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3
The Raiding of the Barrows

We do not know whether Halbarad had any siblings or not. I decided to give him brothers, as that would make a better contrast to the female Dwarf living with them, but that is purely poetic licence. As this story begins approximately in 2985, T.A., Halbarad would be between forty and fifty at that time, assuming that he was around seventy during the Ring War. That would make Hallavor between seventy and eighty, considering the fact that as a rule, the Northern Dúnedain did not marry young.

Dwarves aged even more slowly than the Dúnedain – a Dwarf around sixty would still be considered young and just in marriageable age. Thus I made Rei about the same age as Halbarad, which would make her still young and adventurous four years later, when the quest to re-take Moria began.


~~~

CHAPTER 02 – THE RAIDING OF THE BARROWS

When in the next morn Hallavor went down to the stables of the Prancing Pony to look after their mounts, he was greeted by a string of very creative curses, delivered in Westron, Adûnaic and even in the harsh tongue of the Dunlendings, which many dwarves had learned to speak since Thorin Oakenshield had lived in Dunland with his following after the coming of the dragon. Unsurprisingly, the source of this creativity was Rei, stating very unflattering things about the young Dwarven thief’s character, parentage and honour – or, more precisely, the complete lack thereof.

“What happened?” asked Hallavor, amused, for Rei could be quite… entertaining when in full rage – unless said rage was aimed at himself, that is.

Rei gave him a furious look. “That little…” there came a word even Dunlendings only used when very, very drunk and much stronger or better armed than their opponent, “had stolen my pony!”

“Well,” said Hallavor reasonably, “what have you expected? He is a thief, is he not? Or did you truly think he would walk all the way to the Barrows?”

“I expected him to value his worthless life enough not to steal my pony!” answered Rei darkly, and she counted the coin in her belt purse. “That will do.”

“It will do what?” asked Hallavor, although he did have an inkling… and did not like it a bit.

“To rent a pony from Master Butterbur, what else?” she snapped. “I am going to get my pony back. I only hope the Barrow-wights will leave something of that miserable thief for me to tear to piece. I will pluck out his beard, hair by hair for this!”

“I do not think that would be such a good idea,” said Hallavor in concern. “Going to the Barrows, I mean. What you do with the thief is your business.”

Rei shrugged. “And I do not care. I shall not let a thief of no significant breed and no family to have robbed me, and a male one at that. Some males need to be put to their places, and that is something I am very good at.”

That was certainly true, for Rei never had any difficulties to properly put Hallavor’s sons to their places, even though they were all adults now and twice her size. Hallavor also knew that when she was in this enraged mood there was no reasoning with her.

“All right,” he said with a sigh. “Let us talk to Master Butterbur. If you are going to get into serious trouble, I am going with you.”

“There is no need,” said Rei. “I am more than capable of dealing with one delusional Dwarf on my own.”

“Mayhap so,” answered Hallavor sternly, “but not even you can deal with the Barrow-wights on your own. In truth, I am not even certain that we can deal with them together. Yet if you wish to go, I shall go with you. I have been there once, looking for the Chieftain – it was bad, and we barely escaped with our lives. I shall not allow you to go there alone.”

Rei shrugged again. “As you wish. Let us not waste any more time, then.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
While it was true that Náli was a thief and knew little else than what his trade required, he knew his own trade well and was most certainly no fool. He knew all too well how perilous a task it was to try raiding the Barrow-downs, and he met every possible precaution to get out of there alive and hale.

For that reason, he took the considerable risk of “borrowing” Rei’s pony from the stables, right before sunset, when both patrons and servants of the Prancing Pony were asleep. Like all StiffBeards, he knew how to treat the good beast, so that if would follow him willingly; not causing any noise that would wake the stable hands. Having a mount was important, in case he would have to flee the Barrow-downs; and just like the Dwarves themselves, Dwarf ponies were fast and resilient and not easily frightened. The good beast could save his life, if needs must be.

Under different circumstances, he might even have harkened the Ranger’s warnings, for the Barrow-downs had a sinister reputation in Dwarven legends. Many a dark tale spoke of the Great Barrows; of the green mounds and the stone-rings upon the hills, and in the hallows among the hills. These had once been fortresses upon the heights, the legends said. Kings of small kingdoms fought each other fort he overlordship, and there had been victory and defeat, ‘til the towers fell and the fortresses were burned, and what had once been homes were turned into tombs.

Dead Kings and Queens were lying under the mounds, behind shut stone doors to this day, the legends said, surrounded by great treasures of gold and precious stones, and no-one dared to disturb their rest… for the hills were not empty. A long time ago, a shadow had crept out of the dark place that had once been Angmar, the Witch-king’s sorcerous realm, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights did now dwell in those hollow places, creatures of unknown origins and great malice, fingering gold rings and gold chains with their cold, bony fingers – and when someone was mad or greedy enough to visit the Barrows, they were never seen under the Sun again.

Náli, like all Dwarves, had listened to those legends from a very young age, and he never doubted their truth. Trying to raid the Barrows was madness, he knew that, but he was desperate. He needed something upon which he could build a new life – and he had been hit by the love-longing, unexpectedly and without warning, and he needed riches to woo her who he found to be the One for him. Thus he had put his well-grounded fears aside and even risked her wrath by stealing her pony so that he would be able to win her good graces. Dwarven courtship was not an easy thing.

He left Bree under the veil of darkness, taking advantage of the fact that the gate-keeper had looked into the tankard a little too deeply in the previous night. Dwarves could move every bit as noiselessly as Hobbits when they wanted to, and thieves like him made a true art of it. Opening the gate, leading the pony out, then shutting to gate again and climbing over the hedge was an easy enough task for such a limber youngling. For a while, he led the pony on rein, so that the clattering of hooves would not alert the drowsing gate-keeper.

Only when he could be reasonably sure that he was out of earshot did he mount and urged the good beast to a light gallop. He wanted to make this raid as quickly as possible – ere, in fact, Rei would figure out why her pony was missing and tear his head off his shoulders. Dwarves were generally jealous of their possessions, and Dwarf-dams were ten times worse than the males.

He rode without a break all morning. The Road wound around the Bree Hill, but he left it early on, following a path that led him straight to the Old Forest, along the floor of a small, flat valley. Crossing that hollow, he had to go around the feet of a steep hill into a deeper and broader valley, and then up over the shoulder of further hills, up and down and up and down, on to new hill-tops and down into new valleys.

He could see no trees, not even bushes, and no water. ‘Twas a desolate country of grass and short, springy turf. It was eerily silent all around him, save the whispers of the wind over the hills; the only other voice he could hear were the far-away cries of invisible birds. Their high, lonely calls sounded strange in his ears, and he wondered briefly what kind of creatures they might be.

As he rode on, the Sun climbed higher upon the sky above his head, and the air grew hot and humid. It seemed to him as if the light wind would be dying down a bit more with each new ridge he climbed, ‘til the air lay hot and heavy upon him, stifling his breath.

About mid-day he came to a long valley that was winding away northwards. He pulled out the battered scroll with the ancient map that had been in his family’s possession for at least eight generations and kept by the eldest son all the time, and checked out his surroundings. Aye, there was the doorway: an opening between the shoulders of two steep hills. Beyond, there seemed to be no more hills in the North, just a long, dark line: that of the trees marking the Road. On the eastern side, though, the hills were higher, and crowned with green mounds; and on some were standing stones, pointing upwards like warning fingers.

He knew he had come the right way then, and put away the scroll carefully into its leather holder. Now all he needed to find was the guide-post. He looked around diligently, seeking something that would match the description of Clan legends – and found it: a hill whose top was wide and flattened, like a shallow saucer with a green-mounded rim. He quickly climbed the hill, dragging the reluctant pony after him, and descended into the hollow circle on the hilltop.

In the midst of that hollow there stood a single stone, standing tall under the Sun and casting no shadow at this hour. But Náli knew that in three hours’ time, its shadow would point in the direction of the Great Barrows of long-dead Kings of Men. Until then, he could do nothing, thus he sat down, his back against the east side of the stone, so that he could watch the movements of the cast shadow. It was pleasantly cool, as if the Sun had no power to warm it; and as he was very hungry, he took the food and drink he had… liberated from old Butterbur’s pantry and had a good noon-meal under the open sky.

Other people, even most other Dwarves, would have found such arrangements rather uncomfortable. But Náli’s entire family had lived on the wain for generations. For him, eating – and even sleeping – in the great outdoors was the most natural thing, and even a pleasant one by such nice weather. Even Rei’s pony seemed to have overcome its dread from the place; it stood comfortably grazing nearby.

Yet as he sat there, watching the ninth-hour-shadow to point him in the right direction, gleaming mist began to settle upon the guard-post hill, thickening slowly as the time went by. The pony became restless and tried to leave on its own; Náli needed all his considerable strength to restrain the frightened beast, and the thought that it might be wiser to listen to the animal did occur to him. But then he remembered the fiery beauty of his One, the gleaming of her eyes and her amazing strength, and he strengthened his faltering heart and held onto his plan.

When the ninth hour finally came, the hill was but an island in the sea of thick, white fog. The long, pale shadow cast by the standing stone stretched eastward but was barely visible in that white sea. Fortunately, Dwarves were very good at calculating directions, and thus Náli was reasonable certain that he would be able to keep his bearings, even without a visible sign. He knew the right angle already; the rest was instinct and the unwavering Dwarven sense for geometry.

He clambered to his feet and led the pony over the rim and the long eastward slope of the hill, right into the sea of white fog, following the shadow as well as it was possible under the circumstances. As he went down, the mist became cold and damp, bedewing his braid with grey drops. He began to shiver; not because of the cold, as Dwarves were hardy and not bothered by unpleasant weather, but because he could feel that this fog was not a natural thing. During their lives as wandering mummers and jongleurs, several members of his family had been able to do simple tricks. These barely involved any magic at all but had honed his instincts to feel it; to feel any kind of magic, and now he could definitely feel the presence of some fool sorcery. It seemed to him that the Barrow-wights had sent this unlikely weather to confuse him; or to frighten him away.

They had apparently never met a Dwarf before… most likely not a Dwarven thief, in any case, whose heart burned as hot for their treasure as their own hearts were cold and dead. Now reassured that he was indeed on the right path, Náli looked right before himself and followed the shadow of the standing stone to keep a straight line, in the hope that he would find the treasure chambers of the Barrows after all.

He was going slowly, as he could not see what was before his feet, and he did not want to walk into a hole or a trap. The pony followed him reluctantly; he had to drag the poor beast forward by force. All too soon, it seemed that a darkness began to loom on either side of him…. and the mist was thinning. There were dark patches now in the sea of white fog; small ones, but getting darker by the moment, and now he knew that he was on the right path. Soon, he would be crossing the Gateway to the Barrows.

And indeed, some twenty steps further he came to something that looked very much like a headless doorframe: two large standing stones, leaning slightly towards each other, with just a wide enough gap between them to allow a mounted Man to cross. For the young Dwarf it was a comfortably wide passage, and one he had heard about in ancient legends all his life. He passed between the stones eagerly, not the least bothered by the darkness that fell around him at the same moment. He was a Dwarf, used to dark places. His night vision would do well enough with the smallest residue of light that could be perceived a little further away, right before him.

He went on unwaveringly, and as he proceeded forward, all of a sudden the mist seemed to roll up and fall aside, and now he could see clearly the darkened sky and the far-away stars above his head. Now he could clearly see the great Barrow looming westwards from him, blotting out the stars; a large, dark shape, forbidding and ominous.

He remembered the old tales again: of the dreadful spells of the Barrow-wights; of their icy touch that could freeze the marrow in one’s very bones; that no-one who had ever entered the Barrows was ever seen again. But he also remembered the beauty of the Lady Rei, the fire in her bright eyes, the way the lights danced on her copper hair… and he knew he would not back off.

“Nothing dared, nothing gained,” he murmured to himself encouragingly. He pulled out the powerful gem he had inherited from his grandmother, the one that had been used to repel evil spells, and with a deep breath, he headed forward again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rei and Hallavor had no difficulty following the trace of the young thief – they simply followed the hoofprints of Rei’s pony. And not the hoofprints alone; Dwarves having a much sharper sense of smell than any Man could ever hope for, Rei easily recognized the scent of her faithful beast. It was still fairly fresh.

“He could not have left longer than a few hours ago,” she said, sniffing at the hoofprints. “Two hours tops, I would see.”

“I am surprised that Baraz would obey him in the first place,” commented Hallavor, leading his much bigger horse on rein. Rei had named her pony for its reddish-brown coat. Rei shrugged.

“He must have still smelled of me,” he said. “Perchance he went to the stables right after we parted company.”

“Well, as long as you can follow Baraz’ scent, we still have some hope to find that young fool alive,” grinned Hallavor.

“Oh, I very much hope so,” retorted Rei, her eyes blazing with anger. “I wish to be the one to tear him apart, from limb to limb.”

“You are too hard on him,” said Hallavor, suddenly very serious again. “Have you not told me that Dwarves cannot choose whom and how the love longing hits them?”

“True, but…” began Rei, but Hallavor interrupted him.

“Or do you not believe that you are worth falling in love with?”

“Of course I am,” she replied indignantly. “I may be low-born, but I have my own value.”

“Why, then, are you so angry with that poor lad?” asked Hallavor. “He cannot help being in love. You are worth his love. He is even from the same clans as you – what is your problem with him?”

Rei glared at him with eyes huge like saucers in disbelief. “He is a thief, Adar!”

“So he is,” agreed Hallavor. “Which is, I am told, an accepted trade among Dwarves, with its own Guild and rules and skills. Admittedly, not one Men would see as such, but he is not a Man. He is a Dwarf, and not a bad-looking one at that, even seen through my eyes.”

“Are you telling me I should accept him?” Rei still could not quite believe it.

Hallavor shook his head. “Nay. That choice is yours, and yours alone. What I am saying, though, is that you spend too little time with your own kind. If you want to ever have a family on your own, that needs to change.”

“I need no family,” grumbled Rei. “I have you and yours. That is enough.”

“Enough perchance for now, while you are young and adventurous,” said Hallavor gently. “But what after my sons wed and leave the house to build families of their own? What when I die? You will outlive us all; not even Dúnedain live as long as Dwarves do in these days. I do not wish you to be left alone. That is not a good way to live, for Men or Dwarves.”

“Binding my life to that of a thief and spend it on the run from those he has stolen from would not be such a good life, either,” answered Rei.

“True enough,” said Hallavor. “But accepting his courtship does not mean you will have to bond with him, if I understand Dwarven customs correctly. It only means being courted, which would make you the more interesting and desirable in the eyes of other, hopefully more acceptable males.”

“Being courted by a common thief does not count as a particular honour,” pointed out Rei.

“Is he but a common thief?” asked Hallavor. “Would a common thief have managed to make the long and perilous way, mostly on his own, from the Sea of Rhûn to Bree? Would a common thief dare to raid the Barrows, just to be able to wow the lady of his heart properly?”

“A Dwarven thief certainly would,” said Rei. “We are a hardly people. We never do things by halves.”

“I know that,” Hallavor laughed quietly. “Oh, believe me, daughter mine; I know that all too well. I have raised you, after all.”

“Why are you pressing me, then?” asked Rei sulkily. “You know I do not wish to bind myself yet – to anyone.”

“I understand that; you are still young for a Dwarf,” replied Hallavor in agreement. “All I want is that when you feel like binding yourself, there would be suitors to choose from. Why are you so reluctant? There is naught to fear.”

“Oh, aye, there is,” said Rei quietly. “What if he does turn out to be the One for me? Then I would have no choice than spend my life with a thief – and I do not want such a dishonourable life.”

“I can see why,” answered Hallavor, “but why should you? He is a very skilled thief, it seems; and many of the skills needed by a good thief are very useful for a wandering trader, a mercenary or a scout. He must not remain a thief. He could do other things just as well – if someone made him interested in changing his life.”

“Mayhap so,” allowed Rei. “I still cannot fathom why you seem so enthralled with the thought of me and him together. As you said, I am still young. I have plenty of time to choose.”

“You have,” said Hallavor. “And we shall be happy to have you with us as long as you wish to stay. Forever, if you want; my sons and grandsons would honour our agreement. But if you do choose to rejoin your own kind – would you be happy and content to live in some underground cave, no matter how wondrously made and rich it was?”

Rei thought about that for a moment, then she shook her head decisively.

“I think not,” she said. “I am a Ranger; and even before you rescued me, my family had been traders, living in the great outdoors, always on the Road. Dwarf or not, I could not live in a cave any more than you could.”

“That is what I thought,” said Hallavor. “In that case, however, your choices will be severely limited, I fear. Most Dwarves prefer their caves, and the ones that live on the Road are not always… desirable characters.”

“Alas, I fear you are right,” admitted Rei glumly. Then, apparently, a thought occurred to her, for she began to grin from ear to ear in such a wicked way that it made Hallavor shiver involuntarily. “Very well, then,” she said. “I shall accept his courtship – if she returns from the Barrows with a suitable courting gift.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Náli reached the Great Barrow, the one the legends named as the resting place of long-dead Kings of the Elder days, while the other, smaller ones were said to house the Kings and Queens of fallen Cardolan. He recalled the description of the entrance and how to find it, and let go of the poor pony, knowing that he would never be able to drag the good beast into the Barrow. Nor did he need to do so. He could carry great weights on his own back, like every other dwarf; he would only need the pony to escape afterwards. Thus he left his mount behind and began his search.

For a Man, the Barrow would not look differently from a natural hill. But Náli was a Dwarf, accustomed to see the structure of both natural and man-made shapes at once. Besides, he had seen enough burial mounds in both Rohan and Rhûn to know where to look for the entrance. He felt the stone under the grassy hill, and similarly, he found the place where once had been a gap in the stone, wide enough for a grown Man to pass through, by pure instinct.

To his surprise, the entrance was no longer walled in with huge boulders, as it should have been. Either the Barrow had already been raided by grave-robbers, or the ancient legends were true, and the Barrow-wights more than just tales meant to frighten too curious Dwarf-children from wandering off on reckless adventures.

It mattered not, though. Barrow-wights might be real, but the treasures of the dead Kings of Cardolan certainly were, and that was what he had come for. If there truly were wights in the Barrows, well, even monsters could be slain by a determined Dwarf. He just needed to be fast and kill them ere they could cast one of those dreadful spell upon him about which only whispered tales dared to speak. He touched the protective gem again, then took a deep breath, his hand on the hilt of his long knife, and entered the Barrow.

He came into a narrow stone corridor that was almost completely dark. Even his night eyes failed to make out any details, but further before him there was a faint, pale green light. He hoped it would be the central chamber that might have either one of those magic lamps the Men of Westernesse had once been known to use – the ones that needed no oil to burn and never heated up, no matter how long they had been in use, due to some Elven sorcery – or was getting some illumination through narrow shafts cut in the ceiling, like Dwarven mines. In any case, there was no other way to go, thus he followed the light and hoped he would not walk right into a trap.

The chamber in which he finally got was as large as a great hall in the castle of a King of Men: at least twenty feet high and twice as much in diameter. It was built in a perfect circle, so perfect that it would have made even a Dwarven stone-mason proud, entirely of stone: of huge boulders set upon each other, without the use of mortar, so precisely that not even a blade of grass could have been forced between them. Náli was duly impressed. The Sea-Kings and their ancestors had apparently known how to make good stonework.

Along the circular wall, like the spokes of some giant stone wheel, stood the final resting places of the dead Kings and Queens. They had no coffins, just smooth, perfectly cut slabs of black, white or grey marble, and their enbalmed bodies lay there, robed in white and richly adorned with jewellery and other valuable items. Their faces were covered with masks shaped in their likeness, made of gold for the Kings and of silver for the Queens. They were formed so well that they almost seemed alive. About them lay many treasures: drinking cups of gold and silver, adorned with jewels; wine jugs of bronze inlaid with enamel; weapons of outstanding excellence, from jewelled daggers to long-swords in beautifully-wrought scabbards, bows of the horn of some great, unknown beast, decorated with golden rings; even battle-axes of clearly Dwarven workmanship.

And jewellery of any kind, of course. On the heads of the dead Kings and Queens were golden circlets, jewelled and decorated with hearts, arrow-heads and kingsfoil leaves of gold and various other patterns. About their waists were girdles of gold or silver chain, braided and knotted in different patterns, not two of them the same, scattered with jewels or crystal ornaments. On their bony fingers were jewelled rings, and shields were at their feet, brightly painted with the emblems of long forgotten royal Houses. Even their shoes were gilded and set with semi-precious stones.

Náli knew better than touch the dead, of course. He might not fear them, but every Dwarven thief knew that one should respect of them, thus everything they were wearing was out of the question. Fortunately, there was enough treasure laid about them, and he did not hesitate to help himself.

First, he chose a sword; one that might have rather been a dagger for the Men who had once made it. It was long, the blade slightly bent like that of a scimitar, and keen, of amazing workmanship, carved with serpent-forms in red and gold. It had a black scabbard, wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. Whether by some strange magic worked in the scabbard or because of the spell that lay on the Barrow, the blade seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, and glittering in the pale green light. Náli swung the strap of the scabbard across his chest, so that the hilt, wrapped in black leather and gold wire, would be ready right behind his shoulder, and unfolded his sack to fill it.

There was plenty to choose from, but he did not want to waste his time, so he stuffed everything in reach into the sack: gold and silver chains, collars that had originally been made to go with breastplates, rings and bracelets and brooches of various shapes. He looked at the horn-bows longingly, but they were definitely too long for him, made for Man-use. Thus he grabbed a pair of double-axes instead. They, too, were a bit long for a Dwarf, but not overly so. He could shorten or even replace the hilts later to match him better.

In his haste and greed he did not even notice when the green twilight grew stronger around him, and when a cold murmur began to rise and fall somewhere far away… or so it seemed. ‘Twas a sad and dreary sound, an endless lament without words, like the never-ending murmurs of the Sea. A chilly sound it was, and Náli began to shiver uncontrollably, ere he would truly notice it. The half-filled sack dropped from his suddenly nerveless fingers, and that was, in fact, his salvation, for the ringing of gold and silver was a sound no Dwarf could fully ignore. The spell was broken, if only for a moment, and he realized that he needed to get out ere the Barrow-wight – for what else could be the source of that dreadful song – finished the incantation.

He grabbed the sack with one hand, one of the battle-axes with the other, and ran for the mouth of the corridor, grateful once again for the unerring Dwarven sense of direction, without which he would have already been dead twelve times over. Yet ere he could have reached his goal, a creaking and scraping sound could be heard. One of the huge boulders on his left slowly turned outwards, revealing another, equally dimly-lit passageway, and in the frame of that doorway there was a tall, spidery dark shape, like a shadow against the stars. It had no clearly outlined features, just two large, luminous eyes, cold and cruel and lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance.

“Thief,” said a voice, deep and cold, as if it had come from out of the ground. “I have been waiting for you. Come; all that is there will be yours, forever.”

With that, the dark phantom reached out with what seemed the bony hand of a skeleton and grabbed Náli’s arm. Its touch was cold like ice and its grip stronger than the iron jaws of a bear trap.

Mere Men would have dropped unconscious from that icy touch alone. But Mahal had made his Children from the very bones of Arda, and they were not very suspendible to spells. Thus instead of turning into stone by the incantation that was still going on somewhere (or into something equally unfeeling and unresponsible), Náli twisted around tint he grip of the Wight and dropped to the ground, breaking its hold. He rolled over with the same momentum, then jumped to his feet, snatched up the axe and swung at the monster, aiming a hand’s breadth under the luminous eyes where its neck should have been.

The thing’s head broke off clearly, as if made of dried clay, but at the same moment, the blade of the axe splintered, too. Náli threw away the useless hilt and reached for the other axe, half-deafened by the bone-shattering scream of the creature, but quickly backed off when he saw that the now headless corpse was following him, undisturbed, Apparently, some monsters could not be killed, after all – presumable because they were already dead.

Náli’s only hope lay in speed now. He hurled the sack half-full of treasure at the Wight, grabbed randomly around him to find some other weapon with his now free hand, just in case he might run into any other opponent on his way out that he actually could kill – and then he ran.

He ran like a frightened rabbit when chased by wolves, with the bitter realization in his heart that even if he managed to escape – which seemed fairly unlikely at the moment – there would be nothing that he could offer to the lady Rei as a courting gift. He had taken the insane risk for nothing, and that was the worse of all.

~TBC~

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