Pepper and Sméagol stood with their mouths and eyes nearly as wide open as the cave-door when the she-Ent lifted the boulder from it and tossed it casually aside into the brush, causing the ground to vibrate at their feet. Then she demurely stood aside waiting for the others to enter the cave.
“We thank you from the bottom of our hearts, Madam,” Greenjade said. “And when we finish what we must do here, we will fetch and bring your offspring to you, as promised.”
He sighed to himself, thinking he would rather face Gaergath again than tell Serilinn she must give up Eglenbain. But he had a feeling Gaergath would be a far less formidable obstacle than an Entwife if he should break his promise to her.
“Phew!” Pepper said fanning himself with his cap as the breath of the cave reached them.
“They’re in there,” Greenjade said. “I remember that smell. I'll not forget it, if I live to be a thousand.”
“Not so bad,” Sméagol said, “as orcs in tunnel.”
“Well, take the end of this rope,” Greenjade said, tossing it to Pepper, “and tie it to that tree there. If we lose our way in the cave, this way we’ll be able to follow it back to the tree. Got the fire ready?”
“Aye, that I do,” Pepper said lifting the metal box with the glowing coal out. Greenjade and Sméagol lit their lanterns from it. Then all three of them took the burlap bags containing the jars and hung them from their shoulders, having attached a small bit of rope to them for that purpose.
Greenjade took the end of the rope and looked back at the others to say “Are we ready?” They were looking grim and tight-lipped now, especially Pepper. Greenjade felt that perhaps he ought to make a little speech on the nature of courage and duty, but found that his mind had gone blank on the subject, and not a word was forthcoming. So he merely jerked his head in the direction of the cave entrance, and stepped inside, putting a hand to his pouch of silver as if to assure himself it was there.
And then he suddenly stopped, and looked back at them once more, and after a dramatic pause, spoke two words.
And they smiled, and followed him in.
Nilde refused to go.
“Look,” Sméagol pointed, “boxes.”
There were boxes, indeed, long wooden ones, lying side by side in the lantern-light. They stood on stone slabs on the damp cave floor. Greenjade felt shudders shake him all over once more. He hoped against hope that the others did not notice.
“Grave boxes,” Pepper said, barely above a whisper. Greenjade was startled. He knew the dead were buried in boxes, but had not associated them with the Blood Drinkers. “I didn’t know this was a graveyard. I wish’t I hadn’t a’ come. Let’s go back now?”
“Wait,” Greenjade said on a hunch. Screwing up his courage, he stepped over to one of the boxes and touched the lid, then raised it about an inch. What he saw nearly made him lose his breakfast.
“They’re in the boxes,” he said, nearly dropping his lantern. Then he remembered what they were supposed to do. The problem was making his hands work.
“I reckon Uncle Royal is in one of ‘em,” Pepper said through chattering teeth, “if we didn’t get ‘im last night. But I’m afeared to look.”
Greenjade had planned out how he would do this. After it was done, the others would look up to him as their fearless leader and hero. So why was it the last thing he felt like now?
He made Serilinn sleep here. Chained.
“’Ere’s the jug o’home-brew,” Pepper said, passing it to Sméagol who handed it to Greenjade. Greenjade uncorked the jug and splashed the contents onto the grave-boxes and in between them. Then he took the jars from his burlap bag, looking to the others to tell them to do the same. They lit the braided wicks from their lanterns, then backed slowly away from the chamber still holding to the rope, and stood in the tunnel, awaiting Greenjade’s order.
He wished he might awaken Gaergath, thinking it would be much more satisfying if the fellow were conscious when he met his fiery end…but did not care to go through the coffins to find the one wherein he reposed. Likely it was that large one in the middle, with the strange carvings on top.
At that moment he was glad to be a coward. It was all that was keeping him from being a fool.
“Now,” he said to the others, and they all hurled their jars into the chamber. When the boxes went up in flames, they lit more jars, and threw those in, then as shrieks began to fill the chamber and resonate from the cave walls, Greenjade said, “Go!” not even wanting, as he had visualized himself doing, to stay and watch the creatures burn. The screams were absolutely horrible, and he hoped against hope that he would not hear them in his dreams for even one night, let alone the rest of his life.
Yet as he stood at the mouth of the cave, he could not resist turning about and shouting behind him, “Enjoy your stay in the Black Dungeon, Gaergath!”
And he turned to see the Ent-mother waiting, and nodded to her to ask her to move the stone back into place.
Nilde was nowhere to be seen, but Greenjade told Smeagol not to fret about it; likely she had gone back to the house.
“Well...now for the hard part,” he said as they started for home.
Cammie had finally gone to sleep. Serilinn had sung all the songs she knew to her, including a funny one, and at last the girl had smiled at her, and fallen asleep holding to her mother’s hand, while the light fragrance of the boiled leaves lingered in the air.
“Yer’ve a way with a song,” Mrs. Widdicomb remarked at one point. “I carn’t say as I understands aught of it. Not the kind o’ songs I’m used to, a-tall. But pretty, in a queer sort a’ way. I could nigh see the stars come out, when yer sing. As for them leaves, I simply got to grow me some in me yerb garden.”
“I would recommend a change of scenery for Cammie,” Radagast said, “preferably some distance from here. Have you any friends or relations who might take her in for, say, about a week?”
“There’s me sister Aletha,” Mrs. Widdicomb said thoughtfully stroking the plump hand that lay in hers. “Her an’ her man got a farm about five, six mile from ‘ere.”
“That sounds just right,” the Wizard said. “Have they any children at home?”
“Three lasses, and one lad. Oldest ‘un about eighteen. ‘Bout a year ahead of our Rodey.”
“Does Cammie get on well with them?”
“Aye, she’s right fond of Sissy and Lina. Their little lad can be a right stinker, though. And I don’t feel quite rightly, sendin’ ‘er over without a word. If I could write, that ‘ud be one thing, but neither me nor Aletha can read or write save for numbers.”
“Have Pepper drive her out tomorrow morning. If she could spend but one day, that would make a great difference. Perhaps he could stay with her for a while.”
“I dare say one day is all I could spare ‘er. I’ll call Pepper in now.”
“Stay. I’ll call him.”
He came back in a few minutes later, huffing a bit.
“He’s not out there, and your wagon is gone,” he exclaimed. “Greenjade and Sméagol are gone also. They did not tell me they were going anywhere.”
Serilinn had gone into the kitchen to check on Eglenbain. Mrs. Widdicomb did not look much flustered.
“I reckon they went into town,” she said. “They must of wanted to buy somethin’, or they’d a walked, I’d think. Hit’s early in the day fer it, but I’m bettin’ Pepper wanted to show ‘em The Rusty Bucket.”
“The hoofprints were pointed in the opposite direction,” Radagast said, his face darkening. “I have an idea what they’re up to. Trust them for it. And I asked them to load up our wagon, and they didn’t load a single thing.”
“They’re back,” Serilinn said anxiously from the doorway. “I hear the wagon coming. They are not going to catch it, are they?”
Greenjade hated himself. He stood by with Serilinn, who was weeping bitterly, and kept his arm around her as Radagast talked to the Ent-wife, who was holding her child. He could speak Entish, as it turned out.
“They been at it a awful long time, seems like,” Pepper murmured, at one point. “I’m gittin’ ‘ungry, meself.”
“Me too,” Sméagol said.
Greenjade said nothing, and tears seeped from his eyes also.
When finally Radagast returned to them, he said, “I invited her to come to Mordor. We could do with some Ents over there, I’m sure. She said she may consider it. Oh, and--” He reached out and brushed a tear from Serilinn’s cheek with a fingertip. “--she asked me to convey to you her deepest thanks...and she says he will always be called Eglenbain.”
Back at the house, Mr. Widdicomb apologized for his behavior the previous night, and said they could stay for as long as they liked. The Travelers ended up staying at the Widdicombs’ for another week, for the exploit had made Greenjade’s cold worse, and Sméagol caught it also. Pepper took Cammie to her aunt’s, but she came back after three days, for she had been homesick. The visit did her good, however, and she was quite like herself…and more so, Greenjade thought, but he kept his opinion to himself.
He and Sméagol were put in the room together. Pepper caught a bit of cold also, and he pretended it was much worse than it was, since the only time he ever got a break from working was when he was sick, and the poor lad was healthy as a horse. So he spent a good bit of time in the room with Greenjade and Sméagol during the day, and he quite enjoyed himself, even if Greenjade didn't.
Radagast was quite vexed with Greenjade, and said little of the feat, other than that he’d had no business taking Pepper out there with him, what if he’d gotten the lad killed? Greenjade was hurt by the Wizard’s displeasure, though not really surprised at it. His cold added amply to his misery, and he felt that Radagast could have done more to ease it than he did, and was holding out in order to punish him. Punish him! Even though he had saved the entire town and countryside, and now they would be free of Gaergath for all time…And then, there was Serilinn. She seemed to have little to say to him at the moment, and he wondered if she hated him. If only he had not promised that she-Ent to bring her little one to her…would she have still moved the stone even if he hadn’t? Likely she would have, but he would never know, and now…now he had lost his little princess. Seemed every time he loved something, he lost it. Was that how it was destined to be for him? Was everything he did doomed to be the wrong thing, even when it seemed right? Was that part of his punishment for having been Darkfin?
Darkfin was laughing at him once more.
He could not sleep, and his head pounded, and his nose was so stuffy, he could barely breathe. And before him he saw those grave-boxes, all lined up, and then they were burning, burning…and the screams, the screams…He could not stay in this room any more, he had to get out. And so he slipped down the stairs and out into the night…
…and there he was.
No. It could not be….
We meet again, Greenjade. You looked surprised. You thought you killed me?
How did you escape?
Silly chap. I don’t sleep in the cave. Disgusting place, disgusting crowd. There’s an old abandoned farmhouse out there, that’s where I take my repose. Sorry, I should have informed you, but you were a bit hasty in delivering your little present to me the other night. Good thing I had a spare cloak, what? I think it’s better than the other one, in fact. I save it for special occasions. Much more stylish. What’s this? I don’t smell silver on you. Surely you didn’t forget?
How stupid of him to go out without the silver coins…but wait. There was his staff, leaning against the wagon. It was tipped with silver.
You will never have her, Greenjade said. She is forever lost to you. You had better just go.
Hmm. Go? You’re not going to kill me then? You’ve tried twice already. What is it they say—third time is the charm? You might succeed this time.
Perhaps I will, then. He dove for the staff, then aimed it at Gaergath.
Oh, wait…there’s something I neglected to tell you. Before you kill me, I think I should inform you a little something in regard to my daughter. You love her, I can see that. You love her enough to kill for her. But do you love her enough NOT to kill for her? If I were to tell you that if you kill me, then she will begin to remember? The drugs I gave her to make her forget things will leave her system, little by little. She will remember. She will recall the blood being taken from her, the things that happened in the night. Is that what you want for her? To make her remember?
You are lying.
Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. You have no way to know, have you? So. Kill me, if you must. But you have been warned. Is this what you truly want for her?
Ah, Greenjade, Greenjade. Your attempts to be good amuse me. You should have been one of us. You would have been good at that. But when you attempt to be the virtuous hero, you are little more than a buffoon. It is not too late, you know. Come with me. We could have good times, you and I. We could conquer the world. That’s what you once wanted, was it not? You wished to rule. You wanted to succeed my father…if my father he be, which is entirely possible. Well, you could have that wish.
You are not Gaergath. You are Morgoth, pretending, and not even doing it well. And you will never have me. When will you learn?
I am not Gaergath, am I? So, if I am Morgoth, I can walk into that house, and take your prize from you, just like that? Well then, what am I waiting for?
And he turned and flew up to the window, without changing his shape, wrenched off the shutter, and landed in the room….
And Greenjade shrieked in horror….
Someone was shaking him, calling his name.
He looked up, shaking all over, and saw Radagast standing over him, his face anxious and kindly in the dim lamplight. And Serilinn coming up behind him in her nightgown.
“I saw him,” Greenjade gasped, as the Wizard sat on the bed beside him and laid an arm about his shoulders. “Gaergath. He was…down there, in the garden…”
“You were dreaming, Greenjade,” Radagast said. “I am sorry, my lad. I did not mix the powder into your night-draft, for fear it would aggravate the symptoms of your cold. I will go down and make you a cup of tea now. Sit here and rest, and…” He glanced over at Sméagol, who was still asleep, and then at Serilinn. “Stay with him, my lass…will you do that?”
She nodded, and he went out. Greenjade looked pitifully at her saying, “Are you still angry with me?”
And she stood there looking at him for a moment, then she went and sat beside him on the bed, then cuddled up with him with her head on his shoulder.
And it seemed the entire room was filled with light, and she had sung every star into the room to hang from the rafters and rejoice in the unchained reality and victory of her song.