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7
The Road Goes Ever On, Part 3

NulukkizdÓn is the Khuzdul name of Nargothrond
Rakh‚s is Khuzdul for Orcs.
Everything else would be telling. *g*


~~~

CHAPTER 03C – THE ROAD GOES EVER ON, PART 3

They spent the night in the delightfully warm cave, with bellies full and content with their fate. In the morning, they politely refused the offer of breakfast (for two silver pennies each), preferring to use some of their own supplies. Then they paid for shelter, supper and the use of the Pass, took their leave from the Beornings and set off to begin their long descent on the eastern slopes of the Mountains.

Said descent was slow, as the path leading from the High Pass down the eastern slopes of the mountain range was an uneven one, meandering among the outthrusts of rock and densely wooded patches like a ribbon; and they had to be mindful of their ponies, so that those would not break a leg. But in the end, they left the rough feet of the Mountains again, and the path they were following widened enough to allow two carts or four horsemen to ride abreast, and was now running through a wood of oaks and elms.

Once again, thy camped on a small clearing under the stars, relieved by the fact that the night was less chilling now that they had come down from the Mountains, even though they were getting closer to the last crescent moon of the autumn with each passing day. If they wanted to reach Erebor for Durin’s Day, they had to press on relentlessly from now on.

Fortunately, later on that day they finally came out of the woods into wide green lands, with a great river gleaming right before their eyes on the East, in the middle of the grassy valley.

“Finally!” said Rei, and her eyes were gleaming as she looked at the river, which she saw for the first time in her life. “This is Anduin the Great; the river that has its sources in the far North, in the Grey Mountains, and reaches the Sea a thousand and five hundred miles further south, in the Bay of Belfalas, in the South-kingdom of Men.”

NŠli, who had already crossed the greatest river of Middle-earth coming from Rhûn with the FireBeard caravan, nodded absently. He was searching for the familiar formations of the Old Ford but he could find none. Cropping out of the ground, though, right in the path of the stream that looped itself around it, was a huge, steep rock… almost a hill of stone, like a last outpost of the Mountains themselves. Or perchance a large boulder, cast miles into the plain by some enraged giants of the Elder Days.

“I fear we have come off our intended path,” he said to Rei. “We must have chosen the false path when we left the Pass. This is definitely not the Old Ford before us.”

“Likely not,” Rei agreed, giving their surroundings a critical look. “I’d say this is the Carrock: the look-out place of Beorn the chieftain of all Beornings. Do you see the well-worn path with its many steps as it leads down from that flat place on the top to the riverside and the ford of huge boulders? That must be the Ford of Carrock, I suppose, which leads to the grass lands beyond the Great River.”

“We are fortunate, then,” said NŠli. “We can cross the river here just as easily, and then ride a few miles southwards on the other side to reach the Road again.”

But Rei shook her head. “I would rather not. The Beornings control the Ford of Carrock; it would cost us the rest of our silver coin to buy passage across it, and I for my part would prefer to keep my silver if we can cross the river for free further south.”

“I cannot see any Beornings here,” said NŠli.”

“You cannot see the small cave facing the boulder ford from here,” answered Rei, “but the tales about the Quest of Erebor tell us that it is there. And so is at least one of the Beorning, watching the Ford all the time; of that I am certain.”

And indeed, as NŠli stared at the stone hill, he thought he caught a glimpse from a huge black shape, presumably a bear, appearing for a moment between it and the river, and then vanishing in the shadow of the rock again.

“You are right,” he sighed dejectedly; he would have preferred having dealt with crossing the river sooner rather than later, but clearly, they did not have that choice. Not without paying another outrageously high toll. “Let us fallow the River southwards. The Old Ford cannot be very far; and the Road goes on right on its other side anyway.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And so they turned southwards and galloped along the river with the best speed their sturdy steeds were capable of. Which, considering the hardiness of Dwarf ponies – as opposed to regular ones – was quite impressive. They reached the Old Ford, which lay some twenty miles below the Carrock, in half a day.

There the Great River was fairly wide already, but at the Old Ford it became surprisingly shallow – as compared with the places above and below – so that even the ponies could cross it with relative ease, as long as they were mindful of the stony river bed. So they crossed it, and if a cold wave sometimes licked their boots, it was rare and fleeting, and it did not bother them overmuch.

When the ponies heaved themselves onto the grassy bank on the other side, the two young Dwarves decided to take a bath in the shallows. Refreshed and hungry, yet determined to find a suitable place for the night, they went on and rode through the thick green grass, ‘til they reached the seam of the woods: a long line of wide oaks and tall elms. There Rei looked around uncertainly.

“We should leave the Road for the night,” she said. “Do you know a good place where we could camp for the night?”

NŠli shook his head. “With the FireBeards, we simply slept on the roadside, in the protection of the carts. But right over there, there is a narrow path leading to the North; mayhap we should follow it for a while.”

“Would that be safe?” asked Rei with a frown. “Who lives in these parts?”

“Very few people, as far as I know,” replied NŠli. “Beornings and scattered clans of the Northmen – perchance even small bands of Wood-Elves, despite the danger coming from Dol Guldur. Neither of them would be a threat for us.”

“All right,” said Rei after some consideration. “Let’s se where the path take us.”

They turned the heads of their ponies northwards and rode through the entrance of the track; Rei first – she insisted, being a Ranger and better at woodcraft of the two of them – and NŠli following close up. The entrance reminded them of some kind of arch, formed by two great trees that leant together, leading to a gloomy tunnel; trees that seemed too ancient and too hung on with ivy and shaggy with lichen to bear many laves on their own.

The path itself was narrow, winding on among the great trunks of trees, about as wide and clear as a rabbit-track. Soon the light at the entrance was like a fading little hole behind, and the silence was so deep that the hooves of the ponies seemed to thump aloud louder than the hammers in the great smithies under the Blue Mountains, while all the trees appeared to listen warily. It was an eerie journey.

Fortunately, the night-eyes of Dwarves got used to the dimness easily, so that they could see for a little distance to each side in some kind of darkened green light. For a race that had taken shape deep under the earth and usually spent its whole life there, it was inevitable to have better night vision than most other people.

They could hear the small animals of the forest above their heads. As their eyes got used to the lack of light, they could see a few black squirrels, whisking off the path and scuttering behind the tree trunks. There were other quiet noises: grunts, scuffles and hurrying in the undergrowth and among the leaves piled thickly on the forest floor. But what made the noises they could not see.

Rei suddenly held on her pony and gestured to NŠli to do the same. There was something before them on the path, something much larger than the squirrels, hobbling away from them slowly and with obvious effort.

That,” she warned NŠli, signing with her hands in Iglishmek, “is not a Beorning or one of the Woodmen!

I can see that,” replied NŠli, also in the Dwarven sign language. “But what else can it be? ‘Tis small like a Goblin but moves as quietly as one of us.

I’ve never heard of our people living in Mirkwood,” pointed out Rei.

Neither have I,” answered NŠli. “Must be a Goblin then. Mayhap they did not all perish in the Battle of the Five Armies… and it hobbles, too. Mayhap it suffers from an old injury.

Only one way to find out,” Rei switched to spoken language and called out to the dark little figure before them. “Hullo! Who goes there?”

The unknown creature whirled around with surprising speed. Its eyes were gleaming in the fading light like the night-eyes of Dwarves usually do in the dark. And indeed, they could see that it was a Dwarf; and a female one at that. An ancient, wizened Dwarf-dam, clad in coarse dark wool, with a round face so wrinkled that it reminded of a dried apple, a great tangle of thick grey hair – once perhaps tied back in a few simple braids but now mostly undone and filthy – and beetle-black eyes that seemed… well, almost dead and yet appeared to look straight through them.

“I am tengol,” she said in a high, scratchy voice. “I live here – but who are you?”

“Tengol?” echoed Rei doubtfully. “A strange name it is; and not one used among our kind.”

“’Tis not a name,” corrected NŠli. “’Tis an old, old word in the tongue of the Woodmen and means a seer or soothsayer. She must be a wise-woman they go to for advice.”

“Men, coming to a Dwarf-dam for advice?” Rei had a hard time to believe that.

NŠli shrugged. “Why not? Our dams live long and see much. Why should they not be respected by other races as well?” he slid from his pony and bowed deeply. “Forgive us, Grandmother, for disturbing you. We are but two weary travellers, looking for a place to sleep.”

The old crone – she was tiny, even for a Dwarf – tilted her head to the side, bird-like, and gave them a piercing look.

“My place is my own,” she cawed, “and I value my peace and quiet. But if you are in need of a bed, I shall take you to Brownhay to see the wizard. He does not mind if noisy young folk appear on his doorstep without an invitation. Come and follow me!”

She turned around again and hobbled away, without bothering to look back and see whether they were truly following her or not. Rei and NŠli exchanged doubtful looks; then they shrugged and did as she had told them to do.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The old crone led them swiftly into the deepening darkness; more swiftly than one would have expected, seeing her apparent age and her laboured gait. Even with their night-eyes, they could barely see the trees on both sides of the path, but they dared not to light a torch for fear that its light would lock on more evil creatures than just the black squirrels they had seen earlier. They more felt than actually saw the dark, dense cobwebs, with their thick threads hanging from the lower branches, and disturbing tales about the Great Spiders of Mirkwood came to their minds.

“I wonder if this part of the forest is as infested with Spiders as the woods around the Elvenking’s realm used to be,” murmured Rei, her voice low. Yet the old crone must have heard it, for she glanced back over one hunched shoulder shrewdly.

“What do you think, young one?” she cackled. “The Spiders came from the South; from the dark tower of sorcery upon the Naked Hill. Should there, so much closer to their birthplace, be none of them?”

“But if they are any, is it not dangerous tot ravel on these paths at nighttime?” asked Rei.

“For most people, it is,” replied the old crone. “But this part of the forest is under the protection of the wizard, and thus the path leading to Brownhay is safe. For it has been his home of old since the beginning of this Age, and no-one has ever dared to disturb it. Hurry up! Night will be falling, soon, and you would want to reach his hall before supper, wouldn’t you?”

More she was not willing to tell, and thus they hurried on, she hobbling in front of them and the two younger Dwarves leading their ponies on the reins. They went perhaps two or three miles that way; it was hard to tell. It had become pitch black in the meantime; so dark that not even the night-eyes of Dwarves could see anything, but their guide followed the path unerringly, more by ear and instinct, most likely, like somebody who had walked this track countless times.

Finally, when hey had half-convinced themselves that she was leading them into some kind of trap, there was a twinkle of light before them; still a long way off, but comforting by its very presence. The old crone held on for a moment and laughed, a high cackle that seemed to awaken strange echoes among the dark, ancient trees.

“There it is,” she said. “That is Brownhay, where the wizard’s hall stands. Have faith, me ducklings; we are almost there.

Despite her promise, they had to make another mile or two, but the twinkle before them grew gradually, ‘til it became a warm, welcoming spot of light, and they could see their surroundings a little better now.

They were surrounded by broad-headed, wide-branched ancient oaks, remnants of the once mighty forests most of which had been burnt to the ground during the War of the Elves and Sauron in the Second Age. The old trees flung their gnarled arms high over their heads, forming an arched ceiling of some sort that they could more guess than see. In some places they were intermingled with beeches, hollies and copsewood of various sorts, so closely that they completely intercepted the level beams of the waning Moon.

With renewed hope in their hearts they set off again; up slope and down slope they went, and at the end of their path they come to a belt of tall and even more ancient oaks and beyond them a high thorn hedge, through which they could not see. They went along the hedge and soon came to a high and broad wooden gate; twice as high as NŠli was tall.

The old crone pushed open the heavy, creaking gate, seemingly without effort, and they entered the wizard’s home. A wide track led from the gate to a courtyard, three walls of which were formed by a wide, wooden hall and its two long wings. Further away they could see the vague outline of some other low wooden buildings, made of unshaped logs and thatched – most likely barns, stables or sheds.

There was a huge, ancient oak in the middle of the courtyard, its wide branches canopying half the place; and under the tree an old Man stood, clad in a heavy robe of rough, earth-brown wool, the true colour of which could barely been guessed by the firelight that came through the open door of the hall. He had no covering upon his head, which was only defended by his long, thick hair, matted and twisted together, and scorched by the long exposure to Sun and wind into a rusty dark-red colour, liberally streaked, just like his long beard, with iron-grey strains. His deep-set eyes were dark and wise under his bushy brows.

He clearly recognized the old crone, if only by her shape and her hobbling, for he smiled at them in a welcoming manner.

“Mother Aase,” he said by way of greeting; his voice was deep and serene. “It has been too long; I was beginning to worry about you. And now not only do you show up again, you even bring guests with you? Who are these two? Family perchance?”

The old crone actually snorted at that!

“You know me, Medwed,” she replied. “I am a lone wolf among my kind and have not had any family left for a very long time. Nay, these are just two young vagabonds I picked up in the woods near the Ford. They were looking for a place to sleep, and I could not let them camp outside where the Spiders are abroad. I knew you would not mind if I brought them here.”

The Man laughed; ‘twas a surprisingly light and carefree laughter, coming from the mouth of such a bearded old man, and it sounded as if all happiness of the world would have been mirrored in it.

“You are right,” he said. “I do not. I like visitors; the more so young ones.” He turned to the two young Dwarves, and, to their surprise, bowed in impeccable Dwarven fashion, so that his beard swept the grass. “Radagast the Brown, at your and your families’ service,” he said politely.

“Rei Hreinnsdůttir, at yours,” answered Rei, while NŠli followed suit. Then something occurred to her, and she frowned. “Wait a moment! The old one called you by a different name, did she not?”

The Brown Wizard nodded. “She did, and rightly so. You see, among many different people, I was given many names. Radagast is the one I use most in these days; but the Northmen call me Medwed, and the Dwarves picked up that name from them. For the Elves, I am Aiwendil, the Bird-friend; and the Horse-lords of the Riddermark call me …othain, for they found that I can talk to their horses as no other stranger ever could.”

“But which one is your true name?” asked Rei, mildly confused.

“None of them… all of them,” replied the wizard, and they all could hear the smile in his voice. “All these names mean me, but none of them can fully describe all that is me. As for the name I once used to wear, long ago, in my forgotten youth in the Far West that is now gone, it would say you nothing. In truth,” he added thoughtfully, “I can no longer be certain that it still says aught to me. I have changed too much since I left my home of old.”

For a moment, a strange melancholy descended upon them all like a heavy rain-cloud. But then the wizard clapped his large hands, as if wanting to show it away, and spoke again brightly.

“But I am forgetting my manners as well as my duties as your host! Come on in, my good Dwarves, come into my Hall. Let the fire warm your limbs and the supper warm your bellies!”

“What about our ponies?” asked Rei. The wizard waved off her concern.

“No harm can come near them within my hedge, and they will find plenty of grass in the courtyard. Bring your saddlebags and leave them to look after themselves.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The young Dwarves were all too happy to follow him in; spending the night in the warm, well-protected Hall of a friendly wizard was more than they could have hoped for when they had left the Road. NŠli noticed that the old crone, whom the wizard had called Mother Aase, was following them, but that did not bother him overmuch. She was clearly a friend of the wizard – or, at the very least, somebody Radagast trusted enough to give shelter to any strangers she would bring into his home – therefore she must have been trustworthy.

Stepping through the big front door, they found themselves in a wide hall, built of heavy wooden beams, blackened by age and by the smoke of the fireplace that stood in the middle of it. For there was a wood fire burning, keeping the hall pleasantly warm against the chill of the night that had fallen in the meantime. The smoke was going up to the blackened rafters in search of a way out through a great opening in the roof.

The hall appeared to be longer than it was wide; perhaps about twenty feet by twenty-five, its high roof was held by slender wooden pillars resembling of live trees. A second look revealed that they were, in fact, actual tree-trunks, places cunningly so that their thick branches would support the ceiling. Running along both side walls were raised wooden platforms; wide enough for a Dwarf – or even for a grown Man – to make his bed on them.

Radagast encouraged them to store their saddlebags there and lay out their bedrolls for the night ere they would sit down to have supper.

“As there are only four of us, there is no need to set up the trestle table,” he said. “We can just sit at the fire and eat comfortably.”

That was fine with Rei and NŠli, and soon they were sitting with their host and the old crone in the middle of the Hall, near the fireplace. That, too, was fairly huge, about six feet by eight, and a large iron pot or cauldron hung over it from an iron chain. Mouth-watering smells came from the direction of the cauldron, although they could not tell by the smell alone what the wizard might be cooking in it.

“Nothing fancy,” said Radagast, as if he had read their thoughts; and perhaps he had, who could tell what a wizard was capable of doing? “Just some pottage, to put the haunch of lamb one of the Woodmen brought me as a present to good use. A pottage of lamb, turnips, onions and herbs; I hope you will like it.”

No worry on his part was necessary, for hungry Dwarves – especially young ones – liked almost everything that was edible, and even more so if it had good meat in it. So Rei and NŠli thanked the wizard and assured him that lamb pottage would be more than fine indeed, and Radagast seemed relieved. He gave everyone a sizeable earthenware bowl and a wooden spoon and lowered the cauldron on its chain ‘til it sat firmly on the stone frame of the fireplace. Then he thrust a wooden ladle into the pottage and looked at the old crone with a grin.

“Mother Aase, would you do the honours?”

Which showed that he was well aware of the Dwarven custom of the eldest female present dishing out the food for everyone else. Old Aase grinned back at him wickedly.

“I see I have finally taught you some manners, lad,” she cawed in amusement. “It took me the better half of the last hundred years, mind you, but now I see that you were worth my pains.”

She hobbled closer to the fireplace, clambered onto the frame with surprising limberness, and began to ladle some soup into the wizard’s bowl; all that while keeping her precarious balance so close to the fire.

“Well, what are you waiting for, ducklings?” she then demanded from Rei and NŠli. “Are you hungry or not?” Come then, for I shan’t be standing up here all night ‘til I become smoked bacon. Ever since I broke both my ankles some thirty years ago, I am not as nimble as I used to be.”

The young Dwarves hurried to obey; making such an ancient Dwarf-dam wait would have been a serious breach of etiquette. They received their portion from the delicious soup and sat down to eat, while Mother Aase did the same on the other side of the fireplace, as if she wanted to protect her privacy, even for her own kind and from an old friend.

Now, in the light of the fire, they could finally see how strange she truly was. Very small, even for a Dwarf indeed; even for one from the lesser Clans. She was a head shorter than Rei, who did not count as tall herself, but broadly built, like all Dwarves, and probably much stronger than she looked. Her tangled hair, as it hung over her shoulders, filthy and unkempt, made her look more like a wild beast than a Dwarf.

No self-respecting Dwarf-dam would have worn clothes like hers, either. For she was clad in the fashion of the Beornings, in coarse, homespun wool and black fur. The tunic she wore barely covered her knobbly knees; her short, thick legs were wrapped in wolfskin, and she wore heavy boots that only reached to her ankles.

Her head seemed too large for her short body, making NŠli wonder if she was truly a Dwarf, after all, or just some Mannish woman, born into a stunted body. He had seen such unfortunate wenches in Rhûn; they were kept as pets in the halls of the Khimmer tribal chiefs, to entertain them and their guests.

Yet between filthy hair and coarse clothing NŠli spotted the glint of gold; the old crone wore thick golden earrings, studded with rubies; and heavy bracelets on her swollen wrists, of the same fine Dwarven craftsmanship. Both earrings and bracelets seemed old, very old; blackened with time, crafted in a fashion that had gone out of use for many hundreds of years. NŠli could not even guess where she could have had them from.

She also had strange blue and green runes and patterns tattooed on her hands and even her face, although those were not easy to figure out due to her wrinkles that were many, mostly around her mouth and in the corners of her spooky, beetle-black eyes. NŠli recognized some of the tattoos; her mother and grand-dam had been both wise-women and bore similar marks on their faces. Tattoos were quite common with Dwarves, after all, especially among the BlackLocks and the IronFists. With the old crone, though, it seemed as if the marks would continue down her entire body, even if one could not see them, of course, with her rough garb in the way.

So she probably was a Dwarf, even if a very odd one. Mannish women were unlikely to bear such marks.

“Master Wizard,” murmured NŠli, “who is Mother Aase? For she seems strangely familiar yet utterly foreign to me; on all my journeys, I have never seen a Dwarf-dam more ancient… or more strange. She is a Dwarf, is she not?”

“I do not know myself, even though I have known her for more than a hundred years,” answered the wizard in an equally low voice. “She never speaks of herself, and not even I know where her home is or how long she has dwelt in this dark forest.”

“Longer than you may deem, Master Wizard,” the old crone had clearly overheard them, despite the lowering of their voices; she must have had the keen ears of a wild beast. “I have come here after the Elvenking had moved his realm further north again and this part of the forest became deserted. I wished not to live close to Elves; and even less did I want to have anything to do with Men,”

There was a red glint in her eyes, like in that of a dragon, according to old tales. A glint that spoke of ancient hatred – a deeply personal one.

NŠli briefly wondered just how ancient her hatred for Men could be. The Elvenking had moved his realm northwards for the last time after the fall of Khazad-dûm, ‘twas said, and that had been more than a thousand years ago. Not even dwarves could live that long… or could they?

“Which Clan are you from, Mother Aase?” he asked. “Why do you live here all on your lonesome, without your people?”

“I have no people; not anymore,” she replied darkly. “And even when there were more of our kind, we were clanless and masterless and had learned the hard way to take care of ourselves.”

“How is that possible?” asked Rei with a frown. “We all belong to the one or the other Clan, even those of mixed origins, like NŠli and me.”

We have no Clan,” replied the old crone. “Our… cousins banished us from the great Dwarf cities of the East in ancient days. Long before the return of the Dark one to Middle-earth our longfathers had wandered westward. There, in the lands that the Elves called Beleriand, they found a new home and began to make dwellings in the heart of the mountains – until the Elves came over the Sea and drove them out of their homes.”

“Is that why you hate the Elves?” asked NŠli, who had no particular misgivings about that, although he supposed that Rei would see it differently.

“Why should I feel aught but hatred towards them?” Mother Aase asked back. “First the Grey-Elves hunted us like beasts, not even realizing what we were: a race older than even theirs, though Mahal had been forced to put us to sleep, so that they could become the Firstborn. Then their war-like cousins crossed the Sea and took our homes; our last refuges from a world that never wanted us to be here in the first place. It was the Elves that made us a hunted race.”

“Surely they were not all that bad!” protested Rei who, due to her growing up in a family of Northern Dķnedain, was more friendly towards Elves than the average Dwarf.

“The only Elf I know of who had ever been kind to our people was Felakkundu,” said Mother Aase dryly. “He befriended Gwystyl – long after he had made NulukkizdÓn his fortress, mind you. Gwystyl forgave him for that, as the loss of our great dwelling place at the River Nogrod had happened long before Felakkundu’s arrival. But that is the only friendship between an Elf and one of us ever made.”

“Gwystyl?” Rei furrowed her smooth brow, trying to remember. “I have heard the tale about Felagund and the Noegyth Nibin long ago, as a child, in my foster father’s house. Was Gwystyl not the Petty-dwarf who gifted upon the King of Nargothrond a pair of wondrous throwing knives, made by his own hand? The knives still being carried by Gildor Inglorion, the heir of Felagund?”

Mother Aase grinned smugly. “As I said: Gwystyl was the only one of us who ever befriended an Elf.”

“But you cannot be a Petty-dwarf!” argued Rei. “They dwindled and died out from Middle-earth back in the First Age. All save MÓm and his two sons. And MÓm was already old by then, even in the reckoning of Dwarves; old and forgotten.”

“Not entirely forgotten, it seems,” said the old crone; the fact seemed to give her some satisfaction. “Nor was he truly the last of his kind… of our kind. There were others; there still are. We just were more careful not to get caught by Men.”

NŠli nodded. “I have heard that a few families are still dwelling under the Mountains of Nimwarkinh, in Rhûn, instructing selected sons of the Easterlings in the art of smithcraft, in exchange for food and protection.”

“The fools!” snorted Mother Aase in dismay. “They shall end badly. Men cannot be trusted. They are greedy, treacherous and ignorant. They shall use them and then slay them for no cause, just as the Rakh‚s would.”

“That is not true!” protested Rei. “I was raised by Men, as if I were theirs by blood, after my entire family had been slain. My foster parents were – are – good and honourable people, and I shall owe them gratitude for as long as I am alive.”

“Then you were fortunate, which is rare and surprising whenever a Dwarf has something to do with the race of Men,” replied the old crone grimly. “I had two beautiful sons, back in the days of old, and a mate who, while querulous and perhaps a little cowardly, did his best to feed the family and protect his house. Yet what happened to them? One of my sons got slain by an arrow casually, like a beast, just because he tried to flee from a band of outlaws. The captain of the same band forced my mate to open our house for them, by the pain of his life; and the murderer of my son was not even punished. In his grief, my mate foolishly turned to the filthy Rakh‚s to get rid of the intruders, and so everything was lost – including his honour.”

“What happened to your family then?” asked NŠli quietly.

Mother Aase shrugged. “My mate escaped after our home had been sacked by the Rakh‚s but was later found and slain by the outlaw captain’s father. What has become of my other son I never learned.”

“And where were you when all this was happening?” asked the Brown Wizard, astonished by the tale he was clearly hearing for the first time.”

“I was Sleeping,” answered the old crone simply.

“You slept though an Orc attack?’ Rei found that a little hard to believe.

“Nay, child,” answered the old crone patiently. “I’m not speaking of a mere rest. I’m speaking of the Long Sleep the wise-women of our kind are capable of. We can lie down, surrounded by rock and stone and Sleep of hundreds of years, without getting any older. Earth magic has remained much stronger in us, as we had not had the means of making tools and trinkets at our pleasure to do our work for us. We had to develop other skills; skills no enemy could take from us.”

Radagast nodded. “I have heard of this while visiting the scattered Dwarf settlements in the Grey Mountains,” he said, “but believed it to be a myth.”

“It is a myth now,” Mother Aase agreed. “I have not met another wise-woman of my people since I returned to the East. We have been a dwindling race for two whole Ages, and now there are only a few of us left.”

“You should still not live here, alone in the woods,” said NŠli respectfully. “There are enough Dwarf settlements still, even cities, where you would surely be welcome.”

The old crone gave him a withering glare. “I shan’t turn to my fat and lazy cousins for shelter; not even if my life depended on it,” she declared hotly. “Do you want to know why they banished our longfathers from their midst?”

“I was told that it happened for some ill deed your ancestors had done,” answered NŠli in confusion.

Mother Aase chuckled bitterly. It was a deep, throaty sound, like the growl of an angry she-wolf.

“Their only crime was that they had been born into stunted bodies,” she said. “The others found that their misshapen form was an insult for the perfection of Mahal’s work, and therefore they must have been tainted by darkness. No-one wanted that taint among them, and thus our longfathers had to leave. As they could only ever find mates among their fellow exiles, their distinctive traits have become even stronger and more defined over the generations – and so has our magic.”

“'Tis still not safe for you to live alone in the wilderness," insisted NŠli.

Mother Aase gave him a fond look. "Child, this is the safest place in Middle-earth you could imagine. Wood and stone shall not betray you; the beasts of the forests are good company, and if there is dire need, I can always count on a wizard. Is it not so?" she asked, flashing Radagast a mischievous grin.

The Brown Wizard nodded. "Of course, my dear, of course. Now, if everyone has eaten their full, we should retire for the night. Our young adventurers have a long way before them still, and they will have to set off early in the morrow.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And so Rei and NŠli slept in the hall of Radagast in Brownhay that night, safe and sound on their bedrolls, warmed pleasantly by the dying fire in the middle- When they woke up in the next morning, dawn was just breaking, but Mother Aase was already gone.

“That is how she comes and goes as she pleases,” said the wizard. “Honestly, I was surprised that she stayed as long as she did. She rarely spends the night under my roof, albeit I invite her often enough. She is a stubborn one, for certain. Now, go and wash yourselves while I prepare breakfast on the porch.”

The two young Dwarves were in complete agreement with the idea – food was always a good idea in their eyes – and soon they were walking along the hall, after having performed the usual morning cleansing. They came through the smaller door opposite the main entrance, in the back wall of the hall, which ked to a small porch, with wooden pillars made of tree trunks.

It faced south, thus it was still a bit chilly, as the slanted rays of the rising Sun had not fallen into it yet. That was not too bad, tough, as the low wooden benches standing on both sides of the table were covered with fur and so offered a comfortable seat.

There the Brown Wizard had prepared a generous breakfast that would even pacify the bellies of hungry Dwarves – he clearly knew that Mahal’s children needed to eat well. They could endure hunger longer than any other races if they had to, but if they had not, they preferred to have a full belly. So Rei and NŠli ate with healthy appetites, and when they had finally had their fill, Radagast offered them supplies for the journey: nuts and dried fruits in canvas bags and a good load of cram, the waybread of the Lake-men. It was somewhat hard to chew and not as tasty as the honey-cakes made by the Beornings, but it took up very little space in a traveller’s bag and lasted indefinitely.

Besides, Dwarves had good teeth.

The wizard also provided his guests with good advice concerning the next part of their journey.

“I know you have just recently travelled the same way in the opposite direction,” he said to NŠli, “but that was in a company of an entire caravan of merchants, with armed guards for safety. Now there are only the two of you, so be careful. The Old Forest Road, which is, in fact, the continuation of the Great East Road, has been cleaned somewhat in the recent years, and the Great Spiders rarely dare to cross it…”

Rarely does not mean never, though,” said NŠli.

“No,” the wizard agreed. “For that reason, warriors from the Elvenking’s realm regularly patrol the Road to keep those monsters at bay; and the Wargs and whatever else may find its way from the Necromancer’s Tower to the north of the forest.”

“But the Road itself is not dangerous,” said NŠli. “It has become overgrown, that is true, and it has deteriorated into an impassable marsh in the eastern part of Mirkwood, but there are paths to go around that part. And as for the rest, our longfathers have built it well. Even after and Age or possibly more, it still can be easily travelled.”

“That is true,” said Radagast; “and yet you must be watchful, for it runs close to the part of the forest that has been under the Necromancer’s spell for a long time, and the wild things are dark and queer and savage in there. You would do well not to stray far from the Road, not even to find a place for your night camp. There are many caves near the northern side of the Road that can be reached by short, direct paths; you will see the usual signs cut in the bark of the trees standing at the entrance of such paths. Those caves you can use safely, but be careful. They are often used by the Wood-Elves or the Woodmen, who are not a very hospitable lot. Approach them politely yet warily, if you cross paths with them.”

“Are the Elves of the forest still hostile towards our people?” asked Rei in surprise.

“I did not say hostile,” corrected the wizard. “They are not a particularly wicked people – indeed, they are not wicked at all. But most of them descended from the ancient Elves who never went to Elvenhome and the Blessed Realm in the far West. They lingered in the world of twilight before the raising of the Sun and the Moon, and in the great woods that grew here and once covered all of Eriador and Rhovanion. They consider the Wilderland as their home of old and do not like it when strangers are trespassing in the forest. But they will not harm you, unless you give them a reason to do so.”

“Yea, but who can tell what they might see as a reason?” muttered NŠli unhappily.

“’Twould be better if you left the talking to me, should we run into any Elves,” said Rei. “I have dealt with Elves often enough; not with the Avari, true, but I do have an inkling of how their minds work.”

Radagast, however, shook his head.

“You might have dealings with Lord Elrond’s people from Rivendell,” he said, “mayhap even with the Wandering Company of Gildor Inglorion, but that would be of little help with the Wood-Elves. They are a different lot: suspicious towards strangers and deeply mistrustful of Dwarves, for the grim tale of Elu Thingol and his death by the hands of the Dwarves of Nogrod is still very much alive among them.”

Rei rolled her eyes. “That was two Ages ago! They cannot possibly still hold a grudge because of it – or blame us all for the greed of some long-dead FireBeard smiths!”

“They can and they do,” replied the wizard seriously. “Elves have long memories; and you must not forget that some of them were present during those events. The Elvenking himself is one of those; he was but an elfling back then, the great-nephew of Thingol, and his memories are particularly vivid due to the stark terror of a young child.”

“He is no longer a child,” said Rei dismissively.

“Nay, he is not,” agreed Radagast, “and he has learned to live with his memories. He even had fairly good contacts to King DŠin, not to mention the StoneFoot Dwarves of the Grey Mountains who helped to build his halls, after all. But you must not forget that what is but a half-forgotten tale from the Elder Days for you is something very personal for him and for many of his people. They have lived through it, they have lost loved ones, and while their grief has faded in all those years gone by, it is still not entirely forgotten.”

“So what?” bristled Rei. “Am I supposed to grovel at their feet for something that is not our fault?”

“No,” answered the wizard. “But you should be careful when you run into one of their patrols. Even if you have done nothing wrong, it pays off to be respectful.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The young Dwarves promised to head the wizard’s advice, and then they took their leave from the Brownhay, reading out a little gate from its high hedges on the east side. It was a cool yet glorious morning, the Sun bright but not yet warm, and the small clearing before the wizard’s home bathed in pale gold. ‘Twas hard to think of possible dangers on the dark paths of the nearby forest.

Making good use of the sunny weather as long as it lasted, they pressed on, and they reached the Old Forest Road while the Sun was still just climbing the eastern sky. The black and frowning walls of the forest closed around them as they were riding under the great, overhanging trees. The trunks of those trees were huge and gnarled, their branches twisted and their leaves dark and long. Ivy grew about them and trailed upon the ground, and they could see trails of the thick, dark cobwebs interwoven with the ivy and the moss.

They were back in the dark gloom they had experienced before, and while Dwarves are generally not bothered by darkness, the further they rode, the more oppressing they found the emptiness of the Road and the bleak silence that was only interrupted now and then by the grunting and scuffling noises the unseen creatures were making in the undergrowth or deeper within the trees.

NŠli found that it was a very different journey for two young Dwarves on their own than I had been with an entire caravan of well-armed, boisterous FireBeards indeed, and he began to throw worried looks behind himself as they rode on.

At first they tried to talk, just to chase away the oppressing silence all around them. They discussed the Brown Wizard and his friend, the strange little Mother Aase, comparing what little they knew about Petty-dwarves. Rei even launched into a travelling song she had learned from her foster father’s people, but her voice died away among the dark, silent trees without echoes, and it made the silence all the more deafening; so she gave up.

They rode all day, with very short rests, as they wanted to cross the forest as quickly as possible. The semi-darkness under the trees never changed; they could not even follow the movements of the Sun above the high forest roof. Fortunately, as a race spending their lives largely under the earth, Dwarves had a near infallible sense of time, and so Rei slowed down the canter of her pony at roughly an hour before sunset.

“We should start looking for a place to sleep,” she said. “Let us see if we can find those signs the Brow Wizard spoke of.”

They began to look closely at the tree trunks on the northern side of the Road, and indeed, after another mile or so, they found a small track leading to the northeast, deeper into the woods. The symbols carved into the trunk of the two trees guarding the entrance of the path promised shelter and even water, which was a relief, as their waterskins were half-empty already, for the walking in the dark gloom had made them unusually thirsty.

“This must be it,” said Rei, relieved. “Let us follow the path; yet carefully, in case the shelter is already taken.”

She rode forth, straight into the even deeper gloom under the trees, and – after a moment of hesitation – NŠli followed her in. They could not turn back now if they wanted to reach the Lonely Mountain before Durin’s Day.

~TBC~

~~~

The tale about Felagund and the Noegyth Nibin is a hint to another of my stories, which can be read here.


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