Chapter 12: Stories In The Dark
The biggest problem with wading through hallways full of decomposing corpses is the smell.
Not the general horror-movie-grossness. Nor the occasional horrible crackle of the bones underfoot. Nor even the fact that in some places, we were having to literally clamber and climb over where they’d blocked the staircases. The smell was dense as smoke, and just refused to fade no matter how far or how long we walked.
‘I told you two days ago, boss. A little culumalda oil rubbed under the nose, and bam! Corpse smell gone!’
I didn’t respond. Not even to point out that culumalda oil — though it did have a lovely woody scent — when applied directly to the nose or mouth, had the nasty side effect of making you hallucinate about giant purple mushrooms.
Do not ask me how I know that.
It might have been juvenile, and a bit futile, since Tink was privy to all but the deepest of my inner thoughts anyway. But I was still angry at what she’d done to me on the side of the lake. I’d refused to speak to her, or even acknowledge her, since we’d been sealed into Moria two and a half days ago.
‘You know, you’re not going to be able to ignore me forever, boss.’
For sheer contrary effect, I pretended not to have heard her, and mimed waving away a pesky fly that just wouldn’t go away.
Petty? Me? Surely not.
It wasn’t a good time to get into another argument with her though. We’d reached the lower levels of the actual mines of the Mines, and were having to pick our way across a lot of precarious bridges and narrow walkways. I wasn’t fully convinced that the creaking wooden structures were strong enough to support us all at once, and Gandalf seemed to think likewise.
He’d ordered us to walk single file as he lead us through the dark — wizard, then Legolas, me, Gimli, Frodo, Sam, Boromir, Merry, Pippin, and finally Aragorn bringing up the rear.
I kept close behind the tall elf as we walked, almost close enough to feel the warmth radiating off him in the cold dank air of the abandoned caves. I didn’t like the idea of anyone in the Fellowship thinking that I was scared, least of all Legolas (who I’d stumbled into a couple of times when Gandalf had abruptly stopped without warning). But I just couldn’t convincingly hide the fact was. I felt a deep-seated, weirdly desperate longing to see the sky and stars again, and an inescapable dread at the thought of having to try and sleep down here for another night.
Legolas didn’t comment, nor did he complain. Not even once. Not even when my nose collided with his shoulder for the fifth time in an hour. He was clearly just as uncomfortable under the mountain as me, though he was much better at hiding it. I was just close enough to see that his shoulders had tensed up, the muscles of his back wound tight as violin strings under his hunting greens.
At one point, Gandalf lead us along a very rickety platform skirting the side of a stone wall, the other side giving way to darkness. He slowed in his walking and ran his hand curiously along the stone. He turned back to us with a small smile made wry by the long hours of walking in the dark.
“The wealth of Moria is not in gold, or jewels,” He told us, as if we were on some kind of bizarre tour and he was our guide, “But mirthril.”
He held out his staff over the edge of the platform, and poured more light into the crystal set on the tip. All the others curiously peered over the edge, and reluctantly, I looked too.
My breath came out in a rush.
Veins of beautiful bright metal ran like silver streams down through the stone walls of the mine, reflecting the light of the wizard’s staff like mirrors illuminating the huge chasm far below us.
It was stunningly beautiful. And it was a very, very long way down.
I leaned forward and peered over to get a better look, and trying not to think about how long you’d have to fall before finally reaching the bottom. A firm but gentle hand appeared unexpectedly on my arm. I looked to find Legolas gently but firmly holding me back, as if he was expecting me to suddenly pitch myself forwards over the edge. His hold on my arm was a lot more gentle than last time — so carful in fact, you’d hardly guess his grip was strong enough to leave deep finger shaped bruises.
But the moment I’d met his eye, he let go and turned away.
“Bilbo had a set of mithril rings that Thorin gave him.” Gandalf told us, continuing to lead us along the rickety platform, and cutting off my confused look at the other elf.
“That was a kingly gift!” Gimli sounded impressed from right behind me. He had good reason to. From what I gathered, mithril was pretty much the platinum of Middle Earth — only x10 in terms of rarity and value.
“I never told him, but it’s worth was greater than that of the Shire.” Gandalf chuckled, as if it were a secret joke.
We continued on for several more hours, coming to a worryingly steep set of stairs — most of which had been reduced to nothing but rubble and smashed rock. We had to climb slowly to avoid slipping and falling on the loose stones. They were also covered in — yep, you guessed it — even more corpses. It probably wasn’t a good sign that by that point, I was almost getting used to the sight of the desiccated bodies, if not the smell.
When we finally reached the top, the once smooth stone platform opened up onto three identical doorways, each leading off in opposing directions. One lead up another long staircase, while the other two lead down into murky darkness.
Gandalf halted before the three arching entrances, saying nothing, and looking from one to the other very slowly.
“I have no memory of this place.” He finally murmured after a long silence, and he sounded troubled by the fact.
That was the only thing he’d said in the past two hours. Two hours which he’d spent sitting away from the rest of us, perched on some craggy rocks facing the three doors. His frown was so deep his thick grey eyebrows had almost joined in the middle. No one had dared ask him what he was doing this time, especially not Pippin.
The others of the company were busying themselves sitting around, and trying to wait as patiently as possible for Gandalf to have his inevitable epiphany. Smoking seemed to be the favoured pastime of the day. Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, and even Boromir all had their pipes out, smoking like chimneys. I’d sat far enough away that the smell wasn’t too overpowering, but there was still a faint cloud forming above them after the first hour.
Gimli was swigging what smelled like whiskey, from a hip flask he’d drawn from I knew not where.
I couldn’t blame him though. I think all of us could have done with a stiff drink at this point. And none of the rest of us were having to deal with the unspoken question of what had become of Balin in this horrible place. There were a hell of a lot of dwarf corpses down there in the tunnels. But so far they had all looked like foot-soldiers. Gimli had said his cousin was one of the dwarf lords who led the recolonisation of Moria decades ago. Surely if he was still here, he wouldn’t have been lost among the hundreds of bodies we’d passed to get this far.
By the second hour, the silence was getting uncomfortably heavy, and Gandalf still hadn’t said a word.
I decided to at least make an attempt to tame my filthy tangled hair, since I’d been neglecting it for days now. It had grown since we’d left Rivendell, hanging down to the middle of my back when I let it out of its usual ponytail. Of course, without anything close to a decent hairbrush handy, that only meant the Medusa-esque tangles were only slightly more nightmarish than usual. I could have murdered a hot bath, some shampoo and a comb. But I made do with using my fingers to tease the worst of the knots out, and mulling over my limited progress in the cryptic flashback department.
In my waking dream on Caradhras… the man I’d seen in the vision… I’d known him. I knew him.
Every time I thought back to it, I felt a sting of familiarity in my gut, and a small tugging pain in my chest. It was a very similar pain to the one I got when I thought of my parents, or my brother, or Katie.
I had no idea who he was, or even his name. But clearly some part of me remembered, and missed him.
It had been by far the clearest and most vivid of both my flashbacks, but it had still left me with frustratingly more questions than answers, again.
But it had revealed one thing. The first time I’d had one of the creepy flashbacks, it had been Gandalf using the Black Speech that had set it off in the council chamber. The second time, it had been two wizards having what equated to a magical long distance shouting match over a mountain range.
As far as I could see, the lowest common denominator in that equations was: Wizards.
A wizard had been involved both times.
Gandalf wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t blind. I’d seen the way he reacted in the Council chamber. He knew something more about what was blocking my mind, and he was deliberately not telling me. I just couldn’t work out why…
With the silence still hanging like an unwelcome guest over our heads, I was tempted to get up and go over, intent on demanding he give me some straight answers for a change…
“Are we lost?” Pippin asked quietly, his small accented voice cutting through my musings.
“No. I don’t think so.” Merry whispered back even more quietly, “Shhh though, Gandalf’s thinking.”
“You’re always hungry, Pip.” Merry replied, trying and failing to add a light chuckle into the words.
“I can’t help it. It’s been hours since first breakfast.”
Pippin’s stomach let out a loud growl of agreement, and Merry’s chuckle sounded a little more real this time.
“You probably should eat something, Pippin. Your stomach groaning like that will wake the whole of Moria at this rate.” I said from when I was perched behind them, also trying and failing to sound more chipper than I felt. I must have looked or sounded worse off than I thought because Pippin’s face fell a little when he turned and saw mine.
“Are you alright, Eleanor? You’re looking a bit pale.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I said, not even convincing myself with that answer. “Turns out, I just really hate being trapped underground with a mountain full of corpses.”
Pippin obviously couldn't think of anything reassuring to say in return, so he just offered me out a piece of the stale bread he’d dug out of his pack with an apologetic smile. I took it, smiling weakly back at him.
He and Merry both started wolfing down the remains of the small breakfast we’d had earlier. There wasn’t loads, but still enough for me to wonder how they managed to put it away and still remain the size they were. My hips couldn’t help but feeling a little envious.
“Do all hobbits eat as much as you two?” I asked them curiously, and Merry managed to smile through a mouthful of dried apricots and nuts. He swallowed before answering.
“Not all, but most, I’d say.”
“We’re a folk of simple pleasures and hearty appetites, m’lady.” Pippin added, his grin loud even though he was keeping his voice quiet.
“I suppose I should be grateful one of us thought to pack so much extra food.” I was still trying to work out where exactly they’d hidden all of it.
“Well, we could hardly plan to go half way across Arda and not bring along some extras for second-breakfast.” He whispered to me conspiratorially. “Speaking of, what do elves normally eat anyway? You’re the only elf I’ve met who likes bacon.”
I chuckled dryly.
“Why are you asking me? I think it’s already pretty obvious I’m not a ‘normal’ elf.”
“Well, no, but…” He peered tentatively over at Legolas. The blond elf was standing off to one side leaning against the stone wall. Serious faced, staring into the dark, and wound tighter than his own bowstring.
I got what Pippin was getting at.
Air, tension, knife. It was obviously starting to eat at us all, and he didn’t want to risk setting anyone else off like he had Gandalf again. Then it was gone again, just like that — the small moment of cheer had gone. Silence fell over us all again as minutes passed. The fleeting moment of laughter dissipated, replaced by the dark and dank quiet of the Mines once again. I was teetering on the edge of telling myself really terrible knock-knock jokes just to keep my mind off the dark, when Sam unexpectedly came to my rescue.
“Miss Eleanor,” His quiet Somerset accent sounded weirdly alien in the murky gloom of that horrible place. “Mr Bilbo said that you tell wonderful stories. Could you… maybe tell us one?”
Nine pairs of eyes all turned to fix on me in the dark. I could suddenly feel the weight of their tension, and I swallowed nervously.
“Urm… alright.” I said hesitantly, suddenly regretting ever introducing Bilbo to the wonders of Earth-style fairytales. “What kind of story do you want to hear?”
“Something happy, to lift our spirits.” Merry suggested.
“But nothing too boring either, mind.” Pippin added.
I couldn’t help but feel anything I could tell could be as exciting as being trapped in underground dwarven city full of corpses. But hell, I’d take a stab at it.
“Ok, um…” I thought for a moment, mentally rifling through every Brothers Grimm story and Disney film I could think of for ideas. Finally, my thoughts settled on one story I’d missed from back home in particular. I smiled to myself in the dark.
“Alright, I’ve got one. This is the story of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up…” (1)
So, I spent the next hour and a half telling a nursery story to four warriors, four hobbits, and one wizard in the dark under a mountain.
I told them about Wendy Darling and her two younger brothers — John and Michael — wishing that they never had to grow up, staying up long into the night telling stories while their parents slept. I told them about Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, and how Peter was fascinated by their stories and would listen, floating silently over their heads in the dark of their nursery. Then I told them how one night the children spotted him, and how he lost his shadow and fairy sidekick when the window to their bedroom was slammed shut before they could escape. I told them of how he returned the next night to get Tinkerbell back, and Wendy offered to help sew his shadow back on in return for a kiss.
Merry and Pippin snickered like school kids when I explained how poor Peter didn’t know what a kiss was, so instead Wendy gave him a thimble so he wouldn’t be embarrassed. They only smirked harder when I told how in return, he took one of the acorns from his shirt and gave it to her as a “kiss” of his own.
I told them every part of the tale I could remember. Fairy dust allowing the children to fly to Neverland. Tinkerbell getting jealous. The Lost Boys asking Wendy to become their new mother. Tiger Lily and the Indians. Captain Hook, the pirates. And of course, the ticking crocodile.
I suppose I should have felt embarrassed, or awkward, sitting there in the dark telling nine adult men a story about magic, and fairies, and pirates. But it quickly became obvious that I wasn’t the only one who’d felt the darkness of the mountain pressing down on them. Regaling them with the adventures of Peter, Wendy and her brothers in Neverland was a welcome distraction for the murky gloom and endless waiting around.
When I finally got to the end — opting for the version were the Darling family adopt the Lost Boys, and Wendy’s daughter ends up going on adventures with Peter years later — the air felt lighter than before.
“Well, Master Bilbo spoke true.” Gimli commented through his continued chuckling, snorting out little puffs of smoke. He’d barely stopped chortling since I got to the part involving Hook’s missing hand getting snapped off by the crocodile. “You have an interesting talent for storytelling, lassie.”
“It is one of the more unusual tales I’ve heard.” Boromir agreed with an amused look in my direction. I gave a pleased smile.
“I’ll be sure to tell J. M. Barrie you said so.”
“Jay-Em… who?” Merry asked, but I avoided opening that particular can of worms by pretending not to have heard him. I got up from my perch on the stairs with the intent to stretch my legs, crossing the small craggy platform towards where Frodo had gone to sit nearer to Gandalf.
Legolas was standing just a little off to one side, leaning against a half destroyed pillar with his arms folded over his bow. He was looking out into the dark, occasionally flickering his gaze back to Gandalf — who as far as I could tell, had slipped into a meditative coma of concentration on the three doorways.
“Still nothing?” I asked quietly, coming up beside him. Tentative as our truce outside the Mines had been, the past two days in the dark had made the conflicting tension between us ease somewhat. It was hard to hold petty grudges in a place like Moria, especially when we were both already struggling to keep from going mad with elf-related claustrophobia.
“Not so far.” He answered me softly, not moving his head.
I heaved a heavy sigh and leaned back against the pillar too, wiggling my toes in my boots to get the blood circulating in them again. Legolas turned to look at me in the dark as we just stood there in silence.
“Your story was one I have never heard before.” He commented after a moments hesitation. “Is it your own?”
I shook my head, rubbing my hands together and trying to get them to warm up along with my toes.
“I wish. But no, I… heard it from someone else a long time ago.” I responded, deliberately vague.
“Someone from your time in Imladris?”
“This ‘J.M. Barrie you mentioned? A friend of yours?”
“Why the sudden curiosity in my fairy-tale sources?” I asked, eyeing him warily and pointedly ignoring his previous question. He didn’t answer for a moment, and it was too dark to read the expression on his face clearly. He turned away from me slightly to look out over the cavern below us.
“I was curious to know how long you were living there under Lord Elrond’s tutelage.”
I chewed my lip in uneasy thought. I knew this particular question had been coming.
I’d decided a few days prior that, until further notice, I was going to keep all information on my background as limited as possible from the others. Until I had more blank spaces in my own Middle-Earth memory filled in, the less prying questions from others I had to answer the better. Not the most trusting policy, I know — but it seemed much smarter idea than trying to explain to the Fellowship that I’d come from another world entirely. Especially when I still had no idea how or why it had happened to me.
I wouldn’t be able to keep the secret forever, I knew that. But for now, I needed to…
“I was there long enough to learn the pointy end of a scalpel, and where best to aim it. Lets just leave it at that for now, ok?” I answered, dodging the question as gracefully as I could. I poked my index finger at his bow. “What about you, Prince Charming? How long have you been shooting that thing for?”
He didn’t glare at the nickname this time, but I saw the tiny twitch in his expression.
“Long enough to know the pointy end of an arrow, and where best to aim it.” He replied with a small smile, not missing a beat. I rolled my eyes.
“Haha. Very clever, your highness.”
A rumbling growl came from just behind us and I jumped a bit. The pair of us turned to see Pippin’s face had gone pink, and Merry was trying to hide his snickering.
“I don’t believe it. Pippin, your stomach is growling again?”
“Perhaps you might have something to help remedy that, being our capable resident healer?” Legolas smiled minutely at me in what might have passed for sincerity, but I heard the playfully jibing tone hidden underneath.
Keeping my face perfectly straight, I flipped open the medical satchel on my hip, dug inside, and retrieved a long thin needle that was a few inches short of becoming a hat pin. Merry and Pippin watched in confusion and mild alarm as I offered it out to Legolas with a polite smile. Legolas just looked at it, and looked at me.
“What is that for?”
My sweet smile widened.
“Please use it to deflate your head. You’ll find it easier to get through the doorway.”
Whiskey suddenly came out of Gimli’s nose. I heard a choking snort come from Boromir, and the hobbits didn’t even try to hide their chortles. I also heard a gentle thunk of the back of Aragorn’s head hitting stone wall. I didn’t care. I’d decided that he — all of them — could disapprove of me and my baffling behaviour as much as they liked. I wasn’t useless. I wasn’t an idiot. And I was just about done letting myself get walked over by these “big strong men,” however politely they might be doing it.
Legolas took the needle from me after a moment, stashing it in a pocket in his hunting leathers without breaking eye contact with me. He smiled narrowly, but underneath I saw the challenging look that said clear as a flashing neon sign:
You do realise, this means war?
I gave him my sugariest smile in return, sending him one right back:
Do your worst, Prince Charming.
“Ah!” Gandalf had been silent so long his voice made me literally jump as he exclaimed, “It’s that way!”
“He’s remembered!” Merry cried, excitedly scrambling to his feet.
“No, but he air doesn’t smell quite so fowl down here.” Gandalf said with cheer that I didn’t normally associate with him. He walked over to the door on the far left, put his pointy hat back on his head, and patted Merry on the back. “When in doubt Meriadoc, always follow your nose.”
Gandalf led us down into the dark, the dim glow of his staff leading the way. It was another climb down some steep stairs, though luckily these ones weren’t quite so battered so it didn’t take long. When the ground finally levelled out to flat stone again, we came through another tall archway, and out into a room so big I couldn’t see where the floor met the walls.
“Let me risk a little more light.”
The white light of Gandalf’s staff suddenly burned bright enough to make my sensitive eyes sting a little — the light filling the room around us.
Only it wasn’t a room.
It was a palace hall, or something that came close. The ceiling was taller than anything I’d ever seen before, towering up hundreds of feet, with huge wrought stone arches holding up the weight of the mountain over our heads. They stretched off in rows and columns for miles over the stone floor, so far away I couldn’t see where they ended.
It was beautiful, and kind of frightening all at the same time. I’d seen lavish European cathedrals that would have turned green with envy for the ruins of the dwarven city.
“Behold, the great realm of the dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf!”
“Well, there’s an eye opener and no mistake…” Sam breathed out in a rush of awe.
Gandalf led us out into the halls of the city, through the forest of towering stone pillars. He had to occasionally warn us of cracks in the floor, since most of us were so dumbstruck by the overhead view we almost didn’t look down to see them in time. It was a long way through the dark, but after a while we reached another wall between a series of great pillars, and a dim light flickering in a doorway not far off.
Gimli gave an elated cry of excitement, and shot off ahead of us without waiting.
“Gimli!” Gandalf called, but the dwarf didn’t stop. He dashed through the doorway ahead while the rest of us rushed to catch up. I came through the doorway behind Gandalf to see a ruined room full of more bodies, all of these recognisably dwarves this time. The light had come from a small inlet in the stone ceiling overhead. It was shining a tiny beam of purest daylight down onto a white stone tomb in the centre of the room.
Gimli had fallen onto his knees in front of it, leaning heavily on his axe and sobbing. Real, honest sobbing.
It was a gut wrenching sound to hear coming from the usually gruff old dwarf.
“No…” He was saying over and over, “No…oh, no.”
I followed Gandalf as he moved over to stand beside him, looking down at the inscription on the top of the stone.
“Here lies Balin, son of Fudin, Lord of Moria.” The wizard read aloud in a solemn voice, quite finality tinging the edges of it. “He is dead then. It is as I feared.”
I felt my face fall as I recognised the name. His cousin.
“I’m so sorry, Gimli.” I murmured quietly, knowing that nothing I could say would seem like enough. He just shook his head silently, leaning his helm on the polished white stone of his cousin’s tomb.
The others had followed in behind us, the hobbits peering between the tomb and the grizzly bodies littering the room with nearly identical frightened expressions. Gandalf had circled around the other side of the stone coffin. One of the half rotten, half mummified bodies was slumped against the side, a thick tome still clutched in brittle fingers. Gandalf beckoned to Pippin, who was the closest, and handed him both his staff and hat. Carefully, the old wizard removed the dead dwarf’s hands from the book, picked it up, and opened it with a creak of old parchment and protesting leather. I was surprised the thing didn’t just fall to pieces in his hands. It looked ancient…
“We must move on, we cannot linger here.” I heard Legolas whisper almost silently to Aragorn behind me. No one else except the Ranger reacted, so I guessed I was the only other one who’s heard him. The words made the cold unease that had been lingering in my gut for the past three days turn into icy dread.
Gandalf blew a cloud of dust from the pages of the book, and began to read.
“They have taken the Bridge,” He read, only just loud enough for all of us to hear. “And the second hall. We have barred the gates, but cannot hold them for long. The ground shakes… drums in the deep… we cannot get out… a shadow moves in the dark…”
He turned to the last page. I saw that the once neat hand of the scribe had begun to turn frantic and jagged with fear the more he wrote — ending in a single jagged line that cut like a wound across the page.
“We cannot get out… will no one save us… they are coming.”
“Pippin—!” Merry’s voice hissed suddenly, cutting through the silence left by Gandalf’s words.
A terrified shriek flew up my throat as a thunderous echoing clamour came from right behind me. I clapped both my hands over my mouth, smothering it before it could become a full on horror-movie scream.
Everyone whipped their heads around to find Pippin standing there, his eyes wide and his mouth working soundlessly in shock. He’d backed up to the edge of a well at the side of the room, and had accidentally nudged one of the bodies collapsed over it until the thing’s head had just fallen off. It was still making a God awful racket as it plummeted down through the mines and tunnels
But just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, the rest of the body followed the head down the well. Pippin cringed with every single bang and crash that echoed up through the hole in the floor. After what seemed like forever, the echoing crashes finally feel quiet.
We all just stared at him, utterly silent.
Seconds felt like minutes in the quiet that followed, and it took me a moment to realise I’d been holding my breath the entire time. We all had, I think. I reluctantly uncovered my hands form my mouth, and Gandalf slammed the book shut with a loud crack, not bothering to be quiet any longer.
“Fool of a Took!” He barked, furiously snatching his staff and hat back from the smallest hobbit. “Throw yourself in next time, and rid us of your stupidity!”
Poor Pippin looked utterly defeated and miserable, closing his mouth over the apology he’d been about to voice. I was tempted to say something reassuring, but my voice failed when something more bone-chilling than the crashes of the falling body met my ears.
A dull, echoing thump. Coming again and again, like the heartbeat of a monster. I knew it wasn’t loud enough for the others to heard it, because Legolas was the only one who reacted when I did. I saw his face instantly set into an impassive stoney frown, but I saw the colour drain a bit from his face.
Boom… Boom… Boom…
It was coming from the well. And it was getting louder…
“That doesn’t sound like a good noise.” I whispered, my voice gone high with nerves. It was loud enough for the others to hear, and they all reacted in exactly the same way Legolas and I had. The hobbits blanched, while Gandalf and the others turned alert, their hands twitching towards their weapons.
“Mr. Frodo!” Sam suddenly cried out, pointing down at the other hobbit’s hip. Frodo pulled aside his travelling cloak. The blade of his elvish made short sword was glowing a a bight pale blue.
“Orcs!” Legolas said, his voice coming out half a growl and half a warning.
As if the emphasise the point, the sound of inhuman howling and shrieking echoed up through the well and from the hall outside, cackling like hyenas. The sound set tremors of purely primary terror rushing through me.
Boromir, who’d been standing closest to the entrance, dashed back towards it to look out. If he’d been a second faster, an arrow would have nailed his head to the door. Three black shafts sank into the wood inches from his nose with muffled whiz-thunks. All the colour drained from his face, but he controlled himself and heaved the heavy wooden doors shut with Aragorn’s help.
“They have a cave troll.” He informed us, somehow managing to sound more annoyed than worried at the prospect.
“Get back! Stay close to Gandalf!” Aragorn shouted at the hobbits as Legolas blurred towards them, helping gather what little there was available to barricade the ancient entranceway. There wasn’t much available, and the wood of the door was already damaged just shy of falling off it’s frame. Whatever was coming from the other side, it wouldn’t be enough to keep it out very long.
I felt sweat beating on the back of my neck and my hands started shaking a bit.
Gandalf drew the sword he had tried to his belt, and the hobbits all did the same with their shorter versions — Frodo’s elvish one glowing like a tiny blue star. Boromir, Aragorn and Legolas backed away from the door the second it started rattling on it’s hinges. Legolas knocked back an arrow against his bowstring like it was as instinctive for him as breathing. Aragorn did the same beside him with one he’d snatched from a fallen dwarf, and Boromir readied his sword and shield with a grim expression etched into his face.
“Eleanor, your knife!” Aragorn snapped back at me over his shoulder.
Almost numb with fear, I obediently unsheathed the blade. Instinctively I turned it over in my hand, so the blade faced back towards my elbow, the razor edge facing outwards — just like he’d shown me two years ago. My hands were trembling, my knees were shaking; but the grip of the knife familiar, and the blade was a comforting weight in my hand.
I knew how to use it, but I was terrified beyond logical thought by then. I bit my lip almost hard enough to draw blood, trying to make myself stop trembling and think past the fear.
‘“Use it like a tool, rather than let it use you.”’
I’m still not sure if it was actually Tink speaking in my head that time, or just my recall of her cryptic advice. But it didn’t matter. I stuffed my fear down as best I could, sat on it, and locked it away for later. I could melt into a gibbering mess later…
“Stay behind us.” Aragorn told me quietly without looking, and I had no intention of disobeying this time. I could tell him to quit playing the dictator when we were all out of this hell hole alive.
Hopefully in mostly one piece.
“Let them come!” Gimli bellowed furiously from where he’d climbed onto Balin’s tomb, his grizzled dwarven voice turning savage with rage for his fallen kin. “There is yet one dwarf in Moria who still draws breath!”
Cracks had begun to appear in the door. One of Legolas’s arrows blurred through one when it was large enough, and a high pitched squeal of pain came from the other side. It didn’t stop them though.
One loud bang shook dust from the ceiling. A second. A third.
And the door shattered inwards, spilling monsters into the room.
I really wish I could say that I fought bravely. That I was a badass warrior princess; all spinning blades, cool nerve, and whatnot.
The truth is, I was so terrified I almost forgot how to breathe.
Orcs are fucking scary, ok. Not just because they’re ugly as sin, or that they were wielding weapons that looked like they belonged on the set of a Saw movie — but the sounds they made as they rushed us. Howls, screeches, dull crashes, and the sound of metal hitting metal. It was sodding petrifying.
What I did manage to do in spades was dodge, dive and/or scream away when anything pointy or sharp got within a foot of my face. Occasionally I remembered that I was armed with my hunting knife, using it to block incoming blows I couldn’t dodge, or stab and slash limbs that were in the way of my escape. I wasn’t going to kid myself into believing I was any good at fighting, but I could dodge things intent on killing me like it was going out of style.
I just hadn’t got the hang of doing it gracefully, yet.
Something to work on in future — provided we ever got out of here alive of course.
‘Come get me, you ugly bastards!’ Tink sang mockingly at them all, her voice ringing through my head like a war cry. For all the life threatening peril we were in, she seemed to be enjoying herself immensely — shouting taunts and vulgarities at the bloodthirsty orcs from inside the safety of my mind.
‘This isn’t a bloody Indiana Jones movie, you nutcase!’ I screamed back at her, the words almost coming out through my mouth they were so loud.
She just laughed, the sound completely unhinged, bordering on insane.
The others for their part, seemed to be handling things only marginally better. Boromir and Aragorn were brutal in their swinging attacks, not bothering with finesse with their blades in such close quarters. I’d lost track of Legolas and Gandalf somewhere after the first wave, but I could hear the occasional thwunk as one of Legolas’s arrows made contact. Gimli was running on so much pent up fury that he’d gone very nearly berserk with rage, tearing and shredding through anything that got in the way of his two massive war axes.
Even the hobbits, despite their size, were fierce little buggers too, when they wanted to be. I got a lovely mental snap shot of Sam knocking a particularly hideous orc out cold with one powerful swing from his frying pan — Rapunzel style.
I might have laughed, if I could only remember how my lungs worked.
Still terrified almost to the point of numbness, I kept up with the chaos as best I could. I’d just started to find something close to a strategy for avoiding swings of the orcs — ducking their swings at the last second, then raking my knife diagonally across the inner elbow of their weapon arm. Then a huge, roaring, battleship of a creature came crashing through what remained of the broken door. Splintered wood sprayed over the floor, and I looked up to find myself gaping at a monster from a Harry Potter movie — only twice as big, and three times uglier.
The cave troll.
It was almost as tall as the ceiling, hunched over with heavy slabs of muscle, and thick grey hide that I instinctively knew would be harder to pierce than kevlar. It had a huge linked chain dangling around it’s thick neck, like some kind of leash, and a spiked mace the size of a car door clutched in a meaty hand.
It looked really pissed off. And it was looking straight down at me.
I couldn’t help myself. I started cackling hysterically and shouting, “Troll! Troll in the dungeon!”
That’s when the fun really started.
The cave troll roared. It was so loud I actually felt it shake the ground under my feet. Dust and loose stones fell from the ceiling. If it hadn’t been for Frodo suddenly stumbling into my side, I might have remained there, petrified to the floor. I stumbled sideways and caught him before we could both fall over.
The troll lunged towards us, swinging that monster of a mace over its head until it brushed the ceiling. I didn’t give myself a chance to scream. Frodo and I both dove — well, fell really — forward onto the ground, rolling clumsily between its leg and onto the other side as the giant weapon shattered the ground where we’d been standing into dust.
It whirled on us again, slow and clumsy, but more than making up for it in sheer bulk. It wouldn’t need the mace to kill us. It could have crushed us both to pulp under one giant foot, if it had the brains to try…
Turns out, it did have the brains to try. But only just.
It raised one huge leg into the air, preparing to bring it down on me and the Ring barer sprawled on the floor next to me. But instead of squashing us flat, it began to fall backwards with a howl of frustration. I scrambled back, seeing that Aragorn and Boromir had both seized the huge chain encircling the troll’s neck, pulling back hard enough to heave the thing off balance.
The troll, enraged beyond sense at the the two men, whirled on them, disregarding us completely. It swung a huge fist at the two men.
Aragorn ducked and rolled, but Boromir wasn’t quite fast enough. The blow caught his cheek, sending him into a dazed spin, though he somehow managed to keep hold of the chain. The troll, in a moment of badly timed lucidity, grasped hold of the other end of the chain. Before Boromir had a chance to regain his bearings, it swung the massive leash like a whip.
The human warrior went flying straight into a wall and fell straight onto a pile of corpses, his sword clattering to the ground.
“Boromir!” I heard myself shriek. I scrambled to my feet and making a dash towards him, praying his neck hadn’t just been broken by the fall.
I was a reasonably good healer by now. But no one was that good.
Relief flooded my entire body in a wave when I saw him lift his head, trying to shake the stars from his eyes. He obviously wasn’t firing on all cylinders after that blow, because he didn’t see the orc coming at him with a machete the size of a butcher’s knife until it was almost on him. It snarled through black teeth, peeled back with glee, and raised the weapon over it’s head for a downward swing.
In case anyone tries telling you this in future: practice does not in fact make perfect.
Practice makes permanent. And Glorfindel — no matter how much he may have disliked me — had made damn sure I’d practiced with my chosen weapon until I could wield it without thinking. And it clearly worked, because I did react without thinking.
Jerking one of my eight throwing knives out of its pouch, I flipped it over in my palm so I was gripping it lightly by the blade. My aim fixed, I bent my arm back so the handle was almost touching my ear, and flung the knife with the sharp flick of my wrist I’d been made to practice a zillion times to get right.
My knife hit the orc at the base of the spine with a wet thunk.
The orc convulsed in sudden pain and shock. The blow wasn’t fatal, but it was more than enough to give Boromir time to snatch up his sword, and take the monster’s head clean off it’s shoulders. He saw me, saw the knife in the dead orc’s back, and just stared for a second, stunned. If I wasn’t so high with adrenaline, I might have been grossed out at what I’d just done. As it was, I could only feel a little dash of nausea, plus a little twinge of satisfaction at how I’d likely just saved his life.
My mini moment of heroism was cut short when another orc suddenly grabbed me from behind, in what I could only describe as a rib crunching bear hug, my arms locked to my sides. The air left my lungs in a grunting rush, my feet came off the ground, and I started thrashing and shrieking furiously, trying to get free. It snarled in my ear, and the stench of rotting meat and unwashed skin almost made me wretch.
One of the hobbits shouted my name, but I couldn’t tell who it was.
One of my thrashing kicks caught the orc in the shins, and it hunched forward with a grunt of pain — just enough for my feet to reach the floor. I planted my weight, and slammed the back of my head into the orc’s face. It howled as its nose crunched, a disgusting spray of dark blood spattering the back of my neck. I elbowed it in the stomach and shoved my weight forward, scrambling away before it could try and grab me again.
The troll was still going after Aragorn, and now Gimli, taking wide, heavy swings at them.
They were doing a good job of dodging, sometimes even managing to get the troll’s mace to crash into an unsuspecting orc instead. I’d just dodged behind Balin’s (surprisingly still in tact) tomb when something flew straight over my head and thunked straight into the troll’s chest. I only realised it was one of Gimli’s war axes when I heard him let out a clamouring battle cry from right behind me.
The troll bellowed back in fury. My ears rang. It swung the mace down at us again.
I screamed and scrambled back fast on my butt and elbows, just as the mace came down on the front half of the tomb, throwing Gimli off backwards and crushing the polished white stone to powder. I rolled onto my front as the world spun and started to crawl away, choking on the dust filling my lungs.
Then something huge and strong as a bulldozer seized me by the ankle.
I had just enough time to think; ‘Oh God, not again!’
Then I was being dragged back across the floor and up into the air, dangling upside down by one leg. I blinked the dust from my eyes, and found myself face to face with the ugliest mug I’d ever seen. It probably didn’t help that I was viewing the troll upside down, or that its breath reeked of what smelled disturbingly like over cooked pork. It growled right into my terrified face, and I almost passed out for the stench.
“Lass!” I heard Gimli bellow from somewhere in the chaos.
I couldn’t do anything. My hunting knife had fallen from my hand somewhere by Balin’s tomb. I tried to reach for a knife in my dagger pouch, but it had twisted and stuck closed. I tried to struggle free, but I might as well have tried to defy gravity for all the good it did. I didn’t even have enough air left in my lungs to scream.
I saw what it was going to do seconds before it happened.
The troll drew back it’s arm, the spiked mace ready to swing directly at my head. If that thing so much as clipped me, they’d be sending my remains back to Rivendell in a shoebox.
Unable to contain myself, I covered my head and closed my eyes, bracing myself for the bone shattering impact.
But it never came.
Instead the troll howled in pain, jerking furiously and swinging me like a hyperactive child with a yoyo. My eyes flew open, and still viewing the world from upside down, I saw why all my skull hadn’t been smashed in.
Legolas had used my needle. The one I’d given him earlier. He’d climbed onto one of the higher platforms over the room, and had managed to jab it through a gap in the troll’s thick hide. It had gone right into the wrist joint, just as it had drawn it’s huge arm back to take a swing at me. He must have hit a tendon or nerve, because all the muscles in the troll’s massive hand went suddenly limp and useless as a dishrag. The massive spiked mace fell to the floor with a dull boom, crushing a wounded orc flat where it fell.
Relief mixed with ridiculous petty resentment filled me.
I was never going to live this down.
I’d given Legolas that needle to sting his pride. And what had he done? He’d gone and saved my life with. The bastard.
Next thing I knew, the troll had thrown me. In a perfect world, I would have fallen daintily into the waiting arms of our resident elven Disney prince. But since this was neither a perfect world nor a Disney film, I was hurled like a screaming sack of onions straight into a dazed looking Sam. He made a valiant attempt to catch me, bless him. He might as well have been trying to catch a cannonball in flight for all the good it did.
I slammed into him, and we both crashed hard to the stone floor. My head smacked hard against something solid, and my eyes went very blurry, along with my hearing. I just lay there for ages, waiting for the world to stop pinwheeling and come back into focus.
It felt strangely like being underwater.
I was still at least half conscious, but the entire world was muffled. I heard a lot of crashing, banging, and shouting. A terrified cry came from one of the hobbits, and furious shouts of horror and rage from the rest of them. I couldn’t tell who. Another bellowing roar from the troll shook the walls and the stone beneath me. Another whizz-thunk for one of Legolas’s arrows, then a bone shatteringly heavy body sent a shockwave through the ground under me as it hit the floor.
The troll I guessed. Just for a moment, it was mercifully quiet for a few wonderful seconds…
Then I was being shaken by someone kneeling over me and calling my name over and over. I blinked fuzzy eyes frantically, trying to get them to focus past my dizzyingly spinning head. When they finally did, I found Boromir looking down at me in relief. Presumably that I was still alive and well. Not a red and squishy mess on the stone floor.
I choked out a wheezing breath of thanks, and he helped me sit up.
Then I saw what had made the other hobbits scream.
Frodo was lying face down in the rubble, as still as any of the corpses surrounding us all. My stomach clenched.
‘No. Oh God, no.’
Aragorn and a frantic Sam were already next to him, the latter not daring to try and even touch him. I saw the anguish on Aragorn’s face from across the room. He moved to roll the little body of the hobbit onto his back.
“Don’t touch him!” I tried to scream, but it came out a bit garbled and slurred as if I was drunk. Aragorn froze and I scrabbled to my feet, stumbling over on shaky legs, not waiting for Boromir to help me up. If Frodo was by some miracle still alive after that blow, he couldn’t afford to have anyone accidentally injuring him more.
“Don’t try and move him.” I ordered, my stronger voice finally coming back to me again. I dropped onto the ground next to the hobbit on my bruised knees. The spear had come out and was laying in the rubble next to him. He was lying on his front, and I was responsibly sure looking at him that his neck or spine hadn’t been broken. But he still wasn’t moving, not even to draw shallow breaths. Dread pooling in my belly, I very carefully rolled him over onto his back.
The dark haired hobbit rasped out a winded gasp and clutched at his chest, and I almost had a heart attack.
“He’s alive!” Sam sounded almost tearful with relief.
Frodo leaned forward and rasped in several deep and painful sounding breaths. Sam and I helped him to sit up when he finally got his breath back again.
“I’m alright. I’m not hurt.” He wheezed out, his voice scratchy. Aragorn for the first time since I’d met him, looked truly dumb founded.
“You should be dead!” He said in astonishment. “That spear could have skewered a wild boar.”
“I think there is more to this than meets the eye.” Gandalf, said in a knowing tone as he came up behind us, looking down at the hobbit still on the floor. The old man was sporting an impressive bruise on his jaw, and still had his sword in one hand and staff in the other.
Frodo, looked up at the wizard, then down at his shirt. The top two buttons had come open in the attack, and there was something silvery and metallic peeking out over the top. I suddenly remembered what it was, and where he’d got it, just as he pulled his shirt aside for us to see clearly what was hiding underneath.
“Mithril!” Gimli voiced, both surprised and impressed upon seeing the light chainmail shirt protecting the hobbit’s small torso. “You’re full of surprises, Master Baggins.”
Full of surprises or not, I was clearly the only one who was very conscious of the fact that he’d just been stabbed in the chest with a spear, by a troll!
A bit exasperated at their collective gawking, I pushed Aragorn’s hand aside and rolled up the mithril shirt over Frodo’s side — going instinctively into what I’d patented Lord Elrond’s ‘healer mode.’ Some of the links in the chainmail had cut into his skin a bit where the spear had punched him. I was careful to avoid them as I pressed my fingers gently into his side, counting down as I checked each rib. When I came to the second from the bottom he winced and flinched away.
“Two cracked ribs.” I mumbled more to myself than the others, and immediately turned to fish through the medical satchel still strapped securely to my left hip. “You’re going to have one hell of a bruise, but everything else looks alright.”
I pulled out the flask of pain relief draught I’d mixed before leaving Rivendell and pushed it into his hand.
“Take a swig, it’ll dull the pain.” I told him firmly. He did so without question, and with a grateful nod at me. Then Sam and Gandalf were helping him back to slightly shaky feet again, taking a while and some help to find his balance again.
I looked up abruptly to see Aragorn looking at me seriously, and holding something out to me. My hunting knife. The one I’d dropped — again — when the troll grabbed me. The same one he’d told me not to lose, and the look on his face told me he’d remembered.
I took it sheepishly, but didn’t yield under his gaze this time. He nodded at me in acceptance and started to get up.
I was about to get up too when I stopped in my track, watching Aragorn rise awkwardly. His right arm was perfectly fine, still gripping his sword at the ready. But where his left arm met his torso looked wrong, even through the shirt and cloak. Where the curve of his shoulder should have been smooth, there was a jagged angle spiking sharply downwards. It was only when he stood up straight and gave a small but noticeable wince of pain that I realised why…
“Um… Aragorn?” I said tentatively, weirdly unsure of how to speak to him since the last time we had, had been on the mountainside of Caradhras. He turned to look at me expectantly.
“You realise your shoulder is dislocated, right?”
His eyebrows pinched in a frown, and he looked down at where his left arm hung limp at his side — perfectly normal, except for the shoulder joint making a large bump poke out in the line of his tunic. He looked genuinely surprised at the sight. Either he (like me) was still flying high as a kite on adrenaline, or he had an insanely high pain threshold, because he barely seemed to have noticed.
Aragorn can be a really scary bastard sometimes, even when he isn’t trying.
Not saying a word more, he marched straight over to me, holding his dislocated arm against his side to keep it from flopping, and gestured to it minutely with his chin. I knew instantly what he meant for me to do. Silly as if was, I couldn’t help but feel a little twinge of relief. He might disapprove of my conduct and behaviour, but he still trusted me and my training with Lord Elrond enough to do this.
Not wasting a breath, I took his wrist firmly in my hand just like I’d been taught to, and braced my arm under his elbow to hold the arm straight.
“Ready?” I asked.
He just grunted.
I rotated the arm, pushing up with my legs and pressing into it. The joint snapped back into the socket with a loud pop. Aragorn gave a muffled groan of pain and hunched over on his knees, but otherwise didn’t complain. I thrust the bottle of pain relief draught at him, and he took a long swig before handing it back to me.
“For future reference,” I said through a strained chuckle, the post-battle wobbles finally starting to set in, “if any of you ever get injured doing something involving a troll again, you can bloody well stitch yourself back together.”
A light, exhausted round of weary chuckles came from the hobbits, wizard and dwarf. I even caught Legolas smiling with a peculiarly relieved look on his face. He’d come out of the fight almost untouched, save for a purpling bruise on his cheek and a shallow cut on his forehead.
But the moment was short lived. It had been barely a minute or two since the end of our first real fight, but it had been enough to wake what had obviously been sleeping deep within Moria’s depths. Howls, and shrieks, more high pitched and cackling than the orcs suddenly started coming up from the doorways and through the cracks in the floor.
Gandalf turned to us, face grim and sword still drawn as he headed straight for the door at the opposite end of the room without waiting.
“We must not wait here. Quickly, to the bridge of Khazad-dûm!”
(1) The story of “Peter & Wendy” was written by J.M. Barrie in 1911, and I do not claim any credit over the story.