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6
The Road Goes Ever On, Part 2

This chapter has been inserted after more than two years, because I felt from the beginning that the transition between Náli’s rescue and the meeting with Flói in Mirkwood was too abrupt. So, here you can follow the journey of Rei and Náli from Bree to that point.


~~~

CHAPTER 03B – THE ROAD GOES EVER ON, PART 2

They were on their own now, and even though Rei was a trained Ranger and Náli a Wanderer, used to live on the road, it was a strange feeling for them both. More so as they were a family now; a concept as new and exciting as it was frightening, and in silent agreement, they chose not to discuss it – not yet.

They rode at a moderate pace northwards, following the Road that was flanked by steep lands on the left side. The hills rose steadily alongside their path; here and there upon them they could see the remains of ancient, broken stone walls, sometimes even the ruins of towers. Unlike other old stonework, though, these filled Náli’s heart with dread, and he shivered at the mere sight of them.

“I wonder who built those towers and why,” he said, rubbing his bare arms to get rid of the goosebumps. “They seem… evil, somehow.”

“They were built by evil people, or so my father tells me,” answered Rei. “By Men who fell under the shadow of Angmar and its sorcerer-King; the same one that sent the wights to dwell in the Barrows.”

Náli felt a cold shiver run down his spine again. “What has become of them?”

“They were all destroyed in the war that brought the North-kingdom to its end, a very long time ago,” explained Rei. “Nobody but birds and beasts live here now. Even the hills have forgotten them, Father says; and yet their shadow still lies upon the Lone-Lands.”

“The FireBeards who hired me said that this is Troll-country,” said Náli.

Reis shook her head. “Nay, not here; further in the North, though. We are following the path of Thorin Oakenshield and his Company now, and soon we shall reach the place where they encountered the Trolls.”

“How can you know for sure where it happened?” asked Náli doubtfully.

But Rei just gave him a mysterious smile and no answer.

They rode on. The Road held on its way to the Loudwater, but on the other side the hills drew closer. They were covered with dark woods here; some trees all but hung over their heads, clawing their twisted roots into the stony hillsides. It was a cheerless country, but they were comforted by the knowledge that as long as they kept on the Road, they would not get lost. So they never swerved from it, no matter how uncomfortable the dark curtain of pinewood on the left side made them feel. The ponies, too, appeared to dislike their surroundings and picked a fairly quick pace, as if trying to leave the place behind them as soon as they could.

Shortly before nightfall they finally left the Road to find a place to sleep. Soon enough, they found a narrow path that climbed with many windings out of the woods and up the hill beyond. It was barely visible in some places, overgrown and cluttered with fallen stones and tree-branches in others, but with proper care it could be followed, at least if they dismounted and led their ponies on the reins.

“This path must have seen a lot of use once,” judged Rei, examining it carefully, “but not in the recent years, I believe.”

“No,” Náli agreed, “or else it would not have fallen in such disrepair. I wonder who made it, though. Perchance the Lone-Lands are not as lonely as we have thought.”

“Whoever did, they had to be incredibly strong,” said Rei. “Look at these old trees that were broken down to make a way… or those large rocks, cloven and heaved aside. This is not the handiwork of Men; they would not have the strength. Not without tools, and I cannot see any trace of those.”

“Dwarves?” Náli suggested. “Have our people ever dwelt here?”

Rei shook her head. “Not that I would know.”

“Oh, bother,” said Náli dejectedly. “We have reached the Troll-country then, I suppose.”

“Seams so, yea,” Rei nodded, “although if the path has fallen in misuse, they must have abandoned the place for years. Let’s be careful, though; I do not wish to end up as dinner.”

Náli completely agreed with that sentiment, and they cautiously followed the track for a while, anxious of the dark woods surrounding them. The path grew plainer and broader, and then turned sharply around the rocky shoulder of a hill, finally leading them – under the face of a low cliff overhung with trees – to a stony hillside. It was smooth like a stone wall, and there was a door hanging crookedly upon a great hinge, leaving barely enough room for a small child to squeeze through the crack. There they stopped.

“There must be a cave or a rock-chamber behind,” said Rei in a low voice. “If it is empty, we could spend the night there.”

“And if it is not, we can land in a pot for dinner,” replied Náli. “Surely you can recognize a Troll-hole when you see one!”

“Of course I can; I am neither blind nor stupid,” hissed Rei angrily. “And so I can also see that it has long been abandoned, just like the path.”

“So let us abandon it, too, and find the right place for our night camp,” urged Náli.

“In a moment,” said Rei. “First, I want to see what is inside.”

“Have you lost all your wits?” exclaimed Náli, highly agitated by the mere idea. “It is a Troll-hole, remember? Do you want to get killed?”

“Says he who went dowry-hunting in a haunted Barrow,” commented Rei, inserting her shoulder between the door and the rock wall to push it open. “Help me!”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Náli rolled his eyes in exasperation but did as he was told. With combined strength, they managed to open the door a little wider; just wide enough to slip through. There was completely dark inside, but Rei had a torch and Náli always had a tinderbox on him, so they could lit it easily.

“Let us take a look around,” said Rei, holding up the torch.

The light fell onto the rocky floor, revealing a great many old bones; mostly but not entirely of sheep. Nothing else could be seen near the entrance, save for some great earthenware pots and broken jars.

“Let us get out of here!” begged Náli. “There is nothing of value, and the smell is beyond nasty for an abandoned hole. Someone might still be using this place.”

But Rei did not listen to him. She went on, deeper into the cave, where other seemingly empty pots stood. She turned them over, one after another, and – lo and behold! – a few coins, some gold and some silver, rolled out of their depths. Whoever had pillaged the Troll-hole before them, they clearly had not done thorough work.

“Most likely Thorin and his Company,” she said when Náli commented on that fact. “They were in a hurry, trying to get away from here, and most likely just grabbed whatever they could, as quickly as they could. Well, their loss is our gain.”

And indeed, it was a sizeable little bag full of silver pennies and small gold pieces by the time she finished her search. The thought to give Náli some of it did not seem to occur to her, and Náli felt unexpected bitterness well up in his breast because of that. For true, they were a mated couple now and shared all their possessions, but it was also true that he still had nought else but with what he had arrived at Bree a few weeks earlier.

All that he had managed to save from the Barrows, by the risk of his life and mayhap even his soul, he gave Rei as a courting gift, not keeping anything else but the great battle axe for himself… and axe he could not even wield properly. Yes, his greatest wish had been fulfilled when Rei chose to bond with him, but he was still a beggar. Even the pony he was riding had been purchased by Rei. He was nothing.

As it often happens with Dwarven bondmates, Rei must have caught the drift of his troubled feelings, for her eyes became uncommonly soft.

“Here,” she said, thrusting the small bag at him. “This will buy our way across the High Pass and the Ford of Carrock. You know those Beorning cutthroats demand an outrageously high toll.”

Náli gave her a blank look. “You can pay them then.”

We can pay them,” corrected Rei gently. “And it would be better if you did business with them. They are Men, remember? And most Men share the strange opinion that power and wealth should be exclusively handled by males.”

She gave him a conspiratorial wink, and Náli could not help but laugh.

“All right,” he said. “But let us leave this place while we still can. I would hate to be trapped in here, should a passing Troll find the open door and decide to close it properly.”

“If this was the hole of the three Thorin and the others encountered, which I believe it was, then we don’t need to be afraid,” answered Rei, taking a last, somewhat disappointed look around them. “But you are right; we should go. Night is falling, and we need to rest.”

They squeezed themselves through between the half-opened door and the rock wall again, and returned to the patiently waiting ponies. Those seemed undisturbed, which lessened Náli’s anxiety a bit; had there been any evil creature near, the good bests would have felt it and shown fear. He released a breath he had not even realized he was holding. The fresh air was a blessing after the bestially stinking Troll-hole.

“Let us see where the path leads us,” said Rei. “There must be a clearing nearby, where one can build a fire – there was no fire-pit in the cave, and besides, the tales say that the three wanted to roast Thorin and company over an open fire.”

Náli rolled his eyes. “Just the tale I wanted to hear before going to sleep in a probably Troll-infested forest,” he grumbled.

Rei laughed. “I seriously doubt that there would be still Trolls in these woods; no live ones anyway.”

“What do you mean no live ones?” asked Náli with a frown. Unlike Rei, he was not familiar with the adventures of Thorin Oakenshield and his Company during the Quest of Erebor. Those tales never found their way to Rhûn.

Rei just grinned. “You will see. Come on!”

They followed the path that went on again from the door, and, once more turning to the right across a level space, suddenly plunged down a thickly wooded slope. There it was broad enough for the two of them to walk abreast, with the ponies led on reins between them, although in no better shape than at its beginning, so they had to pick their way carefully if they did not want their steeds to stumble and break a leg.

Fortunately, they did not have to go far. Just a little faster below, they caught a glimpse of a clearing between the tree-trunks.

It was almost completely dark by now, but Rei’s torch cast a bright patch of light before their feet, thus they reached the edge of the clearing without any mishap. They stopped there and peered around between the trees to see if there was any danger – and that was when Náli’s breath caught in his throat.

Three huge, dark, vaguely Man-like shapes rose on the clearing, around something that once must have been a fire-pit. The two that were standing and seemingly glaring at their stooping third companion were at least twelve feet tall and built like the cave bears that certain tribes in Rhûn considered their ancestor. Their long arms hung so low that their thick, blunt fingers nearly touched their large, two-toed feet. Their legs were like tree-trunks and their bald heads seemed too small for their massive bodies and appeared to grow directly from their heavy shoulders, without any necks at all. In truth, they probably had very short and very thick necks, but those could not be seen.

In short, they looked pretty much how Náli had always imagined Stone-trolls to be, in spite of the fact that they were wearing some rough garb in Mannish fashion and only had one head, each. His Grand-dam’s tales, suitable to scare the wits out of wayward young Dwarflings, always spoke of three- or seven-headed Trolls, and even though he later learned that – like every other living creature – even Trolls only possessed one head, he could not help but feel mildly disappointed.

Aside from the panic rising within his breast, that is.

“By Mahal’s hammer!” he muttered, eyeing the monstrous shapes nervously, “they are very large, even for Trolls!”

“They are also very dead,” answered Rei; she walked up to the Trolls with a minimum of wariness and slapped the stooping one on the enormous backside. “See? Turned back to the stone from which they had emerged at the shaping of Arda and will remain so until Durin’s Reawakening, I suppose.”

“How can that be?” Náli still was not entirely convinced.

“My father says that Trolls were bred by the Great Enemy, for he desired a race as powerful as the Ents…” Rei began, but Náli interrupted her.

“The what?”

“The great Tree-herds of ancient times,” explained Rei. “Ents have become a myth in these days, but in the Elder Days they roamed freely the great ancient forests, protecting the trees and all living things that could not flee on their own. In any case, as Ents were to the substance of wood, so Trolls were to stone: rock hard and powerful… although the Ents were stronger,” she added as an afterthought. “They could crush stone, ‘tis said, just like the tree-roots can break rock – only faster, much faster.”

“Yea, but they are gone now, while the Trolls are still there and still powerful,” commented Náli grimly. “I have seen an entire Mannish village destroyed by a single Troll. The Men of the village tried to protect their own, but their arrows and spears were of no use against the tough hide of that monster. It slaughtered them all.”

Rei nodded. “And yet in the sorcery of their making was a fatal flaw: they are vulnerable to sunlight. The Great Enemy cast the spell of their creation in darkness; and if the light of Anor falls upon them directly, that spell breaks, and the armour of their hide grows inward ‘til they become lifeless stone.”

“I remember having seen an oddly-shaped standing stone in the middle of that village,” said Náli thoughtfully. “Could that have been the Troll that slew the villagers?”

“Most likely,” Rei nodded. “In its bloodlust, it probably forgot all about the time. They are monumentally stupid, you see. Most of them cannot even be taught speech at all, save for the barest rudiments of the Black Speech of Nargûn.”

“Is that what happened to these here?” Náli gestured at the petrified monsters.

Rei shook her head. “Nay; they most likely belonged to a newer bred. My father’s people say that the Dark Lord of Nargûn, when he rose again, went great lengths to make them more cunning. Many of them are said to serve in the Dark Tower; and even those in the Trollshaws have a craftiness of mind – one born of wickedness.”

“And yet these three apparently met the same fate,” said Náli.

Rei grinned. “They can be crafty when it comes to committing evil deeds, but otherwise they are still fairly stupid. The stories say that Tharkûn came upon these three, unobserved, while they were quarrelling about how to roast thirteen Dwarves and one Hobbit. He cunningly made them turn on each other and quarrel long enough for Anor to come up, in which moment all three turned into stone.”

Tharkûn?” repeated Náli in surprise. “’Twas the Grey Wizard, then, who saved them?”

Now it was Rei’s turn to be surprised. “You know the Grey Wizard?” she asked.

“Nay,” replied Náli. “But I met the Brown One once, and he told me quite fantastic stories about his… cousin’s deeds. I never truly believed them, and yet it seems tow they must have had a kernel of truth, after all.”

“The wizards are strange creatures,” Rei agreed. “Cunning, meddlesome and quick to anger, but amazing nonetheless. Sometimes I wonder whether they age at all or not. Tharkûn visited my father a couple of times, and though many years had gone by between two visits, he never seemed to change. But he always told wondrous stories: about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows' sons, so we children were looking forward to his visits,” she looked around. “Well, the place seems safe enough to spend the night. Let’s make a fire, eat and rest. Tomorrow we must leave early if we want to cross the Loudwater by daylight.”

“You want to camp here?” asked Náli, panic clearly written in his handsome face.

Rei shrugged. “Why not? Clearly, there are no live Trolls here, the glade is pleasant, and there is a fire pit ready-made. Besides, I think the presence of these three will keep possible other travellers from bothering us.”

Náli reluctantly admitted that it was probably true, and so they made their night camp in the glade, resting right under the Troll’s huge legs. The fire warmed their bones pleasantly, and the warm meal was mightily welcome. Rei offered to take the first watch, saying that she had a lot of her mind that she needed to think over, and so Náli, despite his misgivings about the place, was soon overcome by his exhaustion – exhaustion that had come more from the frights of the most recent hours than from the journey before – and felt into deep, dreamless sleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
He did not wake up ‘til the next morning and was dismayed when he understood that Rei had let him sleep through the night. She, however, waved off his protests generously.

“You needed it,” she said. “Besides, you can return the favour tonight, as we’ll likely need to camp under the stars again.”

And so they ate a small breakfast and went on down the woods, following the same track Thorin Oakenshield and his Company had used many years before. After an hour or so – they could not have ridden more than a few miles – they came out onto a high bank above the Road. The Hoarwell was but a silver ribbon far behind them in its narrow valley, and the Road now run close to the feet of the hills, meandering eastward between woods and heather-covered slopes, towards the Ford and beyond that the Misty Mountains. They found a path that led them safely down the bank to the Road and followed the latter in that direction.

It was an uneventful journey as they rode in a quick trot, wanting to put the fair weather to good use. There was no sign of any other travellers to be seen, but they did not mind the lack of company. Around mid-day, they made a short rest and ate a cold meal, not wanting to waste time with building a fire; they would need it more in the evening, when they had crossed the Ford and found a place to rest, as the nights had begun to turn colder.

“If we keep up this speed, we shall arrive to the Mountain just in time for the celebrations of Durin’s Day,” said Rei. “I always wanted to take part of them. ‘Tis said that the festivities in the Blue Mountain cannot come close to the ones in King Durin’s city.”

“I would not know,” replied Náli with a shrug. “In Rhûn we never got to celebrate Durin’s Day properly.”

“Then you will enjoy it even more,” promised Rei; then she broke off suddenly and stooped to the ground, with a hand to her ear, listening intently.

“What is it?” asked Náli, worried a little by her behaviour.

“Hush!” she hissed. “Someone is coming. I can hear the distant sound of hooves; at least one horse trotting quickly toward us… possibly more.”

Instinct made Náli scramble off the beaten way as quickly as he could and up into the deep heather and bilberry brushwood on the slopes above, ‘til he reached a small patch of thick-growing hazels. As he peered out from among the bushes, he could see the Road lying below; and now he, too, could hear the sound of hooves. It was light and clear, drawing closer quickly – whoever was behind them, they did not try to camouflage their approach.

To Náli’s surprise, Rei made no attempts to hide, even though she rose from where she had been sitting and readied her crossbow, just in case. Apparently, she had no reason for fear from pursuit; of course, she had never been a thief, either. She could rightly expect people to be friendly to her; more so as she was the foster daughter of a Ranger and most likely known to and respected by his people.

And who else but Rangers would still be travelling in small numbers on this part of the Road?

The clicking of hooves was clearer and nearer now, and suddenly the horses themselves came into view, right below Náli’s makeshift watchpost. Two horses, both greys, but very different from Hallavor’s big, raw-boned, ill-humoured beast. These were the most graceful horses Náli had ever seen in his young life: with arched necks like those of swans, tails and manes much lighter in colour than their silvery coat, almost white; with long, sensitive faces and light yet strong limbs.

The riders upon their backs were no Rangers, either, although clad in greens and shadowy greys in the fashion of those who spend a lot of time in the woods. As they halted their steeds and dismounted to greet Rei, whom they obviously knew, Náli could see that they were very tall, taller than Hallavor even, and more gracefully built. Their glossy black hair was braided away from their pale, elegant faces – that looked so similar that it would been hard to tell which was which – in an artful fashion, with complicated knots and pleats, and lay in a braid as thick as a Man’s arm upon their backs.

The fairness of said faces, as well as the light in those wide, sea-grey eyes and the leaf-shaped ears that ran into fine points peeking out from under their hair clearly marked them as Elves. They were armed with long swords and also carried great bows across their backs. Náli, though not an archer himself, could see that those were not hunting bows. Whoever these Elves might be, they were clearly warriors.

“Náli!” called out Rei, finally remembering her life-mate. “Come out of the bushes! There’s nothing to fear.”

Slowly, reluctantly, Náli climbed down to the Road again and gave the newcomers mistrustful looks. He had never seen Elves before and was now wondering if all of them looked alike or if these two were related somehow. Whichever was the truth, there was no way to keep them apart, he realised in dismay.

“He is a bit wary with strangers,” explained Rei, becoming him. “Come, my own, and greet my old friends. These are the sons of Lord Elrond of Rivendell, the Master of the Last Homely House: Elladan and Elrohir.”

Náli looked from one Elf to another with a frown. “Which is which?” he asked.

Rei grinned. “’Tis a little hard to tell when they are together. But if you happen to see one of them drink with mortal Men heavily, you can be certain that you are seeing Elladan. While if you see one chasing pretty ellith, that would be Elrohir. Well… most of the time.”

“Have you heard that, Brother?” one of the Elves asked his mirror image in mock exasperation. Ah, they were brothers, then. Twin brothers, most likely.

“Slander, pure slander, nought else,” countered the other one. “But what can you expect from one of the Naugrim, even if she was raised by the Dúnedain?”

Náli might not have met Elves before, but he knew all too well that Naugrim was a disrespectful term for Dwarves in their language, meaning the stunted ones. His fear and amazement rapidly evaporated, giving room to anger, and he unconsciously sought out the hilt of his Haradric scimitar.

Rei, however, stopped his hand with a light touch and smiled.

“Do not bait him, my friends,” she said. “He knows you not and might take your jest as a true insult. I wish no bloodshed before the evening meal – it ruins my appetite.”

The Elves grinned; ‘twas strange to see mischief upon those fine, almost luminous faces, but it was there nonetheless.

“Our apologies, Master Dwarf,” said one; Náli had already given up hope to guess which one. “We were only jesting indeed. Lady Rei is an old friend of us, who has visited our father’s house with Lord Hallavor several times. Are you heading for Rivendell?” he then asked, turning to Rei.

She shook her head. “Nay; he might be the one for me, but he is still a thief. I do nit wish to make your father – or anyone in his household – feel uncomfortable around him, even though I am certain that he would behave. Besides, a detour would mean that we would not reach Erebor in time for Durin’s Day.”

“Is he?” the Elf asked, suddenly very serious. “The one for you, I mean?”

Rei nodded slowly. “Yea, he is. We have bonded on the way and my father gave his blessings. It is done now.”

The Elf seemed to understand the significance of that statement because he did not ask any more questions. It was Rei’s turn to make inquiries now, and the two Elves told her readily enough that they were returning to Rivendell from patrol and were heading towards the Ford of the Loudwater (or Bruinen, as they called it in their own tongue). Which was a lucky coincidence, in Náli’s opinion, as they would know the Ford as the back of their slender hands. Náli, deeply mistrusting any treacherous waters coming from the mountains, found that thought reassuring.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They continued the ride together and rode quite swiftly after the midday break; so swiftly indeed that they covered almost twenty miles before nightbreak. Less than an hour was left to sunset when they came to a point where the Road bent right and ran towards the bottom of the valley they had just recently entered, now aiming directly at the Loudwater.

“We have two choices now,” said one of the Elves. “We can make camp now and continue our journey at daybreak; or we can use the light we still have and press on, making straight for the Bruinen and rest on the other side.”

“We cannot risk crossing the river in the dark!” protested Náli.

Dwarves had night-eyes, in fact, they could see better in the dark than most Elves, save from the Avari of Mirkwood, but fords were treacherous. Trying to cross them with little to no light would have been foolish.

“You cannot,” replied one of the Elves a little haughtily. “We can.”

“Don’t bait the Dwarf, Elrohir,” warned him his brother, apparently Elladan; then he turned to Náli. “Worry not, Master Dwarf. If we press on just a little faster, we may cross the river while there is still light. And as it is under the power of my father, as well as the lands on the other side between the Ford and our valley, we shan’t be in any danger there.”

“Then let us press on,” said Rei. “I would like to spend the night on the other side.”

That decided it, and they rode on, following the Road steadily downhill. For a while only grassy patches were to be seen on both sides, but later the Road went under the shadow of tall pine-trees, and then plunged into a deep cutting with steep, moist walls of red stone left and right – not unlike a tunnel in a Dwarf settlement, Náli noticed absent-mindedly. Being surrounded by stone, strangely enough, was not reassuring, though, for the tunnel, albeit open-roofed, was narrow and seemed to close on him with every new step, and he did not know where it would lead. It felt like a trap, and Náli caught himself considering whether he would be able to climb the stone walls with the help of his pick-axe and a length of rope, should he need to run away.

He had the feeling that it would be near impossible.

Rei must have noticed his discomfort, for she looked at him encouragingly. “We are almost there – have you not come this way with the FireBeards?”

“Nay; we mad a shortcut through the hills,” answered Náli. “They did not want to risk their carts getting stuck in this tunnel; now I know why.”

“Nonsense,” said one of the Elves. “In the times the North-kingdom was still strong, Men travelled the Road all the times, with and without carts. They built it to accommodate merchant caravans as well as mounted troops.”

“And you know this… how exactly?” asked Náli doubtfully.

“I saw them,” replied the Elf with an elegant shrug. “I even rode with them, uncounted times.”

“Yea, sure,” said Náli sarcastically. “The North-kingdom fell thousands of years ago, and you are supposed to remember it?”

“Why not?” asked the elf. “I am over three thousand years old. My memory is long.”

Náli was thunderstruck. He knew, of course, that Elves – unless slain in battle or died in accidents – lived on ‘til the end of Arda… in theory. Hearing this particular Elf talking about millennia-old events while looking no older than a beardless youth among Men was an entirely different matter. For his age, Náli was already a Dwarf of many journeys, but he realized now that he still had a lot to learn about other people.

To his great relief, the Road now run out again from the end of the tunnel into the open; it was like crossing a gate of light. Before them, at the bottom of a sharp incline, a long flat mile stretched towards the Ford of the Loudwater. On the other side of the river a steep brown bank rose, threaded by a winding path; and behind that, the tall peaks of the Misty Mountains rose like a ragged wall, peak beyond peak, towards the sky that was already fading into sunset.

“There it is,” said one of the Elves. “Your way across the river and our way home. Come! Let us make good use of the light while it is still there.”

They rode forth, down the slope, and the Dwarves followed, galloping across the flat that was the last leg of the Road, right into the river. Náli panicked for a moment as he saw the water foam just an inch or two below his feet. The Loudwater was shallow enough at the Ford for even a pony to pass it safely, but it was also wild and vigorous – and he could not swim.

“Worry not,” called back one of the Elves, already nearing the other bank. “Trust your pony to find the right way – he will, if you do not frighten him.”

Quite frankly, Náli was too scared to do anything else. Only weeks before, when they crossed the Loudwater further in the North with the FireBeard caravan, it had been just a mountain stream – here it was a respectable river, with a lot of power. Enough to wash away any careless Dwarf and drown them.

Fortunately for him, Toby was a calm and sure-footed beast. He could feel the quick heave and surge as the pony left the river and struggled up the stony path, climbing the steep bank in the wake of the Elven horses and Rei’s Baraz, He held onto the reins as if they were his lifeline, and it took him a while to realize that he was safely across the Ford.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The young Dwarves expected the Elves to ride on for home, as it was apparently close, but they did not. Instead, they camped with the Dwarves under the stars, clearly used to and prepared for such night camps; for not only did they have supplies and a tinderbox, they also had bedrolls fastened to their saddles. Which surprised Náli once again, as he had always thought that Elves would not use saddles.

“You’re mistaking us for our rustic cousins, the woodland Elves,” they laughed when he voiced his surprise. “They like to show off their horsemanship by reading their steeds bareback. We, on the other hand, prefer to let the horses carry our saddlebags, instead of carrying them on our backs; it is more comfortable that way.”

That was certainly true, although Náli had the sneaking suspicion that these elves liked to show off their finely made horse gear in turn… and with right. It was some of the finest leatherwork he had ever seen, and considering how proud the Easterling chieftains were of the barbaric pomp of their horse gear, that was saying a lot.

And so they spent the night together on a small clearing near the Ford, by a nice campfire, eating Elven food and drinking pale yellow Elven wine, and even though Náli preferred ale, he had to admit that it was very good. So good that he got a little tipsy from it and forgot all his worries for a while, resting his head on Rei’s lap and listening to the wondrous harmonies of Elven song.

The two Elves sang half the night; first in their own tongue, of which Rei understood but a little and Náli nothing at all. Later, though, they turned to the Common Speech, launching into an old ballad – probably old enough to come from the Elder Days.

A king was in the dawn of days:
his golden crown did brightly blaze
with ruby read and crystal clear;
his meats were sweet, his dishes clear;
red robes of silk, an ivory throne,
and ancient halls of archéd stone,
and wine and music lavished free,
and thirty champions and three,
all these he had and heeded no.
His daughter dear was Melilot.
from dawn to dusk from sun to sea,
no fairer maiden found could be.
Her robe was blue as summer skies,
but not as blue as were her eyes:
‘twas sewn with golden lilies fair,
but none so golden as her hair…
(a rejected verse from “The Lay of Leithian” by Tolkien himself)


Náli fell asleep in the arms of his chosen one, the wondrous images of the ballad following him into his dreams. That night, he dreamt of ancient realms and great treasures and fair maidens… yet none of those seemed half as fair to him as his beautiful Rei, be they daughters of Elves or Men.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When he woke up in the next morning, the Elves were gone and breakfast was ready. They had a quick wash in the river, ate, and then off they were on the road again, which led directly to the High Pass now, running along the Loudwater, supposedly as far as its sources. Beyond the Ford, it narrowed to a beaten path, climbing up slowly but steadily into the Mountains, to continue as the Old Forest Road – also known the Dwarves’ Road once and still called thusly by Mahal’s children – on the other side.

There were several paths that led up into the Misty Mountains and two known passes over them. But many paths were cheats and deceptions, leading nowhere or to bad ends, so it was important to find the right one. Rei and Náli, helped by the good advice of the Elves and by their unerring Dwarven sense of direction – after all, Náli had already gone roughly the same way, only backwards – managed to take the right path to the High Pass.

Long days after they had parted ways with the Elven brothers, they were climbing up and up, now leading their good beasts on the reins, for not even sure-footed Dwarf ponies could go up there with riders on their backs. It was a hard path, even for resilient young Dwarves, and Rei wondered how the FireBeard merchants had managed to come down there with their heavily laden carts, but at least not a crooked one – it led straight to the Pass.

It was long, though; almost as long as the distance from the Last Bridge to the Ford, and much more difficult to master. It was getting bitter cold up there, and the wind came shrill among the rocks; for all their endurance, both Dwarves and ponies were shivering; more so after nightfall. Also, boulders came rolling down the mountainside at times and passed among them if they were lucky – or over their heads, which was, frankly, quite alarming. Even Rei began to doubt the wisdom of passing over the Mountains at this time of the year.

“Was it like this when you came this way with the FireBeards?” she asked in a low voice, wrapping herself tightly into a blanket as they were sitting as close to their small fire as they could without getting roasted.

The nights were getting increasingly chilly and comfortless, and there were uncanny echoes all around them, so they unconsciously avoided speaking loudly. It was as if the silence would not want to be broken, except for the noise of water dripping from the rock, the wailing of the wind between the trees and the crack of stone.

Náli shrugged and breathed on his nails to warm his fingers.

“’Twas not nearly this cold,” he replied, “but it was uncomfortable enough nonetheless. One day we met a thunderstorm the likes of which I couldn’t even imagine before. No, in truth it wasn’t one thunderstorm but two of them, meeting right above our heads; their warring shook the very rocks under our feet. The lightning splintered on the peaks; great crashes split the air and rolled and tumbled into every cave and hollow. The darkness was filled with fearful noise and sudden light. All our ponies went mad with fear; some of them tore their reins and ran off into the night. We only found one of them afterwards… dead in a ravine, with all its bones broken,” he shivered. “I hope we won’t meet anything light that on our way. I was never so thoroughly drenched in my life.”

Rei, who also hated to be wet, shuddered. “I remember being caught in a storm while learning woodcraft from my father,” she said. “There was wind and rain, and the wind whipped the rain and hail about in every direction. The only shelter we found was an overhanging rock, and that was no protection at all.”

Náli gave her a sympathetic look. “I can imagine what it felt like,” he glanced up at the clear sky. “It seems, though, that we shan’t have to fear weather like that tonight, at the very least.”

“’Tis still dreadfully cold, though,” said Rei unhappily.

“Well,” replied Náli with a wicked grin, “I can think of a way to keep ourselves warm. We can share bedrolls, blankets and body heat to be more comfortable.”

“That,” said Rei, “is the best idea you have had since we left the Ford behind.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And so they shared bedrolls and blankets and kept each other warm during the night, and there was no rain indeed, although it was very cold. Cold even for Dwarves to suffer from it and to wake up with stiff limbs. But in the morning the sun came out again, and they went on their way with renewed vigour, and by nightfall they unexpectedly reached the highest point of the Pass: a small, flat place of irregular shape, flanked by rock walls on both sides. From there on, the path began to run downwards again.

There were caves in the rock walls, used as watchposts and as shelter by the Beornings who watched the Pass and extracted tolls from the travellers. Only a handful of them were present at any given time, as they were as solitary and territorial a people as were their distant cousins, the bears; but that was enough, as they had much likeness with bears, both in their looks and their strength.

Huge and heavily-built Men they were, with black beads and hair as thick as hedges, and with great, knotted muscles clearly visible through the rough wool and black fur of their clothing. Their calves were wrapped in wolfskin fastened with leather tongs, yet their great arms were bare, in spite of the chill of the evening, by which they seemed not to be disturbed at all.

Although not meeting them for the first time, Náli eyed them with vary interest. There were many different legends ranking around the Beornings, and not even the best scholars of the Elves – or of the Dwarves, for that matter – could tell which ones were true. Some said they were bears, descended from the Great Bears of the Mountains that had lived there before the Trolls came. Others said they were Men, descended from an ancient Mannish race that had lived there before the Dragons would invade the land and the Goblins would come out of the North. In one aspect all legends agreed, though: that they were skin-changers, sometimes appearing as huge black bears and sometimes as great, strong, black-bearded Men with huge arms and bushy beards.

Of their women, if they had any, there were no tales at all.

They were also very observant people, apparently, for barely had the young Dwarves come out of the woods and into the open place, one of them came forth from the watchtower to greet them… rather politely, if one considered the almost legendary rudeness of his people.

“Greetings,” he said. “I am Bjarki, in charge of the Pass now. Who are you and what do you want?”

“I am Rei Hreinnsdóttir, and this is my mate, Náli,” Rei looked up at the huge Man, twice her size and likely three times her weight, without any sign of fear. “We are on our way to King Dáin Ironfoot’s realm.”

The bearded man nodded. As Dwarves were a distinctive race that could not be mistaken for – or impersonated by – Orcs or Goblins and were generally considered trustworthy, he saw no reason to ask any further questions. Dwarven outlaws were rare, and the Dwarves dealt with them themselves, not requiring – or indeed tolerating – help from outsiders.

“You are free to use the Pass, of course,” he said agreeably, “for the usual price.”

“Which would be…?” Rei arched a questioning eyebrow.

“Ten silver pennies for each,” the Man told her.

Rei’s eyebrow climbed even higher. “You demand a high price, good sir,” she said.

The Man shrugged. “Mayhap we do; but we also keep the Pass open and safe for all travellers.”

“To let them starve once they have reached the first settlement on the other side of the Mountains, for the lack of any coin left?” asked Rei.

The Man grinned, clearly not insulted by her barbed remarks.

“You can have a place to rest for the night and a warm meal before you pass,” he said. “It would only cost you another silver penny, each.”

The two Dwarves exchanged looks of agreement. One silver penny for shelter and meal, albeit not exactly cheap, was a reasonable price, though they still found the toll outrageously high. But they had no choice – either they paid what was demanded, or they would have to return to the Ford, turn to the South and try their luck at the Redhorn Pass. Which not only would bring them widely off-track but they would also arrive late enough to be caught by the first snowfall on Barazinbar; and that was the last thing they wanted.

“Very well,” said Rei unhappily, as she hated the thought to part from most of the silver coin she had found in the Troll-hole but saw no other way to get over the Mountains. “We shall take the meal and spend the night before we pass. If we have to pay your horrendous toll, at least we shall leave well-rested and with our bellies full in the morning.”

The man took no offence – coming from a rather blunt people, he found blunt speech apparently in order, even if aimed at himself. He led them into one of the caves, where they could spread their bedrolls on the low benches running along the cave walls for the night. This was going to be the most comfortable bedding they had had since leaving the Forsaken Inn, Náli realized.

The cave had a doorway directly into a much larger one, in which a great hearth, warming all adjacent chambers, stood. Three other people – two men and an as-yet beardless youth – were sitting there, around a long table, in the middle of which an earthenware pot of the size of a cauldron stood, smelling deliciously of herb and onion, eating their supper. There was also a plate, as big as a mill-stone, with a generous heap of the famous honey-cake of the Beornings piled upon it.

“Hey, Elgfrothi,” the Man who had introduced himself as Bjarki called out. “We have customers. Make room for them!”

The youth, whose name was apparently Elgfrothi, stood and took his bowl with him, joining the other two on the opposite side of the table. Bjarki gestured the Dwarves to sit on the now empty bench and brought three more bowls, two fort he customers and one for himself, from a long sideboard next to the heart. He added spoons, carved from bone, with handles of antler, and began to ladle generous amounts of the excellent stew into their bowls.

“Eat and grow strong again,” he said, grinning broadly. “It might not be as good as the stew my wife Drift makes, but Bihar here,” he nodded towards the oldest Man whose beard was beginning to turn grey, “is a decent enough cook. Our prices may not be low, but what we offer is worth buying.”

Náli, digging into the delicious stew with relish and surprised by the throwaway remark that the Beornings clearly did have women, after all, had to admit that it was very true. He had not had such a good meal since Hallavor and Rei had invited him to their table in the Prancing Pony on his first evening in Bree.


~TBC~

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