With the Dead Only Growing in Numbers
With the Dead Only Growing in Numbers
The trap had sprung and the command to attack had been given. Einar obeyed it without thinking. He had never been in a real battle before. And he had never thought that he would ever be in one. Of course he knew some basic self-defence – this was hardly the first time Orcs ventured this way, although they usually did not come in so great a number – but in essence he was just another fisherman's son, trying to make a living from the fish that lived in the Long Lake.
But that life was gone, burned to ashes, along with his younger sister, Inga. The night that Smaug had laid waste to the town, Einar and his brother Eirek had been away, fishing, safely out of reach. Inga had claimed that she was old enough to be on her own for the night. If anything was the matter, she could always go to the neighbours for help and would they please go now? Einar hadn't liked it. But they needed the fish, they needed the money to be made with them, and in the end necessity had forced his hand. And there was no one to look after Inga. Their mother had died in childbirth five years ago, along with the baby, and their father had drowned three years later. They were on their own, and life in Lake-town was not exactly easy.
He now wished that they had taken Inga with them. She could have slept on the barge, could maybe even have helped out. He had gone over every what if in his head, but in the end it made no difference. Things had happened the way they had and there was nothing Einar or anybody could do to change that.
He could only assign blame, and he laid it on the dwarves' doorstep, where it belonged. They had known the risks, had known what might happen should they waken that beast and kindle its wrath. They had been warned and they had ignored the warning. Now it seemed like all of them were still drawing breath, while so many of Einar's people were no more. It only served to feed his anger. And anger at the Dwarves of Erebor was better than anger at himself. If he let himself feel like that for even a single moment, he might drown in the feeling and never resurface.
Yet here he stood, literally side by side with a Dwarf in heavy armour, ready to take on a mutual foe. Deep down this was the last thing Einar wanted. The only living being he wanted to stab to death were Dwarves. Of course, he hated Orcs, as did everyone else, but it was not them that his fury was directed against. It were not the Orcs that had set the dragon on his sister, not the Orcs that had been throwing caution to the wind. It seemed horribly unfair that they now seemed in danger of actually getting away with their crimes, just because there was a bigger threat.
But this was not the time to begin a feud of his own making. That would jeopardise not only his own life, but the lives of all those around him. And his own people had precious little left to lose. Einar would not have them lose their lives on his account. There was a time and a place for vengeance, and this was neither the time nor the place.
He grasped his sword tightly. It was a good weapon, he had been told, forged by the old man who lived across the road, when there was still a road to cross. But that life was gone, burned to cinders, and he had to fight for those that remained, not for revenge.
The call came and Einar moved with the army. His heart was beating faster now with something that he liked to refer to as anticipation, not fear. Fear didn't feel like excitement. Fear felt like pain and grief and heartache and guilt. He knew that; not long ago he had felt it intensely.
And there was no time to think about anything. The trap set for the orcs had sprung and now it was all Einar could do not to get crushed amongst his fellow warriors, not to get stabbed by swords and not to be driven insane by all the war cries he heard around him. There were many. Orcs made strange guttural noises that could not possibly be words, but that were ever so scary, the Dwarves cried something in a language that Einar could not make anything of either, but that at least sounded like a language. His own people did not have one war cry. Some had the name of their no longer existing town on their lips, others the names of loved ones and some didn't even try to form words; they just threw themselves into the battle with a wordless cry of anger or effort.
Einar didn't make a sound. He just fought. He didn't care about his town; if his sister and neighbours had not lived in it, he might actually have been glad to see it burn. And what use would it be to yell Inga's name when she was dead and these foes were not the ones he so desperately wished to punish for her demise? Silence was better.
And soon there was an end to this part of the battle. The war cries turned to cries of agony and fear. Einar had moved without thinking thus far. There was no room in his head for conscious thought. He only ducked, stabbed and sliced. It was all he could do to stay alive. But it was frightening, more so than he had thought it could ever be. And there were so many Orcs, and there was so much blood, so many pleas for help. His brain screamed at him to run, to get as far away from this place as he could, and he was severely tempted to obey and run, run until he was far away and never look back.
But where could he run? He was surrounded. The Orcs were in front of him, his allies behind and next to him. There was nowhere to go. He could only try and hold his ground. What else was there for it? He didn't want to die. And so he stayed and fought, hoping and praying that this would just end.
Let it end.
Iwar had never seen battle. He had made enough weapons during his life to arm most of his allies, but he had never swung a sword, except to test it for balance. There had never been a need. The fact that Lake-town had been built on the Long Lake itself had protected it from most raiding Orc parties. They could shoot them before they got anywhere near the houses themselves. This was different. This was battle, close combat.
But Iwar was not scared. Maybe he had lost the fear when he had decided that he was no longer afraid of death. Maybe he wasn't afraid because he even welcomed the idea of seeing his loved ones again. And truly, he had lived a good life. Among his people he was considered old, even though he was fairly sure that the Dwarf he had ended up next to was several decades older than he was.
The trap had sprung, it was true, but the battle was turning against them. There were shouts from behind. Orcs had either circled round or had been there all along. And their numbers were overwhelming. Not in all his life had the old smith been able to imagine that such an army of those monsters could be amassed. But here they were, and clearly better prepared than Iwar had considered possible. Their arms were no high quality, though, but they were wielded with deadly precision and even if they managed to kill one Orc, there were five others to take its place.
And he was not as young as he used to be. He could feel the exhaustion setting in. Sleepless nights and years without practise conspired to make him slow and weak. But then, he had known in advance that he was unlikely to see another dawn. At this rate, he would not even see the sunset.
'Careful, grandfather.' He almost tripped over a corpse and fell, but a strong hand grounded him in place. Iwar turned to look at his helper, but found he had to look down to find the face that belonged to the voice. A dwarf with flaming red hair and angry grey eyes looked back at him.
Iwar laughed humourlessly. 'Are you not older than I am, Master Dwarf?'
'I am seventy-nine,' the Dwarf replied. Everything about him screamed that he didn't want to have this conversation. Repressed rage was obvious in his features. Rage against what, the old man couldn't say though. It might very well be him; not all that long ago they had been on very different sides of the conflict.
'Then you are,' Iwar said. 'Almost a full two decades older than I am.' Yet there was something in that Dwarf's behaviour that made him think of his young grandson, the grandson who no longer lived, because a dragon had ended his life.
'I care not for your age.' The tone of voice was angry as well.
They were in a quieter corner of the battle, a small space between two man-high rocks. Iwar could not remember how he got to be here. The battle sent all of them moving in directions they had not planned on. But it was likely to be a long way. Now that he was not fighting Orcs and he was standing still, he felt the full impact of more running and fighting than he had done in all his life.
'I am well aware,' Iwar said. 'Nevertheless, I must thank you for coming to my aid when I needed it.' The Dwarf hated him, or at least hated what he stood for, but he had reached out all the same. It was a kindness he had not expected from one of the people who had been ready to take up arms to defend their wealth. He wasn't even sure Dwarves could care about lives. For all he knew they were made of pure greed. He had never seen anything of else of them before now, not in all his long life.
His thanks were met by a very curt nod of the head. Dwarves were so different from Men, and yet this one demonstrated behaviour Iwar judged to be rather human. There was so much anger there. He knew his kind could live long. Among his own kind, this dwarf must still counted as something of a youngster. Wasn't his a life worth saving?
Dari turned away from the elderly Man. Unlike his kind, age was easy to judge from their faces, and this one was old, in all likelihood far too old to even be on this battlefield. What was he even doing here? It didn't make any sense to Dari. Were Men that eager to risk their lives?
But more than his exasperation over grandfathers on the field of battle he was angry over the fact that apparently even such an old Man would march on the Mountain to demand gold that didn't belong to him. When the call to arms had come, Dari had answered without giving it a second thought. What were Men and Elves thinking to achieve, what were they thinking, trying to lay claim to wealth that was not theirs for the taking? Did they think that the King under the Mountain would just squander the wealth of his ancestors, to give into blackmail to make his foes leave? Well, if that was what they were thinking, they had better think again.
Before a few days ago, Dari had never seen Elves or Men, but he found he was not terribly impressed by them. Maybe it was because their actions disgusted him so, maybe it was because they looked so weak, but the advantage their height gave them – if there was indeed an advantage to that; in Dari's opinion it only served to make them stand out more and make them more vulnerable to enemy arrows – did not make him stare at them in awe.
He didn't even know why he had extended his hand when the old Man stumbled, to stop him from falling. He sure didn't want to be in this battle with such fickle allies. As soon as the battle was over, all the things that had brought them here, they would still be there. Who was to say Men and Elves would not turn on them as soon as the last Orc was dead?
And so it was best to keep his distance from them. He had dawdled here long enough anyway, in the relative safety of this niche. There were Orcs to kill. Those he had seen before and those he could easily deal with, no problem at all. And he was an able fighter, he knew that.
'Try to keep your balance in future, old man,' he barked at his companion. He was loath to turn his back on him, but it would be dishonourable to let such an old person go first into the fray. He had been taught honour, although it usually didn't apply to would-be thieves of his people's wealth. It was somehow different when the would-be thief was so old that he shouldn't even be here at all.
To his surprise he found himself smiled at. 'Aye, that was my intention.'
Dari didn't know what to do with this altogether unexpected kindness. Men were enemies. Well, maybe not right this very minute, but they were unreliable allies, greedy ones, only after things that did not belong to them by any stretch of the imagination. This friendliness made him wary. Elves were infamous for word and mind games, but Men were well-known for their insincerity and treasonous tendencies.
'Good,' he forced himself to say. Now was not the time to turn his allies against him, especially not when they had free access to his back.
He had already turned to go back to the battle and slay as many Orcs as he could get on the receiving end of his axe, but he had looked over his shoulder to convey his answer to the Man, since he wasn't sure he could make himself heard over the noise of the on-going battle otherwise. It was only because of that that he could see the eyes widening in alarm and then the Man was practically jumping at Dari, pushing him to the side.
Dwarves were sturdy, unmovable as the rocks underneath their feet, but Dari was taken by surprise, and he stumbled. The stumbling caused the fall. Not that there was anywhere to fall, strictly speaking. He just bumped against the rock, axe already in hand. It was a reflex born of decades of training.
For a moment he had thought that the Man had turned on him, but then he heard the guttural sounding laughter from the attacking Orc and saw the body of the Man sprawled out on the unyielding floor. The following action was as much one of self-preservation as one of anger: he lifted his axe and hacked the Orc's head clean off. As he watched it roll away, he suddenly wondered where the anger had come from.
This was not the first battle Caran had been in, and he doubted it would be the last, but already it was turning out to be one of the fiercest he had ever seen in his long life. The first wave of the attack had been all but destroyed in the trap that had been set, and Caran had given himself good reason to hope for the best. But then the second wave of attackers had come, and they had not ended up in the chokehold of the Free Folk. They were everywhere and they came from everywhere.
They say there are many.
Yes, there always are with Orcs.
But even he had underestimated all their might. Orcs never attacked in small numbers, because that was their strength: numbers. Elves would always have superior skill, and possibly Dwarves had that same advantage. Caran had seen them fight before, and knew them to be strong warriors. Yes, they may have the wits and the know-how to defeat the Orcs, but even an elven warrior could take on only so many before he was overtaken. It was something Caran knew well. Orcs had achieved many a victory over the Elves, something youngsters like Aennen chose to forget, because it didn't suit them. Or maybe they were as arrogant to think that they would not make the mistakes of the past, that they were wiser, stronger and cleverer.
The fighting was everywhere now. Organised lines had long since been abandoned when it became clear that the Orcs were sneaking up on them from behind and from the sides as well. Orcs were creatures living in the mountains, and they made use of their knowledge now. The fighting was on the slopes of the Lonely Mountain now as well.
Caran wasn't even entirely sure yet why the Orcs were here. He had heard something about the Dwarves killing the Great Goblin of the Misty Mountains, but could that truly account for a battle of this magnitude? Maybe it could for Orcs. Caran remembered hearing something about a war lasting for nigh on a decade when the Dwarves' king had been beheaded and his corpse defiled. Elves would never do such a thing, neither the defiling nor the revenge mission that followed it. That was what he liked to think, anyway.
He stayed close to Aennen. His protégé seemed to have gotten it into his head that he was invincible, and he was reckless, shooting Orc after Orc, but having little care for what happened at his back. And that was a very dangerous thing. Spiders usually were too surprised and too overwhelmed to attack from above or behind, especially not when the Elves took away their advantage of height by attacking from the trees themselves. This didn't mean that spiders were easy to kill, not by a long way, but they were different.
'Watch your back, Aennen!' he called to the younger Elf.
Aennen favoured him with the briefest of glances. He was trying to put a brave face on things, but there was just a flicker of fear in his eyes that Caran had seen far too often in others'. He felt a surge of pity. Despite what Aennen had said, despite how he had behaved, he was still young and he had next to no experience on a real battlefield.
'I will,' the archer said. He even threw in a small smile.
Caran meant to reply, but the field of battle was no place for a conversation, and he lost himself in the dance of the fight. It had become instinct for him, something that – mostly – went without thinking. It wasn't something he took any particular pride in; it was necessary to be in the possession of such skills. They were a necessity of life.
And he was by no means an inexperienced warrior. Yet one might have assumed that when he looked in the direction from where a noise like thunder came. For a moment he was grounded into place as the wall that had been raised in front of the main gate of the Lonely Mountain came crashing down, taking down many Orcs in its fall. Had they broken it down? Was Erebor the real price they'd set their sights on? Caran couldn't tell.
And it didn't matter either. Because he had made a mistake, one his foes hadn't made. He heard a battle cry, but the warning it contained came too late. Caran's world exploded in pain.