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The Witch of Angmar - Legacy of the Fellowship

By SamJCharlton

Adventure / Fantasy

The Witch of Angmar - Legacy of the Fellowship

Chapter One

Fireworks

Upon the one-hundred year anniversary of the death of King Elessar and the passing of Legolas and Gimli into the west – something happened in the Shire that brought the 'long reign of peace' to an end.

Many said that this was the moment that darkness crept back into the world. Yet, some whispered that darkness was always there, even in ages of happiness and prosperity. In such times, it just hid in the shadows, and bided its time.

So it was, in the year 1641, by Shire Reckoning, of the Fourth Age, that Rose Fairbairn, a young hobbit female, journeyed to Hobbiton. It was a trip she had made many times, from her home in Westmarch, on the far western borders of the Shire. Her family were the Fairbairns of the Towers, and Rose was the only child of Rowan and Ruby Fairbairn.

On a bright, late summer morning, Rose loaded up her father's wagon with sacks of potatoes, bunches of spring onions and carrots, and crates of cabbages. It had been a bountiful summer, and the Fairbairns had a glut of produce to sell beyond their home in the Tower Hills.

"Ma, they're letting off fireworks tonight, in honour of Gandalf and the hundred year passing of the Fellowship," Rose informed her mother as she heaved the last sack of potatoes onto the wagon. "Why don't you and papa come with me today? We can stay at the Green Dragon and make a holiday of it."

"A holiday?" Ruby Fairbairn put her hands on her ample hips and surveyed her daughter with exasperation. "Since when have we Fairbairns taken a holiday? That's an indulgence for other, richer folk!"

Rose sighed and glanced about her. The wagon and the stocky pony waiting patiently in front of it, stood before the white-washed gate of the Fairbairn hobbit hole. Around them rose the lush green curves of the Tower Hills. The hills were pock-marked with similar dwellings; although the Fairbairns had by far the largest and most beautiful home, with an extensive garden out front, filled with roses, honey-suckle, pastel-coloured lupins and stock. Rose's family also owned much of the patchwork of fields that spread down the hillside beneath them.

"We're not poor," Rose frowned. "Why should other folk get to enjoy the celebrations and not us?"

"If we're more prosperous than our forebears, it's because we work harder," Ruby sniffed, her hazel eyes narrowing. "Now enough of this nonsense and off you go. You will need to reach the market by mid-afternoon if you want to have a chance of selling everything."

Rose sighed and climbed up onto the front of the wagon. There was never any point in arguing with her mother. Ruby Fairbairn was always right. Even her father said so. Rose flicked the reins and the pony moved off.

"And don't think about spending gold on a bed at the Green Dragon either," her mother called after Rose. "The weather's mild. You can sleep in the wagon."

Rose bit her tongue and flicked the reins again, urging the pony into a brisk trot. They set off along the lane that wound its way down through the fields.

Ruby Fairbairn watched her daughter go and shook her head. At twenty-seven, Rose was in the middle of her tweens – a trying time. Yet, Rose had an impetuousness that Ruby had never been afflicted with at the same age. Her daughter questioned everything; a trait that could be very tiresome.

For her part, Rose was still chafing from her mother's parting comments. The Fairbairns' meanness was legendary in Westmarch – and there were times when her mother's penny-pinching ways aggravated Rose.

As always, she looked forward to her trips to Hobbiton. It may not have been an adventure, not like the one her great, great grand-father Master Samwise had been part of over two hundred and twenty years earlier, but it was her chance to travel across the Shire, see fresh faces and hear new stories.

The road east was reasonably well travelled these days; used mainly by those trading between Hobbiton and Westmarch. Rose recognised a few faces on her journey down the hill, and waved as she passed. She was a familiar sight on the road, for both her parents preferred to stay behind and tend the fields rather than journey to market. They did not fear for her safety, for the Shire had never been as safe as now. Over two centuries earlier, King Elessar had issued an edict, forbidding Men from entering the Shire. Ever since then, the land had been blessed with a long peace. Rose felt not a twinge of fear setting out on her own, for the horrors that had once stalked Middle Earth, even shattering the tranquillity of the Shire, were nothing more than old stories in the Red Book her father kept in his study.

Once she left the Tower Hills behind, Rose took the road that cut across the Far Downs. Here, the landscape undulated in a sea of grassy hills. A warm breeze caressed Rose's face and she sighed. She adored summer; the smell of warm grass, the sound of insects, and the whisper of the wind. Last winter had been one of the harshest in living memory, even the Brandywine had frozen and those in Westmarch had heard tales of hungry wolves, the biggest seen in centuries, appearing on the fringes of the Shire. It had been a relief when the spring thaw arrived. Now, after months of balmy weather, summer was drawing to a close. Soon it would be harvest, and then the slow decline back into freezing winter.

Mid-morning, Rose opened a cloth-wrapped parcel of food and helped herself to a slice of bacon and egg pie – elevenses. Her mother had also made her a door-stopper ham sandwich for lunch with a couple of blackberry tea cakes for later in the afternoon. Rose finished her slice of pie and rewrapped the rest. Although she loved her mother's cooking, she knew there was enough food here to last her until she returned to the Tower Hills tomorrow. If she continued eating in this fashion she would soon be as stout as her mother.

It was getting towards three o'clock in the afternoon when the pony and trap rattled into Hobbiton. Locals looked up from their gardens as she passed. They were the frank, open faces of hobbits, with twinkling eyes and ruddy cheeks.

"Good afternoon young Rose!" an elderly hobbit called out to her from where he was bent over, weeding his carrots. "And how are your parents keeping?"

"Very well Master Robin, thank you!" Rose called back cheerfully. "Will you be at the celebrations tonight?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Master Robin replied. "See you there!"

Rose followed the road into the heart of Hobbiton, and skirted the edge of Bywater Pool. She made her way up to the Party Field, where the monthly Hobbiton Market was held. A number of tents and marquees spread out over the grass, their awnings flapping in the breeze. Rose drew up outside the field. She got down from the cart and led her pony across the field. She set up her stall where she always did, next to where Marroc Brandybuck hawked his cheeses.

Marroc, a chubby-cheeked hobbit about the same age as Rose's father, waved merrily at her. A crowd of hobbits, eager for some of Marroc's fine cheese, clustered around his stall. Rose unlatched the back of the wagon and began setting out her produce, listening to the gravelly tones of Marroc's voice as she did so.

"Yes, try this one Bertha – the flavour's quite unique. I soak it in wine as part of the ageing process. It goes particularly well with ham!"

"Yes Marroc," Bertha Proudfoot replied with a hint of exasperation in her voice, "but what I'm after is a cooking cheese. How well does this one melt?"

Eventually, some of Marroc's punters left his stall and wandered over to Rose. The quality of her parents' produce was well known in Hobbiton and soon she had a number of customers. As always, the potatoes were the first to go – Westmarch spuds were renown throughout the Shire.

The shadows were starting to lengthen and the sun cast a golden hue over the party field when Rose spied Pericles Took making his way up the hill towards her. The sight of Peri, who was only a year older than her, made Rose go both hot and cold all at once. He had a way of both infuriating and embarrassing her. There was something in his impish smile that made her feel as if he was laughing at her.

"Fair Rose!" he called out as he approached, causing Rose to blush deeply. "How goes it?"

She hated him calling her that. Decades earlier, the female Fairbairns had been breathtakingly beautiful – folk still talked of the fairness of Elanor, daughter of Master Samwise and Mistress Rose, who had been as beautiful as an elf-maid with long golden hair and alabaster skin. The legacy of 'Elanor the Fair' was a difficult one to live up to. Ruby Fairbairn was plain and plump, with a good humoured, ruddy face but little beauty. Her daughter, Rose, had thick light brown hair and large hazel eyes. She knew her face was too round to be called fair. Pericles called her such to mock her.

"Afternoon Peri," she said coldly. "As you can see I'm very busy so unless you want to buy something I suggest you move on."

"That's not much of a welcome, is it?" Pericles Took stopped before Rose and picked up a cabbage. "Not the way you should treat paying customers."

Rose's gaze narrowed, and Peri grinned back at her. He was one of the handsomest young hobbits in the area, with a mop of brown hair, twinkling green eyes and a sensitive face. He always looked slightly unkempt, as if he spent his life sleeping rough in a haystack. Rose had not seen him do a day of work in his life. His parents ran the Green Dragon, and apart from pouring ale behind the bar on the odd evening, Peri appeared to wander through life doing what suited him, and little else.

"Are you going to buy that cabbage?"

"Perhaps."

"Well, make up your mind and put it down if you're not interested."

Peri's grin widened.

"You're in a viperish mood this afternoon Rose – what ails you?"

"Nothing."

"Are you staying for the celebrations tonight?" Peri nodded towards the other end of the Party Field, where a group of hobbits were setting up tents and long wooden tables, and draping streamers over the Party Tree. "It should be great fun."

"I will." Rose replied reluctantly.

"Shall I get my parents to make up a bed for you at the Green Dragon then?"

Rose shook her head.

"Ma won't allow me to spend money on the Inn – I'll be sleeping in the wagon tonight."

Peri laughed at that and Rose tensed as cold shame washed over her. She should never have told him – he was always teasing her about her mother's meanness.

"Why am I not surprised? See you tonight then."

With that, Pericles Took put the cabbage down and walked off, whistling as he went.

Rose watched him go, and fought the surge of irritation that always followed a conversation with Peri.

By the time Rose packed up, as the sun slid beyond the western horizon, she had sold everything but three cabbages and one bunch of carrots – her mother could hardly complain about that.

Hobbits were now starting to gather around the party tree, and the cheerful notes of a bone whistle and the strains of a lyre drifted across the Party Field towards the market stalls. Rose parked the wagon and pony under the boughs of oaks on the far side of the field. She unshackled Pepper and tethered him to one of the trees so that he could graze a little. Then she gave him a nosebag of oats and a bucket of water. Glancing up at the sky, Rose saw that it was a mild evening and the sky appeared clear. It would not be so unpleasant to sleep outdoors after all, although she would miss a soft mattress.

With her pony seen to, Rose made her way across the field towards the Party Tree. The sun was setting in a blaze of pink and gold, promising good weather on the morrow. She had a pocket full of coins after the market but was loath to spend any of it – her mother would check her takings meticulously upon her return to the Towers. Yet, a cup of ale and a nibble to eat would not cut into her takings much; it was an important celebration after all.

It was a century since the last members of the Fellowship of the Ring: Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf had sailed away into the west from the Greyhavens. A century of peace had reigned. These days, there was little talk about what went on beyond their borders – and truthfully, few hobbits cared.

Old Largo Proudfoot had dressed up in a long grey wig, beard and cloak and was frightening the young hobbits with a deep, booming voice as he told them of Gandalf and his great adventures.

"You shall not pass!" he roared and slammed his staff into the ground as he mimicked Gandalf the Grey facing the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. Then, he had promised them a few fireworks later, in honour of the great wizard himself.

Watching the awestruck faces of the young ones, Rose smiled. She too had sat captivated when her father read her sections of the Red Book as a child; he also had acted out some of the most exciting scenes.

The dark deepened and torches flared into life around the Party Field, illuminating the festivities and creating a warm beacon in the centre of Hobbiton that drew every hobbit in the area to it. A full moon rose into the inky sky.

Hobbits were famed for knowing how to throw a party.

Long tables groaned under the weight of food and drink. There was music, dancing, laughter and singing. Rose watched, in amusement, as the local mummers group, dressed up as Elves, Orcs and Men, acted out scenes from the past. They were a foolish sight, a group of hobbits reciting scenes from lives they had never seen, and tripping over their costumes as they did so; yet the acting was fun to watch nevertheless. One or two of the actors were so drunk that they were bungling their lines, and causing the other members of the troop to glower at them.

"Er, you shall not have the ring, foul ringwraith!" the hobbit playing Frodo protested, waving his wooden sword and staggering backwards as a dark figure cloaked in black strode towards him, hissing under its breath.

"Be gone! Be gone!"

The terrible acting was causing onlookers to snigger but, oblivious, the drunken hobbit continued to stagger backwards, and crashed onto the table next to Rose. Cups, crockery, food and drink went flying. The hobbit gave a squeal and flailed about like a cast beetle.

"Bongo Bracegirdle!" One of the other actors, dressed as Gimli the Dwarf, waded through the melee and yanked Bongo off the table by his ear. "You're a disgrace!"

Rose was so engrossed in the mummery, and the additional entertainment that went with it, that she did not notice Pericles Took weave his way, carrying two tankards of ale, through the crowd towards her. It was only when he sat down on the bench next to Rose, and nudged her with his elbow, that she realised he was there.

"Here," he passed Rose a tankard. "Let us make a toast to those of the Fellowship – who risked their lives so that we may live in peace!"

As usual, there was a trace of mischievousness in his voice. Yet, his face was serious enough.

"Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have known them all," Rose sighed, taking the tankard Peri offered her. "Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry. Their blood runs through our veins. Do you think we'd be capable of such bravery if put to the test?"

Peri shrugged, as if the thought had never occurred to him. "We'll never know. Thanks to them, the Shire is enjoying 'the long peace' – long may it last!"

"But don't you ever wonder what goes on beyond our borders?" Rose asked, taking a sip of ale and regarding Peri over the rim of her tankard. "Wouldn't you like to visit the places they did? To see Rivendell, the Misty Mountains, Edoras and Minas Tirith?"

"I suppose I would," Peri admitted with a smile. "If I were the adventurous type."

"But you travel farther than most. You've been to Bree, whereas I've never been any further east than Hobbiton."

"Bree's not that interesting," Peri replied. "Just full of strange, tall folk who look down their noses at hobbits."

"Do they?"

"There was a reason King Elessar forbade Men from entering the Shire," Peri gave her a pointed look before turning his attention back to the actors. "Men are not peace-loving like us."

Rose frowned. This was the most serious statement she had ever heard Peri utter – and yet there was a tone of superiority in his voice, as if he knew better than she, that chafed her.

"Still... I do not think this isolation is good for us," she said eventually.

That caught Peri's attention. He turned to her, wide-eyed and a touch annoyed. "Why would you say that?"

"We live as if the rest of the world doesn't exist," Rose continued, "which would be fine, if it didn't. If dark times ever come to the Shire again, none of us will be equipped to deal with it."

"My my, what depressing thoughts," Peri mocked her. "You certainly are glum these days Fair Rose."

"Don't call me that."

"What, 'Fair Rose'? That is your name after all – Fair Rose Fairbairn."

"We both know I'm not fair, so just stop it," Rose felt her face heat up as she spoke. Why did every conversation she had with Peri Took end in an argument?

The surprise on his face just angered her further. Rose slammed down her tankard and stormed off, leaving Peri staring after her.

The party continued on until late. Eventually, as the fires died away to smoking embers and the torches burnt down in their brackets, well-fed, inebriated hobbits stumbled their way out of the Party Field towards their hobbit holes.

Rose wandered back to where her wagon awaited her, shadowed under the boughs of the old oaks. The pony was dozing and it snorted at Rose's approach. She whispered soothingly and fed him a handful of oats – not that he needed it. After a summer of rich grass, Pepper the pony was beginning to resemble a barrel.

"Good boy," Rose stroked Pepper's sleek neck. He still had his summer coat, although he became shaggy during the winter. "Folk are strange, are they not?"

The pony merely whickered gently in response, and Rose smiled.

"Present company not included of course. You're the best companion a hobbit could wish for Pepper." She stroked the pony's furry ears and gave him a slap on the rump before turning away.

Her eyes stinging with fatigue, Rose climbed up on the wagon. She arranged the cloak she had brought in case the weather turned nasty, and some empty sacking, to form a bed of sorts. Then she lay down with a sigh and gazed up at the starry sky. It was a warm night without a whisper of a breeze. In fact, it was so still that Rose felt a little unnerved.

It was as if the world were holding its breath.

Rose was listening to the silence, and wondering what it meant, when a sound – the whisper of footsteps on grass – startled her. She bolted upright, her heart hammering, and saw the outline of someone standing before her.

"Sorry if I scared you Rose," Peri's voice cut through the still night. His speech was slightly slurred, meaning that he had imbibed more than his share of ale during the celebrations. Rose's relief that it was only Peri was short-lived before a surge of irritation overshadowed it.

"What is it?" she snapped. "You'll get a reputation, sneaking up on folk in the middle of the night!"

"I came to apologise," Peri continued, as if she had not reprimanded him. "I didn't mean to upset you earlier. When I call you 'Fair Rose', I really do mean it. I think you are beautiful – fair as a summer's dawn. As pretty as a field of…"

"Peri," Rose interrupted him sharply. "You're drunk."

"Maybe I am," Peri replied, a touch annoyed that his monologue had been interrupted, "but many say that a hobbit speaks the truth when he's had a drop too much."

"Or that he speaks complete drivel," Rose replied, although she could feel her mouth lifting at the edges as she tried to supress a smile. Peri was incorrigible.

"As I was saying," Peri attempted once more. "You are fairer to me than…"

"Rose Fairbairn and Pericles Took?"

A new voice, female and coolly assertive, caused Peri to choke mid-sentence. Both hobbits whipped round towards the voice, their gazes settling upon a tall, cloaked shadow that had stepped out from behind one of the oaks. Rose's throat constricted with sudden terror – the shadow was far taller than any hobbit she had ever seen, and the voice was different too, of a lower timbre than most hobbit females.

This was no hobbit.

Peri obviously had come to the same conclusion, for he backed up against the edge of the cart and let out a stifled squeal.

"Quiet!" the figure stepped out into the moonlight and pushed back her hood. An oval face with high cheekbones and dark eyes held Peri fast. "You will wake all of Hobbiton!"

"Who are you?" Rose managed, her voice quivering. She stretched out her hands, fumbling for a weapon in the back of the wagon, but found nothing but sacking.

"Answer my question first and I will answer yours," the woman replied coldly. "Are you Rose Fairbairn and is your companion, Pericles Took?"

Rose nodded mutely.

"Then I am Salrean, daughter of Rendur."

"But who are you?" Peri managed. "Men are forbidden in the Shire."

Salrean gave a quiet laugh at that. "I am one of the Dúnedain. My father is chieftain of Farnost. 'Tis true that men are not welcome here – but in case it had escaped your notice Pericles, I am a woman."

Rose stared at the stranger with awe. "You're one of the Dúnedain?"

The woman nodded.

"But what do you want with us? How do you even know our names?" Rose demanded.

"I made some enquiries in Buckland. I have discovered that you both, and Marroc Brandybuck, are the last direct descendants of the Fellowship," Salrean began solemnly, "and I am here to warn you. After I speak with you, I will seek out Marroc."

"Warn us? What about?" Now that Peri had overcome his shock at seeing a woman in the Shire, and a frightening one at that, he was regarding Salrean, daughter of Rendur, with suspicion.

Looking upon him, Salrean sighed. It was a weary sigh; of someone who had obviously travelled far to find them.

"May we sit together on the wagon?" she asked. "'Tis a long tale and we might as well be comfortable while I tell it."

Seeing as this woman did not appear someone to be crossed, Rose nodded. She shifted to one end and sat with her knees pulled up in front of her. Peri climbed up and sat down next to Rose.

"Should we trust her?" he whispered to Rose. "She might mean us harm."

Before Rose could reply, Salrean jumped up lightly into the cart and settled down, folding her long legs underneath her.

"Yes you can trust me Master Took," she replied with a wry tone. "If I'd meant you harm you'd both be dead by now."

Rose swallowed painfully. That sounded less like an assurance and more like a threat. Yet, there was something about the woman's manner that appeared sincere. Her lack of sweet words and any attempt to ingratiate herself, made Rose instinctively trust her.

"Well then," Rose hugged her knees to her chest and regarded the newcomer. "What of this tale?"

Salrean sighed once more. The moonlight accentuated the angles of her face. In daylight, Rose imagined the woman would be attractive, but now she looked almost harsh.

"As I said before, I am here to warn you," Salrean began softly, "But first, to understand why you are in danger, you must first hear a little of ancient history. My tale begins in the Realm of Angmar – where evil stirs once more."

Chapter Two

Salrean's Tale

"Angmar?" Rose suppressed a shudder at the name. "Any tale that begins there will not be a cheerful one."

Salrean's face grew grave. "'Tis a story I wish I had never heard – for it has haunted me ever since. Still, you had better listen carefully, for it carries a warning for you both."

Rose remained silent; she wished Salrean would just tell the tale instead of keeping them in suspense with her cryptic words.

"The Witch-king of Angmar once ruled the domain to the far north of these lands," Salrean began. "No one knows his real name, for he lost it when he became the servant of Sauron. While you will likely have heard the tale of the Witch-King, and how he rose to become the leader of the Ring Wraiths, you most probably are unaware that he had a sister."

Salrean paused here, as if gathering her thoughts, before resuming her tale.

"Morwyn of Angmar was a powerful witch who lived nearly three thousand years ago at Carn Dûm, in the bleak wasteland to the north. For many years, she was advisor to her brother but as her power grew, the Witch-king became wary of her. Sauron also saw her as a threat to his own power. Eventually, no longer able to take the risk, the Witch-king enlisted the Dark Lord's help and entombed his sister deep in the Mountains of Angmar in a chamber of ice; in a deathlike sleep."

Rose glanced across at Peri and saw that he was looking far from impressed by Salrean's tale so far.

"That's all very interesting," he piped up, "and I'm as fond of a bit of history as the next hobbit, but this has nothing do to with us."

"I agree," Rose added. "What has this to do with hobbits?"

Salrean sighed, her intense gaze sweeping over them both. "I'm afraid it has everything to do with hobbits Rose. I apologise if I'm boring you Pericles – we shall reach the crux of the matter soon enough. May I continue?"

Rose nodded warily, while Peri shrugged as if he could not have cared less either way.

"Three thousand years have passed since Morwyn's entombment," Salrean continued patiently, "and since the world has long forgotten about the Witch-king and his kin, Morwyn may have remained imprisoned forever – had the Goblin King not freed her. Have either of you heard of Targkok the Goblin King?"

Both Rose and Peri shook their heads. Salrean's mouth compressed in disapproval at their ignorance.

"'It has always been the weakness of hobbits," she said with a frown in her voice. "Your stubborn refusal to acknowledge the world beyond the Shire will be your downfall."

Both hobbits remained silent after her stinging words, although Rose felt a stab of irritation at this woman's tone. Neither of them had asked to hear her tale and she did not appreciate the superiority in Salrean's voice. It was long past bed-time and this woman was keeping them up.

"Targkok now rules Moria," Salrean continued. "It has been a long while since the dwarves ruled the mines. For many years, Moria has been a hive; a breeding ground for a massive goblin army that grows year by year. Targkok wanted to bring his goblin army out of the mountains, and to extend his kingdom to the west. Upon exploring the forgotten corners of Moria, the king discovered an ancient scroll hidden deep in the mines. It told Morwyn's story and of her resting place. When Targkok discovered that a sorceress slept in a cold tomb deep in the Mountains of Angmar, he travelled there himself. It took him nearly two years, but he eventually found Morwyn and woke her from her long sleep, so that they could join forces."

Peri folded his arms across his chest. "If you spend much longer getting to the point it'll be morning."

"A little more patience Pericles," Salrean snapped, "I'm getting to the part that concerns you."

Peri frowned at this but held his tongue, allowing Salrean to continue.

"Morwyn was awoken nearly three summers ago, and since then she has rebuilt her brother's fortress at Carn Dûm. She now resides there and has been amassing an army of her own from the tribes of hillmen who inhabit the wastelands of Angmar. Targkok aids her. His goblin army has taken Rivendell, for there are no longer any elves left to defend it, and he has sent an army of five-thousand to Carn Dûm in support of Morwyn."

"How did you learn all this?" Rose asked, feeling her first jolt of discomfort at Salrean's tale. The idea of a huge army of hillmen and goblins amassing in the north was alarming to say the least.

"My people dwell in Farnost, close enough to Angmar to notice that the wastelands have suddenly come to life. I am a ranger, and was sent with a small party to scout the territory north of our home. We saw the army of hillmen and goblins, and witnessed the walls of Carn Dûm being rebuilt – but it was only when we captured a goblin deserter that we learnt the tale I have just told you. In the border lands, we captured Azil, a goblin who had accompanied Targkok on his quest into the Mountains of Angmar. We tracked him for two days before we caught him in a ravine. He had climbed a tree and we had to cut it down to capture him.

Azil was a pitiful creature who had deserted Targkok on the journey to Carn Dûm. He was so seized with terror after meeting Morwyn that he fled. When we met him, he was a babbling wreck who lived a scavenger's existence in the Black Woods. Despite his terrorised state, he took some convincing. In the end we had to beat him, but eventually he told us some of what he knew."

Despite that even the mention of goblins made Rose's skin crawl, she felt a stab of pity for Azil; he must have been truly terrified to have run like that. Salrean's casual mention of beating the goblin in order to get him to talk made her suddenly nervous of the ranger. "What did you do with him afterwards?" she asked warily.

"We decided to take him back to Farnost with us for further questioning," Salrean replied, "but Azil chewed through his bonds one night and escaped. 'Twas a pity for there was much more we could have learnt from him. Before he escaped, Azil did provide us with worrying news," Salrean's voice lowered then, as if she believed that the night had ears. "He told us that although Targkok merely wishes to extend his kingdom beyond Moria, Morwyn has greater ambitions. She was alarmed to discover that hobbits – namely a Baggins, a Gamgee, a Brandybuck and a Took – had played a key role in Sauron's downfall. She also learned that it was a woman and a hobbit who struck the Witch-king down on the Pelennor Fields. She has decided that if she wants to extend her influence south, the hobbits must be taken care of. The Shire must fall."

A chill silence followed Salrean's words before she continued.

"The rest of what Azil babbled seemed complete nonsense – except for one thing. He kept mentioning a red book; a history book written by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Targkok is obsessed about it; he is convinced that it contains great 'secrets'. Morwyn is also convinced that hobbits possess powers beyond men, elves or dwarves. She wants that book, for she believes it will give her the edge over Sauron's foes. All she knows is that it dwells somewhere in the Shire, in the home of one of the descendants of the Fellowship. She has despatched one of her minions to retrieve it. He travels here as we speak."

Salrean's voice trailed off here, her gaze riveted upon Rose and Peri as they exchanged nervous glances.

"They want the Red Book?" Peri tore his gaze away from Rose's and attempted a flippant smile. "It holds no secrets that we know of. As you said, it is merely a history written by Bilbo and Frodo – of the finding of the one ring of power and of the fall of Sauron."

Salrean nodded, her expression hooded.

"Who has it?"

Again, Rose and Peri exchanged wary glances.

"Come, I mean you no harm," Salrean urged, "I have travelled without rest to find you before Morwyn's servant does. Once he reaches the Shire it will not take him long to track down the book. I need to know who keeps it."

A further silence stretched between them before Rose finally responded.

"The Red Book is in my father's keeping."

"Rose!" Peri snapped. "You shouldn't have told her that!"

Rose shrugged. "As you said, the book contains no secrets. It's certainly not worth getting hurt over. The only real value it has is sentimental. I'm a descendant of Samwise the Great."

"My father told me that as far as he knew it told nothing more than Bilbo and Frodo's adventures," Salrean admitted, "yet Morwyn's act has made him doubt his own belief. That is why he has sent me."

"You want the book! That's why you're here!" Peri burst out. "You didn't come here to warn us about an impending attack on the Shire. You came to take the Red Book for your father!"

"I did come to warn you," Salrean shot back. "The threat is very real. Once Morwyn has the book, she will send her armies down, through our lands, till they reach the Shire. Believe me, the book is safer in my father's hands than Morwyn's. If it does indeed contain secrets then my father should be able to unlock them. He is wise among my people and has the gift of foresight."

"I'm not giving you my father's book," Rose replied, feeling her own anger rise. Peri was right after all.

"If you don't, Morwyn's servant will take it from you," Salrean responded, her calm manner returning. "I am not here to force you to do anything, but ignoring my warning is dangerous, both for you and your family if the book stays in your home."

"And what do you suggest I do?" It was Rose's turn to cross her arms across her chest.

"Meet me here in two nights – you too Pericles. Make sure to bring the book with you. I want you both to travel with me back to Farnost. Join us on a quest to destroy the Witch of Angmar."

"What?" Peri's usually good-natured face was hard, his eyes narrow slits. Rose could see that he was struggling to control his temper. "Is it not enough that you come here and tell us some preposterous tale about sorceresses, goblins and warmongering, but we also have to leave our homes and our families and travel with you – a complete stranger – into the wild?"

"I know how it sounds," Salrean replied, "but I..."

"Exactly. In my opinion, you're cracked!"

"Peri..." Rose put out a hand and rested it on his shoulder but he shook her off.

"I hope you haven't believed a word Rose. I told you that the race of men is nothing like Shire folk. They are sly, subtle and manipulative."

Rose's gaze flicked from her friend to Salrean before she eventually made up her mind.

"I have to agree with Peri," she told the ranger. "We don't know you – we have no reason to trust you. I won't be bringing you the book in two days, and we won't be going anywhere with you."

She had expected Salrean to become angry at that, but the woman just gave an enigmatic smile.

"You are both clever, and you do well not to trust easily. Yet, I'm not asking you to do this for yourselves, but for your families. For the Shire."

Salrean got to her feet and jumped lightly down from the wagon.

"I will wait for you both here, under these trees, two nights from now. Morwyn's servant is still a few days behind me, we should have enough time." Salrean turned back to the hobbits, her face grave. "For the present, return home, make your excuses to your parents and pack a bag each for your journey north. Besides the Red Book, don't bring too much else for we will be travelling light and fast. In the meantime, I suggest you keep our conversation to yourselves – 'tis better not to alarm folk just yet."

Salrean wrapped her cloak tightly around her and stepped back into the shadows. "I bid you both goodnight."

"What if we say no to joining you?" Peri shouted after her. "We don't have to do as you bid. We don't have to go anywhere with you if we don't wish to!"

A soft laugh followed Peri's words.

"No you don't Pericles Took – but if you care anything for the lives of your families and your people you will."

With that, Salrean melted back into the night like a wraith.

Rose sat still for a few moments, trying to make sense of it all. Despite the mild night, she felt shivery.

"How dare she!" Peri leapt up and scrambled off the cart. "I don't need to do her bidding to prove I care for my family. And as for her tale of the Witch-king of Angmar's sister – absurd!"

"You're right Peri," Rose replied, her gaze still fixed on the spot where Salrean had disappeared. "Such a story belongs in my father's Red Book, not in our lives."

"Surely you don't believe her?" Peri turned to Rose. The darkness hid his expression but his voice was incredulous.

Rose shook her head. "Of course I don't – 'twas a frightening tale all the same though."

Peri snorted in response. "Frightening? Only if you're soft-headed! Those with good hobbit sense know foolery when they see it! If I were you Rose, I'd head straight home and hide your father's book. Forget about some witch's servant coming for it – it's Salrean you should be looking out for!"

With that, Peri Took stormed off down the hill towards the Green Dragon Inn. Rose watched him go. Her mind was churning and her stomach tense.

She wanted to whole-heartedly agree with Peri – but she had pretended to see things his way merely to appease him. Truthfully, Salrean's tale had unnerved her. The thought of a stranger breaking into her family's home made her feel faint and breathless. Imagining an army of men and goblins stampeding through the Shire, murdering, burning and destroying, made tears sting her eyes. Suddenly, her dreams of adventure and excitement seemed childish.

Rose wished she had never come to Hobbiton today for the market. She wished she had never stayed for the fireworks.

Chapter Three

The Red Book

As Rose caught sight of the soft, green outline of the Tower Hills ahead she felt her spirits lift. Today's reaction to arriving home was vastly different to how she usually felt after a day of freedom in Hobbiton. In the past, a weight would settle upon her as she crossed the border into Westmarch; a heaviness that steadily increased during the last part of the journey home. It was not that she disliked her life in the Tower Hills; it was that she sometimes felt extraneous to her parents' life. She did not adore the fields and the vegetable growing as they did. Rowan and Ruby Fairbairn had not left Westmarch in years – and neither of them could have cared less if they never saw beyond the lush fields and rolling hills of their home ever again.

Rose was different. She had an adventurous and enquiring spirit – only last night's encounter with Salrean had unnerved her. For the first time in years, she rode up the incline to her parents' hobbit hole with eagerness and a sense of relief. She was glad to be home.

It was nearing noon. Her mother was baking bread when Rose entered the kitchen, and had recently put in the first batch of bread to bake. The aroma wafted through the Fairbairns' spacious hobbit hole, making Rose's mouth water.

"You're back early," Ruby greeted her daughter with a warm smile, wiping her floury hands on her apron. "We didn't expect you back until after lunch. How were the fireworks?"

"Beautiful," Rose placed the pouch containing her takings from yesterday's market on the sideboard. "You and papa would have enjoyed the spectacle."

Ruby shrugged before turning back to where she had been shaping mounds of dough into loaves. "Tell me of it then."

Rose launched into a detailed description of the festivities, the actors, the food and drink and – of course – the fireworks. Naturally, she left out the part where a ranger of the north paid her and Peri a visit and frightened the wits out of them. Peri might not have appeared scared but she had sensed his anger was to cover up his fear. Even now, Salrean's words echoed like the fading chimes of a bell in her head.

The Shire must fall.

Morwyn's servant will take it from you.

Rose shook her head, in an attempt to clear it. But still, Salrean's words niggled at her, destroying her peace.

"Are you well Rose?" Ruby had turned from preparing the loaves, her gaze resting on her daughter's face. "Look very pale for a bright summer's day."

Rose shook her head. "I'm just a little tired, 'tis all ma. I might go and rest for a bit before I help papa with his afternoon chores."

"Off you go then," Ruby waved Rose away. "I'll put a bit of lunch aside. You'll be hungry when you wake up."

Inside her bedroom, Rose opened her window slightly to let a breeze in, and sank down on her bed. Like all hobbits, she had no shoes to kick off. Unlike her mother, who worked day-in and out in a smock-like house dress, Rose dressed in breeches, shirt and waist coat, like a male hobbit. She had drawn a few comments, mostly disapproving, when she had begun dressing this way, but these days her family and friends accepted that it was merely 'Rose's way' and let her be. The interior of Rose's bedroom reflected her non-conformist character. She had plastered old maps of Middle Earth across the walls. Some of the maps she had drawn herself, copied from her father's Red Book. Next to her bed were piles of leather bound books, full of stories of adventure, magic and romance – most of which had been passed down from Bilbo Baggins himself. The only feminine touch in the bedroom were flowers, both dried and fresh, in pots and hanging in bunches from the walls and ceiling. Rose loved flowers, especially her namesake – roses.

Rose lay on her bed, her hands clasped behind her head, and mulled over the events of the previous night. She was still undecided what to do. It was not a case of deciding whether to take the Red Book and meet Salrean the following night – for she had already decided against that – but whether to share what had happened with her parents. She immediately discounted saying anything to her mother; Ruby Fairbairn would merely discount the whole tale as nonsense. Yet, Rose's father, Rowan Fairbairn, was deeper-thinking than his wife. He would not be so quick to dismiss Salrean's warning. Should she tell him?

Rose did not want to worry her father; he was an affable hobbit with a straight-forward manner that made him easy to like. He treasured the Red Book that had been passed down to him from Samwise Gamgee, and would often spend evenings poring over its stories. He would be concerned to hear that someone was after his precious family heirloom.

After wrestling with the dilemma for a while, Rose decided not to tell him. She did not want to cause her father unnecessary worry when the whole story was probably a tall tale anyway. Rose drifted off to sleep to the smell of wafting rose scent from the garden beyond her bedroom window, and the bleating of sheep in the distance.

It was mid-afternoon by the time Rose struggled from her bed. She had overslept and her head felt as if it were filled with wool. She stretched languorously before making her way through to the kitchen. Her mother had gone outside to help Rowan with the afternoon chores; she had left Rose a large cheese and pickled onion sandwich on the kitchen table, covered by a tea-towel to keep flies off. Rose sat down and started to eat her late lunch, which she washed down with some elderflower cordial. Eventually, as the fog of sleep receded, Rose allowed her thoughts to drift back to last night's encounter. She did not think that Salrean meant her any harm – but all the same, Rose decided to put the whole business behind her and pretend they had never met. She was sure that Peri was taking the same approach. Salrean was wrong. The nasty goings-on in the world of men had nothing to do with hobbits.

It was warm and breezy when Rose stepped outside and wandered down the fields to where her parents were weeding an onion bed.

"There you are Rose!" her mother called out. "I was beginning to think you'd sleep the day away!"

"I hear that last night's fireworks were a success," her father boomed, straightening up and wiping sweat off his brow. "It appears one young hobbit didn't get any sleep!"

"I didn't get to sleep until late," Rose admitted, "although it didn't help that my bed was a hard piece of wood."

Ruby Fairbairn snorted at this. "It won't do you any harm sleeping in the cart occasionally. The Green Dragon may be comfortable but their rooms are far too expensive!"

Rose shrugged, not wanting to launch into the same hackneyed debate with her mother, and took her place next to her father. She weeded the onion bed with efficient dexterity – born from years of practice. Her parents had brought her out to the fields to help them as soon as she was able to walk.

Despite the breeze, which caused billowing clouds to scud across the sky, it was a warm afternoon. The sun beat down on Rose's back and after a short while she could feel her clothing sticking to her skin. Once the onions were weeded, the Fairbairns moved across to the potato bed and began harvesting a patch. They worked solidly until the light turned a deep gold and the shadows grew long. Eventually, they trudged single file back up the hill to their hobbit hole. Above, ribbons of pink and mauve laced the sky.

As the last of the daylight faded, Rose helped her mother prepare dinner while her father rested on a stool on the front step with his pipe. She could hear him greet passers-by and share news with his neighbours. This was his favourite time of day.

A short while later, a great spread of food lay upon the kitchen table: fresh bread, quiche, baked ham, fresh salad from the garden and boiled potatoes, washed down with the apple cider that Ruby Fairbairn was renowned for locally.

"You're quiet this eve Rose," Rowan Fairbairn, a squat, stout hobbit with bushy grey eyebrows and a kind, weathered face, regarded his daughter across the table. "I think you overdid it last night."

"If I did, it was Peri's fault," Rose responded, helping herself to a slice of bacon, egg and leek quiche. "He kept plying me with ale."

Her father's gaze grew dark at this. "Pericles Took is a layabout. I don't know why you insist on spending time with him – he's a bad influence."

Rose resisted rolling her eyes. If her mother was always going on about money, then her father's disapproval of her friendship with Peri was another well-worn topic in their household.

"He's not that bad papa," Rose responded, wondering why she always felt compelled to defend Peri when they often did not even get on. "He means well."

Rowan's frown darkened. "He's spoilt. He should be behind the bar every night at the Green Dragon helping his parents, instead he does what he wants when he wants."

"Leave the lad alone Rowan," Ruby interrupted. "You were young once."

"Aye, and I worked then too," Rowan growled.

"Don't worry papa," Rose soothed, placing her hand over his work-worn one. "I have a strong mind of my own. Peri and I argue too much for him to ever have a chance to influence me."

Rowan's expression softened, as it always did eventually. "That's my daughter. He's no match for you."

Rose grinned in response. "I think Peri realised that a while ago."

Once the Fairbairns had finished dinner, they cleared up the kitchen together before Ruby Fairbairn sank down into her rocking chair near the kitchen window and her husband went to his study. It was their usual routine. For an hour or two, Ruby would put her feet up on a settle and do some knitting – she was currently making a throw for the threadbare armchair in the lounge – while Rowan spent some time poring over the Red Book, maps and history books in his study.

Leaving them to it, Rose went to her room. It was now dark outside, so Rose shut her bedroom window to prevent moths from flying in and lit the lantern next to her bed. Like her father, she liked to read in the evening. She was currently half-way through a book of old Elvish tales. She had never seen an elf, for the last had left Middle Earth and sailed west over a century earlier, but she enjoyed reading about their wisdom, beauty and strength. Propped up against her pillow, Rose opened her book where she had left off the night before and began to read.

She was in the midst of a tale about an Elvish warrior who had fallen in love with a daughter of a king of men, when a thud, followed by a strangled cry caused her to start.

The noise had come from her father's study next door.

Rose snapped the book shut, leapt off her bed and rushed from the room. She flung open the door to her father's study and froze.

A caped form crouched over her father's prone body on the floor. When the intruder straightened up, Rose saw he grasped a dagger in his right hand. Blood dripped from the blade. At that moment, the intruder's hood fell back and Rose saw she was staring into the face of a man – a terrifying one. He was tall and whip-thin; with a sharp-featured face and chilling, pale blue eyes. His skin was milk-white and pock-marked. As Rose watched, he slid the dagger into his robes.

"Get out!" Rose screamed. "What have you done to my father?"

The intruder smiled coldly and stepped back from Rowan Fairbairn. Rose's father remained, unmoving, face-down on the floor. Behind the intruder, the Red Book sat upon a stand. It was open near the beginning, as Rowan had been re-reading the tale of how Bilbo Baggins found the one ring of power. In one deft movement, the intruder swiped the book, pinning it under his arm, before he moved swiftly towards the open window behind him.

Rose had only moments to act.

She rushed to where Sting, the sword both Bilbo and Frodo had carried on their adventures, hung, and ripped it off the wall. Then she rushed at the intruder and swung the sword at him. He ducked easily and, with terrifying swiftness, lashed out at her with his free arm. His fist caught Rose on the side of her head. She flew back against the wall, still grasping Sting. Her head ringing, she struggled to her feet. Rose caught one last glimpse of flapping black robes as the intruder dove through the window. Then he was gone.

Rose fell to her knees and crawled across to where Rowan Fairbairn lay. Why did he lie so still?

"Papa?"

She rolled him over and gasped to see the blood that was pooling under him. The intruder had stabbed him in the chest.

"Papa no!" Tears blinded Rose. She reached to feel for his pulse but, although his skin was still warm, she could feel nothing.

"Rowan!"

Ruby Fairbairn burst into the study. She halted abruptly when she saw her husband lying on the floor in a pool of blood, with their daughter bent over him.

"Rose, what has happened?" Ruby's voice was shrill, rising to a scream. "What's wrong with your father?"

"I heard a noise," Rose choked the words out, "and I found a stranger in here – a cloaked man – he stabbed papa and took the Red Book. I tried to stop him but… he…" Rose faltered as the tears came. "Papa's dead!"

Ruby sank to her knees beside her husband, her face ashen. "He can't be dead," she whispered. "He can't!" With shaking hands, Ruby Fairbairn reached out and touched her husband's neck. Then she brought her face close to his to check his breathing.

"Rowan please, wake up."

Nothing but silence followed her plea.

Rowan Fairbairn was lost, and no force in this world could bring him back.

Chapter Four

Rose makes up her mind

Dawn broke gently over the Tower Hills, promising another warm day. Yet, in this small, peaceful corner of the Shire's Westmarch, a terrible event cast a shadow over the early morning.

Rowan Fairbairn had been murdered- stabbed in his study – by a man.

The fact that one of the race of men had dared defy King Elessar's decree and venture into the Shire was bad enough, but that he had broken into Rowan Fairbairn's home and slain him, caused outrage, and more than a little fear, to ripple across the Tower Hills. According to Ruby Fairbairn, who had managed to recount the tale between heart-rending sobs, the intruder had forced his way in through the study window, stabbed her husband in the chest and stolen the Red Book. Their daughter Rose had tried to stop him, but the man had merely swept her aside. Ruby was fortunate not to have lost her daughter as well. The detail about the Red Book was discounted by nearly all who heard the tale, for the loss of an old book was nothing compared to the death of a hobbit that was loved by all.

Only Rose Fairbairn who knew what the theft of the Red Book meant.

Rose raised her head listlessly and gazed out of the kitchen window at the lightening sky. She had hardly noticed the night pass. She sat pressed up next to her mother, wrapped in a blanket in the kitchen of the Fairbairn's hobbit hole. In the sitting room – just down the hall – lay her father's cold, stiff body. They had laid him out on a chaise longue, and would dress him in his best clothes at first light so that mourners could visit.

Numb and hollow, Rose got stiffly to her feet and shrugged off the blanket, quietly so as not to wake her mother. Then, she shuffled over to the sink and filled the kettle. She lit the coal range and went through what was usually her mother's morning routine, of putting on a big pot of water to boil. As she mechanically completed the chores, Rose glanced over at her mother. Even in repose, grief had etched deep lines in Ruby Fairbairn's face. Her skin was pale and her eyes puffy from crying – Rose imagined she looked no better, herself.

Rose waited for the kettle to whistle, taking a seat at the scrubbed wooden table, as she did so. The events of the night before were still a horrific blur; it had not taken long before her mother's screams had roused the neighbours. After that, the Fairbairn hobbit hole had been in chaos, with friends and neighbours rushing in, frantic to know what had happened. They had ushered Rose and her mother into the kitchen while some of the younger, male hobbits had gone out in search of the murderer.

They never found him.

Eventually, a couple of hours before dawn, the last of their neighbours had left Ruby and Rose alone to their grief, promising to return at breakfast. Rose knew they all meant well, but she found their fussing suffocating. Ruby, on the other hand, had not appeared to notice. She had cried all night, until sleep eventually took her. A cloak of grief shrouded Ruby, which made the rest of the world, even Rose, disappear.

The kettle on the hob began to whistle. Rose got to her feet, her movements wooden, and went to retrieve it. She brewed a pot of weak tea, of a calming herb that would soothe her nerves and clear her mind. Despite that the loss of her father was a raw, gaping wound, Rose needed to think. Soon, her mother would wake and the neighbours would be back. Mourners would fill their hobbit hole for the rest of the day, leaving Rose no time with her thoughts, or with her conscience.

'Tis my fault papa's dead, she thought dully. I should have come straight home, taken the book and brought it to Salrean immediately. If I had, papa would still be alive.

Even as she thought this, Rose knew that blaming herself was an empty, pointless exercise – for even if she had believed Salrean, they were not due to meet until tonight. Rose would most likely not have left until this morning, meaning that the man would have still broken into her father's study and killed him.

Rose sipped her tea and felt anger churn in the pit of her stomach. First, she felt an irrational surge of rage towards Salrean; it was the female ranger who had brought this evil into her family's life. Yet, moments later her anger shifted to the source of the evil itself – the intruder who had struck her father down in cold blood and the witch who had sent him.

They did not need to kill him, she seethed. They could have waited till he was asleep and broken in then – but they had to have it – and my father just happened to be in the way.

Finishing her tea, Rose left the kitchen and went to the study. Their neighbours had washed the blood off the flagstones but the room still reeked of death. Breathing shallowly and quickly, as a fresh wave of grief hit her, Rose sat at her father's desk and dashed away the tears that flowed down her cheeks.

"I'll get it back papa," she murmured, "and I'll make them pay."

She took a piece of paper and her father's quill, hesitating a moment before she dipped it into the inkwell. Then she wrote a brief message to her mother.

Dearest mama,

Please do not worry when you read this. I am well and will keep safe. However, I cannot let papa's death go unpunished. I am going away to find some answers, and when I have them I shall be back.

Your loving daughter,

Rose.

It was a brief missive, and would likely send Ruby Fairbairn into hysterics, yet Rose consoled herself that it was better than no note at all. She could not leave without giving her mother some explanation.

Before leaving the study, Rose gently took Sting down from the wall. Then, she went to her mother's room and left the note under her pillow. Ruby would not find it until that evening at the earliest, giving Rose time to get a head-start.

Next, Rose packed a satchel with essentials from the kitchen and her bedroom. She moved stealthily around her home, careful now not to wake her mother. If she did, she would never get away. Once she had packed her satchel, and wrapped Sting up in her cloak, Rose knew she should leave. Yet she had one last thing to do. She had to say good-bye to her father.

Rowan Fairbairn lay cold and still on the chaise longue. Someone had covered him with a sheet and Rose peeled it back so that she could take one last look at her father's gentle face. His features were harder in death than in life, as if it was his expression that made him appear a kind man, despite his rough features. Death had given him an austere, stern appearance.

"Goodbye papa," Rose whispered, before bending down and kissing his cold forehead. "I should have been able to save you. I'm sorry I failed – but I won't do so again."

With that, her vision blinded by tears, Rose slipped from her family's hobbit hole and into the rosy dawn. She collected Pepper the pony, saddled him and tied her cloak, with Sting hidden inside, behind the saddle. Then, slinging the satchel across her front, she sprang up onto Pepper's back and urged him into a brisk trot down the hill.

By the time, the Fairbairn's neighbours emerged, bleary eyed and gaunt with grief, from their hobbit holes, Rose Fairbairn had left the Tower Hills behind.

It was lunch-time in the Green Dragon and Peri was pouring jugs of ale behind the bar when he saw Rose enter the inn. His gaze rested on her face and, immediately, he knew something was wrong.

Her eyes were hollowed, her face ashen and strained. Pausing in the threshold, Rose swept her gaze around the room, filled as usual with hobbits eating, drinking and singing, before it settled upon Peri. Her expression hardened then and she marched across to the bar, elbowing aside anyone unfortunate enough to block her path.

"Good day Rose," Peri began when she approached the bar, "and what brings you back to Hobbiton so soon?"

"I need to speak to you," Rose ducked behind the bar and grabbed Peri by the arm. "Come with me!"

"But I can't leave the bar."

"You leave it when it suits you!" Rose's face grew pink and her eyes filled with tears. Peri was shocked – he had never seen Rose cry before.

"Something terrible has happened Peri. Have you not heard?" Rose voice caught. "I need your help."

Rose and Peri sat in one of the empty bedrooms at the back of the Green Dragon. Rose had just finished recounting the events of the night before and Peri found he could not speak. He did not know Rose's father well; Rowan Fairbairn had always glared at him whenever they had met, but he could not believe he was dead. Yet, it was the circumstances of Rowan's death that had struck Peri dumb.

Salrean had spoken the truth.

The Red Book was valuable. Enough to steal; enough to kill for.

Peri felt a chill seep through him as he gazed back at Rose's anguished face. Upon describing her father's murder, she had begun crying again. Yet, she did not cry like most females. Tears streamed down her cheeks but her eyes glittered with determination and her face was composed; she looked beautiful.

"What will you do?" he managed eventually, although the words came out in a croak.

"I will find who killed my father and make them pay," Rose said calmly, with a very un-hobbit-like gleam in her eye. "I shall make them regret ever setting foot in the Shire."

"Very well," Peri gulped, sensing what was coming next and wishing he could side-step it. "So you will meet Salrean tonight?"

Rose nodded her expression steely. "I will."

Silence stretched between them then as Rose's gaze settled on Peri. He could see the intensity in her eyes and knew what she was about to ask him.

"No," he said finally. "I don't want to go off on some mad quest with a ranger of the North. I like my life here. I like going fishing, serving a few ales here and doing as I please. I understand why you want vengeance for your father but I think you're taking it too far Rose. If you do this, your mother will end up losing you as well. How will that help anyone?"

"Come with me Peri," Rose replied, her large hazel eyes pleading. "If I have to do this on my own, I will – but I have a far greater chance of coming back if I have you with me."

"What?" Peri laughed, both flattered and alarmed by her words. "You'd survive out in the wild better than me."

Rose shook her head. "You're the most adventurous hobbit I know. You pretend not to care but in reality you miss nothing. You're clever, resourceful and brave. I need your help, Peri. Please come with me."

Peri stared back at her, another refusal on the tip of his tongue. He was no fool – he knew Rose was flattering him. Yet, he could see the hope on her open, honest face and suddenly he could not refuse her. Against his better judgement he nodded.

"Very well, Fair Rose, I will join you," he agreed grudgingly. "However, you may well live to regret this decision. I've told you before, the world beyond the Shire is a harsh, cruel place. You saw what men are capable of last night – their world is ruled by greed for power. 'Tis no place for hobbits."

Chapter Five

Into the Wild

"Don't tell anyone I'm here, even your parents."

"Why?" Peri frowned, opening the door to a room at the back of the inn, and motioning for Rose to enter.

"I don't want my mother knowing I'm here," Rose whispered urgently. "One of my neighbours is bound to be travelling to Hobbiton. They'll be looking for me. Someone will remember seeing me in the Green Dragon earlier in the day, but I want them all to think I have left."

Peri's frown deepened.

"If anyone asks, I came to see you at lunchtime and then I left – you don't know where I went." Rose sat down on the narrow bed near the window of the tiny room Peri had ushered her into. "Please Peri," she said, the fight going out of her. "You promised you would help."

Peri gazed back at her, his brow smoothing.

"Very well, I won't say anything. Keep out of sight and I will bring you something to eat later."

Rose nodded. "Thank you."

He shook his head and gave her a worried look before slipping out of the room, gently closing the door behind him.

Rose lay back on the bed and stared up the low wood-beam ceiling. Her eyes burned; they were dry and sore from all the tears she had shed. She had cried herself out. Now, she felt as if there was a ragged hole in the middle of her chest; a piece of her was missing that could never be replaced.

Rose felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over her. She had spent the entire journey to Hobbiton ruminating over the events that had thrown her life into turmoil. Here, stretched out on a soft bed, she could not keep her eyes open.

I'll just have a short nap, she told herself, closing her eyes. Moments later, she had fallen into a deep sleep.

Rose awoke to find the room drenched in muted lamplight. Peri stood, with his back to her, rummaging through the contents of his leather satchel. He was dressed for travel, in a hard-wearing long-sleeved shirt and well-worn leather waist-coat, and had strapped a cloak to his satchel.

"What time is it?" Rose croaked, sitting up groggily and rubbing sleep from her eyes.

"'Tis almost midnight," Peri replied, turning to face her. "You were exhausted so I let you sleep. Are you hungry?"

Rose nodded, feeling her stomach growl. Peri passed her a cheese and pickled onion sandwich and she ate hungrily, watching him finish checking his belongings.

"I've packed some food that should be enough for the next few days at least," Peri continued, before glancing her way. "You should know that there's a search party out looking for you. My parents are furious with me for letting you leave. We'll need to be careful making our way up to the Party Field."

Rose nodded, her mouth full. She had not realised she was so hungry. Finishing her sandwich, and brushing crumbs from her lap, Rose climbed to her feet and stretched.

"I'm sorry you had to lie to your parents," she finally replied to Peri's comment, "but 'tis better this way."

Peri reached for his satchel before pausing. Worry lined his sensitive face.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"I haven't changed my mind."

"You do realise we may not come back."

Rose shrugged, attempting to hide her apprehension with the same bravado she had seen Peri himself use on occasion. "We're not trekking to Mordor to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom," she reminded him with more levity than she felt. "We are merely accompanying Salrean north to aid her people – and to gain retribution for my father. They've already stolen the book, there's nothing else we have that they want. I don't think it will be that dangerous."

Peri smiled then, although there was little humour in the expression, and raised an eyebrow. "Famous last words. If you knew what lay beyond our borders, you would be a little less confident."

Rose Fairbairn and Peri Took slipped from the rear entrance of the Green Dragon and kept to the shadows. The night was cool, still and moonless. It was so dark that had Peri not known the way, Rose would have easily have wandered in the wrong direction and risked falling into Bywater Pool. Yet, the darkness was also their ally. Rose could hear the voices, some near, some far, of those searching Hobbiton for her, or for any sign of the man who had murdered her father. Peri easily avoided being seen, skirting the edge of the Inn like a cat, and slipping through the deep shadows up the hill towards the Party Field. Rose followed close at his heels.

Although she had not voiced her thoughts on the matter, Rose was hugely relieved that Peri had agreed to join her. On her own, the whole undertaking seemed overwhelming; with his company she would find it easier to keep her purpose.

A short while later, they reached the old oaks, where Rose and Pepper had slept overnight on the eve of the fireworks, and slipped under the welcoming boughs.

"Salrean," Rose whispered. "Are you there?"

Silence followed, but Rose suddenly had the sensation that someone was indeed waiting in the darkness; she could hear the faint whisper of breathing.

"Salrean?"

"I'm here," the woman replied; her voice was low but there was a hard edge to it. "I did not think you would come."

"I had to," Rose replied, careful to keep her voice quiet. "Have you not heard? They killed my father."

Silence followed before Salrean eventually spoke once more. "I know, and I am sorry for your loss. Yet, 'tis a pity that it took a tragedy for you to listen to me. If you had returned straight home and taken the book, your father's death may have been avoided."

Rose drew back, anger rising. "Are you blaming me for this?"

"I'm disappointed in you both," Salrean replied, avoiding the accusation. "You should have heeded my words. Your father is dead and the Red Book taken – this bodes ill for us all. I have a mind to leave you both here and travel north on my own."

Anger momentarily rendered Rose mute.

"You only care for that book," she eventually managed between clenched teeth. "Even if I had believed you, I would not have taken the Red Book till this morning. I could not have stopped this."

Silence stretched between them before Salrean eventually spoke.

"Perhaps you're right," Salrean's voice was gentler now, as she realised she had spoken out of turn. "I apologise Rose. I am angry at myself more than anything. I thought I was days ahead of Morwyn's servant, but in reality he was at my heels. I have failed my father – and I have failed you."

Rose did not reply. She still seethed with anger, and even Salrean's humility could not soothe her. Moments passed, and when Rose had gained control of her temper she finally spoke.

"We're coming with you," she told Salrean firmly, her tone brooking no argument. "You owe us that, at least. Yes, we will help you, if we can, but I travel north to find the man who killed my father – and to make him pay."

Salrean stepped forward, her cloak rustling. It was so dark, she was merely a black outline against the night. Yet, Rose could feel the ranger's intense gaze settling upon her.

"'Tis not like a hobbit to seek vengeance so," she commented. "'Tis wise?"

"I seek revenge, not wisdom," Rose replied, folding her arms across her chest stubbornly. "By killing my father, Morwyn and her servant have made this personal to me and my family. I would know what is written within the Red Book that is worth murdering an innocent hobbit for."

Rose could feel Salrean's disapproval, but she did not care. She was too raw with grief to take anyone else's opinion into consideration. "Salrean, would you not seek the man who murdered your father to the ends of earth?" she pressed.

Salrean sighed and Rose knew she was softening. "I would – but my people are not filled with good hobbit sense. And we have a blood-soaked history to prove it." Salrean paused then, shifting slightly to the right, her shadowed gaze resting on Peri. "What of you Master Took? Will you join Rose on her quest and be her protector?"

"I doubt I could protect Rose from anything that she couldn't deal with herself," Peri replied shortly, "but yes, Rose has asked me to come with her, and I will."

"Very well," Salrean replied, lowering her voice further as she stepped close to the hobbits. "We have talked long enough. Hobbiton is thick with patrols so we will not speak again until we are clear of them. We will make our way north, through Overhill and into Bindbole Wood."

"And then?" Peri asked.

"I will take you north-east to Farnost, where my people reside," Salrean replied, "but first, we travel due north to Annúminas in the Lost Kingdom of Arnor. An old family friend lives in the ruins of Annúminas; I think we could use his advice."

Rose did not argue; they were now leaving the only world she had ever known. Despite that she barely knew Salrean and had no reason to trust her, Rose knew she would have to put her faith in the female ranger from now on. She was confident that Peri would look out for her at least.

"Very well," Rose replied, her voice more resolute than she actually felt. "As long as this detour doesn't cost us precious time. Let us be on our way."

When the first light of dawn stained the eastern sky, Salrean, Rose and Peri were deep within Bindbole Wood. The sun filtered through the trees, promising a warm day to come. They kept off the road, for Salrean worried that patrols looking for Rose would be using it; instead weaving through the tightly-packed trees.

Rose glanced around her with interest as they walked. Bindbole was much darker and wilder than the woodland she was used to. They had already seen a boar crashing through the undergrowth and a few deer flitting through the trees like sprites.

Salrean walked a few strides ahead of the hobbits; her long legs covering ground much faster than her companions. She was dressed in brown leather breeches and a jacket, with a travel-stained green cloak wrapped about her shoulders. On her feet she wore supple leather boots that moulded to her calves.

"These woods are not safe these days," Salrean warned them. "Goblins prey on travellers here."

Goblins.

"Are you sure?" Rose looked around nervously, glad that Salrean had not mentioned this till now. She would have spent last night jumping at shadows, if she had realised that goblins lurked in the darkness.

"I was attacked by two of them on my way to Hobbiton," Salrean replied. "In these parts 'tis safer if you travel off the road."

"There are goblins in the Shire?" Peri piped up, his eyes huge. Like Rose, he now glanced about him warily.

"There have been for many years," Salrean replied with a tight smile. "We are on the edge of the Shire here, far from your comfortable hobbit holes and tended fields. Life is harsher out in the wild. See those hills up ahead," Salrean motioned to where a rugged silhouette rose to the north against a pale sky. "Those are the Dim Hills; once we reach them we will no longer be within the Shire."

Rose's stomach clenched at this news. Naively, she had thought they would travel for a couple of days before leaving the Shire behind. The rest of the world was closer at hand than she had thought.

"What happened to the goblins who attacked you?" Peri persisted, frowning.

"I killed them," Salrean replied, her tone matter-of-fact, before she patted the hilt of the sword that hung by her side. Then, seeing the hobbits' horrified faces, she shook her head. "It was either that or die upon their blades. There are no half-measures out here Pericles."

Chapter Six

Sting Awakes

It took Salrean, Rose and Peri nearly four days to reach the far side of the Dim Hills. A sudden change in the weather had slowed them considerably. The first signs of autumn arrived with a bite to the air, gusting winds, and storms that rumbled in from the north every afternoon before unleashing their fury on the world below.

Rose soon discovered that, despite her dreams of journeys and adventure, she was not so fond of travelling after all. True to their name, the Dim Hills were drab and grey; covered with wind-stunted trees and blackthorn. It was a dismal place, and one she and Peri were glad not to linger in. After spending the first night trying to find a comfortable spot upon a ground strewn with lumpy tree roots, followed by a windy day interspersed with showers that never allowed her clothes to dry, Rose started to sorely miss her parents' comfortable hobbit hole, her soft mattress and goose-feather pillows. By the third morning, when she woke up sneezing, and with her limbs aching, Rose could not believe she had ever lamented the comfort and security of her old life.

Peri was right – she had known nothing of the world beyond the Shire. No wonder he had mocked her. Peri, for his part, appeared to be dealing with the discomforts of their journey more stoically than her, while Salrean hardly seemed to notice the driving rain, howling wind or wet ground they were forced to sleep on every night.

Late morning, on their third day out from Hobbiton, they encountered a village.

"This is Trill," Salrean told them as she led the way into the settlement.

Trill appeared little more than a collection of thatch-roofed hovels scattered around a muddy clearing. A tall fence, made of sharp wooden palings, ringed the village.

"The people here are of Dúnedain blood, like me," Salrean continued. "I stayed here on my way south. We should be safe enough while I replenish our supplies."

"Are we staying overnight?" Rose asked with a sneeze. She blew her nose on her handkerchief and dared to hope that she could sleep once more on a real mattress. Her sniffles had deteriorated into a terrible cold. She wanted nothing more than to rest a bit.

Salrean shook her head, dashing Rose's hopes into the mud. "There is no time. We must press north."

The hobbits stifled their disappointment and gazed around at the village with interest – everything was so much bigger here, so much taller. Villagers came out to greet the newcomers, their gaze settling curiously on the hobbits. Rose was amazed to see that most of the children were her height. They were a tall, lean race, with the same high cheek bones as Salrean – the same long, dark hair and brooding eyes.

Yet, even Salrean stood out here. The other women wore long ankle-length tunics, cinched in at the waist with girdles. One or two wore veils over their hair. Salrean strode through the village like a man, and dressed like one, despite her long dark hair that hung in a long braid over one shoulder. The long sword she carried swung at her side as she walked.

An elderly man, obviously the village leader, greeted the ranger in the muddy central clearing.

"Salrean! What's this?" he boomed, his keen gaze sweeping over her two companions. "Halflings! I don't believe it."

Salrean's serious face blossomed into a smile. Watching her, Rose realised that it was the first real smile she had seen the ranger give since they had left the Shire.

"Believe it Wendill," Salrean slapped him on the back. "Let me introduce Rose Fairbairn and Pericles Took – descendants of Samwise the Great and Peregrin Took."

Wendill's eyes widened. "Now I've seen everything."

A crowd of villagers was now forming around them, and Rose felt her already flushed cheeks grow hot under their scrutiny. She was not used to being the centre of attention, or to looking different to everyone else. Beside her, Peri was starting to look a little concerned.

"Do the folk here like hobbits?" he hissed at Salrean. She turned from Wendill and looked down at him with a smile.

"The folk here have never seen a hobbit before today. They know history well enough though; that 'twas hobbits that saved Middle Earth from Sauron. Don't be troubled Master Took – you will come to no harm in Trill."

Seated at a long table in front of a glowing fire pit in Wendill's hall, Rose took a spoonful of mutton broth and sighed contentedly. The hot liquid was a soothing balm on her scratchy throat; its heat seeping through her aching limbs and easing the discomfort of her cold. Beside her, Peri ripped off a piece of bread from one of the huge loaves in the centre of the table and took a bite. Chewing hungrily, Peri watched Wendill and Salrean converse at the opposite end of the table.

"Don't you trust her?" Rose asked Peri, upon seeing the direction of his gaze.

Peri shook his head and began to butter his bread.

"Has she given me reason to?"

"She's looked after us well enough so far."

Peri shrugged, before frowning. "Trust is earned."

Rose returned to her broth and caught a few sentences of Wendill and Salrean's conversation.

"Any news from the north?" Salrean asked. "Has my father sent word of the witch's movements?"

Wendill shook his head. "Nay, but we have had increasing problems with goblins in the past week or so. Two raids since I saw you last – the biggest bands yet."

Salrean's face darkened. "Did you lose any warriors?"

"A few – men we could not afford to lose."

Salrean looked troubled. "They are growing bold."

"Aye, and with good reason. 'Tis true then that Morwyn plans to march south?"

Salrean nodded.

Wendill's face grew grave. There was no need to mention what would happen if Morwyn's army of hillmen and goblins managed to reach Trill, or of the thousands who would have already perished in Farnost if the Witch of Angmar's plans were successful.

"You will send word?" he asked quietly, "If it comes to that, you will give me a chance to get my people to safety?"

"Of course," Salrean replied, before her face hardened. "Yet, I believe it will not come to pass. A great distance still lies between here and Angmar. Arnor has been rebuilt. 'Tis true these lands are not as powerful as the kingdoms of old, but with Farnost and Annúminas rebuilt, there is hope. There is courage."

"Of course lass," Wendill smiled. "Our people have known so much bloodshed over the years, such fear, that it has tempered us like blades. The long peace seemed merely a blink of an eye to us."

"Peace will come again," Salrean replied with such conviction that Rose, still listening, believed her. "Darkness will not prevail."

They left Trill in the early afternoon, walking north into the gently falling rain. Wendill had given Salrean plenty of food to last them for the next leg of their journey – two loaves of bread, cured ham, hard cheese and a bag of apples. It was another four days to Annúminas and Salrean informed them that there would be no another villages en-route.

The hot meal had done Rose much good, and she set off in much higher spirits than she had started the day in. Around her, the rain fell in a silent mist. The wind that had battered them for the last couple of days had died and not a whisper of a breeze stirred the trees around them.

They walked through a rugged landscape of sparse woods and rocky valleys; a land far removed from the rolling green of the Shire. The foreignness of it gave Rose yet another pang of homesickness for her home in the Tower Hills. It was so untamed out here, and forgotten. At times, it felt as if they were the only three beings alive in Middle Earth.

The light gradually faded and the grey day slipped into a gloomy dusk.

Salrean was leading them down the side of a wooded ravine, in search of a suitable campsite for the night, when Peri, who had been trailing behind Rose, called out.

"Rose, your sword! It's glowing."

Rose stopped, turning back to Peri with a frown.

"What are you talking about?"

"Look!"

Rose looked down at where Sting hung in its scabbard around her hips. A faint blue glow emanated from the top of the scabbard.

"Draw your sword Rose," Salrean instructed. Peri's words had caused her to retrace her steps back to where the two hobbits stood.

Rose slowly did as asked; sharply inhaling as the beautifully crafted blade shone blue in the dusk.

"Why does it glow so?" Salrean asked, genuinely mystified.

"'Tis a warning," Peri replied, his voice suddenly brittle. Peri knew – all hobbits did – what Sting's blade glowing blue meant. They had all heard the tales from the Red Book enough times to never forget it. "Goblins are about."

At that moment, three silhouettes burst from the trees ahead.

Rose's breath caught in her throat. She only had to take one look at the three shapes, even at this distance, to know that they were not men. They did not move like men. They were smaller than the warriors Rose had seen in Trill. They bent forward and had an odd, shambling, scampering gait.

As they drew close, Salrean drew forth her sword in one sweeping arc and strode forward to meet them.

"Get back," she shouted to Rose and Peri. Not needing to be told twice, the two hobbits clung together and scrambled back up the ravine.

Rose caught a glimpse of the goblins as they drew closer, and her limbs turned to jelly. These three were dressed for battle, encased in scavenged pieces of leather and plate armour. They had large pointed ears, and their skin was pale with a green tinge, as if they never saw daylight. Bulbous, staring eyes with pinprick pupils, fastened on the hobbits. One of them fixed its gaze upon Rose. Then it smiled, revealing a mouth full of sharp, rotting teeth.

"Halflings," it crowed in obvious glee. "So far from home."

With that, the goblin raised its curved sword and rushed straight for Rose.

Salrean leaped to intercept it; her long blade slicing into the goblin's abdomen. It crumpled with a blood-curdling scream that echoed down the ravine. Not pausing, Salrean stepped over the fallen goblin and engaged its two companions, her cloak billowing behind her as she moved.

The goblins fought savagely, but without Salrean's grace or skill. Still, it was two against one, and the fight dragged out, the sound of clashing steel ringing in Rose ears.

Yet, she and Peri were so intent on watching Salrean fight that they did not notice the wounded goblin crawling along the ground towards them. It was only when Peri heard the rattle of its breath that he glanced down. The goblin was just a few feet away from them, and it was reaching towards Rose's ankle. Seeing Peri's gaze upon it, the goblin staggered to its feet, clutching his grievously-wounded mid-section.

"Rose!" Peri shouted.

It came at her, maddened; swinging its lethal blade like a scythe.

Without thinking, Rose raised Sting before her. The goblin's staring eyes fastened on the blade, its face freezing.

"An elf blade!" it shrieked, shrinking back, its face twisting.

The moment of hesitation was all Rose had. She knew that if she did not act, the goblin would skewer her; Salrean would never reach her in time.

She rushed forward, gripping Sting's hilt with both hands, and plunged the blade into the base of its neck.

The goblin dropped its sword and fell gurgling. Horrified, Rose dropped Sting and scrambled backwards, before losing her footing and falling onto her bottom.

Salrean dispatched the third goblin and wiped her blade clean on a bed of ferns. Then, she turned to her companions. She saw Rose sitting, wide-eyed on the ground, next to a goblin – the goblin she had thought she had already killed.

Sting lay on the ground next to the fallen goblin. As Salrean watched, the blade's pale-blue fire faded.

Salrean sheathed her sword and strode over to Rose, helping her to her feet. Then, she picked up Sting and examined the blade.

"An Elvish long knife," she murmured, her gaze tracing the writing that curved along the flat of the blade. "I cannot read Elvish, what does it say?"

"Maegnas aen estar nin dagnir in yngyl im," Rose replied, "Sting is my name; I am the spider's bane". Tears welled in her eyes then. "My father used to recite it to me."

Salrean wiped Sting's blade clean on the undergrowth and handed the weapon back to Rose. "Few weapons remain that were crafted by the Elves. 'Tis a beautiful blade, and a very useful one to carry with you in a land crawling with goblins. Keep it safe."

Rose nodded and sheathed Sting without comment.

"Are you both unhurt?" Salrean's gaze swept over the hobbits pale faces, relieved to see that even though the skirmish had given them a fright, they were not cowed. She had read that despite their rosy-cheeked, gentle appearance, hobbits were made of sterner stuff than other races gave them credit for. She was glad to see the stories were indeed true.

"Yes," Peri replied, "a bit shaken but well enough."

"Come," she said with a brief, tight smile. "These three will be scouts – there's bound to be a larger band nearby. We should move on, and quickly."

Needing no encouragement, Rose and Peri followed Salrean down the wooded slope, and into the gathering dusk.

Chapter Seven

The Ruins of Annúminas

Rose's first glimpse of Annúminas was of a cluster of stone towers, rising from above the treetops, with the shadowy slopes of Emyn Uial behind them. Despite that it was a somewhat forbidding sight, Rose let out a deep sigh of relief at the realisation that they had reached Annúminas at last.

Not for the first time since the goblin attack, Rose glimpsed down at Sting and eased the blade slightly out of its scabbard. All was still well – the sword had not glowed blue in over two days. It had warned them of an approaching band of goblins the morning following the attack, allowing Salrean to lead them on a detour so that they skirted danger completely – three goblins they might be able to manage, but not a group of them. They had a narrow escape.

"Who are we actually seeing in Annúminas?" Rose quickened her stride, and was forced to run in order to draw level and keep pace with Salrean. "You said he is an old friend. How can he help us?"

"Barandur grew up with my father," Salrean replied briskly, her dark gaze scanning the trees as they walked. Even this close to Annúminas, the ranger did not relax her guard. "They both share the gift of 'far-sight', although Barandur's abilities appeared to intensify with age, whereas my father's did not. He was my father's most trusted ranger for many years, but when I was a girl they quarrelled and my father banished him from Farnost. He is known all over the Lost Realm as a wise-man, a teller of truth. I have visited him a few times, although my father would be furious if he knew."

"What did they quarrel over?" Peri asked, speaking for the first time in hours.

Salrean shrugged, her face becoming pensive. "I know not – although from what my father has told me of Barandur over the years, I would say he was threatened by his friend's abilities. In Farnost, my father is revered for his skills as a seer, and he did not like having a rival."

Rose thought that Salrean's father sounded a formidable, if inflexible, man. She was not looking forward to meeting him. Thinking of Salrean's father made her think of her own, and a stab of grief pierced her through the chest.

I'll make this right papa, she thought, clenching her fist by her sides, I don't know where I'm going, or if I'm right to trust this ranger – but I won't fail you again.

They entered Annúminas through a perimeter of scattered wattle and daub houses, where the poorest folk lived. Here, they attracted many stares, some of which made Rose uncomfortable. Salrean strode ahead, oblivious of the gazes following her, while the two hobbits ran to keep up with her. Further ahead, the dwellings grew larger. Many were half-timbered, and the further they travelled towards the centre of Annúminas, the more of the local grey stone featured.

The buildings drew upwards, until Rose had to crane her head to see the sky. The streets changed from mud and gravel to cobblestones, and instead of home-spun shifts, the people here wore fine clothes and leather boots. Rose was overwhelmed. She much preferred the green hills of Hobbiton, with its patchwork of fields and wide sky. Glancing across at Peri, Rose saw that he too was unnerved by the sheer size of this city of men.

"It makes you feel so small," he whispered, his eyes wide. "I will never look upon Hobbiton, or Bree, in the same way again."

Eventually, they entered a wide cobbled square with a great, half-timbered hall at one end.

"That is where the Lord of Annúminas resides," Salrean told the hobbits. "The great Lord Gildur. My father tried to arrange a marriage between us, years ago now, before he realised that I had planned to become a ranger. When I refused, relations were strained for many years between Gildur and my father. I think it best if we don't pay him a visit."

Rose glanced up at Salrean's face and saw that the ranger wore a whimsical half-smile. Salrean was an enigma. She rarely revealed details about herself, but on the rare occasions she did, her revelations always surprised Rose.

"Where does this Barandur live then?" Peri puffed alongside Salrean, his short legs pumping to keep pace with her.

"On the other side of the city Master Took," Salrean glanced down at Peri. "In the ruins of the ancient city – all that remains of the Tower of the West."

They walked through the ruins of old Annúminas, amongst crumbled stone buildings encrusted with lichen and moss. Here, Rose could see the glittering waters of Lake Nenuial and the ruined docks that once stretched along its shores.

"I have read little of the history of the place," she said to Salrean. "When was old Annúminas abandoned?"

"Following the death of the last High King of Arnor, many years ago," Salrean replied. "It once housed one of the three seeing stones of the North Kingdom but after the city fell into ruin, its palantir was removed and taken to Farnost. After my city was destroyed by Angmar, the palantir was lost."

Rose knew of the palantir, the ancient seeing stones. She had heard that one was kept deep in the vaults in Minas Tirith, but had no idea where the others had gone.

"Why didn't they rebuild the old city, instead of creating a new one?" Peri asked, ignoring the mention of the lost seeing stone.

"Superstition," Salrean led them along and ancient cobbled street with high, crumbling walls either-side. Ahead, a battered stone tower missing its top rose against the pale sky. "The people here preferred to start afresh."

Rose could understand that. The ruined city had an eerie, melancholy air. A cold wind blew in from Lake Nenuial and whistled down the streets. Rose felt an itching between her shoulder blades, as if someone was watching her. She wondered if spirits of the dead roamed the ruins at night in a place such as this.

Ahead, a man, dressed in a frayed grey cloak, came out of the crumbling tower to meet them. He had long, black hair; a beard, streaked with grey; and penetrating dark eyes and a sharp-featured face.

"Salrean," he greeted the ranger coolly, although his gaze riveted upon her two companions. "I saw you approaching. Why have you brought halflings with you?"

"Greetings Barandur," Salrean replied, unperturbed by his abrupt welcome. "Apologies for disturbing your peace but I, and my companions are about to embark on a journey to the far north and we need your counsel."

"To Angmar?" Barandur turned to Salrean, his brow darkening. "You would take two hobbits into Morwyn's domain?"

Salrean nodded, her face still expressionless. "Not without good reason."

Barandur's frown deepened before he stepped back and motioned to the open door behind him.

"Well, you'd all better come in then. I will cook us some supper and you can tell me what foolery you are about to embark upon."

It was damp and cold inside the lower levels of the ruined tower, despite the fire that roared in the hearth. Barandur lived in one large room that smelt of damp, wood-smoke and mutton stew. An iron pot, containing their evening meal, simmered over glowing embers in a second hearth on the other side of the chamber.

Rose sat on an upturned wooden crate, her cloak wrapped tightly about her, and wondered what possessed a man to live in such a cold, lonely place. Looking at the severe lines that carved Barandur's face as he ladled the mutton stew into earthen bowls, she guessed that he had chosen the ruins of Annúminas for a reason. He exuded bitterness and, despite the fact that Salrean had spoken warmly of him, did not appear pleased to see her.

They ate their stew, which was surprisingly good. Salrean recounted their story; from her discovery that Morwyn sought the Red Book, to its theft from the Tower Hills and the murder of Rose's father. Barandur listened in silence, his intense gaze riveted upon Salrean. However, when she finished her tale, his features twisted in scorn.

"This journey you plan to take is madness," he tossed the remains of his stew on the fire and leant back in his chair. "The Red Book has been taken – let her have it. There's nothing in it of value, apart from old stories of those who are long dead."

"But my father believes that…"

"You father is a fool," Barandur snapped. "If he thinks the book is valuable then let him go fetch it. He wouldn't dare raise an army against the Witch of Angmar – he knows he has not the men to withstand her and the goblin king's forces. Yet, he would send you and these hobbits into her lair. You're his only child but he would willingly sacrifice you for vain ambition."

For the first time, anger flashed across Salrean's features.

"I go willingly. He does not send me anywhere I do not wish to go!"

"You go to please him," Barandur's tone softened then. "When will you realise that he is unpleasable?"

The man's gaze swivelled round to Rose and Peri then, and Rose shrank under his penetrating stare.

"Looking for the man who killed your father will be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Would your father want you to risk your life to bring back a family heirloom?"

"I will remember his killer's face till the end of my days," Rose replied coldly. "Thin, bloodless and pock-marked with eyes the colour of blue ice. I will find him."

"You are a brave young thing," Barandur shook his head and Rose saw a trace of mockery there that made anger curl up within her. She did not enjoy being patronised. "But 'twill not save you when you come face-to-face with the Witch-king's fell sister."

"Barandur," Salrean interrupted, her voice sharp. "We came here, not to get your blessing but for your advice. Will you use the runes to aid us?"

Barandur tore his gaze from Rose and focused on Salrean once more.

"You're far more like your mother than your father," he rumbled, "except for when you want something. Then you remind me of Rendur."

Salrean gave a tight smile at that and shrugged. "Will you help us?"

The man sighed and crossed his arms across his chest.

"I can use the runes, if that's what you want – but I warn you that they don't often give you the answer you seek. More often than not they give me riddles that you must untangle yourselves."

"I understand," Salrean put her empty bowl aside and leant forward, resting her elbows on her knees.

Barandur stood up and walked over to a shelf at the far end of the room, retrieving a small leather pouch from it. He returned to the fireside and pulled up a low table between them. Then, he gently tossed the pouch in the centre of his palm, as if feeling the weight of the runes. His visitors looked on, waiting for him to empty the runes onto the table.

Instead, Barandur paused, his gaze snaring Salrean's.

"I visited Carn Dûm, years ago now – when I was young and seeking adventure. It was abandoned then; crumbling towers surrounded by ruined walls on the desolate slopes of Mount Gundabad. I explored the ruins from top to bottom; at that time even the orcs had forsaken it – and I found a secret way in."

"You did?" Salrean bolted upright, her eyes gleaming. "Can you tell us of it?"

"I thought that would interest you," Barandur's mouth curved into a grim smile. "To the west of the towers of Carn Dûm, there is a collection of jagged rocks that climb the mountainside. Make your way into the centre of them, and under a sharp rock, darker than all the others, you will find a tunnel. It will take you deep under Carn Dûm into the dungeons; from there you can make your way up into the fortress itself."

Salrean nodded before glancing across at Rose and Peri. "Will you both remember that?"

The hobbits nodded.

"It sounds easy enough," Peri ventured.

Barandur laughed, showing his teeth. "It might do, but 'tis not. Unpleasant things dwell under Carn Dûm. I was lucky to emerge from the tunnels alive – and I'd wager you will be too. All the same, 'tis safer than walking in through the front door."

"What unpleasant things?" Peri had gone white.

"Wights, from the time of the Witch-king himself," Barandur replied, the wry humour fading from his rugged face. "They are Carn Dûm's protectors and do not welcome visitors."

Silence fell in the room then, and despite the roaring fire at her back, Rose shivered.

Barandur, his sharp gaze missing nothing, undid the leather pouch and poured the runes out onto his large palm. He clasped his fingers around them, preparing to cast the stones on the table before him.

"Now, shall we see what the runes have to say about your endeavour?" he looked straight at Rose. "Foul or fair? What lies before you in the Realm of Angmar?"

Chapter Eight

Dark Portents

Barandur looked down at the runes on his palm; nine smooth, engraved river stones that could tell him of the future.

Rose watched the seer curiously, and not without a large measure of suspicion. Hobbits, being practical and straight-forward folk, did not use runes, or visit seers. Their approach to the future was pragmatic. What would come, would come – that was what her parents had taught her – what was the point of going looking for it?

Rose glanced across at Peri and saw the scepticism on his face. In contrast, Salrean leant forward intently, her features tense with expectation. Ignoring them all, Barandur closed his eyes, murmured something under his breath and cast the runes across the top of the table before him.

The stones rattled and clicked as they scattered; some landing on their front, some on their backs, and some on their sides. Barandur's face creased in a forbidding frown as he leant forward and studied the runes.

Despite that Rose shared Peri's disbelief, she found herself holding her breath all the same.

Barandur studied the runes for long moments before he eventually straightened up. His gaze swept over each of his three visitors, resting briefly on each face as he measured, scrutinised and deliberated. Then, he shook his head.

"What do you see?" Salrean's voice was barely above a whisper. "Anything that could aid us?"

Barandur's gaze fastened on the young female ranger and Rose saw, for the first time, a hint of tenderness and real concern there.

"If the runes are to be believed – which they are – then 'tis folly to continue on this path. I suggest you end your journey at Farnost. Let the hobbits see your city and then send them home. Only darkness awaits you in Angmar."

Silence followed Barandur's proclamation – a heavy, chilling hush.

Rose slowly let out the breath she had been holding and glanced over at Salrean. Rather than appearing cowed by Barandur's words, she was frowning, visibly irritated.

"I didn't come here for vague words that mean nothing," Salrean snapped. "I want the kind that can help us – like the secret way into Carn Dûm you've just told us about. Darkness of what sort exactly? I am aware that travelling to Angmar, retrieving the Red Book and slaying Morwyn won't be easy. However, I plan to enlist help from my father's rangers. We will not travel unprotected."

Barandur shook his head, unmoved by her scorn.

"The runes say that only four of you shall enter Carn Dûm. Two shall enter via the front door and two by the back."

Salrean's frown deepened at that. "What else do they tell you?"

Barandur smiled thinly. "You are indeed your father's daughter. Stubborn to a fault – and foolhardy."

It was obvious to Rose that he had not meant his observation as a compliment.

When Salrean did not respond, Barandur glanced back at the runes, as if checking that he had read them correctly.

"The Red Book," he spoke cautiously, weighing each word, "does indeed contain a secret… although 'tis not what Morwyn, or your father, hope for. Nothing is what it seems. The book holds the key; history that has passed into myth; and things that should never have been forgotten, that have been – even by those who have kept the stories safe and listened to them at the fireside,"

Barandur's gaze shifted to Rose then. She wilted under its intensity.

"In the end Rose Fairbairn of the Shire – 'tis you who will play the greatest part in what is to come."

Rose awoke to the sound of Barandur moving about the darkened room. Groggily, she sat up and glanced over at where Peri was already stirring. Even in the dim light, Rose could see that Peri's face was rumpled with sleep, his eyes barely open. Nearby, Barandur was heating an iron griddle over the fire, while Salrean stood at a clay wash basin, splashing water over her face.

Getting to her feet, Rose stretched stiffly. They had bedded down on the floor on sacking, near one of the hearths, but the cold flagstones were little better than sleeping rough on the ground. Despite that she had been exhausted, Rose had slept fitfully – her thoughts dark and fearful.

She did not want the responsibility for the success of this quest on her shoulders. She wanted only to find her father's killer and impale him on Sting's blade, before bringing the Red Book home to the Tower Hills, where it belonged. She was only one female hobbit, and certainly not capable of stopping the Witch of Angmar, or the wars of goblins and men.

For the first time since the journey had begun, Rose truly regretted leaving the Shire. She was not made for adventures such as these.

Despite the fires burning in the hearths at opposite ends of the stone chamber, it was bone-chillingly cold inside. Barandur had rolled up the window's leather covering, revealing a grey windy morning beyond. Rose sat on a crate, hunched in her cloak, brooding; her mood only improving when Barandur placed a string of sausages on the grill.

As the aroma of frying sausage filtered through the tower chamber, Rose slowly felt her thoughts drift from worries of what lay ahead, to her rumbling stomach. Like most hobbits, she found it difficult to dwell on her problems when anticipating a delicious meal. When Barandur started cracking eggs onto the griddle, Rose found her attention entirely focused on breakfast. Likewise, Peri had perked up. He gratefully received a mug of hot broth from Barandur, his gaze searching the seer's rugged face.

"How do you survive here?" he asked. "If you don't mind me asking?"

Barandur gave a grim smile before turning back to tend his frying eggs.

"A man with my skills can always make a living. The wealthier folk of Annúminas pay well to know what the runes say about their past, present and future."

"But you didn't charge Salrean anything."

Barandur glanced back at Peri over his shoulder, and gave him a quelling look. "I've known Salrean since she was a babe. It would be like asking payment from family."

"You are like an uncle to me," Salrean admitted with a smile as she took a seat next to the fire. "A cantankerous one nonetheless."

Barandur grunted before flipping the sausages and eggs onto wooden dishes.

"Better that than honeyed words used to hide foul thoughts and deeds," he replied. "There are far too many folk like that in the world already. Why do you think I keep myself apart?"

With that the seer handed them their breakfasts and let his guests eat.

Later, Barandur accompanied Salrean, Rose and Peri as far as the outskirts of old Annúminas. The wind gusted across Lake Nenuial, rippling its dark surface, and drops of rain splattered against the dusty cobblestones. They made their way east, through a tangle of ruins, overgrown with shrubbery and encrusted with lichen.

Finally, the ruins drew back and the party reached the edge of dense woodland.

"Do you remember the path that leads east?" Barandur asked Salrean, pointing to a gap in the trees. "If you take it, it will save you at least a day's journey."

Salrean nodded wordlessly before smiling.

"Yes, I know it well."

She turned to Barandur then, and he took her hands, squeezing them gently. His face then softened, making him appear at least a decade younger. Rose could see the affection in his gaze, though he tried to hide it.

"Good Salrean. I sometimes forget you know these lands almost as well as I do."

"Better, I'd say." Salrean replied, her voice teasing.

"Take care girl," Barandur's face grew serious. "The runes do not lie. I saw darkness and death. You are taking the hobbits to a place you may never return from. But remember, if you do travel to Angmar, the Red Book holds the key."

"My father also believes the Red Book has the answer," Salrean replied.

Her comment was a mistake, for at the mention of Rendur of Farnost, any softness vanished from Barandur's face.

"Rendur, like Morwyn, seeks a way to dominate and rule, but they are both wrong in believing that the Red Book holds such secrets. It is a history written by hobbits that recounts the tale of how the One Ring of Power was found, kept safe and then destroyed by the most unlikely of individuals," Barandur then turned to where Rose and Peri stood. "Hobbits," he managed a tight smile, although his anger still simmered. "Once again, you are playing a part in the history of this world."

"Nothing like Bilbo or Frodo did though," Peri piped up, brushing his shaggy hair from his eyes as he tilted his chin to meet Barandur's gaze. "This time our part is much smaller. In many ways, Rose and I are just bystanders."

Barandur shook his head at this. "Hobbits will never be bystanders Pericles Took – you least of all."

His gaze then swivelled to Rose. Despite herself, she cringed under his intensity. After last night, she wished only to be left alone.

Yet, Barandur had no such intentions. "You heard what I told you Rose. Of what is to come, one thing is certain – much will depend on you."

"I don't understand," Rose blurted. "I didn't come on this journey to do great deeds. I don't think I'm capable of them. I'm doing this for my father – for my family."

Barandur listened, his dark gaze unreadable.

"You're capable of much more than you think," he said quietly, "and there is much more than you realise at stake. Morwyn poses a great danger to Middle Earth, and she must be stopped," the seer glanced at Salrean then, his dark gaze glittering. "Yet, it is folly to walk in to her den unprepared. The runes speak clearly. Darkness awaits you all in Carn Dûm."

"I tire of hearing you repeat the same phrases," Salrean cut in angrily, surprising them all with her vehemence. "If you have no further wisdom to impart, we must be away."

The three companions set off east, along the narrow path through the forest. Barandur's words hung heavily upon them all, but upon Rose the heaviest. Her shoulders felt bent over with the weight of it. Overhead, the spattering of rain drops increased to a steady drizzle, carried in by gusts of wind that caused the trees to creak and groan. It was the kind of weather that set one's nerves on edge; the kind that makes you jump at the slightest noise in the undergrowth and causes you to constantly glance over your shoulder.

They had been travelling for just under an hour when Rose ran to catch Salrean up. The ranger strode ahead, her body tense with purpose. She had not spoken to Rose and Peri after she had snapped at Barandur. Rose decided it was high time she did.

"Salrean," Rose panted, reaching the ranger's side and jogging to keep up with her long stride. "Slow down a moment, I need to speak to you."

Salrean glanced down at Rose, her face momentarily distracted, as if she had been lost in her thoughts. It was unlike the ranger Rose had observed on their journey from Hobbiton to Annúminas, who was always sharp and alert. For the first time, Rose had caught Salrean unawares – and caught a glimpse of the troubled woman beneath the cool façade.

Then, the mask snapped back into place and Salrean composed her features.

"Of course Rose, what is it?"

"Barandur's warnings. Are you sure they haven't made you rethink your plans? I mean, about our journey north?"

Salrean's dark gaze held Rose's for a few moments before the ranger shook her head.

"No, it hasn't," she replied firmly. "I cannot force you and Peri to travel with me. You can both turn back at any stage and I will not think any less of you."

Rose was silent for a moment, as she continued to jog at Salrean's side. "I might have done so before," she admitted, "if the road became too dangerous and I lost all hope of finding my father's killer, but I cannot now."

Salrean's gaze narrowed. "Why not? I wouldn't be surprised after Barandur's scaremongering, if you and Peri decided to return home…"

"Have you forgotten what Barandur said?" Rose replied, forcing more bravery in to her voice than she actually felt. "If I am to play an important part in what is to come – the way is not behind me, but ahead."

Chapter Nine

Ethorn

Ashadow moved amongst the trees – tall and threatening.

Rose's heart leapt at the sight of it. Fumbling for Sting, she skidded to a halt, causing Peri to collide with her. He opened his mouth to protest but Rose swivelled round and placed a finger to her lips – silencing him.

Ahead, Salrean had also halted. She drew her sword, her gaze scanning the dense woodland that rose either side of the narrow forest path and formed a canopy above their heads. They were less than a day's travel from Farnost – and their journey had been blessedly uneventful.

Until now.

Leaves rustled and branches shifted. Then, a dark shape stepped out from the dense foliage.

It was a man, shrouded in a travel-stained, dark cape. The cloak snagged on a branch and parted slightly, revealing a thick leather vest underneath. Rose recognised the clothing instantly, for it was the same as Salrean's.

The shadow that had given her such a fright was a ranger.

"Ethorn!" Salrean re-sheathed her sword with relief. Then, her face broke into a warm smile. "Must you sneak up on folk like that? I was about to run you through."

The man, tall and long-limbed with shaggy dark hair framing a swarthy face, grinned. He had the look of a man who passed most of his life outdoors; his teeth were white against his tanned skin.

"Is that any welcome for your future husband?" his gaze settled upon Salrean's face, eyes twinkling. His grin widened when she blushed.

"Idiot. I'm not marrying anyone, least of all you."

The newcomer laughed, before he shifted his attention to Salrean's two companions. As his gaze settled upon them, his good humour faded.

"You did it then? Your father will be pleased."

There was no mistaking the sarcasm in his voice. Like Barandur, this man appeared to hold little love for Rendur of Farnost. Rose's trepidation at meeting Salrean's father increased. Did anyone, besides his daughter, hold a good opinion of the Chieftain of Farnost?

Salrean shook her head. "I wasn't entirely successful. I brought Rose Fairbairn and Pericles Took back with me – they are the descendants of Samwise Gamgee and Peregrin Took – but one of Morwyn's servants reached the Red Book before I could make it safe. He killed Rose's father and stole it."

Ethorn's penetrating gaze rested upon Rose.

"I am sorry to hear that," he murmured. "This is ill news indeed. I am sorry for your loss Rose."

Rose nodded back. Despite that they had only just met, she appreciated his words.

Ethorn then glanced at Salrean once more. "I've been looking for you for the past few days. This forest is now crawling with goblins. You must have encountered some?"

"We were attacked a few days out from the Shire," Salrean replied, "but since Annúminas, we have seen no one."

"Then you have been lucky," Ethorn replied, his handsome face grim. "I killed four this morning. They grow bold. We have moved all the folk on the outskirts of Farnost within the city walls. Every evening, after sunset, goblins crawl from the woods and attack. We must hurry if we are to make it home by dusk. We cannot remain out here after dark."

Rose felt her heart flutter against her ribs at Ethorn's words. She was glad he had found them, for otherwise they would have continued, unwary, into danger. Yet, this news meant that the situation, here in the north, was worse than she had thought. It appeared that the Witch of Angmar's influence had made the goblins ever bolder. They would seek to destroy what villages they could and strike fear into the hearts of men – making it easy for Morwyn to sweep south.

"Very well," Salrean nodded, her face mirroring Ethorn's. "Let's move on."

They picked up their pace, moving at slow jog along the forest path. Rose and Peri were a lot fitter now than at the beginning of their journey – but even so, they struggled to keep up with the rangers' long strides. Salrean and Ethorn ran on a few yards ahead, hardly seeming to tire.

On and on they ran, and by mid-afternoon, the forest had grown sparser, with stretches of meadow in-between copses of woodland. This far north, autumn had already made its presence felt, for many of the leaves were turning gold and the air had a bite to it.

Eventually, they took a short rest in the middle of a wide clearing, where they found the remnants of a campsite. Whoever had camped here, had left the area in a mess. They had hacked at nearby trees for firewood and left piles of filth and food scraps scattered around the ashes of their campsite.

"Goblins," Ethorn's face tightened with distaste before he knelt down and examined the ashes. "I'd say they're the ones I met this morning while searching for you. At least those goblins won't be bothering us."

"I hope it was them," Rose replied, glancing around the clearing nervously, half-expecting goblins to burst out of the trees at any moment.

"Rose has a sword that warns you when goblins approach," Salrean straightened up after scanning the clearing. "It glows blue. Rose, show him Sting – let's see if any goblins are around."

Rose slowly drew Sting free of its scabbard. The elvish blade glowed silver in the afternoon light, without a trace of blue. She let out the breath she had been holding. They were safe for the moment, at least.

"'Tis a beautiful blade," Ethorn stepped forward, his gaze tracing the elvish inscription, "and a perfect size for a hobbit. Pay close attention to it as we approach Farnost, for a little prior warning could very well save our lives."

Rose nodded and re-sheathed the sword.

They continued their journey north-east, at a run. The rangers had picked up the pace slightly but, even so, the light gradually began to fade – and still there was no sign of Farnost rising up above the trees. Rose pushed herself on, her weary feet beginning to stumble on the uneven ground. More than once, Peri grabbed her as she tripped over a tree root, or when her ankle gave way.

"I'm not sure how much longer I can go on," she gasped. Beside her, Peri's face was red and coated with sweat.

"Neither am I," he panted. "I can't take much more of this."

Fortunately for the hobbits, a short while later, the trees parted. They followed the two rangers out into a wide expanse of rolling, windswept grassland dotted with low trees. There, in the distance, rose the walls of Farnost.

The city sat at the southern end of the North Downs. Rose could see the shadows of the hills rolling away into the hazy northern horizon. Like Annúminas, Farnost appeared a collection of old and new. Ruined towers sat propped up against more recent ones, and inside the new city wall, Rose caught glimpses of the original crumbling fortifications. The pale stone of the city reflected the red glow of the setting sun to the west, making Farnost appear blood-stained.

Rose felt a pang of sadness at the sight of it. This part of Middle Earth had known much war, devastation and bloodshed – and now dark times had come once more. It seemed so cruel, so unnecessary. No wonder the Dúnedain were such a strong people; they had been forced to withstand so much.

Heartened by the sight of their destination, the travellers, including the two exhausted hobbits, quickened their pace. Rose's heart pounded in her ears; her breath now coming in ragged bursts that tore at her chest with every breath. Yet, she pushed herself on.

The light had all but faded and Rose could see the people of Farnost had lit their fires; it was a welcoming sight after a long journey. Fortunately, they were on the last stretch and the city beckoned as it drew ever closer.

Then, out of the corner of her eye, Rose glimpsed a flash of blue. She looked down and her throat constricted painfully.

Sting had begun to glow.

Rose was drawing in her breath to shout a warning to her companions, when she caught sight of figures moving towards her, from the east, across the scrubby grassland. Even at this distance, she recognised them instantly, for they did not move like men.

"Make for the gates!" Ethorn shouted. He had also seen them.

The goblins let out hooting cries and scrambled towards the travellers, covering the ground with frightening speed.

Rose struggled to pull Sting free of its scabbard and, in doing so, tripped, nearly impaling herself on the blade.

"Peri!" she screamed. "Help me!"

Peri was already a few yards ahead, not having realising that Rose had fallen. He turned, the whites of his eyes bright in the fading light and sprinted back to her.

The goblins were drawing close now. The hobbits had just moments before they reached them.

"Salrean!" Peri shouted, his voice shrill with fear. "Ethorn!"

Peri heaved Rose to her feet. Trembling, they turned to face the first goblin that bore down upon them. Peri was unarmed; it was up to Rose to defend them.

The sight of the goblin almost caused her legs to collapse under her. She almost dropped Sting at the sight of its bulbous, glistening eyes, the open mouth crowded full of sharp teeth, and the sharp blade clenched in its fist that whistled towards her. She staggered back against Peri, holding Sting out before her. It was a weapon she had no idea how to wield.

The sight of the glowing blue blade pulled the goblin up short. It stopped, just a yard away from where Rose and Peri huddled, its head inclining slightly.

"Elf blade!" it hissed. "Where does a Halfling get one of those?"

Moments later, more goblins crowded up behind their leader, eyes with pinprick pupils glowing in the gathering dusk.

Suddenly, there was a whisper of boots on dry grass, and two cloaked figures leaped over the hobbits, providing a barrier between them and the goblins.

Salrean and Ethorn had come back for them.

"Run!" Ethorn commanded. His voice was flat and hard and he did not glance back at the hobbits. "They are closing the gates. Run and don't look back!"

Rose and Peri did not need to be told twice. They turned and fled like hares across the last stretch, towards where the shadow of the city walls fell across the grasslands. Behind them, they heard shouts, the clash of steel, and the crunch of bones breaking – but, as instructed, they did not glance back. Rose hoped that the rangers would not be foolish enough to take on all the goblins. She hoped that they would know when to turn and run.

Ahead, the great gates of Farnost loomed; two huge oaken doors, studded with iron spikes. They were slowly drawing closed. Rose gritted her teeth and forced her exhausted legs to sprint the last distance.

She and Peri slid inside, just as the heavy doors boomed shut. They skidded to a halt, and looked up into the surprised faces of the guards inside. Like most of the Dúnedain, these men had never seen a hobbit.

"Wait!" Peri shouted, turning back to the gates. "Salrean and Ethorn are out there. They're surrounded by goblins and vastly outnumbered. Help them!"

The guard stared at Peri a moment, as if he did not speak their tongue, before they realised that the Halfling was speaking of two of their rangers.

The guard closest to them, a broad-shouldered, heavy-set man dressed in battle-scarred leather armour, exploded into action.

"Open the gates!" he shouted. "Veldur, Gonthorn, Nathil – with me!"

Rose and Peri scrambled back as three tall, well-built men strode out of the shadows. Their faces were frightening and Rose was relieved their fury was not directed at her.

Slowly, the gates drew open, the gears and chains grinding. Then, when there was a gap large enough, the four guards slipped through and disappeared into the darkness.

Chapter Ten

The Chieftain of Farnost

The pale morning light filtered in through the high window, rousing Rose from a deep sleep. She sat up in bed, for a moment trying to recall where she was and how she had come to be there. Then everything rushed back.

The city glowing at sunset. The approaching darkness.

The goblins. Salrean and Ethorn shouting at her and Peri to run.

The Gates of Farnost booming shut behind them.

The screams. The Darkness.

Rose shuddered and climbed out of bed, her feet slapping on to the cold flagstone floor. Her clothes were where she had left them the night before, hung over the back of the large wooden chair near the door. The chair, like everything else in the room was huge – nothing here was hobbit-size. Rose felt a pang of longing for her own bedroom back in her parents' hobbit hole. Everything belonged to her there – and she belonged to it. This room felt cold and strange in comparison.

She dressed quickly and let herself out into the corridor beyond. Like her room, the hall was lofty with grey-stone walls and a dark flagstone floor. Rose made her way along it, towards an open door at the end. She walked through into a small room dominated by a large worn table. Peri sat at one end, perched on a chair four sizes too big for him. He was digging into a huge plate of fried eggs and bacon. An enormous basket of fresh bread sat before him.

"Good morning Rose," Peri tore off a chunk of bread and stuffed it into his mouth. "Take a seat. There's plenty more where this came from. This is my second plate."

Rose climbed up onto the chair next to him, her stomach growling at the sight of his breakfast. It reminded her that after all the excitement, they had not eaten the night before.

At that moment, a harried-looking woman, dressed in a grey work-shift, apron and head-dress bustled out of a side door. She carried a plate of bacon and eggs.

"Here you are," the woman slammed the plate down in front of Rose. "Eat up before it gets cold."

"Thank you." Rose did not need to be told twice. She and Peri ate in silence, exchanging glances as they did so. Once her plate was wiped clean, Rose took a gulp of water from a wooden cup and wiped her mouth on a rough grey napkin.

"'Tis such a colourless place this," she observed. "Everything is grey – even the table cloths."

"The food's excellent though," Peri sat back in his chair and sighed contentedly. "That's the best breakfast I've had in years."

"So this is where Salrean grew up," Rose mused, glancing round at the featureless grey walls. "No wonder she smiles so rarely."

As if hearing her name, a familiar figure appeared in the doorway.

"Salrean!" Peri called out cheerfully. "Good morning."

Following their encounter with the goblins the previous night, Salrean appeared remarkably well. A cut to her forehead, which had been neatly sewn, was the only sign that she had been in a fight. This morning, Salrean was dressed differently than usual. Unlike the leathers and heavy cloak she usually wore, she was dressed in grey leggings, long boots and a long white tunic belted at the waist. Her long, dark hair had been washed and fell in glistening waves about her shoulders. For the first time, Rose realised that Salrean was actually quite beautiful.

Despite herself, Rose felt a stab of jealousy.

Rose the Fair, she thought bitterly. Oh how I wish I was. Salrean, on the other hand, did not seem to be aware of her beauty.

"Good morning Rose and Peri," Salrean greeted them with an enigmatic smile. "I didn't thank you both properly last night – for sending the guards back to help us. Without them, Ethorn and I would have been overcome."

"Our pleasure," Peri beamed, in a remarkably good mood this morning. "We couldn't just leave you out there, could we?"

Salrean's smile widened before her gaze settled on the remnants of their breakfast.

"If you have finished eating, my father would like to meet you," she said. "When you are ready we will go to him."

Rose noticed the change that came over the ranger's face when she mentioned her father – a seriousness which made her appear older and harsher. For a moment, it dimmed her quiet beauty.

Rose, for one, was not looking forward to meeting Rendur of Farnost. After Barandur and Ethorn's reactions whenever the Chieftain was mentioned, she imagined the worst. Yet, they were now his guests and could put it off no longer.

The hobbits followed Salrean through a network of grey stone hallways. After a while, they climbed a wide set of stairs, before passing between two massive oak doors, flanked by guards dressed in leather and iron armour.

Beyond, they stepped into a cavernous, echoing hall.

Rose paused on the threshold, gazing up at the high spider-vaulted ceiling. It was made of the same dull stone that was found everywhere here. Two rows of massive veined marble columns ran either-side of a white and black tiled floor. High above, small stained-glass windows let in a watery stream of light that illuminated the ceiling and little else.

"Come," Salrean murmured, taking the lead. "He waits."

Torches, hanging from chains on the wall, guttered as they passed, sending shadows across the columns. The hobbits moved like ghosts; the only sound was the whisper of Salrean's hunting boots on the worn stone.

At the end of the hall, they approached a man seated in an ornate iron chair.

"Father," Salrean bowed. "We have come."

"Good," the man rose to his feet, his dark, predatory gaze sweeping from his daughter, to her two charges. Rose bowed clumsily and Peri followed suit. There was something about his manner that made Rose want to cower.

The man before them was tall and broad shouldered, his size accentuated by the huge fur cloak he wore about his shoulders. He wore black fitting leathers underneath; the clothing of a warrior, rather than a man of his age and station. A mane of iron-grey hair rippled over his shoulders and down his back. The only sign of wealth, besides the plush cloak, were the heavy gem-encrusted rings that decorated his broad hands, flickering in the guttering torchlight.

Yet, it was his face that frightened Rose. It sagged downwards in a disapproving expression. He had a heavy brow, black, glittering eyes, a large nose and a thin mouth. There was no hint of softness in that face – none at all. Rose could not imagine him as a father, or a husband.

Rendur of Farnost was as cold and hard as the grey stone walls that surrounded him.

"So these are the halflings," The Chieftain rumbled, his gaze spearing Rose, "and one of them is a female."

"Hobbits father," Salrean corrected him.

"I know what they're called," Rendur snapped, "but halflings are what they are. What are your names?"

"I'm Pericles Took," Peri spoke up, his voice echoing timidly in the empty hall.

"And I'm Rose Fairbairn," Rose added.

"Which of you had custody of the Red Book?" Rendur demanded.

Rose stared back at him, cowed by his aggressive manner. "I did," she replied. "My father looked after the book – it was handed down through my family from Samwise the Great."

"Samwise Gamgee," Rendur's mouth curved. "You carry his blood?"

Rose nodded.

Rendur glanced then at his daughter, who stood silently in the shadows, waiting to be addressed.

"And it was you, Salrean, who let the book be stolen," he rumbled. "Why did you not take it as soon as you learnt of its whereabouts?"

"It was not mine to take, father," Salrean replied stiffly. "I thought I had time."

"And you were wrong," Rendur shot back. "Your miscalculation has cost us something of great value. Now Morwyn has it. If she discovers its secrets, we are all doomed. If this comes to pass, you will carry the blame."

Salrean glared at her father a moment, before dropping her gaze to the floor. Watching her, Rose felt a stab of anger at Rendur's harsh treatment of his own flesh and blood. Her father would never have treated her thus.

"It's not her fault," Rose spoke up, her voice quivering slightly. "It's mine. I tried to stop the thief but I was not strong enough."

The Chieftain of Farnost glared back at her, his dark eyes glittering.

"Why are you here?" he growled eventually. "You come empty-handed, without the Red Book. What do hope to achieve, here in the north?"

"I asked them to come," Salrean replied. Her voice was cold, showing no sign that her father's harsh words had wounded.

"I didn't ask you," Rendur snarled. "Speak, halfling."

"The man who took the Book, killed my father," Rose lifted her chin. "I want vengeance, and will help your cause in any way I can."

Rendur of Farnost laughed at that, the sound rolling like a drum in the emptiness.

"One small female hobbit," he mocked, "I'm sure Morwyn's servant fears you."

Rose felt her face go hot. Although this man was frightening, his rudeness was now starting to anger her.

"Father," Salrean's voice was sharp. "The fact that these hobbits are here, so far from home, should humble you. They have both shown endurance and courage on the journey here. They want to help. We should let them."

Rendur glanced back at his daughter, his craggy face impassive. For a moment, Rose thought he would rebuke her once more, but this time he looked thoughtful.

"Indeed," he said slowly, "they might be of assistance."

With that, Rendur of Farnost stepped off the dais, which did not make him any less imposing to the hobbits.

"Come. Follow me – all of you."

Rendur crossed the shadowy hall, in long strides, his magnificent fur cloak billowing out behind him. Salrean and the hobbits fell in quickly behind him. They followed the city's chieftain across the floor to a doorway. Rose had not noticed the entrance before, for this side of the great hall was cloaked in shadow. Rendur strode through the doorway and disappeared.

They followed him into a dimly lit chamber, illuminated only by two torches. The room was windowless and smelt of damp. It was empty save for a stone plinth in the centre. Upon the plinth stood a large black stone bowl.

Rendur strode up to the plinth and halted before it. Salrean and the hobbits stopped a few feet away, looking on silently as he unfastened his heavy cloak and cast it aside. He looked younger, and more dangerous without the cloak. His arms were bare, save for silver, inscribed arm-rings which glinted in the torchlight.

The Chieftain of Farnost stepped forward so that he was standing over the bowl. Then, he looked down at its contents, his severe face giving nothing away.

Rose looked on, confused.

"What's he doing?" she whispered to Salrean.

"My father's a seer, like Barandur," Salrean whispered back. "He…"

"So the halflings have met Barandur have they?" Rendur's cold voice interrupted them. "What did he have to tell you?"

"Little," Salrean replied. "I'm afraid he spoke in riddles that I had trouble deciphering. He warned of doom and against travelling to Angmar. Yet, he did tell us of a secret way in to Carn Dûm."

"He did?" Rendur replied, his eyes gleaming. "I will hear of this later, daughter."

Salrean nodded. "Of course."

Rendur's gaze then shifted to Rose. "Yes, I am a seer – but not the same as Barandur. We are of the same breed but as different as an ocean is to a mountain stream. His powers of far-sight are weak compared to mine."

That's odd, Rose thought, for that's not what I have heard. Your own daughter told me otherwise. However, Rose did not voice her opinion.

"Barandur uses runes," Rendur's mouth twisted. "Like a common fortune-teller who travels from village to village, warning of failed crops and pestilence – but I use the Waters of Skellith." He motioned to the large vessel before him.

"Come forth female halfling," Rendur's gaze did not move from Rose's face. "For an accurate reading, the Waters require your assistance."

Rose hesitated. She glanced across at Peri, who had not spoken since they entered the chamber. He returned her gaze nervously, his earlier good cheer gone. Then, Rose looked across at Salrean. The ranger was frowning.

"Father," Salrean began. "Is this necessary?"

"Silence daughter!" Rendur boomed, beckoning Rose forward with a ringed finger. "Do not question what you cannot possibly understand."

Rose stared back into his dark eyes; they were as hypnotic and terrifying as the low, powerful timbre of his voice. Such a man was born to rule and impossible to resist.

Slowly, she walked towards him.

Chapter Eleven

Not by the hand of man will she fall

Rose stepped up to Rendur before the plinth. Her chin barely reached the rim of the black stone bowl. She peered over the edge and saw that the vessel was filled with nothing more than clear water.

Rose glanced up at the Chieftain of Farnost, confused.

He gave her a hard-edged smile in return. "The Waters of Skellith are far more than they seem. Watch and learn, halfling."

Rose did as she was told, yet not before her gaze flicked back at where Salrean and Peri watched. Their faces were troubled, but they did not intervene.

Rendur leant forward and, with the tips of his left hand, stirred the surface of the water gently.

"The halfings have come," he crooned in a soft, almost tender, voice. His gaze did not move from the gently swirling water as he continued. "The book is lost. The witch moves, and the way forward is not clear. Waters of Skellith, speak to me now. Show us the path we must take."

Rendur withdrew his hand and rested it on the rim of the bowl, watching as the surface of the water continued to swirl. Instead of settling, the water continued to move. The liquid darkened then, and formed a vortex in the centre. Rose watched, transfixed. She wanted to look away, but found she could not.

At the heart of the vortex, images began to form. They were indistinct at first, but after a moment or two, Rose could make out the outlines of bleak, inhospitable mountains capped in snow against a monochrome sky, and the ruins of a great fortress made of black stone. She could see that the citadel wavering before her had once been mighty; one or two of the horned turrets still remained. A great, black tower rose higher than the rest, although most of the others had crumbled into ruin.

A chill went through Rose. Without needing an explanation, she knew that the walls of Carn Dûm lay before her. Her discomfort deepened when the view before her widened and she saw the land around the base of the ruins bristling with activity. The armies of Morwyn of Angmar, and those of the Goblin King, Targkok, swarmed over the hills.

Then, the landscape faded, only to be replaced by the image of a gaunt, ghostly face – a woman with long, dark hair and an iron circlet about her high forehead. The face was indistinct and rippled as though it lay at the bottom of a deep, clear pond.

Rose strained to make out the features. When she slowly stretched forward, a heavy hand grasped her shoulder and pulled her back.

"Careful," Rendur growled in her ear, "'tis not wise to stand too close to the Waters."

Rose swallowed and nodded, her gaze still riveted upon the swirling vortex before her, and that ghostly face in its centre.

Then a voice, thin and cold, as if carried by the wind itself, echoed through the damp chamber.

"Pursue her at your peril! Vengeful, she has returned to these lands. She brings the world to the edge of doom, but not by the hand of man will she fall."

Rose felt Rendur's hand, which still gripped her shoulder, constrict painfully. She winced and tried to twist free, but he held her fast. Before them, the shadowy image disappeared and the vortex closed. The waters swirled, and gradually lightened – like ink washing away – till they became clear once more.

Only then, did Rendur relax his hold. He let go of Rose's shoulder and stepped back from the plinth. Rose rubbed her throbbing shoulder and glanced up at his face.

She immediately regretted the action.

If Rendur of Farnost's face has been formidable before, craggy and severe with a sharp gaze that missed nothing, it was truly frightening now. A strange light gleamed in his dark eyes, and when his gaze met hers, Rose knew that the words they had heard boded ill.

"Not by the hand of man will she fall," Salrean's voice echoed through the deathly still chamber, causing Rose to start slightly. "'Tis a prophecy? I feel I have heard those words before."

"You have," Rendur replied, before bending down and retrieving his fur cloak from where he had thrown it carelessly to the floor, "or words very similar. It was in the stories your mother used to read you. A thousand years after the beginning of the Third Age, Eärnur, Prince of Gondor and the Elves of Lindon, defeated the Witch-King's army. Eärnur attempted to follow the Witch-king and slay him but Glorfindel, the Elf-Lord, stopped the prince and prophesied: 'Do not pursue him! He will not return to these lands. Far off yet is doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.'"

Rendur threw the cape about his shoulders and turned to face his daughter, ignoring the hobbits for the moment.

"In fact, it was Éowyn, a woman, and Meriadoc Brandybuck, a halfling, who brought about the Witch-king's doom. As the prophecy foretold, it was many – indeed, a thousand – years, later."

Silence followed Rendur's words. There was something about that whispery, gelid voice they had all heard that had frightened Rose. Unlike Rendur, she did not trust it. Rose backed away from the Chieftain of Farnost until she was at Peri's side once more. He, like Salrean, had gone pale and quiet at Rendur's words.

"What does this mean, father?" Salrean asked finally. "What did you see?"

In response, Rendur turned his penetrating gaze upon Rose once more, pinning her to the spot. "What did you see, Rose?"

"The ruins of Carn Dûm with armies amassing before it," she whispered, clenching her fists to stop herself from shaking, "and I saw her."

Salrean turned to Rose, her eyes wide. "Morwyn of Angmar?"

Rose nodded.

"Morwyn grows in strength," Rendur spoke up, his voice echoing in the cold chamber. "Already, she has power enough to crush our people. She must be stopped, and the Red Book retrieved."

"I will gather a group of your best men," Salrean stepped forward, her face resolute. "I will call your most skilled rangers. Your captain, Ethorn, shall lead us. We will travel north and enter Carn Dûm through the secret way that Barandur revealed to me. We shall slay her, father – I promise you."

At his daughter's impassioned words, Rendur scowled. Then, he regarded her coldly, with thinly veiled disdain.

"Did you not understand the prophecy?" he asked, his mouth twisting. "Did those words mean nothing to you? It is as before. Morwyn is like her brother; no man can kill her."

Salrean stared back at her father, her brow furrowing. "I don't…"

"You will go north," Rendur interrupted her, looming over his daughter and glaring down upon her like a wrathful god, "but you will not be taking Ethorn or any of my men with you." Rendur spat the ranger's name out as if it were venom. "You will go alone – save these two halfings as your companions.

If Morwyn cannot be killed by a man then it is up to the three of you to slay her."

"Madness!" Ethorn turned from the window, his handsome face contorted in fury. "He cannot command such a thing. He will be sending his only child – his daughter – to her death. Does he not realise this, or has he finally lost his mind altogether?"

"Ethorn," Salrean's face was taut as she battled with her own anger against her father, and her loyalty to him, "he can command it, he is the Lord of Farnost. We must obey him."

They were alone, in a long, thin chamber with a small window at one end, and books lining one wall – a scholar's chamber. It was the only place where they would be completely alone; the only place Salrean had deemed private enough to tell him of what had happened when her father had stirred the Waters of Skellith. Like her, Ethorn had escaped the skirmish with the goblins with only minor injuries. His right wrist was bandaged, but apart from that, he was unhurt. Ethorn had listened intently to her news, until Salrean delivered the news about her father's decision.

"You know the Waters of Skellith cannot be trusted," he replied, his voice strained from the effort he was making not to shout. "Time and time again, people have heeded your father's advice, only for events to go ill."

"But the prophecy…"

"And what is that? Cryptic words that Rendur sees meaning in, where others do not."

Salrean turned away from him, struggling to keep her composure. "You don't understand," she said finally, forced to repeat her earlier argument for none other came to her. "He's my father. I have to obey him. He is your Lord, you must also bend to his will."

Ethorn stepped up behind her, so close that Salrean felt his breath feather her hair. "But what if his will is wrong?" he asked quietly. "Things have worsened since you travelled south, Salrean. You saw how the goblins now lurk around our walls at night. They have also forced us to evacuate the nearby villages and the fields that provide food for our people. I asked him to send for reinforcements to Annúminas, and to the Dúnedain settlements further south, but he refused. He was so sure you would return with that book; so certain it would hold all the answers."

Salrean turned to Ethorn, her face troubled. "Tell me he did not."

He shook his head, exasperated. "Are you really so surprised? I know you desire for nothing more than to please him, that you seek his approval in all you do – but when are you going to realise that the man is unpleasable."

Salrean's mouth compressed and her cheeks flushed in response, but Ethorn continued nonetheless. "No, 'tis not as you think. He does not wish he had a son in your place. There is only room for one person in his world – and that is Rendur, son of Gildur, Chieftain of Farnost. You are merely a means of getting what he wants. He will use you and then discard you, like he does everyone else. If you really mattered to him, if he truly loved you, he would not send you – and two hobbits – alone into Angmar."

"Enough!" Salrean shouted, stepping back from him. "How dare you!"

"I tell you this for your own good," Ethorn countered. "Too long have I seen your father treat you like his pawn. Too long have I watched you turn yourself inside-out to please him. Nothing you do will be enough. Do you have to die to learn this?"

"I told you to stop," Salrean rasped, her anger simmering. "I won't tell you again."

"Do you even listen?" Ethorn threw up his hands. "I feel as if I'm talking to a wall. I only bother because I care what happens to you – but you never stop to consider that."

"I don't need your counsel," she replied, managing to maintain a stony façade so that he could not see the hurt raging within. "And I wish I had never spoken to you of this. Leave me be."

Ethorn stared at her – and the look on his face made Salrean's chest constrict. He was right – she knew it. But she could not tell him so. She could not defy her father.

"So be it," he ground out, stepping backwards, his gaze searing hers. "But when the time comes; when you are alone in Carn Dûm, with no one to watch your back. When the hobbits, who you swore to protect, lie dead at your feet and Morwyn of Angmar lets you draw one last breath – I hope you remember this conversation. I hope you remember that one person, at least, wanted to keep you safe."

With that, Ethorn turned on his heel and strode from the chamber, leaving Salrean in desolate silence.

Chapter Twelve

Into the North

A grey dusk settled over Farnost. A chill mist hung over the grasslands surrounding the city, obscuring the North Downs. Rose stood on a terrace, on the flat roof of Rendur's tower, and gazed north.

She had come up here to think; to clear her mind. But the sight of the approaching night, and the grimness of her surroundings, only made her stomach twist in dread. Her skin prickled as she imagined the goblins, lurking around the base of the city, ready to pounce upon the unwary.

Soon, she would be out there once more.

"There you are!" Peri, out of breath from the climb up to the roof, appeared at Rose's shoulder. "I've been looking for you everywhere!"

Rose tore her gaze from the mist-wreathed Downs and looked at Peri, her companion during the last couple of weeks. As usual, his youthful face was bright, although there were grooves around his mouth that had not been there before they departed the Shire.

"Sorry, I just needed some time to think over things," she forced a smile.

Peri nodded and cast his eye over the gathering dusk. "I never fully appreciated the beauty of the Shire," he said quietly before glancing back at Rose, "until we travelled far from its borders. It seems the further north we travel, the more bleak the world becomes."

Rose sighed and pulled her cloak close around her.

"I'm glad you're with me, Peri," she said. "I could not have come here without you."

Peri chuckled at that. "Oh I think you could have," he replied. "You're the strong one."

Rose shook her head and looked down at her feet. "I don't think so. Peri – I want to go home."

His warm hand took hers and squeezed gently. "Then, let's go."

Rose shook her head, blinking back tears. "You know we can't – we've gone too far to turn back."

"Of course we can turn back," Peri replied sharply. "No one can stop us."

"But Rendur has ordered us to go north with Salrean."

"Rendur's mad," Peri replied, his voice tinged with bitterness. "Since when did he become our master? To send us alone into Angmar is folly. It's as if he wants to see us dead – and I'd believe it if he wasn't sending his daughter with us."

"But, The Waters of Skellith told him…"

"I know what we heard – it's Rendur's interpretation of it that I don't trust."

"But I saw her," Rose shuddered, remembering that ghostly visage in the vortex. "And I saw the ruins of Angmar surrounded by armies of goblins and hill men."

"I don't dispute that," Peri answered, letting go of Rose's hand and turning his back on the foggy dusk. Then, he folded his arms over his chest and regarded Rose coolly. "However, Rendur's taking this to extremes. I can't believe that Salrean has agreed to it. Has she said anything to you about our departure?"

"We leave tomorrow morning," Rose replied, her voice dying away as the enormity of what they were about to embark upon hit her. "Into the North."

"You remember what Barandur said," Peri reminded her. "He warned us about undertaking this journey. I'd trust him before I'd believe anything Rendur of Farnost tells me."

Rose did not reply, although Barandur's words still rang in her ears.

Only darkness awaits you in Angmar.

Salrean handed Rose a linen sack filled with food – bread, cheese, salted pork and apples. Then, she turned back to where her own leather pack sat, open, at her feet. There, in the centre of the cobbled stable yard, she busied herself with stuffing the last few items into her pack while the hobbits looked on.

Rose and Peri stood silently, although it was not Salrean who had subdued them, but the intimidating presence behind them.

Rendur, Chieftain of Farnost stood outside the great oak doors to his tower, at the top of the steps. He was wrapped in his black, fur cloak and hunched against the morning's chill. His grey-threaded hair spilled over his shoulders as he looked down at the three he was sending to Carn Dûm.

They were alone in the stable yard, for only Rendur was there to see them off. Only he knew of the journey they were about to embark upon.

It was early. Dawn was just breaking, although the heavy bank of fog that had rolled in overnight before still hung over Farnost in a dense blanket. The light was watery and the air chill.

Rose packed the food away and slung her leather satchel over her front. It was heavy, but she knew it would lighten soon enough – as they ate their way through their provisions. She just hoped it would be sufficient to see them there and back again.

She was grateful for the heavy woollen cloak that she wore over her shoulders. Salrean had given the hobbits warmer clothes the night before; clothes that would fit a child in this city. Sting hung around her waist and Peri now carried a short sword, although he had been reluctant to take it.

"You will need a sword for what lies ahead," Salrean had told him sternly. "Don't worry, I will teach you how to use it."

Salrean finished checking her pack, buckled it tight and swung it up onto her back.

"You should take horses," Rendur finally spoke. "You will travel faster that way."

Salrean shook her head, her expression unreadable. Torchlight illuminated the ranger's face as she turned to face her father – and Rose could see the strain there. Salrean's eyes were red-rimmed, as if she had been crying.

"Horses are faster," she agreed, "but where we are going, they will draw too much attention to us. I would prefer to travel on foot, even if it takes us longer to reach Carn Dûm."

"I hope Barandur did not lie about that secret way in," Rendur rumbled, his expression darkening when he spoke the seer's name. "He is sly and would tell you falsehoods just to wound me."

"He spoke the truth," Salrean replied. "I'm sure of it."

Rendur's face darkened further and his mouth pursed, as if he had just tasted something bitter. Yet, when he spoke, he did not mention Barandur.

"You have two goals, Salrean," he fixed his daughter in an intense stare. "What are they?"

Salrean held her father's gaze, unwavering. "Retrieve the Red Book and slay Morwyn," she replied.

"What about come back alive," Rose muttered under her breath. Rendur cast a baleful glance in her direction before turning back to his daughter.

"Do not disappoint me – you are my last hope."

Silence fell then in the courtyard. Rose felt Salrean's grief; raw and unspoken. It was better to have no father at all than a cruel, hard man like Rendur who used his kin to further his own ambitions. After just two brief meetings with this man, Rose could see why Barandur loathed him.

"Excuse me," Unable to hold her tongue any further, Rose timidly spoke up.

Rendur's hard gaze seized upon Rose. His intensity, almost made her cower before him.

"What is it she-hobbit?"

"The Red Book," Rose began. "It was written by hobbits – by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, to be exact – of their adventures many years ago. My father has read it to me many times, but I have never heard him speak of a 'secret'. Are you sure you are not sending Salrean after something that will be of no use to you?"

Holding Rendur's gaze took all Rose's will. There was something about this man – a naked hunger for power and dominance – which made her fear him. He looked at her now as if she were barely worth acknowledgement.

"I do not expect a hobbit to understand of such things," he ground out, biting off each word. "You are simple folk, not capable of deciphering subtleties."

"Since the Red Book was written by hobbits, I'm surprised you will be able to bring yourself to read it," Peri exploded, his face contorted in fury.

Rendur dismissed him with the wave of a ring-encrusted hand, before turning towards the oaken door behind him.

"I do not need my decisions questioned by half-witted halflings," he growled. "Salrean – take your leave now. Be wary on the North Downs, for at this hour there may still be goblins about."

Salrean gave a curt nod before turning to the hobbits. Her pale face was taut, her eyes angry. Yet, she did not question him.

Rose also turned her gaze from Rendur, her stomach curdling. Like Peri, the Chieftain of Farnost's words had deeply insulted her. She never wanted to set eyes on this man again.

The hobbits followed Salrean out of the stable yard, without a backwards glance, and down the narrow, winding streets to the city gates. There was no one about at this hour; just the odd shaft of light coming from the occasional latched shutter and the aroma of baking bread from the bakeries.

The cobbles were slick with damp and the street lights were starting to flicker as they consumed the last of the oil that had kept them burning all night. The three travellers, dressed in grey, hooded cloaks, moved like shadows through the streets. However, when they reached the gates, the guards did not appear surprised to see them.

They acknowledged Salrean with nods; their faces stern, their gazes worried. Yet, they did not question the chieftain's daughter. Instead, they pushed the gates open so that there was a three-foot gap for the travellers to pass through, and stood back to let the group pass.

Unspeaking, the three companions slipped out of Farnost and into the grey dawn.

As soon as they had left the safety of the city, Rose felt her pulse quicken. Her breathing became shallower and panic fluttered in her stomach. It was a cold, monochrome world beyond, and a dangerous journey before them.

Rose followed at Salrean's heels, jogging to keep up with the ranger, while Peri brought up the rear. They skirted the city walls towards the northern side of Farnost. From there they would strike out into the wilderness.

They had almost reached the northernmost point, when Salrean glanced over her shoulder at Rose. Even in the half-light, Rose could see the strain on her face.

"I'm sorry, Rose," the ranger said, her voice barely above a whisper. "My father had no right to speak to you like that. When we return, I will make him apologise to you."

Rose nodded, not sure how to respond. "Thank you," she eventually whispered.

"If we return," Peri whispered in her ear when Salrean moved on. "Right now, I'd say the odds are stacked against us."

The first fingers of light probed through the heavy bank of cloud when a group of four men slipped from Farnost. They were rangers, dressed in dark, hooded cloaks, each wearing a sword at the hip. They moved with the long-limbed stride of men used to travelling on foot rather than on horseback. Their gazes darted keenly from left to right as they skirted the edge of the city.

When they reached the northernmost edge of the high wall, the man at the head of the group knelt and quickly examined the footprints on the dew-covered ground. The travellers he was tracking had only recently departed, and in conditions such as these, they would be easily to follow.

"They struck out from here," Ethorn, ranger of Farnost, pushed back his hood and peered out into the murk, at where stunted trees hunched like trolls in the mist. His dark eyes gleamed with intensity, before he glanced back at his companions. "We will need to hang back for a day or two though. Salrean may retrace her steps to make sure she's not being followed."

"We trained her well," one of the other rangers replied, not without a trace of wry humour in his voice.

"In that I am glad," Ethorn answered, "for where she is going she will need everything we ever taught her and more."

Veldur, the ranger who had spoken, nodded, while the other two rangers, Gonthorn and Nathil looked on silently.

Ethorn regarded his three friends for a moment, grateful that they had agreed to join him. They had defied Rendur, Chieftain of Farnost, in doing so – but had not hesitated when Ethorn had asked for their help.

The punishment would be banishment upon their return. However, Ethorn cared not. He had stood by long enough, watching while Rendur made ever more outlandish decisions without consulting his people. The time for dogged obedience had long ended. Ethorn could not let Salrean travel to Angmar on her own. Even if she made it into Carn Dûm undetected, she would never be able to reach Morwyn through the goblin-infested ruins.

He had to help her.

Chapter Thirteen

The Shadow of the Black Woods

There are some parts of the world that are forsaken, and to Rose Fairbairn, the northern reaches of Arnor was one such place.

The North Downs rolled on endlessly, and it took Rose, Peri and Salrean three long days to cross them. They were exposed out on the downs, with nothing but windswept grass and the odd stunted shrub to shield them from the elements. Out here, it was possible to see for miles in every direction – something that Rose was grateful for. At least here, they could see if any goblins approached.

For three days they saw no one. The North Downs, a desolate spot indeed, appeared devoid of any life at all. They would travel all day and make camp early, before lighting a small fire in one of the shallow valleys between the hills. Then, they would take turns at keeping watch through the long, chill night, hunched against the cutting wind, until the first fingers of light crept in from the east. Tired and stiff, the three travellers would then climb to their feet, douse the dying embers of last night's fire and continue on their way.

The North Downs eventually ended; not in an abrupt fashion but more in a gradual dying out. The land gradually flattened and they entered a vast plain that stretched to a hazy vanishing point in every direction. Here, it was hard to believe that it was still early autumn further south, for the sun held no warmth and the wind bit into the exposed skin of their faces.

"What a miserable place," Peri muttered as he trudged alongside Rose. "Why would anyone chose to live this far north?"

"Not many do, Peri," Salrean replied, casting a grim smile over her shoulder at her companion. "Hence the fact that we have not seen a soul since leaving Farnost. However, do not let the quiet fool you. Many, who are not welcomed in the more populated areas of our world, have found refuge here in the cold north. We must be ever watchful as we travel north, as in places like these even the wind has ears."

Rose supressed a shudder at Salrean's words before casting a nervous glance around her. The sky was a washed-out grey, from one horizon to another. In fact, they had not seen blue sky since leaving Farnost – and even there the world had been bleak.

The ranger's words stayed with Rose for the rest of the day, and she found herself jumping at shadows and glancing continually over her shoulder. There was indeed a 'watchful' presence here; a stillness that reminded Rose of an indrawn breath, waiting to exhale.

She did not like it.

On the fourth morning since leaving Farnost, shortly after dawn, the travellers caught sight of a dark mass in the distance.

"The Black Woods," Salrean announced, her expression hard. "It marks the border between Arnor and Angmar. We are about to enter Morwyn's domain."

"So soon?" Peri asked in a cowed voice. "I thought we'd have at least another few days travel before us before entering Angmar."

Salrean shook her head before giving Peri an unexpected smile. "Farnost has always dwelt in the shadow of Angmar. Why do you think my city is such a cheerless place?"

The hobbits had no response for that, and so the three companions drew closer to the Black Woods in silence.

Even from afar, the woods appeared intimidating to Rose. True to their name, the trees appeared almost black at a distance, although as the came nearer, Rose saw that they were hardy pines and spruce with a dark, dense foliage. The woods formed a dense carpet north, west and east – and they began suddenly. One moment the companions were walking through exposed grassland, and the next, they had stepped under the dark, sheltering boughs.

The moment they stepped into the woods, Rose felt as if she had entered another world. The air was heavy with the scent of pine resin, moss and damp. The chill wind could not reach here, and it was dark and shadowy now that the trees screened the grey sky. However, like the grasslands, the Black Woods were eerily silent – and the sensation of being watched grew ever stronger as they ventured further inside.

"How long will we have to spend in this place?" Peri asked eventually. "I must admit that I don't like it much."

"We have another two days travel before reaching the other side," Salrean replied. "Truthfully, I don't like this place any more than you. Yet, to go around the Black Woods would take too long."

"Why's it so quiet in here?" Rose asked, stepping over a moss-covered log, her feet squelching on the thick leaf-mulch underfoot. "In the Shire, you can hear things in woods."

"The Black Woods isn't welcoming to strangers." Salrean replied. "There are no paths through it; and many have lost their way and never been seen again. Most probably they ran out of food and water and died here."

At these bleak words, the two hobbits exchanged alarmed glances.

Salrean saw their faces and gave a wry smile.

"Don't trouble yourselves. We must be careful, it's true, but I have travelled these woods many times and know what to look out for. I also know my way through it."

"That's good to hear," Peri replied, letting out the breath he had been holding. Rose too, felt herself relax slightly at Salrean's reassurance. The ranger was a strong, calming influence on the hobbits. They had already been through much together, and Rose now trusted Salrean at her word. She did not blame her for the dangerous quest, they were know embarking upon. Salrean was as trapped by her father's iron will, as the hobbits were.

"Will we need to look out for goblins here?" Rose asked Salrean as they continued on their way.

"On the fringes of the woods, yes," Salrean replied. "However, few venture into the heart of the Black Woods for fear of never making it out again."

Flames licked up at the damp night air and flared as unwary moths fluttered too close. Rose watched the fire, mesmerised by the golden warmth on such a cold, lonely night. She was taking the second watch; the others lay huddled under blankets as close to the fire as they dared. Apart from the whisper of their breathing, the Black Woods were eerily silent. Rose would have even welcomed the lonely call of an owl or the rustling of rodents in the undergrowth; yet nothing but a deep silence echoed around her.

Fatigue pulled down at Rose, and she blinked rapidly in an attempt to keep herself awake. She still had a while to go before Salrean would take her turn.

She rubbed her stinging eyes and turned her attention from the fire for a moment, reaching over to their dwindling stack of firewood for a few more sticks to feed the flames.

It was then that she caught a glimpse of something in the darkness.

Two large green eyes with massively dilated pupils were staring at her.

Rose froze – and for a moment they held each other's gaze.

Then, the eyes blinked, disappearing into the night. Rose continued to stare at the spot where the eyes had been, straining her own in an effort to make out her surroundings. Just a few feet from the edge of their campfire, darkness swallowed the world. She remained there, holding her breath as she listened for any sound. Yet nothing but a deep silence greeted her.

Eventually, Rose slowly let out her breath. Her senses were still on alert when she glanced back at the fire and cautiously feed a few sticks to the flames. Her gaze shifted to where Salrean slept, hidden under her blanket. She considered waking the ranger but decided against it. The eyes had been unnerving, but they could have belonged to a woodland creature, and nothing more sinister.

Whoever it was, had disappeared for the moment. Rose decided she would tell Salrean about it in the morning. For now, she would let the ranger sleep.

"You should have woken me."

Dawn was breaking over the Black Woods as Salrean packed away her blanket with deft precision. "There are few creatures living in these woods – and those that do reside here must be handled with care."

"It stared at me and then disappeared," Rose replied, frowning. "Since it didn't appear threatening, I didn't want to wake you."

Salrean shook her head and fixed Rose in a cool gaze.

"You had no idea of its intent. This far north, the Witch's servants are everywhere. They are her eyes and ears – and if last night's visitor was one, she will soon know of us."

Rose went cold at this news. She glanced over at Peri who was looking decidedly grim. He had paused, half-way through eating an apple, and glanced nervously around at their surroundings.

"Do you really think it was one of her servants?" Rose asked, her voice small.

Salrean shrugged. "Who knows? All I'm saying is that in cases like that should always wake me. A mistake like that could cost us our lives out here in the wild."

And so, it was under this sombre warning that the three companions continued their journey north, into the heart of the Black Woods. A grey light filtered down from the cracks in the canopy above, illuminating the lichen-encrusted trunks of the trees and the mossy forest floor.

The damp seeped into Rose's bones and made her limbs ache. She clutched her heavy cloak to her as she followed at Salrean's heels. Her conversation with the ranger at dawn had unnerved her. She was irritated with herself for not waking the ranger; after all they had been through she should have known better. Salrean was right – they had to be especially careful now they were in Morwyn's domain. The witch would have servants patrolling the borders of Angmar.

Mid-morning it began to drizzle. Sooner after, a heavy grey blanket settled over the Black Woods, making the place even gloomier than before. Wet, miserable and cold, the companions trudged on, while around them the woods were silent and watchful. The only sound was the crunch of twigs underfoot and the hiss of the rain of wet leaves.

At midday, they stopped for a short while. The rain had increased to a steady patter, and the travellers attempted to find some shelter under an old, gnarled pine. Seated on a log, Salrean unwrapped some cured sausage. They ate it with the last of their stale bread.

"How much food do we have left?" Peri asked as he polished off the last of his lunch. "How will we cope now the bread is gone?"

"Enough," Salrean replied. "The bread was never going to last long, but I have a batch of wafer bread wrapped in oiled cloth – 'tis a recipe from the elves, a version of their 'Lembas' bread. It should keep us going for a while yet."

The companions finished their meagre lunch in silence before continuing on their way through the rain. They had not gone far when Salrean slowed her pace, allowing Rose to draw level with her.

"Rose," she said quietly. "We have a shadow."

Icy fear prickled down Rose's spine. "Since when?"

"This morning."

"Last night's visitor?" Rose's voice rose slightly.

"I think so, he's been right behind us for a while now."

"What?"

"Keep your voice down," Salrean hissed. "Show me Sting?"

Confused, Rose threw Salrean a questioning look before pushing aside her cloak and carefully drawing Sting out of its scabbard.

The blade glowed blue.

Rose's mouth went dry and her heart started to race. "A goblin."

Salrean nodded. Her face was as serious as Rose had seen it. "Yes, and I think I know exactly who our footpad is."

Chapter Fourteen

Azil the Goblin

Rose and Peri stared back at Salrean, in wordless horror.

Sting glowed blue; the light illuminating the dark forest in which they stood. Even more shocking, Salrean had just told them that she knew their stalker's name.

It was Rose who recovered her wits to speak first.

"Who is it?"

"Do you remember, on the first night we met, I told you of how I discovered Morwyn of Angmar's plan to steal the Red Book?" Salrean asked, unsheathing her sword and casting a penetrating gaze around the forest glade.

Both Rose and Peri shook their heads.

"Remember, I told you of Azil. The goblin we captured in these woods?"

Rose stared back wide-eyed at Salrean, suddenly remembering the tale.

"The goblin that deserted the Goblin King?"

Salrean nodded.

"That's right," Rose continued. "You beat him till he told you all he knew."

Salrean shook her head, her mouth compressing. "You make me sound cruel and unreasonable. Yet, if there had been another way to make Azil talk, we would have taken it. Even with some 'persuasion', Azil spoke mostly inane babble. However, before he escaped we did manage to extract some details, including the news that Morwyn's ambitions were greater than we feared. It was from Azil that we learnt of her hatred and fear of hobbits; of her plans to destroy the Shire before taking the north of Middle Earth for her own."

"And you think it's Azil who is following us?" Peri asked, drawing the short sword he had been gifted in Farnost.

"I can't be completely sure, till I see him," Salrean replied, "but I'd say it is. I'd thought Azil would have left this desolate place after escaping us – but thinking about it, after the deep, dark of Moria, the Black Woods probably make a somewhat pleasant home. I suspect he's still here."

"So what should we do?" Rose asked.

"Watch your backs," Salrean replied, her expression hardening. "Azil is a vicious and cunning creature. He will not stay in the shadows long."

A still, damp night settled over the Black Woods. Not a breath of wind feathered the faces of the two sleeping hobbits, curled up by the smouldering fire; or stirred the hair of the woman, who had fallen asleep while taking her watch.

Salrean sat, slumped, swaying slightly as sleep dragged her down into its embrace. Occasionally, she would jerk awake, and rub her eyes in an effort to stay alert. A short while later, fatigue would best her once more.

They sat at the edge of a small glade, surrounded by moss-covered, rotting logs. The travellers' packs lay, half over-shadowed by the boughs of the nearby trees, at the far end of the campsite.

Nearby, in the deep shadows, something moved.

The woman by the fire did not appear to notice the small, wiry figure that slipped from tree to tree, gradually drawing close to the camp. Salrean seemed to pay little heed to her surroundings, as she waged war with sleep. Meanwhile, the shadow moved carefully, cautiously – ever closer to the glow of firelight in the dark woods.

A pair of large, pale eyes shifted from the immobile forms of the sleeping hobbits, to the slumped figure of the dozing female. Then, the eyes, bright with greed, fastened on the packs that had been dumped on the edge of the campsite.

Had the travellers not given a thought to who might carry them off during the night?

The prowler grinned in the darkness, revealing a mouth of small, sharp teeth. Despite that he recognised the woman, and feared her; and the fact that he had never before set eyes on a hobbit and was nervous of them, the creature longed for the contents of those three packs. There would be food – lots of it most probably – weapons and clothing. Winter was long and cruel this far north, and even though it was only early autumn, the nights were starting to get uncomfortable. These packs would contain blankets and tools which would make an exile's life much easier here in the Black Woods.

With any luck, and with the light touch that had ensured his survival out here in the wild till now, the shadow would be able to lift those three packs without being noticed, and slip away into the darkness without being seen.

The grin widened and the creature's breath hissed gently between bared teeth. He reached the edge of the shadows under the boughs of the ancient trees, and tentatively reached out a thin, sinewy, knobbly-jointed arm. The skin was an unhealthy yellow in the flickering firelight.

The spidery hand stretched towards the first pack; reaching out of the night with silent intent.

Suddenly, the darkness exploded in a flurry of movement that sent the thief reeling backwards with a squeal of fright. Too late. The shadow tried to scurry away, but not before two small, but compact and strong, hobbit bodies landed on top of its wriggling form – pinning him flat to the damp earth.

Then, a woman's voice, quiet but laced with triumph, spoke above him.

"Hello, Azil."

The flames flickered, illuminating the faces of the four figures around the small campfire. Two hobbits, one woman; and the gaunt, frightened face of one, small goblin.

They had bound their captive, from hand to foot, with rope. This time, Salrean was determined that he would not slip free during the night.

Seeing the gazes of the three individuals fixed upon him, the goblin snarled.

"Never seen a goblin before halflings?" he hissed. His eyes had narrowed into slits as he stared back at Peri without blinking.

"Unfortunately, I've seen enough of your kind in the past weeks to last me a life time," Peri snarled back. "They're usually rushing at me with the intent of sticking a blade in my belly."

In response, the goblin's snarl grew wider; as if confirming Peri's claim.

"Enough Azil," Salrean spoke up. "Spitting like a cat won't help you. Frankly, I'm surprised you let us catch you so easily. It was an old trick, and you fell for it."

"Months in this nasty wood," Azil hissed once more. "Cold, hungry and lonely – you too would take such a chance if it presented itself."

Salrean shook her head. "I would stay clear of someone I knew to be dangerous. Now, I have you again, I have no intention of letting you free."

Azil's defiance suddenly melted. He stared back at Salrean with huge eyes; appearing so vulnerable and frightened that Rose felt a stab of compassion. Anyone could see he had suffered. He was like a beaten dog, turned vicious after years of abuse. Rose knew he was a goblin, and therefore never to be trusted, but she pitied him all the same. Beside her, Peri continued to regard their captive only with distaste.

"Where will you take me?" Azil asked, his voice quavering. "Back to Farnost?"

Salrean shook her head. "We are not travelling in that direction."

Azil frowned, not understanding.

"North," Salrean continued. "We go to Carn Dûm, and you are coming with us."

The goblin's face crumpled, and for a moment Rose feared that he would start weeping.

"No," he whimpered. "It's madness. Don't take me there – anywhere but there. If you want to go to that sorceress, and kneel before her, that's your business. I want nothing to do with the Witch of Angmar. Leave me behind, I beg you."

Salrean shook her head, her face hard. "Once we leave the Black Woods behind, our journey becomes more dangerous. The landscape is rugged but exposed. You know it much better than me. You will lead us to Carn Dûm."

"You are mad!" Azil wailed, looking around at them hopelessly. His huge eyes shone with unshed tears. "What do you want there?"

"Morwyn has an item of great value, stolen from the hobbits," Salrean replied as she put another log on the fire. The flames guttered slightly before igniting the wood. "We want it back. I plan to slay Morwyn of Angmar before we leave Carn Dûm."

Azil stared back at her in horror. "You truly are mad," he whispered. "One woman and two halflings travelling through a land covered with armies of hill-men and goblins. Unless you can sprout wings and fly, you won't live long enough to reach Morwyn."

"We know of a secret way into Carn Dûm," Salrean replied coldly, "although that doesn't concern you. What does, is the terrain between the northern edge of these woods and the mountains. Unless you want to come to a painful end, here in these depressing woods, I suggest you do as you're told."

"Never!" Azil shrieked, shaking his head vigorously. "Do what you want, I'm never going back there. Never!"

"Azil," Salrean's voice was a low growl. "I'm not fond of torture, but you remember what we had to do to you last time? If you don't cooperate, I promise you it will be much worse."

"I care not!" Azil shouted at her. Tears now coursed down his thin cheeks. "Kill me if you have to but I will not return to that witch. My master is at her side. My fate in his hands will be far worse than anything you could do to me."

"Very well," Salrean's face was grim and fierce. Rose had never seen the ranger look so forbidding. At that moment, even she feared her. She watched as Salrean removed a small knife from the sheath that hung on her belt. "You leave me no choice."

The ranger got to her feet in one fluid movement and stepped around the fire towards Azil.

The goblin shrieked and cringed away from her.

"Stop!" Rose jumped to her feet and blocked Salrean from advancing further. "Don't hurt him!"

"Rose!" Peri tried to pull her back, but she shrugged him off and stood firm.

"If you hurt him, you make us just like all those ready to march south and destroy any who get in their way. He has done nothing to us. Leave him be!"

"Your soft heart does you credit, Rose," Salrean replied, shaking her head, "but here, in the wild north it will get you killed. This creature would have robbed you and then slit your throat in your sleep without compunction. Do not be fooled by his tears and whining. 'Tis all a ruse."

"Yet, he's our prisoner," Rose persisted, not giving an inch. "And he has done us no harm. If you hurt him, I won't go a step further with you."

"Rose," Salrean's voice dropped low in warning. "Be careful."

"I mean it," Rose shook her head. "There are other ways to gain obedience besides torture and terrorisation."

At that point, Rose swivelled round and met Azil's gaze. The goblin sat, staring at her, wide-eyed, as if he was looking at her for the first time. Like the others, he appeared stupefied by her protests.

"Azil," Rose began, holding his gaze. "If I give you my word that we will set you free once you have led us to Carn Dûm, will you help us?"

Azil returned her gaze, and inclined his head slightly as he gave her offer some thought.

"You can't make deals with goblins," Salrean cut in, her voice flinty with anger. "They have no honour."

"She-hobbit," Azil gave a tremulous smile, ignoring the ranger. "It seems I have little choice. I accept your offer. If you let me free once I lead you across the hills to the witch's fortress, I will help you."

Rose swivelled round and met Salrean's gaze, her own triumphant.

"See – there are other ways to obtain what you want besides intimidation."

Salrean shook her head, her face still dark with anger. She re-sheathed her knife in one vicious movement and stepped back to her side of the fire.

"You make a pact with a goblin, Rose Fairbairn," she warned, "and you pay with your own blood – and ours."

Chapter Fifteen

The Armies of Angmar

A freezing wind howled over the bleak, shrubby hills of central Angmar. It was hard to believe the weather was still mild further south; the four companions bent low into the teeth of the gale that seemed to blow straight from the frozen north. According to their goblin guide, Carn Dûm lay four days walk to the north – although that estimate was based on them not encountering any obstacles en route.

"Hordes of hill-men and goblins now guard the Witch's fortress," Azil had told them that morning as they packed up camp. "We will have travel west and skirt the fringes of their armies if we wish to reach Carn Dûm."

"Very well," Salrean had agreed. The ranger now strode at Azil's side. She did not trust the goblin and so had tied a rope around his neck with a knot that would strangle him if he tried to escape. She held the other end and let the rope fall slack between them. Rose knew, however, that the ranger was ever watchful of the goblin.

Relations between Rose and Salrean had been frosty ever since Rose's refusal to go a step further with the ranger if she hurt Azil. The ranger had warned her of the goblin's sly ways. He could not be trusted. He would try and escape at the first chance.

Rose knew all this, but was still glad of her decision.

Even Salrean did not know this land well. Azil had traversed these hills; he had hidden from the hill-men and goblins sent after him. He knew how to become one with the shadows when necessary and he would teach them to do the same.

At the end of the first day out from the Black Woods, the landscape became scarred and ugly. Deep ravines, twisted trees covered in a strange black fungus, and sharp boulders made of a pitted black stone surrounded the company for as far as the eye could see in every direction. They travelled northeast along a dried up river bed with a grey sky overhead.

"There is woodland up ahead," Azil told them, his gaze darting to Rose's face as he spoke. "Morwyn and Targkok's armies will be patrolling it – but the woods will be safer than continuing out in the open."

Rose nodded, aware that Salrean was watching her.

"Thank you Azil, that sounds like the best choice."

Azil nodded back vigorously, seemingly eager to please.

"Kind she-hobbit," he gave a smile that revealed small, yellowed and pointy teeth. "I will take you to Carn Dûm since you promise to set me free."

"Of course," Rose assured him, looking away from those feral teeth, which made her a little nervous. "As soon as you lead us to the fortress you are free to go."

A chill, windy night settled over the sparse woodland. These woods, full of skeleton trees was very different to the dense Black Woods. It was not so easy to hide here. An icy breeze whispered through the trees, ruffling the thick layer of leaves that carpeted the ground.

This close to Carn Dûm they could not risk lighting a fire. As such, the four companions huddled at the base of a huge, black elm that had a split at the base of its trunk. It was a cramped but sheltered spot and the hobbits and the ranger took turns at taking watch.

"Be wary of our prisoner," Salrean warned Rose before wrapping her thick cloak about her in preparation for trying to get some sleep. "He knows you are sympathetic to him. He will try to convince you to set him free."

"I will not!" Azil hissed, appearing affronted by the ranger's suggestion. "I made a promise and will see it out."

"The day a goblin keeps his word is the day the elves return from the west," Salrean replied. "Be careful, Rose."

With Salrean's warning ringing in her ears, Rose sat, hunched by the edge of the hollow, her eyes scanning the silent woodland. Her sight had adjusted to the darkness; yet, even so, she could make out very little.

Peri had curled up next to her, his body pressed against hers for warmth. The contact felt reassuring and Rose slowly relaxed as the rhythmic rise and fall of Peri's breathing grew deeper, signalling that he had fallen into a deep, exhausted sleep. In her hands, numbed from the cold night, she held Azil's rope.

Unlike Peri and Salrean, who were soon sleeping peacefully, the goblin did not rest. Instead, he watched Rose silently; his large eyes glowing like pale moons in the darkness.

"Why don't you sleep?" Rose asked Azil eventually, tiring of being stared at. "Surely you must be tired?"

"I cannot sleep here, so close to Carn Dûm," he responded, his voice subdued. "My master still looks for me – I dare not close my eyes lest he finds me."

"You'll have to sleep eventually," Rose answered with a shake of her head, "or you'll be no use to us."

"Why does the she-hobbit not sleep for a short while?" Azil suggested innocently. "I will keep watch."

Rose stifled a laugh at that. "I think not. You would be off in an instant, and you would steal everything we own."

Azil shook his head in vehement denial. "Never. You must not listen to the poisonous words of the ranger – those of Farnost hate my people. They will think the worst of us, even without cause."

"I think you have given them plenty of cause," Rose frowned, remembering the goblins that had attacked them outside the walls of Farnost. "In fact I know it."

"I thought you were my friend," Azil's face crumpled in hurt, "but now I see you are just like all the others."

"Friend?" Rose replied, not bothering to hide her surprise. "Of course we are friends. If you help us and keep your word, you will be my friend for life. Hobbits have long memories."

Azil nodded hesitantly before lapsing back into silence. He remained so for the rest of Rose's watch and feigned sleep when Rose gently woke Peri to take his turn.

"Watch him," Rose whispered in Peri's ear. "He may look like he's sleeping but he's not."

Peri nodded, his expression masked by darkness. Without another world, Rose bundled herself up in her cloak, pulled up her hood to shield her head and face from the cold and did her best to get some sleep.

The next morning they rose early, with the first watery streams of sunlight filtering through the naked trees. None of the companions were in high spirits. It had been a cold night and their bodies were chilled, cramped and sore.

Rose had forgotten what it felt like to be warm. She longed for nothing else but a roaring fire to warm her toes in front of. She thought of her parents' cosy hobbit hole and the crackling fire her mother would have going in the sitting room, and instantly regretted the thought. She missed her mother. She missed the Tower Hills and she missed the Shire. It would be the beginning of autumn now and the smell of wood-smoke would lace the air. Hobbits would be roasting chestnuts over open fires, cracking open the first of the walnuts and frying mushrooms in butter.

Mushrooms.

Rose's mouth watered at the thought before she banished thoughts of home and focused on the grim morning and the long day of walking ahead. There was wafer bread and hard cheese for breakfast, washed down with stale water.

They resumed their journey, walking in pairs with Azil and Salrean in front and the hobbits bringing up the rear – and they had not been walking long when Salrean halted and bent to examine tracks.

"Men," she announced. "They passed this way a short while ago. We must be careful."

Azil nodded, his bright gaze darting around him.

"They are close – I can smell them."

"Really?" Peri gave Azil a probing look. "I can't smell anything."

Azil sniffed. "Goblins have a highly developed sense of smell. There were five of them and they went east."

"I'd say the same," Salrean responded. "Come, we must move quickly. There will be others."

The company moved on, moving swiftly now, and making an effort not to stand on twigs or brush against anything that would make a noise. They had been travelling a short while when Salrean suddenly stopped once more. Her body was rigid; alerting Rose to danger.

The others watched as the ranger crouched low and crept forward towards where a thick wall of conifers blocked their view beyond. Gently, Salrean parted the branches and four pairs of eyes gazed through the gap.

Rose's breath stilled.

On the other side of the trees, just yards away from where they stood, the woodland suddenly ended. Beyond, distressingly close to the woods, a carpet of bristling spears and ragged banners that flapped in the breeze, marched north through a barren, scarred landscape.

They were men; grim-faced and dressed in swathes of grey clothing to protect them from the cold. Many wore fur coats about their shoulders. They carried crude weapons, iron blades, axes and spears, but it was their faces that frightened Rose.

They were the faces of men who had only ever known a bleak, violent world. Men that hope had forsaken.

"Hill-men," Azil hissed over Salrean's shoulder. "Patrolling the borders of Carn Dûm."

"You've led us to close to the edge of the woodland," Salrean hissed back. "We should not be this far east! You've led us into danger."

"I did not realise we were this close," Azil protested, his pale eyes bulging; his thin face rigid with panic. "I swear!"

"We need to move," Salrean swivelled, nearly colliding with her companions who were all peering over her shoulder. "Now."

The urgency in the ranger's voice, something she had only heard in moments of mortal danger, alarmed Rose. She tore her gaze away from the grey, marching mass as Salrean gently let the branches fall back into place and focused on obeying the woman who had led them this far safely. Salrean turned at moved west, pulling Azil behind her. Rose exchanged a worried glance with Peri before he followed.

Rose hesitated. Perhaps Salrean was just being over cautious. They had not been seen, at least. If they slipped away none of the hill-men would be any the wiser.

Rose was finishing this thought, and hurrying to catch Peri up, when a group of men burst out into Salrean's path from behind a thicket of coppicing trees.

With the lightening reflexes that had kept her alive on many occasions, Salrean leapt backwards, letting go of Azil's rope and drawing her long sword in one movement. The goblin let out a shriek and shuffled backwards out of Salrean's way. Peri, who was just a few paces behind, drew the sword he had been gifted at Farnost and rushed to Salrean's aid.

There were too many of them. They swarmed out of the shadows and rushed at Salrean and Peri, yelling as they came. For an instant, Rose was frozen there, watching the scene unfold. Then, Azil was hurtling towards her, arms flailing, shouting a hissing, incomprehensible tongue. A moment later, he grabbed Rose, his thin fingers biting into her flesh, and threw her over his shoulder. Azil only stood half a foot taller than Rose, and was all wiry sinew and bone; yet he was frighteningly strong. He carried her as if she weighed nothing.

"No!" Rose shouted, jolted out of her fright and began to struggle. "Let me down – set me free!"

"Stupid she-hobbit!" Azil wheezed sprinting through the trees like a hare. "If I stop now we're both dead!"

"Peri!" Rose shouted, her voice raw. "Salrean! We can't just leave them – they need us!"

"You can't help them now," Azil panted, not easing his grip for a moment. "If they're not already dead they soon will be."

"No!" Tears coursed down Rose's face and she began to writhe like a landed fish.

"Stop it!" Azil grunted, his bony fingers digging even deeper into her flesh until she gasped in pain. "Do you want to get us killed too?"

Skeleton trees rushed past in a blur and the shouting and clash of blades behind them gradually muted.

"Peri," Rose sobbed, sagging against Azil's back. She could not bear the thought of him, skewered on a hill-man's blade. He had come on this journey, to look after her. They had been so close to their destination.

It could not end like this.

Chapter Sixteen

Captives and Choices

Salrean stumbled forward and fell to her knees as a whip lashed against her back. Peri heard her breath hiss between her teeth in agony, but she did not cry out. Instead, the ranger struggled to her feet and threw a vicious look over her shoulder at the hill man behind her.

"Faster!" the man, a huge individual made even more imposing by the ragged fur cloak he wore around his broad shoulders, snarled.

A sea of hill-men, all traveling north, surged around the captives. There was no escape from them. Even if Peri and Salrean had been able to slip the bonds pinning their arms behind their backs, they could never have fought their way out through the press of humanity around them.

Even Salrean, with her warrior's heart, had conceded defeat. She had fought off as many as she could in the woods – they both had – until there were just too many assailants. At that point, Salrean had thrown her sword to the ground and raised her hands in surrender. Peri had done the same – it was either that or perish.

"I did not travel all this way to die upon a hill-man's blade," Salrean had whispered to Peri, moments before they were taken captive. "If they don't kill us now, they'll take us north to Carn Dûm. That's where we want to go."

"But we'll be her prisoners," Peri had hissed back, icy terror seeping into him. "She'll torture us – turn us into her servants!"

Salrean's face had turned fierce at that. "She can try."

Peri moved forward with Salrean, jogging to keep up with her long stride. She knew better than to insult the whip-wielder; he had the look of a man who was just waiting for an excuse to beat someone to death. Peri had felt the touch of that whip earlier; and his shoulders still burned from it. He was exhausted, but still he jogged on, terrified of hearing that tell-tale whistle cut the air behind him.

It was a cold, sunless afternoon; the world was grey from one horizon to the other. Little seemed to grow this far north and the few plants that did were spiny and stunted. The wind blew in Peri's face, causing his eyes to water. He had long lost all sensation in his cheeks and nose.

All the while, as he marched north surrounded by the hill-men horde, Peri thought about Rose.

Where was she – and where was that sly goblin who had led them straight into danger?

Terrifying thoughts about what might have happened to her distracted him from his own plight, from the fatigue in his limbs and the raw wind the chilled him to the bone. He could not stand the thought of being parted from her; could not bear to think that she was hurt, lost – or dead.

Curse Azil, he thought bitterly. This is all his doing. If I ever set eyes on the ferret again, I shall wring his deceitful throat.

Rose slumped onto the leafy ground and fought the urge to lie down and close her eyes. She wanted nothing more than to block out the world. After leaving Peri and Salrean to those hill-men – where they were likely to have met their deaths – a terrible sense of hopelessness had consumed her.

Azil, who had carried her all this way without rest, sank down next to her. His breath rattled in his chest.

"We outran them," he wheezed, triumphant despite his exhaustion. "We lost them, she-hobbit."

"Yes," Rose looked up at him, her face bleak, "but we left Salrean and Peri behind."

Azil returned her gaze steadily. He did not pretend to look sorry, for he was not. He was a creature that would do anything to survive, even if it meant leaving others to die. Frankly, Rose was stunned that he had risked his own neck to save her; even if there was part of her that wished he had left her behind.

"I can't go on without them," she whispered, fresh tears stinging her eyes. "We were companions; the quest depended on us staying together."

Azil continued to observe her, before shrugging. Around them the shadows were lengthening; turning the grey, skeleton woods even gloomier.

"It will be night soon," he observed. "I have taken us west, almost to the edge of the woods. We should be safe here till morning."

"And what then?"

Azil met her gaze, his pale eyes frighteningly intense. "I made you a promise, she-hobbit," he told her, although the regret in his tone was evident. "And Azil is true to his word. I will take you north to Carn Dûm if you wish it – to the secret way in the ranger spoke of – but no further."

Rose stared back at him, stunned. She had not expected this.

It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him it mattered not, that she would not go a step further north without her companions at the her side, but she held her tongue. Such an offer was generous – and would not be made twice.

"I'm not sure I can continue," she finally admitted hesitantly. "I don't think I'm strong enough to do this alone."

"That is for you to decide," Azil replied with another shrug, before heaving himself to his feet. He was so tired that he swayed slightly. "The offer is there. You have tonight to decide. In the morning I will take you on to Carn Dûm, or back the way we came – the choice is yours."

Azil looked away from Rose then, his gaze darting around the darkening woods. "Let us find somewhere safe to rest," he told her. "For it is not safe out here in the open – it is not safe anywhere this far north."

Rose nodded numbly before stiffly climbing to her feet. She followed the goblin through the trees while he searched for a suitable spot to camp. They walked for a while, and it was nearly dark by the time Azil found a place he was happy with. It was a small hollow, under a bank full of tree roots. There, they wedged themselves in like two badgers and watched as the last rays of light disappeared from the world and darkness fell.

They had little in the way of food – for Peri had been carrying the bulk of their supplies – so supper was one stale piece of wafer bread shared between them.

"I will hunt for rabbits tomorrow," Azil promised her, "juicy and sweet ones."

Rose nodded and gave him a weak smile, although misery had robbed her of an appetite. She was so hungry that her stomach felt knotted and painful – yet the thought of Peri dying at the hands of those hill-men made it difficult to swallow the dry wafer bread.

After their meagre supper, the pair lapsed into silence. Azil, used to solitude, was not a chatterer. Rose was relieved that he left her alone; even if her thoughts were bleak and painful.

She lay awake for many hours, on her back, listening to the night. Sleep did not come easily. She had too much on her mind – and an important decision to make.

"I have decided," Rose told Azil the next morning. They had just climbed out of their burrow and were stretching their stiff, cold limbs. "We shall go north to Carn Dûm."

Azil nodded, his expression giving nothing away. Rose knew he loathed the thought of going anywhere near that ruined fortress, yet this morning he hid his feelings.

"And why?" he queried, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Now that your companions have gone, what do you hope to gain from entering the Witch's lair?"

"I don't know they're dead," Rose voiced the thought that had plagued her for most of the night. "In fact, I imagine Morwyn has instructed her servants to bring anyone trying to reach Carn Dûm directly to her. I believe Salrean and Peri are still alive – and even if there's but a glimmer of hope, I must try to rescue them."

Azil regarded her silently for a moment, an odd expression on his wizened face.

"I do not understand hobbits," he admitted eventually. "You look soft and foolish, like children, and yet you have a core of iron. The stories really are true then…"

"What stories?"

Azil hesitated a moment, as if unwilling to explain further.

"I grew up in the dark of Moria," he said eventually, "and heard many a tale of hobbits, and how they defeated the great Sauron. I expected fierce creatures, wily survivors like we goblins – instead you appeared bumbling and innocent. I can see I was deceived – you are like the stories."

Rose smiled at that. "Indeed you were deceived. Although not all of us are made of the same mettle as Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. Most of us are as unadventurous as we look."

The goblin snorted at that. "Not you though. Come, we still have at least three days hard travel ahead of us – and many a servant of Morwyn to slip by. The days are shorter this far north, we must make the most of the daylight."

Rose nodded and, wrapping her cloak tightly about her to ward of the morning's chill, followed Azil into the trees.

"We are nearing Carn Dûm."

Azil's announcement, mid-afternoon on the third day of travel, caught the hobbit by surprise. He had not spoken more than a handful of works since daybreak; the further north they travelled through the bleak woods, the more morose he had become. Rose sensed it took his entire will not to abandon her and flee south. Only the fact that he had given her his word kept him going.

He looked nervous now, his eyes darting around as if he expected goblins to erupt from the trees at any moment.

"I have taken you west," he explained, his voice a low whispering hiss, "to the rocky slopes just beyond the towers of the stronghold. Very soon we shall see it."

Rose nodded, remembering Barandur's words. It seemed like an age ago now – yet she was glad that she had, indeed, memorised his instructions – for there was no one else present to remind her of them.

To the west of the towers of Carn Dûm, there is a collection of jagged rocks that climb the mountainside. Make your way into the centre of them, and under a sharp rock, darker than all the others, you will find a tunnel. It will take you deep under Carn Dûm, into the dungeons; from there you can make your way up into the fortress itself.

As Azil had warned, the bare trees gradually grew sparser, and the landscape rockier. A chill mist crept across the ground, its thin tendrils snaking around their legs as they walked. The earth was parched and bare; what little grass grew was pale, wispy and dry. It was a barren, lonely land and Rose would have given anything to be back in her parents' hobbit hole at that moment. Still, she forced herself on, following the goblin up an incline.

There, at the top, she had her first glimpse of Angmar's infamous fortress.

Carn Dûm was even more forbidding than she had expected, and even at this distance she could feel malevolence radiating out from it. She and Azil stood on the edge of a rocky valley. On the side nearest to them, Rose spied the jagged rocks that Barandur had described, where she would have to venture to find the secret way in. The fortress sat to the east, partly obscured by rocky outcrops and swirling mist. Austere, black towers – some completely ruined, others less so – and topped with horned turrets, rose into the pale sky. Crumbling walls and fortifications snaked along the rocky outcrops around the fortress, making Carn Dûm look as if it was part of the landscape. Rose had expected the ancient citadel to be more of a shell, however it appeared that the Witch of Angmar had been industrious of late. The Witch Tower rose high above all the others, its obsidian surface pitted with age.

Rose's gaze seized upon the great tower and she shuddered. She could not imagine taking one step further, yet it was to that evil place that she must journey.

She only hoped that, if she indeed managed to reach it, that she would find Salrean and Peri alive when she arrived.

Chapter Seventeen

The Way In

The goblin turned to Rose, watching her silently. Even after days in the goblin's company, she found his bulbous eyes with their topaz irises and pinprick pupils disconcerting. It was almost impossible to gauge his feelings, or even begin to guess at what he was thinking.

On the last stretch of their journey to Carn Dûm, Azil had grown quiet and introspective. Now, as the ancient, dark towers of the Witch-king of Angmar's fortress rose against the eastern sky, the goblin looked as if he would prefer to be anywhere in Middle Earth than here.

The pair stood on the edge of a rocky gully, with the woods behind them. There was no one about; although Rose felt exposed out here and knew that they would have to move on soon.

Rose glanced down at her sword. Even now, she could see the bright blue glow of its blade, visible even through the leather scabbard that encased it. It had glowed ever since they had captured Azil. She had just begun to get used to the eerie blue light surrounding them at night.

"I have brought you to the fortress," Azil said, his gaze flicking to where Carn Dûm's dark shadow rose beyond Rose's shoulder. "I will leave you now."

"You kept your word," Rose replied with a tremulous smile, "as you said you would. Thank you Azil."

The goblin's pale gaze flicked back to her. He nodded and started to back away from her, eager to return to the relative safety of the skeleton woods.

"Go now," he hissed, "before one her servants spies you."

Rose nodded, her mouth suddenly dry from terror at the prospect of what lay before her.

"Will you not come with me Azil?"

The goblin froze, mid-shuffle.

"What? You promised me that this would be enough – why do you ask this now?"

"I did," Rose replied evenly, trying not to let her fear show in her voice, "and I know I cannot demand more. Yet, if you would accompany me into Carn Dûm, and help me rescue my friends, we might stand a chance. As it is, I don't know how I will manage it on my own."

"She-hobbit," Azil hissed, his wiry frame bristling from head to toe. "I did what you bid. I have brought you to Carn Dûm. That is all. Don't ask anything else of me!"

"Please Azil," Rose spread her hands and took a step towards him. "You know things have not worked out as we planned. Salrean and Peri should be here with us now. I was never supposed to venture into those tunnels alone. The seer, who told us about the secret entrance, also told me that the way in is dangerous. How will I ever make it through on my own?"

"That is not my concern," Azil looked truly angry now. His thin face was twisted, his eyes narrowed into glittering slits. "What do I care if you and your friends perish here? You are all nothing to me."

"But I thought we were friends?" Rose demanded, horrified.

"I don't have friends," Azil snarled. "Is this your idea of friendship she-hobbit? Dragging me into danger with you?"

Rose did not answer. The goblin had backed a few yards from her now. Another step or two further and he would be gone. She realised then that it was hopeless. No amount of pleading would make Azil change his mind.

Salrean and Peri were right – he is a selfish, cunning creature, incapable of truly caring for anyone else.

"Very well, Azil," she said, forcing a smile, although dread was making her feel ill and cold inside. "I can only ask. I wish you good fortune for wherever your road leads. Goodbye."

Azil's face twisted even further, and Rose thought for a moment that he would curse her. Then, he turned and melted into the shadows, without another word; leaving her alone.

Rose took a deep, shuddering breath and tore her gaze from the boughs where the goblin had disappeared. She was on her own now, she would not be able to look to Azil for assistance.

She turned her back to the woods and pulled up the cowl of her cloak before beginning to pick her way down the side of the gorge. Her feet slid on the loose shale and she had to grab on to tree roots to steady herself during the descent. All the while, her gaze flicked left and right, making sure she was still alone.

By the time Rose reached the bottom of the gorge, her heart was thundering so loudly she was surprised Morwyn herself, ensconced in the Witch Tower, could not hear it.

A chill mist curled around her ankles as she picked her way across the open ground towards where the first of the sharp rocks climbed the mountainside. She was half-way across, her gaze riveted upon her destination now, when she heard the thump of booted feet and the clang of shields and spears approaching from the east.

A patrol.

Rose gave up any pretence at stealth and bolted for the rocks. She flung herself behind the first one and flattened herself against the cold ground, just as the men rounded the corner and clattered towards her. There she lay, hardly daring to breathe, waiting until they passed by. She could hear the rough voices of men, accompanied by the hiss and cackle of goblins – and although she wanted to see how many of them there were, she did not risk a peek over the edge of her hiding place, in fear that a few of them had lingered behind the rest.

Only when the sound of thundering feet and clanking armour and weaponry faded into the distance, did Rose dare get to her feet and continue on her way. Her legs were shaking as she climbed the razor-sharp rocks, and she had to stop intermittently to regain control of her nerves.

You can't go into Carn Dûm like this, she berated herself. Look at you – you're so frightened you can hardly walk!

Up and up she climbed, grateful for the tendrils of mist that crept up from the valley floor below, for at least it concealed her. Yet, as she climbed, her dread turned to worry. Barandur had spoken of a rock, hidden in the middle of the others, darker than all the rest.

They all looked the same to her.

The rocks were densely packed; some so close together that even Rose could not squeeze herself between them. She was often forced to make detours around some clusters, while trying to make sure she was still heading for the heart of the rocks, as the seer had instructed.

Rose searched all afternoon, but did not find the way into Carn Dûm.

Sweat trickled down her back, and her vision eventually speckled with exhaustion, but she doggedly continued her search. However, there was no rock darker than the others. They were all the same; sharp, grey rocks made of a pitted volcanic stone. As hard as she looked, Rose could not find one that stood out from the rest.

Eventually, the light began to fade. The mist thickened, obscuring Rose's surroundings and making it impossible to continue her search.

Fighting tears, Rose collapsed in a narrow space between two rocks.

It was hopeless, she would never find the secret way in.

She lay on her side, eyes clenched shut, and attempted to stem the panic rising in her breast. Despite that she was sweating from exertion, the cold had deepened with the setting sun. It would be a chill night, and she would not be able to light a fire. It would be a long night out here in the shadow of that evil fortress.

Perhaps Barandur lied. The fear that had been growing in her mind all afternoon, surfaced. Maybe Rendur had been right, after all. She had preferred Barandur to Salrean's ruthless father, but that did not mean he had not fooled them all.

Rose sat up, leaning her back against the rock behind her and drawing her knees up against her chest. Just the thought that she might have spent the afternoon searching for a way in that did not exist, made her feel ill. If there was no secret entrance then they really were all doomed, for Rose could not venture any close to Carn Dûm without risking capture.

The last rays of light disappeared from the world and an icy, still night settled over Angmar.

Huddled up in her cloak in an attempt to keep the chill at bay, Rose tried not to dwell on her predicament. She also tried not to give rein to her fears and worries.

There is no secret tunnel into Carn Dûm.

Salrean and Peri are dead.

I will never return home to the Shire.

With an effort, Rose pushed such bleak thoughts aside. Her fears would not help her now. Despite her misery, Rose felt her stomach grumble in protest. She had not eaten since that morning. All she had left in her pack was a small pouch of seeds, nuts and dried fruits. Once that ran out there was nothing else; as such, Rose took a measured handful and ate her light supper slowly, chewing each mouthful as if it were her last. Rose finished her meagre meal and took a measured gulp of water from her half-empty bladder. Azil had trapped a few rabbits on the journey here, ensuring that they had not gone hungry, but without his help she would surely starve if left to her own devices.

Curse that goblin. Tears stung Rose's eyelids. Why did he bother saving my life before if he was going to abandon me here?

She should never have expected loyalty from such a creature. The fault was her own. He could not be something he was not. It was a miracle that he had kept his word and led her to Carn Dûm. He had plainly been terrified of going anywhere near the fortress for fear of being recaptured and brought before his king.

Do not blame Azil for the mess you're in, she told herself wearily. It was my decision to travel north with Salrean. I could have refused Rendur but I did not. Not all adventures are like those in the Red Book. Not all adventures have happy endings.

The night passed slowly, as only cold nights can. Rose did not sleep. She was afraid that if she did, the cold might claim her. The darkness and bone-numbing chill brought bleak thoughts and galloping fears – ones that were easy enough to dismiss in daylight; but in the darkness they loomed like wraiths.

Eventually, a grey dawn lightened the eastern sky.

Rose ate another handful of nuts and seeds before rising stiffly to her feet. A day of searching lay before her – she would not give up yet. If she walked away from here without knowing for certain that no secret way in existed, she would never be able to live with herself.

Peri's in Carn Dûm, somewhere. She rubbed her stinging eyes and mentally prepared herself for the day ahead. I will not leave him there.

The dawn took its time to reach Rose's hiding place, between the shadows of two huge boulders. She waited until there was enough light for her to see clearly; it was a hard enough search without squinting in the half-light.

As she waited, Rose continued to stretch her cramped limbs. She felt like a very old hobbit this morning, not like one in her tweens. The cold and damp had tightened her muscles and stiffened her joints. She stretched her back and leant her neck back in an effort to loosen her shoulder muscles, her gaze turning towards the sky as she did so.

Rose froze mid-stretch.

There, rising high above the surrounding rocks, its pointed tip thrusting into the lightening sky was a rock, different to the others. It was almost black and made of a smooth, gleaming stone, unlike the others that were rough and pitted.

Despite her fatigue, Rose's face broke into a grin.

There it was; the rock Barandur had spoken off. She had slept under its shadow all night without even realising.

It took her moments to skirt the edge of the boulder she had slept next to before reaching the base of the great, dark rock behind it. Moments later, she discovered the shallow cave at the rock's base – and entering the cave she found an iron trap door.

She stood there for a moment, staring down at the trap door that was rusted with age and encrusted with mildew, and was suddenly overcome by warring hope and fear at what lay beyond it.

Yet, come what may, there lay the way in to Carn Dûm. She must take it.

Chapter Eighteen

The Dungeons of Carn Dûm

It was dark and damp inside the cell. A deep chill – one that came from the absence of sunlight, year after year – permeated the stone. Peri sat, his knees pulled up against his chest, staring into the darkness. He was sitting on his folded cloak, in an effort to make himself more comfortable; yet the fetid, sunless cell was starting to erode his endurance.

This was the end of their journey. After a terrifying trek north, whipped and menaced by Morwyn's servants, the sight of Carn Dûm had made Peri's step falter. Its dark towers loomed against a backdrop of barren mountainside and pale sky. He would have fallen if Salrean had not been there to grab hold of his arm and keep him moving. The hillmen had herded them in to the base of the fortress, but had not taken them before the Witch of Angmar as Salrean had predicted. Instead, they had dragged their prisoners deep underground, down endless moss-covered stone steps to this vile, airless dungeon.

Peri had lost track of time since their arrival at Carn Dûm. At least four meals had passed, although the time between them was long enough for hunger to twist their stomachs cruelly. The food the goblin guards brought was barely palatable: hard, coarse bread that stuck in their throats, and foul tasting gruel and water that tasted of iron and mould. Yet, Salrean and Peri were so hungry that they ate it without complaint.

Perhaps she will leave us here to rot, Peri thought; despair consuming him. I will never see daylight again.

"Peri," Salrean's voice intruded upon his dark thoughts. "You have not spoken in a while – are you well?"

"Not really," Peri replied, closing his eyes and resting his forehead on his knees. "Much longer in this place and I will go mad."

Peri heard a noise beside him as Salrean inched closer to him. A moment later, he felt her arm settle around his shoulders.

"I am sorry, Peri," she said, her voice laced with sadness. "This is all my doing. I should never have agreed to my father's plan."

"'Tis too late for regrets now," Peri replied, leaning against her. The warmth and solace the simple contact brought made his eyes sting with tears. "We all knew the risks."

Salrean squeezed her arm around him tighter in response. "I know," her voice was barely above a whisper. "I just wish that I had not been so eager to please my father. Ethorn was right – he is unpleasable. It's the Red Book my father wants, and he would go to any lengths to get it."

"He would not send you into danger if he didn't think there was hope," Peri replied. "I agree that he is ruthless and ambitious – but you are still his daughter. If you do not return to Farnost, he will grieve."

"Perhaps," bitterness tinged Salrean's voice. "Yet, these days in the darkness have made me realize things that I had not wished to see before. If we survive this, if we see daylight again, I will no longer do my father's bidding without question. The days of acting as his puppet have ended."

Rose heaved the iron lid open and peered down into the inky depths beyond. Suddenly, she did not wish to go a step further. She would have preferred to stay out here, in the open air.

Yet, Salrean and Peri were inside the Witch of Angmar's lair – and remaining here would not help them.

Wishing she had a torch to light her way, her stomach knotted in dread, Rose sat down at the edge of the trap door and lowered herself gingerly down into the darkness. Her feet reached the rungs of an iron ladder and she gripped onto it as she climbed down under the earth.

The open trap door above cast a little light for the first few feet, before darkness swallowed her. Down she climbed, at least ten yards, before she stepped onto a cold stone floor. Glancing up, Rose took one last look at the pale window of light above and struggled to calm her fears.

She had never liked the darkness. If only Azil were here, she would not feel so alone – so frightened.

Steadying her breathing, Rose turned then and unsheathed Sting from its scabbard. The blade was dark, telling her that there were no goblins about. Yet, although this knowledge was welcome in one sense, she found herself wishing the blade glowed brightly. At least, she could have used Sting's glow to find her way in the darkness.

Rose began to walk, waving Sting in front of her as she did so, in an effort to prevent herself from colliding with any objects.

After a few steps, the blade clanged dully against stone and, reaching out, Rose discovered a damp, stone wall. Keeping Sting held tightly in her right hand, she felt her way along the wall with her left. After a few more steps, the floor started to slope downwards.

Although the blackness was impenetrable, Rose realized that she was in a long stone tunnel that stretched down into the roots of the mountain under Carn Dûm. Glad of her silent Hobbit feet, which barely made a sound as she journeyed further away from the secret way in, she focused on keeping her breathing steady and letting her senses of hearing, touch and smell compensate for the fact that she was now travelling blind.

The further she journeyed, the steeper the corridor became. The dread which Rose had managed to control initially, surfaced once more. How much further would she have to travel down before she could claw her way back to the surface?

Eventually, however, the long corridor came to an end.

The wall that Rose had felt her way along, fell back and she stepped gingerly down onto a set of worn steps. Before her, for the first time since climbing down into the tunnel, there was a little light here – for she stood on the edge of a wide cavern and a subterranean lake. A weak shaft of light, full of drifting dust motes, pierced the darkness from high above. The light illuminated the cavern – revealing the conical stalactites that hung from the high roof, and the dark surface of the lake in its centre.

Blinking like a mole surfacing from its burrow, Rose gazed around the cavern. A narrow path led around the rim of the lake, and on the cavern walls she could see numerous tunnel entrances, like the one she had just emerged from. If she ever made it back here, after saving her friends, she would need to remember which tunnel led to the secret entrance. Rose paused for a moment, and dug into the small leather pack she carried on her back, pulling out a woollen scarf. Her mother had knitted it, three years earlier; it was one of Rose's favourite items of clothing and she was loath to leave it behind. Yet, she had nothing else to use as a marker.

She knelt and wrapped the scarf around one of the many stones littering the floor of the cavern, before placing it to the left of the tunnel she had just exited.

I will make it back here, she told herself. We all will.

Rose descended the steps to the path ringing the lake.

She did not like the look of that lake – it was too dark and still – and she imagined all manner of foul creatures lurking beneath its black surface. As such, she was careful to make as little noise as possible as she skirted the water's edge.

However, as disquieting as this cavern was, there was a greater issue that drew Rose's attention – one that made her heart start to race and her mouth go dry with fear.

There were at least a dozen entrances along the cavern wall. Which one should she take?

There was no way to know. Each tunnel entrance looked identical – there were no markers or signs. Rose needed to get into the base of the fortress, from where she could make her way to the Witch's Tower. Yet, these tunnels could lead anywhere.

She padded along the path, pausing at each entrance a moment before continuing. Reaching the far edge of the cavern, she then turned and retraced her steps.

She had no choice – she would just have to choose one of the tunnels and hope for the best.

You can always return here and take another path, she told herself, provided that the tunnel you choose does not lead to certain death.

Rose stopped at the third last tunnel from the far end of the cavern and took a deep breath.

She would take this one.

Glancing back at the subterranean lake that rippled slightly as a breeze from one of the tunnels caressed its surface, Rose squared her shoulders and climbed the steps to the tunnel.

Inside, she stepped into pitch black once more. She did not like the smothering darkness but this time managed to suppress her panic. As before, she made her way along the tunnel using her left hand as a guide along the wall, and waving Sting in the darkness with her right.

To her relief, the tunnel sloped upwards immediately. Finally, she was heading back towards the sunlight.

Rose climbed for a long while before the tunnel levelled out. When she reached its end, her legs were heavy with fatigue. She leant for a while against the chill wall, recovering from the climb, before taking a measured couple of sips from her rapidly emptying water bladder.

I should have refilled it in the lake, she thought – before realizing that it was probably a good thing she had not. Best not disturb whatever lives in that place.

Now that the tunnel had ended, Rose felt her way around the surrounding wall, realising that she was in a wider space. Her flagging spirits lifted when her fingers fastened around the handle of a wooden torch that hung from a wall bracket.

Grinning in the darkness, Rose removed the torch from the bracket and fumbled in her pockets for the flint that she always carried. She struck the flint against the wall and, eventually, managed to light the tallow torch. Tender flames flickered to life, suddenly illuminating her surroundings in a warm, golden glow.

Rose looked around her, and saw that she stood on the edge of a great stone gallery. A number of unlit torches hung from the walls, lining a long column of massive pillars that stretched ahead of her. She set off between the rows of pillars, grateful for the torch that now lit her way.

Rose had been walking for a short while, when Sting started to glow – it was very faint, but the eerie blue was unmistakable. The sight did not frighten Rose as much as in the past, for if Sting had awoken then perhaps this was the right tunnel after all. Yet, she still gripped her sword's hilt tightly at the sight of it.

Rose slowed her step, her gaze darting around her.

She had only travelled a few yards further when a sound made her skid to a halt. A strange whispering echoed down the empty gallery, and moments later a chill breeze ruffled Rose's hair.

What was that?

She was still standing there, trying to decide whether she should continue, when a huge shadow, at least twice the size of a man, detached itself from behind one of the pillars. The whispering echoed towards her once more and Rose felt her blood run cold.

Barandur had warned her that many dangers lurked in the tunnels under Carn Dûm. She had seen the haunted look in the seer's eyes when he had spoken of it. She suddenly wished she had taken more notice. She wished they had questioned him about it.

Rose stepped hurriedly backwards, readying herself to turn and flee – her gaze riveted on the looming figure that stepped out into the torchlight.

Chapter Nineteen

The Witch of Angmar

The gigantic shadow fell across Rose. She scuttled backwards, still grasping the torch, her gaze riveted upon the figure that had stepped out from behind one of the pillars.

Rose's breath caught when the flickering torchlight illuminated the creature before her. Terror caused her to stumble and she nearly dropped her precious torch.

The thing before her was tall, even bent double as it was. Long, naked, sinewy limbs protruded from the tattered remains of a black cloak. The clothing was so decayed that it appeared like a ravaged pelt, fluttering in the breeze that now whistled through the gallery.

The face of a cadaver, a visage that had never been human, stared at her; a maw of predator's teeth opened wide in greeting as the creature grinned. Deep-set topaz eyes bored into Rose, gleaming with a feral intelligence.

Hands, skeletal claws with unnaturally long fingers, tipped in meat-hook talons, reached towards its intended victim, grasping.

"Greetings," the ghoul spoke in a deep, raspy voice. "Long, have I waited for a visitor. Long, have I feasted on rats and insects in this forgotten hall. Today, I will dine on juicy flesh. Come?"

The spidery fingers beckoned. "Come to me, sweet one. If you run, I will catch you."

Rose continued to back away from the ghoul, trembling with terror. Not knowing what else to do, she raised Sting. The blade, wavering before her, now glowed bright, casting the gallery in an eerie light. The spectre's yellow gaze seized upon the sword; its eyes narrowed slightly.

"What do we have here?" it mused, "An elf-blade."

Rose could not bring herself to respond. Terror had crushed her throat in a vice. Why was Sting glowing so? Was the creature before her a goblin of some kind? However, she knew goblins to be afraid of elf-blades – whereas this creature merely studied it with interest.

"Curious," it hissed. "A female halfling, alone in my hall with an elf-blade. Who are you girl. Tell me before I feast on your sweet flesh."

Rose shook her head, gritting her teeth. "I will tell you nothing," she ground out. "I have business elsewhere. Let me pass."

The ghoul laughed at that, a wheezing rattle in its skeletal chest that made it sound as was drawing its last breath.

"You're mine halfling – and if you will not tell me who you are, I will waste no more words on you."

With that, the ghoul lunged.

Despite that it was bent over, giving it a decrepit and frail appearance, the creature moved with frightening speed.

Rose screamed and scrambled backwards. She attempted to turn and run, but tripped in panic and sprawled to the ground. The torch flew out of her grip and rolled across the flagstone floor. Rose rolled onto her back, bringing Sting up to defend herself. The ghoul loomed above her, those clawed hands reaching down – and Rose screamed again.

It would have had her, she was certain of it, if someone had not come to her rescue.

A figure, small and lithe, sprung from the shadows. A sword slashed at the ghoul's grasping arms and Rose's attacker reared back in shock. It did not realise that another had entered its domain.

Rose scrambled backwards along the damp stone, attempting to get to her feet as Azil the goblin went after her attacker once more. The creature staggered back, hissing in rage.

Rose had no time to register surprise at Azil's presence here. He had not saved her; only bought them both time. The goblin brandished an iron sword, only slightly larger than Sting.

"Hurry!" Azil shouted. "Get past it!"

Rose rolled to her feet and lunged for the torch that lay sputtering a few feet away. Then, she darted right, skirting the edge of the columns, in an attempt to do as Azil bid. A moment later, a small, sinewy form appear at her shoulder. She caught a glimpse of the goblin's yellow eyes, wide with fright, and knew they were far from safe.

A shriek suddenly echoed down the gallery, echoing of the ancient stone.

"You are both mine!"

"Run!" Azil hissed.

Once more, Rose obeyed with hesitation. Together, goblin and hobbit sprinted, shoulder-to-shoulder along the darkened gallery, in between the rows of towering columns. Behind them, a terrifying shadow rapidly closed the gap. It was as if they were pursued by a twister, a force of nature, rather than a living being. The breeze that had feathered against their skin earlier now turned into a roaring gale.

"There is no escape!" the ghoul keened. "I will have you!"

Yet hobbits and goblins are fleet creatures, both smaller and lighter than men. Rose and Azil ran as if Sauron himself pursued them. The columns flew by in a blur; and yet, the ghoul closed the gap. It ran in long, loping strides. Rose heard the rasp of its breath, so close that she could feel it on the back of her neck.

Despair welled within her; they would never outrun it.

Up ahead, loomed a great stone archway. Azil and Rose were just a few paces from it, when Rose felt something grab hold of her cloak. The tearing sound of rending cloth followed before Rose was yanked backwards, off her feet.

The ghoul had grabbed hold of the hood of Rose's cloak, and she hung from its claw as it swung her towards its gaping mouth.

"Let go of me!"

Rose gripped Sting's hilt with both hands and lashed out at the sinewy arm above her head. The blade dug deep and the ghoul let out a terrible scream; a sound that nearly made Rose dropped her weapon in fright. The creature did let go of her then, and Rose fell to the flagstones. Sting's blade came free of the ghoul's flesh with a strange sucking noise.

Eyes ablaze, the creature staggered back, clutching its arm.

"Elf-blade!" it wailed, "It burns!"

Not waiting for the ghoul to recover, Azil grabbed Rose under the armpits and hauled her to her feet. Without another word, the pair fled to the end of the gallery and disappeared through the archway.

The goblin guards came for them shortly after their daily meal of dry bread and gruel. Peri had been laying on his side, eyes closed, and his mind numb with despair, when the sound of heavy boots roused him.

He sat up and heard Salrean do the same nearby.

Wordlessly, they sat and listened as the footsteps drew nearer. Then, a key grated in the lock and the heavy cell door swung inward. The low passageway outside was dimly lit by small clay cressets, yet both prisoners were unused to the light, after days of being locked up in the dark. Peri turned his face away and covered his eyes with a hand.

"Time to meet the Lady of this fortress," one of the goblin's cackled, glee in its voice as it entered the cell and hauled Peri to his feet. "She is eager to make your acquaintance."

Peri said nothing, allowing himself to be pulled upright. His limbs were stiff and sore and he stumbled when the guard dragged him out into the passage way. Moments later, another goblin 'escorted' Salrean out of the cell – shoving her so hard that she collided with the wall. Peri, turned to his companion, his eyes watering as his vision adjusted.

Salrean's face was gaunt, her eyes hollowed – yet in their depths Peri saw anger flicker. Even after days in that cell, they had not beaten her. Peri felt a surge of respect for the ranger; her strength awed him. The sight of her resolution gave him solace, and courage. Neither of them were beaten.

The goblins led them up through a network of narrow passages and twisting stairwells into the Keep of Carn Dûm. The further they climbed, the fresher the air became. Peri breathed deeply, relieved to be free of the damp foulness of the dungeons. He would rather die than return there.

Much of the Keep was in ruin. A cold wind breathed in through crumbling windows, revealing a dull sky outside. It felt as if winter had truly arrived here in the bleak north. The chill stung Peri's face but he did not care; the fresh air and weak sunlight was a balm on his skin. They travelled through many lofty hallways, all of them deserted, stepping over fallen statues and navigating their way around piles of rubble from where some of the walls had caved in. Peri could see that, even at its height, Carn Dûm had never been a warm, welcoming place. The fortress was made out of a dark, pitted stone and Peri shivered at the atmosphere; the evil that had built Carn Dûm, stone by stone, and now resided here once more, was palpable.

The goblins prodded and poked them with hard fingers, urging their prisoners on whenever, their pace slowed.

Peri knew exactly where they were taking them, and wagered that Salrean did as well.

The Witch Tower of Carn Dûm.

Eventually they reached a vast archway of dark stone with a wide circular stairwell beyond. Peri glanced at Salrean, and she stared back at him before giving a barely perceptible nod. Their audience with the Witch of Angmar was just moments away.

Peri climbed the stairwell, the muscles in his calves and thighs screaming after days of inactivity. On the way up, they passed tiny windows, little more than narrow slits that let in shafts of watery sunlight. Unlike the rest of the fortress, the Witch Tower appeared to be in a good state of repair. There were signs of fresh masonry and mortar. The mistress of Carn Dûm obviously did not wish to reside in a ruin.

They reached the top of the stairwell and crossed a landing to where two more goblins, dressed in iron and leather armour, stood before a heavy oak door. These guards bore long spears and wore helmets that obscured all but the lower half of their faces. Peri noted that these two were bigger than the goblins he had seen until now, more muscular with a greenish tinge to their skin. He wondered if these were orcs.

"We bring the prisoners," one of the goblins accompanying Peri and Salrean hissed. "Let us pass."

The orc guards stepped to one side, and pulled the great doors open.

Peri's heart hammered violently when the goblin behind him shoved him forward. "In you go halfling. Our Lady awaits!"

Peri and Salrean entered a wide chamber with a high, flat roof. The same long, thin windows ringed the space and a silvery light illuminated the interior. It was sparsely furnished, with a heavy tapestry shielding the back of the chamber from view.

On a stone plinth to the right of the door sat the Red Book. However, Peri's attention grazed over the object that had caused him and Rose to leave the Shire and embark upon this doomed quest. Instead, his attention wholly focused on the two individuals standing in the centre of the chamber.

A tall, dark-haired woman and a heavy-set goblin.

Morwyn of Angmar and Targkok, the Goblin King.

The Witch of Angmar was not what Peri had expected. He had thought to see an old hag, bent and aged. Yet, the woman before him was tall, statuesque and ageless in appearance. She was dressed in black robes, made of satin and silk, her fingers sparkling with garnets. On her feet she wore jewelled slippers and about her neck a glittering obsidian necklace. She was not beautiful – her features were too harsh – her bone-structure too angular and jutting – yet her hair was thick and shiny, falling in a straight, dark curtain about her shoulders, without a strange of white in it. On her head she wore a simple iron crown.

It was not the face of evil – yet Peri knew that wickedness did not always show itself at first glance. He gazed into the woman's dark eyes, and felt his body go cold, as if he had stepped up to the neck in a frozen pond. She had a pitiless gaze and when she smiled at him, there was not a shred of warmth there.

"Pericles Took and Salrean of Farnost," Morwyn had a soft voice that slid across the still chamber like a caress. "Welcome."

Chapter Twenty

Secrets and Betrayal

Rose turned to Azil, her heart still hammering against her ribs like a trapped bird.

"What in the name of the Shire was that foul thing?"

"A wight," the goblin replied grimly. "One of the undead that feeds on the living to stay alive."

Rose shuddered at these words. A wight. She had heard that some inhabited the Barrow Downs, far to the south, but had never thought to encounter such a being here.

"What is a wight doing under Carn Dûm?"

Rose sagged against the wall and attempted to catch her breath. She had a painful stitch in her side. They had fled along a series of damp, dark tunnels, and up a spiral staircase that seemed to go on forever. However, it had been a long while before the enraged, pain-filled wails of the wight had faded.

"'Tis a gate-keeper – from the time of the Witch-king himself, I'd guess," Azil replied, his yellow gaze flicking around the shadowy landing, on which they rested. "Once, that creature would have been a man."

Azil's explanation chilled Rose. What a terrible existence, living in that gallery, year after year, century after century, scavenging on rodents – and waiting...

However, her attention could not remain on what they had just survived; instead, she had to focus on what lay ahead.

First though, she had someone to thank.

"You saved my life, again, Azil," she smiled at the goblin. "How will I ever repay you?"

Azil shook his head, avoiding her gaze. "I don't want repayment," he replied. "Enough said, she-hobbit."

"But you followed me – why?"

The goblin gave an impatient hiss, their gazes momentarily meeting. "I don't know."

Rose was flummoxed by his reticence. Yet, she could see that Azil had no desire to explain himself further so she let the matter drop.

"Whatever the reason, I thank you," she said gently. "I will never forget this."

"Come," he replied, still avoiding her gaze. "We cannot linger here."

The hobbit and goblin made their way up the last set of steps and emerged into a wide corridor. The fresh air, after many hours underground, made Rose inhale deeply. They were now inside Carn Dûm's keep. A chill wind ruffled Rose's hair and made her eyes water.

Rose's gaze moved around the lofty corridor, taking in the piles of rubble and the sight of the washed-out sky through the arched windows. Judging by the light, it was late afternoon. She had spent most of the day wandering under Carn Dûm. They would have to be very careful now – this area of the fortress would be crawling with guards.

They needed to make their way to the Witch Tower – but which way was it?

"Azil," Rose whispered. "Do you know which way to go?"

He nodded, his thin lips compressing. The goblin's thin body was taut, his right hand sitting on the hilt of his iron sword. "Follow me."

They turned right and made their way down a long, straight corridor.

The pair had only walked a short distance when the rough sounds of men, and the cackle and hiss of goblins, broke the silence. Rose and Azil halted.

Rose looked around frantically. It sounded as if the voices were coming from behind and in front of them.

Moments later, a company of goblins, their armour jangling noisily, rounded the corner ahead. The goblins skidded to a stop, their goat-like eyes fastening on the two figures standing before them. Panic flared, and Rose turned to flee in the direction they had come. However, she came face-to-face with a company of men wearing filthy boiled leather armour.

They were trapped.

Rose turned to Azil, her hand reaching for Sting's hilt. This time, there would be no running away. This time, they would both need to fight.

However, Azil did not respond as she had expected. Rose had thought he too would draw his sword. Instead, as quick as a striking adder, he leapt towards her, pinioning her arms against her side.

"I have her!" he cried, his thin voice high with panic. "This is the she-hobbit our Lady seeks. Take us to Morwyn!"

Rose writhed in Azil's grip, astonished by the sheer strength of such a slight creature.

"No!" she screamed.

She could not believe it. He had saved her life, and put his own at risk. Yet, he had done it to win her trust – it had all been a ruse. The goblin had not returned to help her out a sense of responsibility, or out of worry for her. He had seen a chance to win back his king's favour, to return from exile.

Azil had betrayed her.

Peri and Salrean watched, neither daring to utter a word, as Morwyn – the Witch of Angmar – glided across the cavernous chamber to the stone plinth where the red book sat. Behind her, arms folded across his broad chest, stood Targkok, the Goblin King.

Peri had never seen a goblin so massive. He was easily twice the height and width of Azil, the only other goblin he had been able to study at close quarters. At first glance, Peri had thought that Targkok was overweight, but on closer inspection, he saw that the Goblin King was all muscle and brawn. He wore a sleeveless chain mail vest and iron bands decorated his huge, scarred arms. A heavy broadsword hung at his side.

Targkok had a heavy-featured, pugnacious face, and a collection of brass rings decorated his large, pointed ears. His bald head gleamed in the silvery light filtering in from the thin windows that ringed the chamber. Aware that he was being observed, Targkok's gaze, narrow and calculating, met Peri's.

The hobbit swallowed nervously and looked away.

"The Red Book," Morwyn's voice was once again, soft and beguiling. She had stopped before the plinth and was running her hands – beautiful hands with long tapering figures – over its worn leather cover. "Long have I coveted it."

Morwyn opened the book; the creak of its spine and the rustling of its pages was the only sound in the deathly quiet.

"Ever since my servant brought the book to me, I have pored over its pages," she continued, "I have read it all, suffered through the tale of these ridiculous hobbits and their adventures."

Her mouth twisted as she uttered the last word, as if she had just tasted something vile. Listening to the witch, Peri felt a rush of anger at her derision. However, he wisely held his tongue.

Ignoring the other occupants of the chamber, Morwyn opened the book near the end, her gaze fastening upon a page.

"Often have I read this page," she mused. "It tells of my brother's death – at the hands of a woman and a hobbit nonetheless. What an irony."

Her gaze swivelled then, to where Peri and Salrean stood, flanked by goblins. "He feared women, you know. That's why he never married. Then, he took Sauron's ring and became his creature, and his dislike for women turned to hatred." Her gaze fastened upon Salrean then. The ranger stared back at Morwyn, her face like stone. The witch's angular face split into a smile; an expression that chilled Peri to the core.

"He especially loathed strong women, which is why he rid himself of me," Morwyn concluded, turning back to the book, her gaze resting once more on the page. "I should have been the one to end his miserable life."

Silence followed her words. There was nothing for any of them, the Goblin King, included, to say. The Witch of Angmar reeked of bitterness and rage. One wrong word and she would turn that fury upon them.

"I digress," Morwyn sighed, as if realising she had an audience. "What matters most, is that the Red Book is mine – and that I must know its secret."

The witch glanced over her shoulder then, her gaze snaring Peri's.

"Pericles Took," she murmured his name as if they were old friends, although her eyes were like pieces of flint. "I have read this book again and again – but cannot find the secret I seek."

She then flicked back to the start of the book. "Come here, Pericles," she ordered.

When Peri did not move, the goblin flanking him shoved him between the shoulder blades. Stiffly, Peri walked forward and stopped at Morwyn's shoulder.

"Find it for me," she hissed, her hand fastening on his shoulder like a claw. "Look and tell me what you see."

Her proximity caused Peri's heart to race. She smelt dry and musty – with a faint trace of iron. Her nearness made his skin prickle with alarm, and her grip on his shoulder hurt. It took all his will not to shrink away.

"Find me this secret," she demanded, her voice suddenly harsh. Her fingers bit cruelly into Peri's flesh. "I must know it."

The hobbit reached out and began to leaf through the pages. The tale of Bilbo's journey through Mirkwood, to the Lonely Mountain, and the defeat of Smaug, greeted him. He continued to search the book, noting the change in handwriting as he began Frodo's tale. When Peri reached the part where the Fellowship found themselves lost inside the Mines of Moria, he paused and dared look up into Morwyn's face. Her expression was hard and hungry.

"Have you found it?"

Peri shook his head. "There is no secret," he told her, his voice trembling. "'Tis an epic tale, nothing more."

A terrible silence followed his words. Finally, Morwyn replied, her voice low and threatening. "You lie."

"It appears you have wasted your time." Salrean spoke for the first time since entering the chamber; her voice was sharp with victory. "How disappointing for you to discover you went to so much trouble, for nothing."

Morwyn moved then.

She released Peri and swivelled towards Salrean – and before anyone in the chamber had time to inhale – the witch flung her outstretched hand at the ranger. A column of fire erupted from her finger-tips. It shot across the wide space and hit Salrean in the centre of the chest.

Salrean cried out, although the sound was cut off, as the column of fire lifted her into the air and flung her across the chamber. She hit the far wall before crumpling like a broken doll to the ground.

Peri stared at the ranger's unmoving form, aghast. He moved towards her, but Morwyn's hand shot out, her fingers grasping his shoulder and pulling him up short.

At that moment, the boom of a heavy fist knocking on the door to the chamber, interrupted them. Still gripping Peri's shoulder, Morwyn swivelled towards the sound, her face twisted in rage.

"Who dares interrupt me?"

The door swung open and Peri turned cold when he saw who stood before them.

There in the doorway, her dirt-smudged face streaked with tears, stood Rose. Azil was at her side, but Peri saw immediately that the goblin was not captive, for he wielded an iron sword in one hand and gripped Rose's arm with the other.

"Rose," Peri whispered, torn between joy to see her alive, and despair that she too had been captured. His gaze then flicked to Azil.

"Traitor," Peri hissed at him. The goblin looked away, avoiding his accusing glare.

"Azil," Targkok spoke for the first time since the captives had been brought before them. His voice was deep and powerful. "So you dare show your face before me again."

"Sire," Azil's voice was a plaintive whine. "I apologise for deserting you, but I brought you a prize – one that I hope will earn your forgiveness."

The Goblin King's gaze narrowed. "Spineless worm," he growled. "Do you think I am so easily appeased?"

Targkok was about to say more but Morwyn interrupted him.

"Rose Fairbairn," the witch's gaze was riveted upon Rose's face. "You will be of more use to me than this dolt." With that, she shoved Peri away, back towards the goblin guards. She pushed him with such force that he stumbled and fell. Ignoring him, Morwyn beckoned to Rose.

Peri climbed to his feet, wincing at his skinned knees. He looked at Rose and saw that she looked on the verge of fainting. Her eyes were huge on her pale face; her body trembling.

"You know of the Red Book's secret, don't you?" the witch crooned, a cruel smile spreading across her face. "Your forebears were clever, weren't they? They wove the secret into the words of this book, and passed the secret down the generations."

Rose's face twisted in confusion.

"What secret?" she stammered as behind her, the door to the chamber boomed shut. "It's a story book, nothing more."

Morwyn of Angmar shook her head, the smile still plastered to her face. However, Peri saw the look of vicious desperation in her eyes.

"There is a secret," she told Rose, her voice harsh. All pretence at civility was now gone, "and you will reveal it to me."

Chapter Twenty-One

Pork Pie

"There is a secret," the Witch repeated, hauling Rose towards the plinth where the Red Book sat, "and you will show me it. I have been more than patient, she-hobbit. I have listened to the lies of your companions and I will tolerate no further defiance. Find me the secret or all of you will die."

Terrified, Rose stumbled against the plinth, her shaking hands curling around its edge. Her eyes swam with tears when she looked upon the book. It reminded her of her father, of the evenings she had spent curled up next to the fire while he had read its adventures. She recalled the gentle timbre of his voice, the way he had been able to bring the tales to life. Now all that remained of her father was the book before her.

Grief twisted Rose's belly.

It was with some difficulty that she managed to pull herself together, wiping away her tears with the back of her sleeve. This whole adventure had spiralled into a disaster. They had all been captured. Salrean lay unconscious, possibly even dead, in the corner, and Azil had betrayed her.

Hope – the only thing that had kept Rose going till now – seeped away, leaving nothing but cold, dread in its place.

"Enough snivelling," Morwyn's voice cut in. "Find me it for me!"

Rose wordlessly complied. She reached out and flipped the pages back so that she could begin at the start of the book. As she began to slowly leaf through the volume, the dread that had coiled like a serpent in her belly, began to slither up her throat.

There is no secret. My father read the book to me many times. Morwyn is wrong.

A terrible silence weighed upon the chamber in which she stood. Motes drifted down in front of her, caught in the shafts of silvery light coming in from the high tower windows. Rose's heart thudded against her chest, her breaths coming in ragged bursts, as she turned one page after another.

Eventually, she came to a page she had never noticed before. As part of the appendix, her father had never read it – and she had never seen it. It was a recipe at the end of Bilbo's story 'There and Back Again'. Rose's body went cold as her gaze slid down the page.

The witch had seen Rose pause. She advanced upon her, her hand fastening on her shoulder.

"What have you found?" Morwyn hissed.

"Nnn… nothing," Rose stammered. She tried to turn the page but the witch grasped her wrist and pinned it to the plinth.

"Read the page," Morwyn ordered, her voice suddenly harsh. "Read it aloud."

Rose glanced over at her shoulder, at where Peri was standing, ashen and trembling between goblin guards. The words she was about to read would condemn them both.

"Bilbo Baggins' Recipe for Pork Pie," she read, her voice quivering. "A family secret passed down through generations. Successfully hidden from the obnoxious, greedy Sackville-Baggins'. There is no better pie in the Shire."

An ominous silence followed Rose's words.

She stood, cringing before the Red Book and waiting for the witch to unleash her wrath upon her. In other circumstances, this discovery would have been ridiculous. Here was the sister of the infamous Witch-king of Angmar. She had schemed and killed to get this precious book, only to discover that the secret did not tell of a hidden weapon, a powerful spell or words of power – instead, it was nothing more than a humble recipe.

Only a hobbit would put their favourite 'secret' recipe in a volume dedicated to epic adventure and great deeds. The race of men would never do such a thing; would not insert such a trivial note into a great book.

Yet, to hobbits a family's secret recipe was not trivial. Food and mealtimes were revered in the Shire. Some recipes were like gold.

Morwyn would not see things this way. The Red Book had made them all look foolish – Morwyn, Targkok, and Rendur of Farnost – all those who coveted power and thought the Red Book held the key.

"A Secret Recipe for Pork Pie," Morwyn eventually spoke, her voice chillingly calm as she weighed each word. "What trickery is this?"

"I don't think it is trickery," Rose replied, her voice barely above a squeak. "There is no secret – there never was. There must have been a misunderstanding."

"There was no misunderstanding," Targkok spoke up, his voice harsh. "Ever since the time of the one ring, the goblins of Moria have known that the hobbits have kept a great secret from the rest of Middle Earth."

His yellow eyes, with their pinprick pupils, bored into Rose. "How else could such small, ridiculous, weak creatures bring about the downfall of one as great as Sauron?"

Rose stared back at him, at a loss for words.

Meanwhile, a cruel smile spread across Morwyn's face. "The recipe is nothing more than a ruse. I see that now. The secret I seek is woven into the words of this recipe. Clever hobbits – but not cleverer than me. Tell me what the words on this page really mean," the witch crooned, her finger nails pinching Rose's skin. "Now."

Rose cringed away from her, struggling to distance herself from this woman's malevolent presence.

"I told you the truth. This is merely a recipe – one that Bilbo kept as a family secret – one that he was proud of."

"You lie!" Morwyn's smile slid into a snarl.

"No!" Rose cried, her courage suddenly resurfacing. "Hobbits may be small and ridiculous in your eyes but we are much stronger than we look! You under-estimate the power of determination, hope and courage – just as Sauron did. Just as your brother did!

"Filthy, lying hobbit!" Morwyn shrieked. She let go of Rose, grabbed the Red Book with both hands and flung it across the chamber. The book hit the stone wall with a dull thud and fell to the ground, its pages splaying open like an exotic butterfly.

The witch then advanced on Rose. She was terrifying in her fury. Her pallid face was gaunt and all sharp angles, her eyes two black orbs.

"If you will not tell me the truth willingly then I will have to force it from you!"

Her hands thrust forward and a powerful force slammed into the centre of Rose's chest. Her breath rushed out of her and she hurtled backwards, colliding with Azil and two other goblins, who stood guarding the door. The four of them fell into an untidy heap in front of the door.

"Stand aside, minions," Morwyn's voice lashed across the chamber. "Let me deal with this hobbit."

The goblins disentangled themselves, leaving Rose prone on the ground, and leapt out of the way. They sidled back to where their king watched the unfolding scene dispassionately, his beefy arms still folded over his enormous chest.

Morwyn ignored them all as she moved across the chamber to where Rose lay on her back, dazed.

Rose looked up and saw that Morwyn was now standing over her.

"Tell me the truth, she-hobbit!" she growled. "I will not accept your lies!"

Rose scrambled back on her elbows and heels, her gaze never leaving the witch's.

"I told you the truth," she wheezed. "I can do no more than that."

"Yes you can!"

Rose was suddenly wracked in agony, her body convulsing on the cold stone. Through her own screams she could hear Peri, pleading for her life and the witch's cold, pitiless laughter.

I will die here, Rose thought dimly as she rolled onto her front and begun dragging herself away from Morwyn, along the edge of the chamber. There is no way out of this.

"The truth!" Morwyn demanded once more, her voice almost a scream. She was becoming desperate. She would soon slip over the edge into madness – and once that happened Rose would be finished.

Another spasm of agony seized Rose's body. She screamed and thrashed on the floor – held in an invisible vice that tore at her limbs and rent her skin. When Morwyn eventually released her she collapsed, face-down on the flagstones, her body spent. Moments passed before Rose was able to lift herself upon her elbows, noticing as she did so that her nose was bleeding. She wiped away at the blood with her sleeve and twisted her head round, in an attempt to see her attacker.

However, Morwyn stood behind her, and instead, Rose's gaze focused on where Targkok and his minions stood. Peri was with him; he was weeping and cursing while he struggled in the fierce grip of two goblins. At the end of the line stood Azil. His bright eyes fused with hers. She was surprised to see anguish in their depths.

It's too late for regrets now, Azil. Rose looked away and continued dragging herself along the floor. The witch was right behind her. Rose could hear her ragged breathing and feel the heat of her fury that burned like a great furnace.

Rose continued crawling, blindly trying to distance herself from the witch. Suddenly, her fingers touched leather and she looked up to see that she had crawled around the edge of the room to where the Red Book lay splayed open.

Rose's breathing came in short gasps as she dragged herself up against the book. It was her anchor, her touch-stone. The only link she had left to her family, and her life in the Shire. She wanted to be holding it when she died.

As she clutched at the book, she heard the soft whisper of Morwyn's slippers on the flagstones behind her.

"Your Red Book can't help you," Morwyn mocked. "If you will not tell me the truth then you shall die."

Rose sobbed, looking down at the book as she braced herself for the witch's death blow.

It had fallen open, in that way that books do, at a page that had been most often read. It was open at the page that told of the death of the Witch-king. Rose saw the line that Frodo had written, the words of the elf, Glorfindel: "Do not pursue him! He will not return to these lands. Far off yet is his doom and not by the hand of man shall he fall." The words triggered a memory, and she remembered the prophecy, at Farnost when she had stood by Rendur's side before The Waters of Skellith.

Not by the hand of man shall she fall.

A woman, aided by a hobbit, had slain the fearsome Witch-king of Angmar.

Yet, how could the prophecy be true for Morwyn? The woman who should have killed the Witch-king's sister lay immobile in the corner of the room, whereas Peri was incapacitated and Rose was about to die. There was no one left to do the deed.

Tears filled Rose's eyes, causing the words on the page to blur.

"Not by the hand of man shall she fall," she whispered the words of the prophecy out loud, without thinking.

Rose suddenly grew still, her tears stopped.

"What did you say?" Morwyn demanded. "Speak so I may hear you!"

Of course. Why had she not thought of it before? A woman or a hobbit could kill the Witch-king and his kin – and so could a goblin.

"Not by the hand of man shall she fall," Rose uttered the prophecy once more, her voice louder now. Then, her gaze swivelled back to Azil. He stood, his sword still in his hand, his glowing eyes fixed upon her. She could see the struggle on his face, the conflict that warred within him. Azil knew that Rose was just moments away from dying.

He was bright; he had to understand her words. Only he could save her.

Rose heard Morwyn's indrawn breath, as she gathered her power to unleash the final blow.

"No!" Peri's voice was hoarse from shouting. "No, Rose!"

Rose squeezed her eyes shut and lowered her head against her blood-stained hands, and waited.

A moment passed.

Then, instead of the wave of agony that Rose had been waiting for, there came a gasp from behind her.

Rose opened her eyes and twisted around. She stared up at Morwyn, who stood, hands raised. A sword protruded just under her sternum, driven in from her back. The iron blade was black with blood.

Morwyn stared down at the blade, as if she could not believe her eyes.

Then, she crumpled to her knees, swaying drunkenly. Rose saw Azil, his face fierce and hard, his eyes glittering, standing behind her. As she watched, he stepped forward and slit Morwyn's throat with the hunting knife he always carried strapped to his thigh.

The Witch of Angmar crumpled to the ground, dead.

Chapter Twenty-two

Escape

Rose lay on her side, her body wracked with pain. Her gaze was fixed upon Morwyn's slumped body. The witch's blood pooled on the flagstones where she lay. A few feet back stood a slight figure dressed in tattered leathers.

Azil had slain the Witch of Angmar.

In the end, it had not been a woman, or a hobbit, that had brought about the downfall of the Witch-king's evil sister – but a goblin.

"Betrayer!" Targkok snarled.

The Goblin King unsheathed his heavy iron sword, strode forward – and skewered Azil on his blade.

Azil sank against the wall, the iron blade that pierced his torso, scraping against the rough stone behind him.

Their gazes met. The Goblin King then leaned closer, his lips curling into a sneer.

"I would never have taken you back," he spat, twisting the blade deeper to emphasise his words. "This death is too short, too clean for the like of you," Targkok continued, his eyes gleaming with cruelty.

Azil did not reply, he merely stared up at his king, his thin face contorted.

Helplessly looking on, Rose saw the defiance in Azil's eyes. A sob welled up within her. Yet, she had not the strength to reach for Sting. Morwyn had hurt her, badly, and she could even not summon the strength to stand.

"Azil!" she cried.

The goblin's eyes, glazing over now, flicked towards her before returning to the Goblin King. Targkok's snarling face was just inches from his.

"I don't regret it," Azil finally wheezed. "Mine, was not much of an existence anyway."

"Worm," Targkok growled back. "I shall cut your snivelling tongue out."

The Goblin King reached down to the knife he wore strapped to his thigh. However, he was interrupted from making good on his threat by the crash of something heavy colliding with the doors to the chamber.

Those inside the Witch Tower's chamber turned their head towards the sound.

The doors flew open and slammed back against the wall – and the bodies of the two orc guards collapsed in the doorway. Behind them stood the outlines of four men. They wore dark green cloaks, fastened at the throat with six-pointed star clasps.

Rose stared at them, hearing Peri's indrawn gasp of shock behind her.

Rangers.

The man at the front of the group pushed back his hood.

Ethorn of Farnost scanned the scene before him. When he saw Salrean's crumpled form at the end of the chamber, his dark gaze narrowed and his mouth thinned.

In his right hand, Ethorn wielded a magnificent sword with a long blade. His gaze fastened upon the Goblin King, who had released Azil, and turned to meet the newcomers. Then, Ethorn raised his sword high before him, grasping its hilt with two hands in a silent salute.

"This ends now," his voice rang out across the chamber.

The four rangers, their travel-stained cloaks billowing behind them, leapt forward. The goblins, who had been holding Peri fast, released him and drew their weapons. They met the Rangers, their screeches and howls deafening in the confined space.

Targkok roared and hurtled across the chamber towards Ethorn. Their blades met with a harsh clang that echoed high into the vaulted roof.

Finally free, Peri scurried across the floor to where Rose lay. He tried to help her to her feet but she shook her head, her face streaked with tears.

"I can't," she gasped. "Peri, take Sting and use it!"

Peri, his face pale and strained, nodded wordlessly. Then, he reached for the elf-blade that lay in the scabbard at Rose's side. He withdrew Sting – its blade glowing bright blue – and turned to join the fight. Rose saw the fierce determination on his face, and felt a rush of pride, of affection, for him. He was brave – and she had always known it.

A moment later, Peri engaged a goblin guard who rushed at him with a swinging mace. He stuck his attacker in the throat with the blade before swivelling to meet another goblin who had come to its companion's aid – too late.

Rose curled up on her side, watching the fight through half-closed lids. Pain gripped her chest with every breath. What had Morwyn done to her? Her insides burned.

She was vaguely aware of more goblins flooding into the chamber. Yet, the rangers cut them down, one by one, with deadly efficiency. She saw Ethorn wound Targkok; saw the mighty Goblin King crumple, only to be dragged, still bellowing, from the chamber by his servants.

The battle raged inside the Witch Tower – a violent storm that left devastation in its wake. Dead goblins littered the ground. Groans filled the chamber from those few who lay dying. Rose saw Ethorn cut down his last adversary before striding across to where Salrean rested, unmoving and oblivious to all that had transpired just a few feet away.

"Salrean," Ethorn's voice broke as he hunkered down next to her and reached out to touch her cheek. "Please, wake up…"

Rose's eyes filled with tears. She looked away, unable to watch Ethorn's grief. Her gaze fixed upon Azil, who sat propped up against the blood-stained wall. He was clutching his wounded stomach. She could see the agony etched in deep-lines on his face. Yet the goblin remained silent; his jaw clenched, his eyes squeezed shut.

"Azil," Rose pulled herself across the flagstones towards him. "Can you hear me?"

The goblin's eyes opened, their topaz intensity focusing on the female hobbit who had pulled herself to his side.

"Rose," his voice was weak, failing. "You must leave, now while you have the chance. More will come. You don't have much time."

Rose shook her head, tears trickling down her cheeks. "I don't want to leave you."

Azil grimaced. "Foolish hobbit," he hissed between clenched teeth. "I'll be dead soon – and so will you if you don't run now."

"He's right," Ethorn's voice, tinged with relief, echoed across the chamber. "Salrean's alive. I'll carry her. Veldur – carry Rose. I don't think she can walk."

"We have to bring Azil!" Rose protested, hysteria looming.

"I'm staying," Azil gasped, blood bubbling on his thin lips. "I took a blade to my belly, Rose. No one survives that. Go with the rangers."

"No," tears blinded Rose but she was too weak to resist as the tall ranger, Veldur, who scooped her into his arms as if she was a child. "We can't leave you behind."

Ethorn had picked Salrean up; she hung limply in his arms, her face deathly pale.

"Gonthorn – you lead the way," Ethorn turned to his rangers. "Nathil – you take rear guard. Peri, take the Red Book and keep it safe. Stay at my side. Let's go."

Peri did as he was bid, picking up the Red Book, from where it sat splayed open and splattered with blood. He closed it and slipped it into Rose's satchel, which he then slung across his front.

Ethorn walked across the chamber, halting next to where Veldur stood with Rose in his arms. For a moment, he paused, looking down at Azil.

"He killed Morwyn," Rose sobbed. "We can't leave Azil behind."

The ranger's face grew grim at this news. "We cannot take him with us, Rose," he said softly. "He's dying."

"Goodbye, she-hobbit," Azil gasped. Blood dribbled down his chin as he attempted to smile but managed only a grimace. "I wish I could have served you better."

Grief seized Rose then. She tried to wriggle out of Veldur's iron grip, but she was too weak and hurt to manage it. Ethorn nodded to Azil, in silent thanks. Then, he moved off, following Gonthorn from the chamber, and Veldur followed.

The last glimpse that Rose had of Azil the goblin was of a wiry, stoop-shouldered figure, leaning up against the wall, surrounded by the dead. He raised a thin hand in farewell.

Moments later, he was lost from sight.

The group fled down the stairwell, making no attempt at stealth. Azil had spoken true; they had but a short window before the Witch Tower would be teeming with goblins and hill-men. They could hear their shouts, the thundering of approaching feet. The four rangers and one hobbit raced down the network of ruined corridors towards the secret way out.

"How did you find us?" Peri gasped at Ethorn's side.

"We tracked Azil and Rose through the Black Woods," Ethorn replied, barely out of breath, despite that he carried Salrean. "After that, we followed them into the network of tunnels under Carn Dûm. I'd prefer not to retrace our steps, but it's the only way out of this place."

Peri never had a chance to ask the ranger why he was reluctant to take the secret way out – for a company of goblins collided with them. They were racing down a set of steps towards the last stretch of corridor before they would descend underground, and met the goblins on the landing below.

The rangers cut their way through the fray. Peri fought at their side, Sting glowing bright in the dimness. The elf-blade terrified many of the goblins who faced it. Some even shrieked in terror and cowered. With the last of the goblins dealt with, the party raced the last distance to the narrow stairwell that led deep beneath Carn Dûm.

Huddled in Veldur's arms, Rose drifted in and out of consciousness. Every jolt of his stride caused her chest to spasm in agony. Her limbs were dead weights; they felt as if they did not belong to her.

As they descended the narrow, mossy steps into the dark depths, alarm made her stir from the oblivion that beckoned to her.

"Ethorn," she croaked. "The gallery under Carn Dûm. It's not safe. There's a…"

"We know," Ethorn replied quickly. "We met the wight on the way up. If there was another way out of here I would take it."

"Wight?" Peri did not bother to hide his alarm. Those creatures, often mentioned in stories told by the fireside on long winter nights in the Shire, struck fear into the hearts of most hobbits. "There's one here?"

"There certainly is," Veldur spoke for the first time, his voice a deep rumble in the cramped stairwell. "Not a creature I ever hoped to meet again."

"It hates Sting," Rose replied, her voice trembling with the effort it took to speak. "Use the sword against it!"

A short while later, the company entered the dark gallery. Gonthorn lit a torch and carried it aloft as they padded between the towering columns, each trying to make their tread as light as possible.

It made no difference. Half-way down the gallery, the ghoul sensed their presence. The same strange wind that Rose had felt when entering this gallery earlier, gusted towards them, ruffling their hair and causing their cloaks to billow behind them. The chill of the breeze on Rose's cheeks roused her slightly. She tightened her grip around Veldur's neck, fear twisting her belly.

Only Peri did not know what was coming.

The wight, its tattered clothing fluttering around long, emaciated limbs, loomed before them, appearing like a wraith from behind one of the columns. It rushed at them, a scream issuing from its gaping maw.

"Intruders – I will have you all!"

Peri staggered back, Sting trembling before him.

The Wight was injured. Rose could see the dark gash on its left forearm, where she had sliced it deeply with Sting's blade. It also limped painfully; a result, no doubt, of its encounter with the rangers.

Ethorn and Veldur hung back, unable to draw their weapons, while Gonthorn, Nathil and Peri moved forward to meet the wight.

"Peri," Ethorn commanded, "step forward and show it Sting."

The hobbit's face was pale and strained in the flickering torchlight, but he did as he was told.

"Get back!" he yelled. The force in his voice surprised Rose – you would have never known he was terrified. "Foul ghoul – remember this? Do you want to feel its bite once more?"

The wight drew back; its ravaged face tilting to one side, its gaze narrowing. "The elf-blade," it hissed.

"This is 'Sting'," Peri replied, advancing. The wight loped backwards, cringing before the blade that had wounded it earlier.

"Keep that foul blade from me!" it shrieked.

"Let us pass," Peri commanded. He continued to take steps towards the wight, as behind him, Ethorn and Veldur moved past. Gonthorn and Nathil flanked Peri, their weapons raised.

"No!" the wight wailed. There was something wrenching in that sound; the cry of a creature that had been doomed to spend its days in the lonely darkness. The despair in its wail chilled all that heard it.

Peri inched back down the gallery. He had his back to where Ethorn and Veldur were moving swiftly towards the archway that marked the end of the wight's domain; yet he dared not run.

Even the terror of the elf-blade could not contain the wight's desperation. Unable to bear the thought of them escaping, once more, the ghoul lunged at the hobbit.

Peri swung Sting, clenching his jaw as the blade bit flesh.

A blood-curdling scream echoed down the gallery. The wight staggered backwards, grasping the bleeding stump of its right wrist. Its clawed hand lay twitching at its feet.

Taking his chance, for he knew that another would not present itself, Peri turned and sprinted away. The two rangers at his side quickly outdistanced him, covering the ground easily in long strides. Peri ran faster than he ever had, his short legs flying. He dove under the arch, the wight's terrible cries still echoing in his ears.

It was a long while, before they could no longer hear the wailing.

The party travelled deep into the earth, and eventually arrived at the underground lake. Still on edge after their encounter with the wight, Peri found the cavern unnerving. There was a watchful presence here; one that none of them wanted to disturb. The party skirted the edge, keeping clear of the gently rippling water.

There were a number of entrances to tunnels along the lake's edge, but they took the one that Rose had marked with her scarf.

Peri was the last to enter the tunnel. Before doing so, he stooped and retrieved the scarf. He knew that, once she had recovered, Rose would be happy to have it back.

Night settled over the Black Woods, bringing a chill, overcast day to a close.

In the heart of the bleak forest, far from the prying eyes of hill-men and goblins, and far from the obsidian towers of Carn Dûm, the party of rangers and hobbits made camp for the night.

The party camped in a hollow, and lit a small fire. Their evening meal was frugal, for the rangers had not had time to hunt; their entire focus had been to put as much distance between them and Carn Dûm as possible.

Ethorn laid Salrean down on his cloak, next to where Rose slept deeply. The hobbit had lost consciousness soon after they had run from the wight. She had not woken since; her breathing was shallow, her skin a sickly shade. However, Ethorn had promised Peri that she would live.

The four rangers and hobbit were sharing a meal of dried beef and mushrooms when Salrean awoke.

Her soft groan alerted them. Ethorn moved over to her; kneeling next to Salrean as her eyes flickered open. Her gaze, unfocused at first, eventually fixed upon him.

"Ethorn," she whispered. "What are you doing here?"

"Saving you," he gave a wry smile before reaching out and stroking her cheek. "Do you think I would have let you leave Farnost if I hadn't planned to follow you?"

Salrean's eyes glittered as she stared up at him, then her expression clouded. "Morwyn…"

"She's dead," Peri shuffled up next to Ethorn. "Azil killed her."

"Unfortunately, the Goblin King escaped, but I injured him badly," Ethorn added. "He won't be causing trouble for a while."

Salrean's eyes widened at this news. "The Witch of Angmar is dead," she whispered, as if saying the words out loud made them truth. "Then the quest did not fail."

"No," Ethorn replied, his smile fading. "Although things did not turn out the way you'd hoped."

"Where's Rose?" Salrean asked suddenly, her gaze flicking over the faces of the four men and one male hobbit who stared down at her.

"Next to you," Peri replied. "Morwyn injured her too."

Salrean rolled over onto her back with a soft groan.

"I feel as if I've been beaten," she gasped.

Salrean looked over at where the small, female hobbit lay next to her, sleeping soundly.

"She looks so young," Salrean observed softly. "Yet, I've never met anyone braver."

"Azil escorted her to the secret way in," Peri explained, "but he betrayed her once they were inside. Morwyn was sure that the Red Book held a secret. She was about to kill Rose for not giving it to her when Azil stepped in and killed the witch."

Salrean shook her head, incredulous. Her gaze then returned to Rose.

"I misjudged Azil," she whispered. "Sometimes, there is goodness in those we believe to be incapable of it. Where is he now?"

Silence followed her words, but the expression on Peri's face told her all.

"Targkok stabbed him. He was alive when we left the Witch Tower. He won't be now…"

Peri's voice trailed away, only to be replaced by silence. The gazes of all present rested Rose's sleeping face.

It was done. They had slain the Witch of Angmar and retrieved the Red Book. The death of Rose's father had been avenged. Morwyn would never march her armies south and bring a reign of terror to the free peoples of Middle Earth. Yet, victory had left a bitter taste in their mouths.

All of them had expected to feel happier than they did.

Rose's eyes flickered open, her gaze shifting over the faces of her companions.

Crouched at her side, Peri could see Rose's exhaustion, pain and sadness. He longed to reached out and hug her. However, he was not sure of the extent of her injuries and did not want to damage her.

"Is it over?" she asked, her voice trembling with fatigue. "Have we escaped?"

"Yes," Peri reached out and took her hand in his. "Carn Dûm is behind us. Gentler lands lie ahead."

"Good," Rose gently squeezed his hand and managed a tremulous smile. "I've had enough of adventures for now. I think I'm quite happy to spend the rest of my life back in the Shire, doing everyday things."

Peri gave a soft laugh at that.

He could not agree more. The gentle green hills of Hobbiton, with its neatly tended fields and good-natured hobbit faces would be very welcome indeed. He would carry the Red Book back to the Shire, and one day Rose might write their story in its pages. For now their adventure was at an end, and not a moment too soon.

"Good idea, Rose," he replied. "Let's go home."

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