearing in all this," said Lagodir as he looked at us. "You must be mighty warriors to dare such frightful places without fear."
"I wouldn't say that," I muttered to myself.
"Some of us, at least," Drodie said from behind me, though I thought the Dwarf's voice was a bit less hardy than was usual for him. "If there's to be fighting beneath the earth, then I will set aside any misgivings about the Dead. Let us put an end to whatever festers in this putrid hole!"
"Wait, my friends," Gaelira said as she stepped in front of the entrance. "Before we proceed I feel I should tell you what I believe we may face in these tombs." Something in her voice made us all stop obediently. I remembered back to our early-morning conversation in the Pony and felt that the she-Elf had decided to reveal whatever it was she knew or guessed about the Great Barrow.
"You all have a right to know what I know," she began. "Already we have spoken at various times of the Nine, the Ringwraiths, the most terrible servants of the Dark Lord Sauron. We have also told you of their leader, the age-old sorcerer known as the Witch-king. When I was in Rivendell I learned the name of his lieutenant -- Khamul, he is called. This was revealed to me by Glorfindel, a mighty Elf-lord of Elrond's house. It was he who, together with King Earnur of Gondor, drove the Witch-king and his armies from Eriador, although it was too late to save Arnor from destruction. Glorfindel told me that Khamul had been sighted crossing into the northlands by way of the Ettenmoors some months ago and Elrond's scouts had lost his trail somewhere in Agamaur, which has become a very troubled place. When I think of the evil presence we encountered in the Chetwood and the stirring up of the Dead in this land, I fear this Khamul may be our true adversary."
"Among our Company, I would deem only you and I capable of withstanding one of the Ringwraiths, Gaelira," Luean said, clearly troubled. "Already one of our number encountered Khamul, and that did not end well."
"You mean me?" Nephyn asked, her eyes wide with alarm. "Are you saying this wraith was what caused me to swoon in the forest and be made captive?"
"It was the Black Breath," Gaelira replied. "Both Luean and I have seen it before, but we did not say anything at the time, for we were not certain. But, when we consider all of the signs, I think it very possible we are dealing with at least one of the Ringwraiths here."
"In Gondor we have heard of the Nine servants of the Nameless, and they are spoken of with great dread," said Lagodir quietly. "Yet, I gave my word that I would aid you in your quest. Even though I did not realize how dire was your mission, I am bound by that promise and will fulfill my part in it." The tall Man unlimbered his axe.
"As for me, I would redeem my honour," said Nephyn. "I will not falter in the hunt a second time."
"And I relish the thought of teaching you all something about battle in the deep places," said Drodie with a grin.
"And I will not be left behind!" I chimed in, trying to sound braver than I felt.
"It does my heart great good to hear all of you say so," said Gealira. "With all of us together, we may have a chance at driving this evil from the Barrow-downs, perhaps."
"Well, if we are going then let's be about it," Drodie said as he stooped to pick up a dead branch. "But we should take as much loose fuel as we can carry -- there's no telling how far into the hills this barrow may reach."
"It would seem our host has already done us that courtesy," Luean said as he stared into the tomb's opening. "I can see the flicker of torch-light deep at the bottom of these stairs, but that does not make the Dwarf's counsel any less prudent."
We all gathered several branches of wood, which we found lying about in plenty. After a few more minutes of preparation, we finally plunged into the darkness of the Great Barrow.
Luean was right: we found lit torches and crackling braziers at the bottom of the stairs which gave us enough light to proceed on. The place was one twisting tunnel and burial chamber after another and we encountered all manner of unpleasant things there, but I will not go into details. The memory of it is foul and I would not be disappointed in the least if I were to wake up one day and the whole thing turned out to be just a terrible dream. Every time we moved out of the range of one torch we always came upon another not much further on, so, even though there might not have been a real need for us to light our torches, we did so anyway because we never knew when we might need them. As we wound our way deeper and deeper into the tombs I could feel the sense of evil preying on us like a vulture -- as if something expected that it was only a matter of time before we gave in to despair and then our foes would descend on us and tear us to pieces. I gripped the handle of my little hammer and continued on.
It seemed as though we had been walking for days when we came upon an unusual sight: a wooden staircase which led down to a wide chamber. There were many torches lit here so that, from atop the platform we were on, we could see across the room to another set of stairs which climbed back upward. Warily, we made our way down into the dusty room, looking in every direction for any sign of danger, but it was altogether quiet. I felt quite chilled when we reached the floor and wondered whether all of the warm air had risen to the higher places, leaving this lower area remarkably colder. We paused for a moment together in the center of the chamber.
"I wonder how far we have walked already?" I asked aloud. I rubbed my hands together to ward off the strange coldness which lingered down there.
"I would guess roughly four hours," said Luean. Even his voice was not as diffident as we were accustomed to hearing. "But I have no idea of the distance: the passages here twist and turn so confusedly I could not begin to estimate how far we have come in a straight line."
"I only hope we are going in the right direction," said Gaelira, who was acting as our guide. "I have tried to choose the ways which were broadest, but these torches seem always to be leading us along that path. I am more convinced than ever that we were expected to be here by someone."
"That doesn't make me feel any better about it," Drodie growled next to me. "Can we move on from this spot? I don't like being down here with those high platforms on either side of us."
"I agree, let us move away from here swiftly," Lagodir said, who had been squinting his eyes to see ahead of us. "This would be the perfect place for an --"
"AMBUSH!" I shouted. The feeling of dread had been growing in my mind and I was scanning every crevice of the chamber I could see. Suddenly, many skeletal figures appeared all around us! The barrow-wights had come to claim their prey!
I saw some armed with swords and axes rush at us from the northern wall while others fired arrows at us from the platforms. Drodie pulled me next to him and raised his shield as the volley fell among us. There was a thunk! as an arrow struck his shield. At almost the same time, I heard Nephyn cry out. I instinctively turned toward her and saw she had fallen to her knees, a black shaft protruding from her left arm near the shoulder. Her drawn sword she had let fall to the ground and she reached to the wound, which was bleeding heavily. Heedless of the danger to myself, I quickly unslung my pack intent on finding the medicine and bandages I carried within.
"Take the shield, Padryc!" Drodie yelled at me. I did and ran to Nephyn's side. Under the partial protection of that shield, I was able to tend to the huntress as best I could. The battle raged around me and I tried to follow what was happening, but much of it was a blur. I saw Drodie attacking several wights using only his sword while Luean protected Nephyn and I by waving his torch at some others. The wights seemed very reluctant to go near the flames, which bought me some time. I pulled the arrow from Nephyn's shoulder and she cried out again in pain. I quickly applied a salve and wrapped the wound in bandages as the fighting continued. As I finished, I grabbed my hammer and Nephyn picked up her sword and stood, though she was unable to use her left arm. I looked to see where I could assist in the battle.
Lagodir and Drodie had managed to dispatch most of the enemy as evidenced by the bones lying at their feet, but they were still parrying blows from two wights. Gaelira and Luean, meanwhile, had climbed the stairs at either end of the chamber and engaged the archers there. I saw Gaelira smash a wight with her staff atop the north stair and a blaze of fire erupt at the top of the south stair as Luean's torch found its mark. We were left only with the two wights down on the floor and our odds of surviving were looking much better.
I hesitated, trying to decide who was in the greater danger. I reasoned Drodie needed help the most since he was bereft of his shield, so I took it with me and ran toward him. Just at the moment I reached him, the Dwarf made a mighty swing at his wight but the stroke went wide. The skeleton raised its axe and brought it down fully on the back of Drodie's helm! The Dwarf slumped to the earth with his sword beneath him.
"No!" I cried, and the wight turned its merciless eyes on me. I stopped in my tracks and raised my shield, using it to turn aside the wight's first attack. I was not trained in this manner of combat at all, but I don't remember thinking about battle tactics or anything of the sort: I just wanted to get this vile apparition away from my friend. I swung my hammer wildly several times without effect, but finally I felt my weapon make contact and I heard bone crunch under its leaden tip. I had crushed the thigh-bone of the skeleton, and its entire frame collapsed in defeat. I breathed a sigh of relief and turned toward Drodie. He remained fallen face-down with his arms spread wide. Before I had a chance to go to him, I heard Lagodir shout in pain. Looking, I saw the remaining wight had stabbed him in the leg and the Gondorian fell to one knee. Gaelira and Luean were still making their way down the stairs to rejoin the fight, but Nephyn was able to come at the wight from behind and deliver a powerful blow to the back of its shoulders. The ancient bones crumbled into dust and the battle was over.
But how many of us had survived it? Nephyn quickly sank to the floor again and attended her injury. Lagodir let fall his axe and tried to find his wound. Gaelira ran up to me.
"Padryc, let me have some balm and bandages and I will see to Lagodir," she said as she rummaged through my pack. "You and Luean should see about the Dwarf."
I turned back to Drodie, who had still not moved. A lump began to form in my throat as I considered that our Company might now permanently be only five. Luean came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder.
"Come," he said, softly. "Let us see what we must."
I bent down and cradled Drodie's broad chest in my arms. Then, using my full body weight, I leaned backward to roll him over. As I did this I was desperate to feel any signs of life, but then my foot slipped and I fell, dropping the Dwarf a short distance. I heard him groan, and time seemed to move forward again.
"Wha...?" was all the Dwarf was able to say at first.
"He's alive!" I cheered. I don't think I've ever felt such relief before in my life.
"Oooooooohhhhhhhhhh," Drodie groaned again. "I feel like it's the morning after the great Summer Brewfest at Thorin's Hall. Only I don't remember ever enjoying any brew."
"That wight caught you with an axe-stroke behind the head," I said, suddenly realizing the Dwarf's iron helm must have turned the blade while the weight of the attack had knocked him senseless. "But you're alright! I'm so glad you are not wounded, or worse!"
"Aye, but my head feels as though I've been using it to hammer steel on an anvil," he replied. "I don't suppose you've brought anything to soothe a headache the size of Bombur's backside?" Drodie felt gingerly at the region behind his head.
"Who's backside?" I asked, confused. The Dwarf waved me off.
"Just an expression," he said. "If you've anything that can numb this pain, I'd be grateful."
The best I could manage was some pungent-smelling extract which Drodie said helped some. He was fortunate to be alive, and the blade had failed to break his skin, though his helm now carried a nasty dent in the rear.
Lagodir's wound was not serious and was easily treated and dressed. Nephyn, however, had taken the worst injury right at the outset. The bandages I had hastily applied during the fight were poorly done and already soaked with blood, so we removed them, cleaned the wound, and re-dressed it. I also fashioned a crude sling out of extra cloth for her, since her left arm was going to be of no use until it healed. Nephyn was taking it well, although she was not pleased with the fact she would not be able to use her bow in any way for some days.
"I know it is small consolation for your hurt," Luean said in his usual matter-of-fact manner, "But your bow would be of little use to us in these confined underground spaces in any case."
"I'm aware of that," Nephyn said, a little tersely, "But I don't intend to remain stuck down here forever, now do I? I can still use my sword-arm, but being unable to use my bow feels like being left naked in a snowstorm."
We did not stay long in that miserable chamber but climbed the north stair to resume our journey. The torches continued to lead us further and further down winding tunnels and through more dismal tombs. We did not encounter another attack, but we strained every sense we had available to us to avoid getting taken off-guard a second time. Eventually we came to an area where the chambers seemed to be of a different make than those we had seen thus far, and we wondered whether we were nearing the end of our trek. I saw many disgusting creatures there, especially the creeping maggot-worms and poisonous crawly things which feast on corpses. A rotten stench was in the air. I covered my nose and mouth and followed my companions. I began to feel we were marching to our own graves and that, sometime years later when the flesh had rotted from us, our bones would dance to the commands of whatever evil will ruled this putrescent kingdom.
That's when we came to a set of stone steps. The torches had led us to this point and we knew we were expected to climb upward. We lit new torches then began the ascent. The stairs climbed around and around before reaching a very large burial chamber. There was a single tomb in the center and all along the walls were drawings, artefacts, and small piles of golden things which glinted dully in the light of both our torches and the braziers which lined the room. There were many of these braziers and they lit the chamber fully. We strode to the center of the tomb and examined the crypt.
"This must be the final resting place of another of the great kings of Cardolan," Luean said as he examined the worn markings all along the edges of the sepulchre.
"There is no king but One," we heard a terrible, cold voice say. It was as if it was coming from dead lips that were pressed against my ears. We all wheeled about wildly searching for the source of that voice.
"There is no king but One," the voice said again, "For he does not share power."
We froze. The crackle of the torches and braziers continued as we scanned the chamber, desperate to find our opponent. Looking at the wall furthest from us, we noticed for the first time a large and gilded chair, as if it were a throne. On it was seated a skeletal figure -- nothing but bones, but it was arrayed in dark armor which might have been bright and lovely at one time in the very distant past. On its head was a lofty helm, almost like a crown. The figure did not move.
"I welcome you to my domain," the voice went on, echoing in every corner of that tomb so that it sounded to me as if it were coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once. My eyes were fixed on the skeleton king, but it did not move at all -- not even the bony jaw moved when the voice was speaking to us -- but somehow I knew the dead king was the source.
"This is the second time you have dared to interfere with my work," the voice said. "Your disruption in the Old Forest was most untimely, but your victory there means nothing. I will return to finish what I started once I have dealt with you."
"We do not fear you, Khamul!" Gaelira shouted. "Nothingness awaits you and your dark Master!" The voice laughed evilly. Shivers ran down my spine.
"Khamul is here no longer, misguided fools," it replied. "Do you think the Nine have no business in Eriador more pressing than your pathetic selves? He has gone to the East, where the land will run red as with blood and our conquest shall begin. Khamul commanded that I should corrupt the Old Forest and overwhelm the Power that resides there, but your intervention has delayed me. Since then, I have been leading you here to deal with you myself. Foolishly, you followed the path I set for you, even to this very chamber. And now that I have you, you will not leave here alive."
"We bested your champion, the Bone Man, as well as the rest of your ghouls!" Drodie yelled back. "Face us, and suffer the same fate!" It may have been the light of the flames glinting off some golden bauble in that foul chamber, but it seemed to me as if the eyes of the skeleton king sparkled with malice and delight.
"My legions are beyond count, condemned ones," the voice answered, "By the grace of the great Khamul, I rule this land and command its denizens. And soon, you will number among them."
Suddenly, every torch and brazier in the chamber, including our own torches, went out! It was as if a mighty wind had gusted into that tomb far below the green grass, and we were engulfed in utter darkness. I thought I knew what being in an unlighted place was like, but I had never experienced anything like this. The blackness was so complete it felt as though it was invading my body; seeping into my eyes, ears, and mouth, suffocating me slowly. A stifling wave of terror swept through my mind.
"I find all this business with swords and fighting so tiresome," the voice said, mockingly, "Don't you agree?" And it laughed at us. I found my body was shaking violently in absolute fear. I began to wish one of my companions would say something, even if it was a cry for help, just so I could latch one of my senses onto something other than that cruel voice and the total darkness in which I was drowning. Thankfully, Gaelira answered my unspoken wish.
"We must stay together," she said in a whisper, "We must not get separated."
We all drew toward the crypt. We found it by touch and my head cleared a little now that I could feel something in the blackness. We then felt for each other and clasped our hands together. Time seemed to have stopped. Somehow I felt as if I shouldn't be talking, but I croaked out a hoarse whisper.
"What is going on?" I asked, pleadingly. But I got no answer. I suddenly felt my head buzzing, as if a swarm of hornets had taken up residence there. I could feel a distinct tingle at the base of my skull and it began to spread. It was as though little maggots had wormed their way into my head and were rapidly growing, multiplying, and destroying everything they found. All at once, the wight-lord's last words became clear: he intended to drive us all mad in this black tomb. I shook my head angrily, but the tingling sensation would not abate. I instinctively released whoever's hands I had grasped and brought them to my head in pain. I could hear a high-pitched ringing in my ears that was steadily growing in power. I somehow knew that if nothing was done, my mind would be shattered and I would die alone here, and completely insane. I began to panic and jumped up and down helplessly like a child trapped at the bottom of a deep well.
"Help! Help!" I began to weep, miserably. "SOMEONE HELP ME!"
"Can't we do anything?" I heard Nephyn ask in desperation.
"What is wrong with you all?" Drodie hissed. "Someone give us a light! And what is the hobbit screeching about?"
"Padryc!" Luean's voice came to me, and it was stern, commanding; much different than his normal tone. "Play us a tune, and do it quickly."
The rune-keeper's voice settled my nerves just enough for me to reach for my lute. My hands were still shaking as I strummed it and began to sing the first thing that came into my head.
O! Western Wind, when wilt thou blow?
My dearest home to find.
It's where my love awaiteth me,
And where heals heart and mind.
O! Western Wind, thou comest soon,
'Cross heath and plain, I pray?
For my heart breaks without thy tune,
And maketh grief to stay.
O! Western Wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
I would my love were in mine arms,
And I in my bed again.
I sang several verses and it seemed to lift our spirits. But then an unnatural cold seeped into the chamber and my fingers and toes went numb from it.
"I can't feel the strings to play any more," I said in a cracked voice. The sting of madness returned to the base of my skull. Once again, ripples of fear swept over me.
"I am sorry to have led you to this end," I heard Gaelira say. "I never meant for it to be this way. I have failed you all." I felt despair embrace me as even the she-Elf began to lose hope. But it was not the end.
"I don't know what has gotten into you lot," I heard Drodie bark, "But no Dwarf is going to meet his end in a place like this!"
I could hear him break away from the group and stomp off on his own. Then I heard the clang and tap or metal on stone somewhere off to my right. The tingling was becoming unbearable. I fell to my knees and started to cry again. I saw images of the Shire and my dad's old farm fly before my eyes as clearly as if I were there, knowing I'd never see them again. I would have preferred a swift death to this horrible descent into insanity. My body was wracked from the cold and I fell over, shivering like a dead leaf in a winter storm. Faintly, I was aware of Drodie's boots returning to our group. I heard the grating of stone and the grunting of the Dwarf as though he were carrying something heavy away from us. I had given up and was merely waiting for the end to come to me. My mind was being eaten away, and it would not be much longer at all. Soon the agony of fighting the madness would be over with and all would become darkness.
Suddenly, there was a crash! A pale light streaked into the chamber from behind me. It was not strong, but after so many hours in that terrible blackness it seemed robust and brilliant. There was a wailing cry from somewhere near at hand which faded into nothingness and then a section of the ceiling crashed onto the throne where the skeleton king sat. The burning sensation in my head was removed and warmth flowed back into my limbs. I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
Drodie was standing before us triumphantly with the Sun shining behind him. We were all ecstatic and rushed to escape the crypt. Moving toward the light, we came to the realization that we were in the Tomb of Methernil -- that same tomb we had explored some days before where we had battled the Kergrim! We quickly found our way out, grateful to finally be in the open air once again. I lit a small fire to help us get over our fright.
"What happened in there?" I asked. I felt the need for food and drink (and sleep) with a vengeance I never thought possible, even for an exhausted hobbit. I whipped out some dried fruit and got to work on it right away.
"You were saved by the Dwarf," Drodie said, smiling broadly. "Again, I might add. Count yourselves lucky you had me along!"
"I do," said Gaelira with a laugh, "Although, in my experience, there's no such thing as luck. I should have known a Dwarf's head would be undeterred by the darkness of the deep underground. More importantly, it seems our quarry did not stop to consider that one of our number was a Dwarf. That race is notoriously difficult to subdue through domination of the will."
"You mean you felt nothing in that awful tomb?" Nephyn asked Drodie, amazed. "I thought my mind was being melted like a block of ice on a summer afternoon! And the cold! I couldn't move or speak for it!"
"I felt that there was a draft," Drodie replied. "While you all may have forgotten it, I remembered that we guessed the Great Barrow was connected to Haudh Methernil and was expecting to find a weak wall somewhere. I figured it might prove useful for getting out at some point, and indeed it did! All I needed was something to force open the exit. The stone lid of that crypt proved an imperfect tool, I'll admit, but it was sufficient for the cause: I merely used it as a battering-ram at the weakest point I could find in the wall."
"Well, you get all my praise for this victory, Master Dwarf," Nephyn said with a laugh. "I've never felt so helpless. What manner of creature was that which we faced?"
"I should say the leader of a host of evil spirits sent here from Angmar," Luean said. "One much more powerful than I ever suspected. And with a most despicable and inventive mind! Several of our riddles have been solved."
"Yes, for one thing, we know we have finally defeated the fell-spirit which had invaded the Old Forest," Gaelira said, once again her solemn self. "It seems Khamul had ordered the wight-lord to corrupt that place with the goal of ultimately defeating Iarwain Ben-adar, or driving him from there. We also know now that at least one of the Ringwraiths are indeed in Eriador and spreading evil throughout the land."
"The wight-lord also mentioned something about Khamul's intent to defile the lands east of Bree," Luean mused. "I wonder very much where he meant and what sort of plans the Nine may have there."
Dusk was already in the sky as we collected ourselves and headed back to town. Along the way, I thought back to what had happened in the wight-lord's tomb, but I was having difficulty remembering it. It was as if the tingling in my head had wiped all recollection of that battle from my memory, but I still knew of a vague sense of humiliation. I wondered whether I had shown my true self there under the earth when the end seemed inevitable. I gritted my teeth and vowed I would never embarrass myself that way again. I only hope my friends will not think less of me.
Once again, the day drew to a close as we made our way back to the Prancing Pony. I took great pleasure in the simple houses and dirty streets, knowing that I came very close to never seeing them again. When we reached the Inn we paid for another night of our rooms and intended to go straight to them and rest. But Butterbur informed us a strange Man had been asking after us earlier that day and may still be hanging about the Inn.
"He showed up not long after you'd gone this morning," the landlord said to us. "I didn't much like the sight of him, though, so I wouldn't let him stay. He's been back twice since then and always asking after young Nephyn. Seemed to know her, he did, but I wasn't sure what you were about myself, so I didn't let on to him. In any case, I had no reason to think you wouldn't be back again tonight and, sure enough, here you are! He looked to me like one o' them Rangers out of the Wild, all in dirty green and a brown cloak, so I wouldn't blame you if you kept your distance. Keep your nose out of trouble and no trouble'll come to you, as they say!"
We thanked Barliman for his concern, but we felt this person might be a friend rather than a foe. Rather than go to bed with yet another mystery hanging over us, we decided to investigate. We took a table in a distant corner of the Common Room and cast our eyes about looking for anything unusual. There were plenty of folk there, as is ordinary enough, drinking, eating, and singing songs, but nothing seemed unusual. That's when my gaze fell on a rough-looking Man fairly tucked away in a corner of his own with a tall tankard at his elbow and a pipe in his hand. I gently elbowed Nephyn to get her attention.
"OW!" she said. I had unintentionally elbowed her in the arm which was still in a sling, near the injured shoulder. "Be careful!"
"Dear me! I'm terribly sorry," I said. My effort at being discreet was not going well. "Look over there," I said to her, directing her with my eyes. "Dirty green with a brown cloak, wasn't it? Looks like that might be our Man."
"I think you may be right, friend hobbit," Nephyn said. "His hood hangs so low I cannot make out any face, but he certainly looks like a Ranger to me."
"Perhaps we should go and introduce ourselves?" Luean asked.
"It appears there will be no need," said Gaelira.
It was true: the Man had left his table and was making straight for us. We all turned toward him in expectation. We still could not see any face, but I saw no trace of any weapon. If he was carrying one, then it was cunningly hidden. He stopped at our table.
"At last I have found you," said a deep voice. He threw back his hood.
"Saerdan!" Nephyn exclaimed.