In An Age Before - Part 4
On the sixth day Helluin left the city of the Nandor and made her way in peace northwards through the trees. Her intention was to make a survey of the forest and in this way learn its extent and margins. Her method was to encircle a land and then work her way inwards, discovering thus its secrets while already knowing the nature of the whole and the avenues of retreat. She had used much the same method in Eriador.
By midweek she had reached the northern borders of the forest, nigh the Gladden Fields, for in those days the extent of the wood was greater than in later ages, and yet already less than it had once been. By climbing high into the crown of a tree, Helluin discerned the peak of Fanuidhol standing due west, mantled with perpetual snow. Of the Golden Wood of which later tales have told, by the closing of the Third Age of the Sun, the forest's size had been halved. Helluin swung her gaze in a circle, from the Hithaeglir in the west, north to the Gladden Fields, east to the vastness of Greenwood Forest, and finally south from whence she'd come. Beyond King Lenwin's realm a narrow field separated the mellyrn wood from a darker forest, lying like a shadow between the mountains and the river. Her Elvish eyes revealed the shimmering ribbon of Anduin, glinting with silver highlights ere it diminished into the haze of the distant south, far across a broad and rolling land. And finally on the furthest margins of her sight, a hint of dark heights capped with white against the sky that spoke of mountains. The world was wide and Helluin was determined to see it all eventually, but for now, she let herself rest. The tree was comfortable and she felt secure amongst the boughs far above the ground. It was the perfect place to forget everything for a while and just be at ease.
For some time Helluin simply relaxed, lying prone on her back atop a large branch, enjoying the warmth of the sun overhead and the cool whisper of the breeze soothing her skin. The lazy day lulled her, the songs of birds nearby serenaded her ears, and in all ways the setting was idyllic. Soon she closed her eyes and fell into that waking dream that passes amongst the Eldar for sleep. Above her fractured sunlight flickered across her closed lids, painting her vision with reds and oranges and yellows. The shifting of the leaves recalled the susurration of flames whispering upon timbers. Quick alternations of the sun's heat and cool breeze created a simulacrum of the dancing radience of a fire close by. Helluin recalled the burning in the woods about the Pass of Sirion, south of the Fen of Serech, as she'd retreated with the Host of Gondolin from the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. There Glaurung, the great wyrm of Morgoth, and the Valaraukar had lit the northlands with the fire of their combat. It had seemed that all of Middle Earth was aflame.
While Turgon's captains, Glorfindel and Ecthelion had held the flanks, Helluin had taken the rear guard nearest the valiant brethren Hurin and Huor. Indeed during the battle her bloodlust had driven her to such violence that the Gondolindrim had been appalled by her murderous ferocity. They had very nearly left her behind on the field. Only the Edain of Dor-lomin, alone of all their allies that day, had faced her wrath and urged her away. They were intending to die, and in that hour they knew no fear.
"Thou shalt in days ahead repay this sacrifice we make for thy lord," Huor had declared with the foresight of the doomed, "for thou shalt succor the sons of my house yet to be."
Despite her mania, Helluin had quit the field, last of the Host of Gondolin, for she had over heard the words Huor had spoken to Turgon shortly before. Her doom encompassed a fate yet to come. In Gondolin and Avernien she had paid her debt to the House of Huor. For the doomed House of Hurin she had done nothing; indeed, of his family's fate she knew nothing so long as Gondolin stood. Only later, from survivors of Doriath, did any tidings come, and those were heartbreaking, for the curse of Morgoth Bauglir was potent. The memories were poignant; the scent of smoke jerked her to full awareness.
The sun had shifted during her rest and now lay westward and orange. The flock of songbirds had been replaced by a murder of crows cawing near the margin of the forest. There she spied a thin column of smoke rising, and ever so faintly the clash of arms and cries of pain. She heard the voices of Yrch!
In a moment Helluin was up and sprinting through the branches far above the ground. There she covered the distance to the eaves of the forest faster than the swiftest upon land paths afoot. She also began her descent far away so that as she came nigh the burning she was but three fathoms above the ground. Before breaking from cover, she stopped and surveyed the situation. What she saw filled her with rage.
Just beyond the forest's margin stood a homestead, a comfortable log cabin surrounded by a split rail fence. A garden of flowers with beehives amongst them she could see, and beyond, tilled fields of corn, wheat, and hay. Near the cabin stood a much larger barn with its own fenced paddock, a water trough and bales of feed lying close at hand. But the thatched roof atop the cabin was afire and flaming arrows were flying from the woods to her north.
Before the cabin stood a great, black-haired Man, armed with a massive axe, and about him lay already the bodies of a dozen Yrch. The Man appeared to be alone, and yet he fought on undaunted by the numbers of his enemies for he moved with speed and power, wielding his chosen weapon with swift and deadly strokes. Helluin had seen enough. It was time for action.
Quickly she moved north amongst the branches, seeking for the archers who had fired the cabin's roof. She found them soon enough, a company of a dozen mountain Yrch in ragged armor of ill-tanned leather and rusty plates, shooting with the short black bows common to their kind. Helluin worked her way in behind them, slaying them with her own bow in silence one by one until no more of their arrows flew. She left them where they fell, a feast for the crows if those birds could stomach their bitter flesh, and then she moved forward to the edge of the trees.
The battle beyond the forest was continuing but the odds seemed to ill-favor the black haired Man. Yet more Yrch had arrived and most were converging on their only opposition, encircling him and edging in ever closer. The big Man was defending his homestead like a bear would its den, surging forward with unexpected speed to hew any Orch too slow to scuttle out of reach. More of their dead piled up, but Helluin could only wonder how long he could maintain his strength without tiring. The Yrch were numerous; counting the dead and the living, three dozens at least, and adding the dozen archers she'd slain, the leader and his lieutenant, they would have made up a standard company of fifty. It was the first time Helluin had seen Yrch ordered for battle since the wars of the First Age had ended.
From her vantage point Helluin could see a pair of Yrch sneaking away from the fighting and circling back toward the barn. They stopped by its doors and worked with flint and steel to kindle there a blaze. The thought made Helluin's blood boil. They intended to fire the barn for the simple cruelty of burning the animals inside. She moved from the eaves of the forest, knocked an arrow and let fly. The shaft sped past the fighters in front of the burning cabin to pin one of the Yrch to the barn wall by his neck. The second recoiled away in shock only to have Helluin's second arrow catch him in the eye. The sharp-bladed arrowhead exploded out through the back of his skull and continued on to imbed itself in the wall of the barn.
Somehow in the midst of the fighting the Man had seen what had transpired. The thought of what the Yrch had intended enraged him. With a roaring growl he waded forward, his axe sweeping in a wide arc and hewing off the heads of three Yrch standing in a row. Yet the rest regrouped, and then under the lash of their leader's guttural cursing they advanced again together. Soon the Man was hemmed in a ring of jagged blades that harried him like a cloud of midges about a stag. The Yrch seemed to be growing bolder. They danced in to try their luck with a swipe here and a jab there. Almost they scored, yet the Man's axe kept them at bay for a while longer. Still their superior numbers and the prolonged combat would take their toll eventually, for his stamina would wane.
Helluin dropped her bow and quiver and slipped the mithril hauberk over her head. Then she charged to the Man's aid, drawing her sword as she came. At the fence she launched herself airborne, rising into a flying cartwheel over the rails. When she landed there was fire in her eyes and it burned for those uncounted who had died at the hands of Yrch such as these. Few creatures in Middle Earth ignited an Eldar's rage so thoroughly as the Orch soldiery of the Great Enemy. And here she had found them again, still about their mischief, intent on the destruction and murder for which their kind had been bred. Few of the Eldar hosted the battlemania that had inhabited Helluin since she'd crossed into Middle Earth. The blue light blazed from her eyes as she raced forward, and she caught the outermost of the Yrch unawares.
The first died with their faces still turned toward the lone Man. Their heads tumbled to lie at their own feet before their bodies staggered and fell. Then the Yrch became aware of her and they wavered, indecisive, long enough for her to slay a handful more where they stood. Now they turned their attention to her, only finally realizing that she was an Elf, but in that moment the axe swept the heads from yet another handful, their leader among them.
The soldiers cried out in dismay, voicing shock and fear in their vulgar tongue, for they saw the tide had turned against them. Though still outnumbering the defenders, they were hemmed in between a deadly axe and a swift black sword. Both the Man's size and Helluin's blazing eyes sapped what little courage the Glam claimed. They tried to pull together in hopes of winning free to flee the battleground, but neither Helluin nor the Man would stand for it.
”Beltho huiniath!” Helluin yelled. And she dove into their midst.
No blade wielded by any Orch in any age could bite on the mithril armor of the Dwarves, and the battle prowess of the Noldor outshone that of any short-lived goblin soldier. Helluin knew no fear, only the tide surge of her wrath. She slipped among her foes, slaying them at will in their terror, while beyond her the axe whistled and sang with their blood. Even the mightiest of the Naugrim would have hailed the slaughter that axe wrought in those moments. Surprisingly quickly it was done. Not a single Orch lived.
Helluin quickly shifted her eyes right and left as she turned quarter to quarter in a battle crouch. The enemies were utterly vanquished. Nothing moved save the man, who had leaned on his weapon and was wiping his brow on his sleeve. Slowly the blue fire faded from her eyes. Slowly the sounds of birdsong returned from the trees. The shadows had grown long and the sun was already fallen 'neath the heights of the Hithaeglir to the west. Helluin finally relaxed and stood upright. She drew the hauberk from her head and turned to face the homesteader. He regarded her with surprise and open interest. For several moments they appraised each other and then he spoke in a deep rumbling voice.
"Well met, stranger to me, though thou be no stranger to battle or the enemy I wager," he said in accented Sindarin. He held her eyes without fear, undaunted by her appearance and behavior. "I am Berlun, son of Brulun."
"Well met then, Berlun," Helluin replied, happy to hear a language other than the antique tongue of the Elves of Celebrant, or worse yet, the Common Speech of Eriador. After wiping off the Orch blood, she sheathed her sword. "I am Helluin of the Noldor, an explorer and newly appointed Hunter of King Lenwin."
He regarded her a moment, then said, "A strange tale I would guess, that a Noldor serves as a Hunter to King Lenwin of the mellyrn woods. Hmmm. My grandfather met him when first we came down from the mountains to live here. He only commanded us not to stray in the forest."
“So, thy people hath lived some time here nigh the forest? Art there other homesteads such as thine nearby?”
“Nay, we are few and hath always been. Some of my people live north along the Great River, but they art scattered with many miles between. We need space to roam and to feel free.”
“Yet being alone invites attack,” Helluin said, looking about at the dead Yrch.
“Too true,” Berlun replied, “and ever more so more recently it seems. Never before hath so many come together. I fear this betides the way of things to come.”
To Helluin his words foreshadowed the return of evil. It seemed that the numbers of fell creatures had been recovering since the fall of Morgoth, and now they were threatening the lands again. The claims of King Lenwin supported this appraisal. Helluin felt that soon she would be more hunter than explorer. She sighed at the prospect.
“Such is the thought of the king as well. He gave me warning of the growth of evil in his realm, and it seems that such is also true beyond his borders. It makes me fear a return to the Dark Years of the Great Enemy who is vanquished. Such times favor not those alone or few.”
Berlun nodded in reluctant agreement and cast his eyes to the darkening peaks of the Hithaeglir. “Yet someday hence shalt we return,” he whispered with grim longing.
Helluin followed his gaze, thinking of the enemies her friends the Naugrim might soon find assailing their realm. But they were many, well armed and hardy, and their mansions were strong. It may be a while and perhaps not in your lifetime ere your people again tread in freedom amidst the heights, she thought, but she said nothing for a while. The slopes darkened with the coming night even as they stood.
“Night falls,” Berlun finally said, “and I would welcome thee in my home, burnt though it be. I believe there might still be food and drink for the evening meal. Come share such with me as I can provide. Seldom hath any come to my people with aid so timely.“
Helluin looked from the mountains to the cabin. The roof thatch had mostly burnt away leaving the beams and joists exposed, but the log walls still stood, too sturdy to have caught from the heat of the flaming rushes above. She nodded her assent.
“Gratefully will I accept the hospitality of thy home, Berlun, but let me first fetch my bow.” Seeing his nod she trotted towards the edge of the forest as he turned toward his damaged homestead.
When she returned she found the door ajar and Berlun within kindling a fire in the hearth. The structure was cozy even with the darkening sky visible through the beams overhead. A trestle table and benches stood near one side, a pantry with crocks and baskets of foodstuffs filled the area past the hearth to the rear. Along the opposite wall stood a loft with a low bed and a chest, beneath which a storage area was located. A couple of comfortable chairs and a couch bracketed the hearth, and a low table as well.
After brushing away the fallen ashes and cinders, Berlun bade Helluin seat herself near the hearth. He then poured them mugs of strong mead that Helluin found greatly refreshing. Next he set about mixing a dough of flour, milk, honey, dried fruits and nuts. This be brought to the fire and baked on a slab amidst the coals. When the cakes were done he shared them out and they were both occupied in eating for a while. It was good wholesome fare and they ate and drank their fill, for Berlun continued refilling their mugs and baking fresh cakes as they ate. At last they were sated and sat a while longer in silence staring into the fire. Finally Berlun spoke.
“Helluin, I must go out to meet a while with some others of my people. Please stay inside until morning’s light since danger walks the night beyond thy forest. I shalt see thee in the morn, and again, thou hast my thanks for thy aid this day.”
Helluin briefly puzzled over this news, that Berlun would meet his kin in the dark hours while danger walked the more freely, but she knew not his ways and simply nodded to him as he prepared to leave. She noted that he left carrying neither weapons nor provisions nor a torch.
After he strode away into the darkness she sat a while longer, feeling well fed and contented, and yet curiosity had always ruled her. The night’s dangers daunted her not at all, Noldo who had fought the Great Enemy through centuries in the west that is no more. And so, after what she deemed a half-hour had passed, she rose and slipped out of the cabin, tracking the footprints of her mysterious host.
She found that he had headed immediately north and that he was moving fast. A furlong from the cabin his steps disappeared, only to be replaced by animal tracks. This fact she marked and she feared for her new friend. His boots showed that his way had joined that of a great bear, and it was the bear that had left the meeting. Helluin tracked the bear. For many hours that night she followed the steps of the bruin as it continued north, and sometime near midnight she heard ahead the sounds of several animals amidst a copse of trees. Here she departed from the trail and took to the branches. Slowly she advanced, maintaining silence and thankful that the wind was still and any scent of her was far above the ground. Soon she came to a strange sight.
At its center the copse was bare save for the leaf mould lying thick upon the ground. There was a space, roughly circular and about four fathoms across, and within it sat a half-dozen of the largest bears Helluin had ever seen. They were nearly cheek by jowl and easily double the size of the black bears of the woodlands. The one standing upright on his hind legs reached little less than two fathoms in height. As Helluin continued her spying they spoke in turns, addressing each other in a rumbling language that seemed part bear and part Man. Slowly she came to pick out a word here and a word there, and gradually she was able to apprehend somewhat of their conversation. It seemed they were arguing about the future, about the Yrch, and about herself.
Long she watched and listened, her attention rapt, for she was seeing something she had never before encountered. It was plainly obvious to her that Berlun and his people were possessed of some magic that allowed them to change their skins. Shape shifting had always been the province of sorcerers and gods, the most insidious of course being Sauron Gorthaur. She doubted that Berlun or his kith and kin were immortals, for the Man had spoken of his grandfather, and they had obeyed the will of the Nandor of the woods. Furthermore, if her ears reported true, these Men were debating whether to move or stand against the threat of the Glamhoth. These were not the concerns of the Undying of Aman, nor even of those lesser spirits who had always dwelt in Middle Earth. These were the concerns of mortal Men, were-crafty though they be.
Eventually the bears reached some agreement, at least for the present, deciding to patrol the foothills of the mountains in the areas near their respective homesteads. They would continue to meet, and if the Orch incursions became more threatening they would change their response. The meeting broke up and the bears took their leave, each in a different direction. Helluin let them pass beyond the copse before she swiftly made her way back to the ground. Once out of the trees she hastened south, moving silently and with Elven swiftness. She passed Berlun unseen, being little more than a fleet footed shadow among the fields. She was back in the cabin lying still when he returned ere dawn and none the wiser. She flicked her eyes open and shifted to acknowledge him and then returned to the appearance of rest. He regarded her a moment and then climbed up into his loft and was soon asleep. They were both up again shortly after dawn.
“Where does thy way take thee now, Helluin?” Berlun asked as they broke their fast with cakes, milk, and nuts.
“I resolved to tarry nearby for a day or two and see if more Yrch attack,” she replied, thinking that she could be of assistance in either the defense of the homestead or its repair. The cabin at least needed a new roof. “I suspect another company may come hither since the last went missing. If so, then it would confirm that they’re part of a force larger than those defeated yesterday and King Lenwin might find that of interest.”
Berlun regarded her only a moment before answering. “Thy aid would be welcome, Helluin. I hath much to do and thy keen eyes watching for more Yrch, as well as thy bow and sword would be a great help. Greater still would be the advantage of knowing aforetime if any more come.”
“In that case, I shalt backtrack the Orch company and try to discover where they came from. I should return ere nightfall,” she said as she rose from the table. She gathered her weapons and bade Berlun farewell.
During the early morning Helluin easily traced the Glamhoth’s path, which led into the forest but stayed near its edges. The trail led west as she’d suspected, towards the foothills of the Hithaeglir and north of Azanulbizar, the east gate of Khazad-dum. As noon approached she found the trees thinning and finally ending, having progressed from mellyrn to mixed hardwood, and last to pine. Already the land was rising, and Helluin continued to follow the trail, just a scuffed footprint here or a flattened blade of grass there, but obvious to her. The Yrch had cared little for the covering of their tracks on their way down slope. It seemed they’d been unconcerned about being discovered. It was a bad sign. They had grown bold.
Through the afternoon the view eastward opened up as the land rose yet higher. Now Helluin moved carefully, staying out of sight so much as was possible, while not knowing from where she might be watched. She had entered a rocky dale that narrowed as it gained altitude, and further ahead she could see broken cliff faces and tumbled boulders. It was the kind of land that could hide many caves and cracks, many lairs and dens. Near a cliff face she found yet more evidence of Yrch; signs of meetings, charred areas, and from some dark doors in the rocks, an outpouring of the foul smell of rotting flesh. Finally, with but three hours of sunlight left to the day she turned back, hastening down slope on her return to the homestead. That night she and Berlun spoke again at the evening meal.
“Berlun, I tracked the Yrch many miles into the foothills. Their trail was plain to see, but I came not to the trail’s true end. Higher in the dale to the west is perhaps their lair, in one of the many cave openings in the cliff faces I saw. They are not so very near, but still too close.”
“Too near, as thou say, for comfort if their numbers be great,” Berlun agreed. “And they hath grown unwary…leaving clear tracks and attacking in daylight as they did.”
“I agree. Bold they hath become. It bodes ill for all if they hath truly grown great in numbers and hath taken a chief. What hast grown lately worse can only grow fouler.”
Berlun nodded. Something would have to be done, and the sooner the better.
“Think on this, Helluin,” he proposed, “for I know few move with more assurance in the night than the Eldar who arose before the sun and moon. Perhaps some of my people would be willing to follow that trail uphill in the dark hours, for they are very night-sighted and fear the Yrch no more than me. If we moved during the dark and attacked with the sun we could upset them for they would not expect it.”
Helluin looked at Berlun in surprise. She doubted not that he was valiant, but assaulting an Orch lair, underground and with their numbers unknown, was bravery bordering on folly. Still, she liked the idea. They certainly wouldn’t expect to be attacked in their lair, and surprise could account for much in battle. An increasingly feral grin curled her lips.
“The eyes of the Yrch will spy us by day or night, unless we go with great stealth and few in number. Less expected to them would be an attack on their lair at night, in the time that would favor them most. Either way Berlun, if thy people accept such a plan and proceed, I shall join thee in the endeavor. In fact I may be able to enlist some allies, sturdy fighters, none better in warfare underground, and oh how they despise the Yrch.”
“Then tonight I shalt meet again with my people,” Berlun said, a grin shaping his own lips. It was not a friendly expression any more than Helluin’s was. In fact, it was more a baring of teeth. He nodded to her, liking her idea more by the moment. A company of bright-eyed Elves with swords and bows would be welcome aid.
“Then tomorrow I shalt seek my…allies. I shalt probably be gone three days.”
That night Berlun again left the cabin. Helluin had no need to follow him again for she knew where he was going and why. In the morning he hadn’t yet returned when Helluin left. A note she wrote and set under a mug on the table for him. Then she made her way quickly west to the eaves to the forest where she turned somewhat south. It was mid-afternoon ere she struck the course of Celebrant where she turned west.
As the day faded to dusk, Helluin walked the road to Azanulbizar, passing the Mirror Mere and finally coming to the great gate of Khazad-dum in the last of the day’s light. There she was greeted by the gate wardens and admitted, while messengers sought the lords she’d requested audience with. As she strode the deep-delved halls again, many welcomed her as a returning friend and many she greeted in the tongue of Durin’s Folk. She had been absent barely a moon. After she had supped with friends among the Guild of Smiths, a messenger found her and brought her to an audience with Narin son of Nurnin, a captain of the Host of Khazad-dum. Before him she reported the happenings of the past few days.
“Just two days ago a full company of Yrch, fifty in number as in the days of war, with captain and lieutenant, bows and swords, came against a homestead north of the forest. There they met defeat, yet I deem them but one company among many,” Helluin said.
“Many times of late hath our prospectors sighted Yrch in small bands, and this more frequently, but not yet hath they sighted war bands as of old,” Narin said, quaffing mead from a golden chalice. “It bodes ill if they hath been organized again. Yet so it would seem from thy report of the attack. We hath long sought their hiding places yet only a few small caves hath we found, and those but weakly held. These we destroyed.”
“These Yrch make their den in a dale to the north, I wager, with many entrances amongst the cracks in the cliff face. I came there and saw spoor of the foul creatures, but entered not for the hour had grown late with the daylight fast waning, and I was alone. Yet little doubt hath I that the source of the company is there, though whether it is their great stronghold or not, I cannot tell.”
“Any gathering place of Yrch is a place to be embattled,” Narin said grimly, “for the only good Orch is a dead Orch.” Helluin nodded in agreement and drained the remains of her cup. An attendant refilled it for her.
“In this we agree, and in other matters besides,” she declared. “The people of the homesteader shalt stand with us against the Yrch, of whom they hath had battle with increasing frequency of late. 'Twas in fact the homesteader who put forth the desire of assaulting their stronghold.” Here Narin regarded her with curiosity. The Naugrim had seldom allied themselves with any save their own kin and their acceptance of Helluin herself was unusual enough. They knew little of Men. He raised a brow, begging more information. Helluin leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially.
“Narin, these homesteaders claim homelands of old in the mountains, but they hath been driven out by Yrch upon a time past. Hence they were perhaps known to thy kin once. They are mortal Men surely, but more robust than any others I hath seen in these lands. The one I met fought valiantly, armed with a great double-bladed axe, and he had black hair and eyes. Great strength and endurance hast he, yet he eats no meat. He named himself Berlun son of Brulun…and he is a shape-shifter.”
Narin gave her a cunning grin and an almost-wink of one eyelid, but he made no comment about her news. Still, Helluin had a strong impression that he knew somewhat of these homesteaders, in fact perhaps more than she.
“I think it would be a just cause to send forth a company to do battle with these Yrch,” he said, “and many whom I know will go willingly to spill their blood. Say nothing of the Man’s prowess, Helluin. Many, I wager, shalt recognize him on sight though, yes, yes. It shalt be a glorious battle.”
“I believe Berlun is gathering such strength of his people as will join him to attack, and as soon as he may. His homestead was a day’s fast journey to the northeast on foot for me, and I at least hath given word to return thither in two days’ time…”
“Tomorrow I shalt organize a force from the black companies, and we shalt march to the eaves of the forest where the dale opens out. There we shalt meet thee and Berlun’s folk, and in the meantime, we shalt slay any Orch who ventures downhill. Then together we shalt follow thy trail to their lair and slay all we find. I favor not the notion of Yrch in strength living so near and going unchallenged.”
“Berlun felt the same way, Narin. He too desired no such threats remaining at liberty to do evil nearby. I shalt tell him all that thou hast said and I shalt meet with thee ‘neath the eaves of the forest on the third day hence.”
“So be it, Helluin of the Noldor. Soon we shalt stand together against the enemies of all.”
“So be it, Narin, Captain of Khazad-dum. We shalt slay our enemies together at last.”
They drained their cups and clasped forearms in token of agreement on their plan.
Three days hence the morning sun rose in the east, bathing the forest in a warm light of gold, while on the eaves of the wood stood fifty of the Naugrim. They were clad in blackened mail and wore the helms and masks of Durin’s Guard, and each carried both a long double-bladed axe and a shorter pair of single-bladed axes in their belts. All were shod in iron, with greaves and tassets, and armored gauntlets. Indeed little save their beards and eyes were visible. And they were as hard and hardy as stone itself.
Moments later their band was joined by Helluin and a half-dozen men. Helluin wore as always, her bow and sword, and the armor of mithril that the Naugrim had made for her, but the men came unarmored and unarmed. They bore not even the axes of settlers in the forest, nor knives, nor wore any plate or mail. In fact, they looked more as those headed for a meal rather than a battle. Still only a few of the Naugrim looked at them askance. As Narin had said, their company was familiar to most of the Dwarves.
Helluin, Berlun, and Narin met and quickly exchanged greetings, and then confirmed the march.
“My thanks, Helluin,” said Berlun after greeting Narin, “for great and valiant allies hath thou brought to our quest. The fathers of my fathers and their fathers before them into ancient times knew the Gonnhirrim, the Masters of Stone, and held their works in reverence and wonder. Great is my rejoicing to meet again with common purpose.”
“Indeed it is so,” Narin said, “and 'tis said that long ago our forefathers aided each other against the enemy when sun and moon were young. I too rejoice in this meeting.”
“At first I had thought 'twas a company of King Lenwin’s folk thou sought to bring to the battle, Helluin, and they too would hath been welcome, but never were my people and his allied. By bringing warriors of Durin’s Folk thou hast rekindled a league of friendship I had thought but a fading memory of better days past.”
“Berlun, the Nandor of Celebrant defend their own with stealth and arrows, and woe be to any invading the mellyrn wood. But their warfare is unsuited to battle in the deep places of the world. None in Middle Earth are more crafty nor more fell ‘neath rock and stone than the sons of Durin. The Yrch hath been their hated foes ere time past recall, and worse, these dwell nigh Khazad-dum, in what was once their surface realm and mine lands. This is their battle, not the Elves’.”
“All true, Helluin,” Narin agreed, “and thy keen eyes hath seen true in this. Let us now proceed and bring destruction to our common foes.”
The others nodded and all set out, Helluin leading them up the path she’d tracked a few days before. The Dwarves marched tirelessly uphill in a formation with the homesteaders flanking them and many conversations passed among them as they walked. Indeed many of these Dwarves and their fathers had known the fathers and fathers’ fathers of the Men now at their sides. By mid-afternoon they had come nigh the broken ground and were only a mile from the cliffs. Here they took a quick rest for water and food, and then resumed their march. Helluin looked ahead and her farsighted Elven eyes marked dark forms flitting amongst the crags above. No doubt their presence had been marked by their enemies and she reported this to Narin and Berlun.
“It matters not,” Berlun said, “for we hath not paid attention to stealth and wouldn’t hath preserved it long in any case within their lair.”
“Aye,” Narin agreed, “let them ready themselves and let their fear grow a pace.”
The Dwarves nodded in agreement with their leader’s words. Soon all stood and resumed their march. None were surprised to find the land before the cliffs deserted when they arrived. The Yrch had withdrawn within their caves, declining to defend the surface under the sun. Yet evening was coming and the daylight would fade in a couple hours, and then it would be night, the time when the Yrch felt they would be favored.
“No don’t doubt they expect us to camp the night and so plan to fall upon us at unawares in the dark,” Narin remarked with an evil grin. He fingered the edge of his axe.
“There shalt be battle by night, but it shalt find them in their dens,” Berlun said.
He and the other settlers set to work moving boulders, and with the help of the Naugrim, they blocked up as many of the exits to the Orch lair as they could find.
“Nay, the rats shan’t bolt from their holes tonight,” Narin said with satisfaction.
Helluin, knowing Yrch, also knew that for every exit they found and blocked there were no doubt two more elsewhere or undiscovered. They would be lucky to wipe out all the Yrch. She’d settle for killing the leaders and their lieutenants, and slaying such numbers as would keep the Yrch from but petty deeds for a generation. It was still an ambitious hope. Yrch leaders usually fled at the rumor of defeat, cowards that they were. She had vowed to devote special personal attention to their leader.
When full darkness had fallen there had still been no rumor of the Yrch. Perhaps they were aware that many openings to their lair had been blockaded and they were indecisive. Perhaps they waited a later hour to attack. The leaders outside declined to wait for them and instead resolved to open the battle on their own schedule.
Helluin led the allies into the dark tunnel that they’d entered through an unassuming crack in the cliff’s face. Almost immediately the way widened, its rough-hewn walls a fathom apart. It led steadily downward with but a slight current brushing their faces as a foul air headed towards the surface. Unlike the mansions of the Naugrim, no lamps or torches lit the way and the stone had been hewn but not smoothed. No pride of workmanship nor thought of comfort had guided the Yrch’s hands as they’d delved this underground way. It was silent as well, but the stillness was tense and the atmosphere close, rather than empty of menace as a deserted place would have felt. They all knew their enemies awaited them somewhere down below.
After what seemed like hours of walking in silence the group abruptly came to a large chamber, a meeting hall of some sort, whose center held a pit filled with fire. The flames leapt up, red and smoky, but provided little actual light. All about the hall were shadows, and within those shadows many bodies moved and scuttled. An oppressive heat from the fire and the stench of many Yrch assailed their senses. The place was just such a foul lair as they had imagined awaiting them. In fact it held no surprises.
“There are at least a hundred and a half here in this hall alone,” Helluin told the others as she unsheathed her sword. In the darkness a faint, ghostly, blue phosphorescence wavered over the black steel. It grew in brightness as the desire to slay her enemies grew to fill her heart. Then as the bloodlust and wrath claimed her, her voice rose to a full scream, “Im pedo, Beltho Huiniath!” * And with that, she turned and charged towards the Yrch, eyes blazing with blue fire as the glow upon her blade flared. *("I say, Kill 'em All!").
For a heartbeat the men and Dwarves stood still in shock. She’d always seemed to hold her passions in check, appearing wise and calm. Even the Naugrim among whom she’d spent two decades had never seen her other than restrained and fair-spoken. Now she appeared like a fell demon, as threatening and deadly as anything from the Dark Years of Morgoth. Helluin was already a dozen strides ahead of them and closing fast on their enemies…and despite their shock, all found her inspiring. They had come to do battle against those they hated. Finally their paralysis broke and they charged against the host of the Yrch, the Naugrim taking up her cry, ”Beltho Huiniath!”
In the darkness the half-dozen men shimmered and shifted shape. Behind Helluin came not six unarmed men, but rather six great mountain bears, grizzly bruins lumbering on massive paws, their claws striking sparks on the rocky floor. Behind them hastened the company of the Dwarves, spreading out to give themselves room to swing their axes while blocking any Yrch hoping to come at them from the sides. Soon shrieking and screaming rent the air. The war cries of the Dwarves, the growling of the bears, and the clash of arms echoed in that deep hall. Yet louder than anything else came Helluin’s cries of “Kill ‘Em All”, and the flashing of her sword as it clove the Yrch lit the battle like lightning under the open sky. The black blood of the foul creatures ran across the floor, slicking the rocks underfoot as they fought. Some tried to escape through side tunnels but the Dwarves soon chased these down and slew them as well.
Finally Helluin had come upon the Captain of the Glamhoth, a hideous goblin of great size with a scalp sewn together and iron plates riveted upon his skull. He wielded a two-handed scimitar and slashed wildly at her, but his swordplay lacked both finesse and focus. Helluin toyed with him in the depths of her dark malice for his kind, wounding him repeatedly, blocking his retreat, and forcing him to maintain the battle. She taunted him and tormented him as cruelly as any of his own kind, and indeed he entertained some hopes that she had come to usurp his place rather than kill him. He would have willingly served anyone so fell and even offered her as much. Yet finally kill him she did, hewing off his head with a mighty stroke of Anguirel that sent it bouncing across the floor to land in front of his remaining troops.
When they saw their leader’s head rolling on the rocks at their feet, the Yrch gave a horrified cry and begged for mercy. Their only answers were the swipe of massive, clawed paws and the sweeping strokes of many sharp axes. The Dwarves, who had adopted Helluin’s battle cry, fully intended to make it come true. In short order they did. The Yrch were slain to the last and the hall lay silent save for the breathing of the victors. In the aftermath the allies withdrew and made their way back to the surface, only too glad to breath the clean night air. Once there, Berlun spoke with Helluin.
“No idea had I at the full measure of hatred the Noldor hold for the Yrch, not even after thy fight against them in defense of my cabin,” the man said.
“All my people despise these evil creations of Morgoth; always have and always will,” Helluin answered grimly, "for in the Dark Years long ago did he make the first Yrch by ruining some of our own. Never shalt we forgive or forget." My father's own brother, and my mother's cousin were amongst those first taken by the shadows nigh Cuivienen ere the three ambassadors went to Aman, and naught was ever heard of them again.
“And do all such fight with the ferocity thou displayed this night?”
Helluin met this query with a stifled groan, yet she made response.
“Nay, Berlun, for the battlefire that burns in me comes not from that hatred but from something more personal whose redress is long past recall,” she explained. The topic was one she was loath to entertain. “The Noldor still remaining in Middle Earth are few, Berlun, so few that thou may never see another in this life. Most hath returned to Tol Eressea, their Great Enemy vanquished and they being weary of fighting.”
For some moments they both remained silent.
“Then indeed we have been fortunate in thy aid,” Berlun said and again he fell silent. After a long pause he asked another question. “I know the Gonnhirrim be long-lived and yet still mortal. My people too are hardy, but all fall eventually to age or wounds or sickness. Yet the Eldar live forever if they art not slain, and King Lenwin counts his life story fully 1,200 years of the sun and more. In this I envy thee. How long hast thou walked this world, Helluin? Would that I could know the wonders thou hast seen.”
“Berlun, none save the Valar truly live forever, and 'tis rumored that Iluvatar alone has ever been. Still to one of finite years, the span of the Eldar must seem a blessing. Hear me, Berlun, for such a life encompasses both good and ill as do all lives, only more so. Each kindred hast been granted their allotted span in Eru’s wisdom and only great evil can come of dissatisfaction with one’s own or the coveting of another’s. I hath seen many wonders, but much heartbreak as well. Lenwin is a pup, as thou say, a scant 1,200 years in age.” She sighed deeply and tallied the years in her head. “This is the 151st year since the fall of the Great Enemy and the end of the First Age of the Sun. 767 years hath passed since the Noldor returned from Aman to prosecute their vendetta against Morgoth. We came from the Blessed Realm where we had dwelt in peace for 3,670 years, yet I was born upon the westward march of my people, as they traveled Middle Earth ‘neath Varda’s stars. That journey took until I was 230 years of age. I reckon my current age is 4,667 years of the sun.”
The number he heard clearly, yet the repercussions escaped him. It was inconceivable. In fact she was older by far than his entire race, for none of the Younger Children of Iluvatar had yet arisen until after her kindred had returned from the Blessed Realm. The Fathers of the Dwarves had awakened only 50 years ere her birth, but none of that primal generation still lived. The Onodrim had awakened about a century after Helluin’s birth. Only a few Noldor born in Aman yet dwelt in Middle Earth; Galadriel, the daughter of Finarfin was one of these few, and she was 2,520 years Helluin’s junior. It would have been a good bet that at that moment, Berlun stood in the presence of the eldest living being still in Middle Earth. Such a bet would have had only one or two sure contestants, and even then, the judgment would have depended on one’s definition of “living”.
Thereafter Berlun said nothing further on the subject and Helluin fell silent as well, and then finally went to speak with Narin and the Gonnhirrim. After renewing their alliances and parting in friendship, the Naugrim marched for Hadhodrond at the rising of the sun, there to celebrate a feast to commemorate their victory. They’d quietly invited Helluin but she declined and sought the peace of the mellyrn woods instead. There she resumed her explorations, traveling the perimeter of the lands and then making her way in a spiral path towards the center. Along the way she slew the occasional Yrch band, aided such of King Lenwin’s people as she found having difficulties, and gave what news she gleaned to the sentries in their talans. Life went well for Helluin and for many years discovery was her greatest indulgence and occupation.
In the woods about Celebrant she discovered several herbs with healing virtues, observed the ways of many animals and discerned the kinship of their kinds, and came to know the fish of the rivers and the birds among the trees. Many of these kindreds she spoke with at whiles, and through them she gathered yet more news and hints of doings beyond the forest. And at times she would climb the tallest tree she could find and laze away an afternoon in its crown, letting her eyes roam across distant lands while giving free rein to her curiosity about places still far away.
At other times Helluin again was greeted as a guest in Khazad-dum, and they welcomed her ever more warmly, for since the attack on the Yrch’s lair they had been little troubled by the foul creatures. Indeed, many years of renewed peace were enjoyed by both the Naugrim and the homesteaders. These too, Berlun and many of his kin, welcomed Helluin at those times she came among them. Over the years she saw the Man aging as those of mortal race were wont to do, yet as he aged and time passed, so too came changes that were a cause for rejoicing.
Seven years after their joint raid, Berlun took a wife, Grinda, a woman from another of the settlers’ clans. She came from a homestead on the eaves of Greenwood the Great that lay across Anduin to the east. When Helluin visited the homestead two years later she found that the couple had a daughter, and the next year a son. It never ceased to amaze Helluin how fast mortal children matured. A lapse of ten years passed before her next visit. To her the time was but a short while, a span in which she’d explored an area nigh the northern banks of Celebrant where it fed into Anduin. Yet when she came again to Berlun and Grinda’s cabin she found their children eager, energetic, curious, and craving adventure. At the same time she noted that the first gray had laced Berlun’s beard. She herself was unchanged in appearance, and once she caught Berlun looking at her with the faintest glimmer of envy, yet he had smiled and merely offered her another honey cake as their meal progressed. The children, of course, demanded stories of ancient times, and of Beleriand and the Elven realms of the First Age. These they absorbed with wide eyes before scurrying off to recount them to each other in tones of awe.
For her part, Helluin had asked Grinda many questions about her homeland and the forest upon whose eaves her people dwelt. The woman had told her what she could, but her people never went deeply into the forest. It was the abode, she claimed, of loathsome spiders and Dark Elves, Nandor perhaps, or even some of the Avari who had found their way west. The wood had no end, she stated with certainty, for no one she had ever heard of had traversed its breadth. The words only served to kindle Helluin’s wanderlust.
There came a day of autumn when Helluin traveled again to the homestead after many years’ absence. Gone were the barn and the fence, and the cabin had fallen into ruin. Amongst the caved in roof and broken timbers she found no sign of burning or of attack, and yet she discerned that many a year had passed since last anyone had lived within its sagging walls. In what had once been the garden there stood a pair of mounds, and the stones upon them bore runes that she could read only with difficulty.
“Here lies Berlun son of Brulun, gone to his fathers having seen eighty-one winters.”
And upon the mound beside it she read, “Here lies Grinda, beloved wife of Berlun, mother of Falla and Brekun.” Had it really been so long?
Somehow Helluin had let fifty-three cycles of the seasons slip away since her last visit, and with the passing of those years had passed the spirits of her mortal friends.
“Berlun, the life of the Eldar, long as it is, becomes the repository of memories and sadness for those things dear that hath passed beyond recall. Would that I hath bid thee farewell, my friend.”
She had spent 70 years exploring the mellyrn woods and it was now S.A. 221. In King Lenwin’s realm those trees were gold of leaf as were the aspen and the oak. Change came but slowly there, yet time passed still, and in other places it seemed that change came faster. Nuts and berries had appeared for the forest animals to gather. A few late active bees buzzed around her, freed these last years to make their own hives amidst the flowers grown wild and the wheat standing unharvested in the fields beyond. To the north perhaps the great bears yet met under the stars in the copse…Berlun’s son among them. Helluin felt old and tired as she stood there in the sunlight. She felt as if everything around her testified to the cycle of life, death, and rebirth that ruled all things in Middle Earth save herself. The Life of the Eldar is a window through which to endlessly view Arda; a seat in it but not of it, she thought with a touch of melancholy.
Her sadness brought back the memories of earlier times and earlier losses, and of a whole way of life that had disappeared. What would her restless spirit have done had she remained in Aman? Surely by now it would be chaffing in Valinor, seeking ever longer and wider journeys in a ship of the Teleri, plying the waves of the Sundering Sea. Yes, she would be ill contented, but at least Verinno would be yet alive. Perhaps she would have been the first to build a ship to sail Ekkaia, the Encircling Outer Sea, and upon that journey come to the very Walls of Night, where 'tis said, Arda itself finds its end.
What would she have done had she never remained in Middle Earth, but instead returned to the Blessed Realm with the other Noldor? Tol Eressea would surely be different under the sun and the moon. A shade of its ancient magic and wonder, the Light of the Two Trees, would be gone. She knew she would long for them, she who had spent most of a millennium coming to Ezellohar to stand amidst the falling luminescence of their dew as no other had done. In Aman she would miss the passing of the past worse than here in Middle Earth, for she would be constantly assailed by the memories of better times. Never again would she stand at the summit of Tuna at the blending of the lights, and turning, look through the Calacirya as that radiant beam kindled the shores of Tol Eressea to gold and silver under the dark vault of the heavens wherein Varda’s stars ever twinkled. Helluin would have been miserable. She grinned.
A chuckle slipped from her lips and slowly it grew to a fey outpouring of mirth. The hysteria took her a while and she sat down hard between the mounds of her friends, as one with mind o’erthrown, and simply laughed. She had no control over this and it went on at its own pace for some time. Yet eventually it ebbed and she wiped tears from her eyes. She found that she didn’t feel nearly so maudlin as she had just before. Once or twice a century, she decided, it is therapeutic to laugh. She resolved to do it again sometime. She lay back and simply looked up at the sky.
Somewhat later as Anar began its descent, Helluin rose to her feet and turned her footsteps northwards. She didn’t bother looking back at the mellyrn forest and King Lenwin’s realm. She could come back in a millennia or two and find something there, she thought. No, it was time to see new places and meet new people. Eventually the old lands became too well known and the old people kept dying on her…and the memories accumulated like the fallen leaves.
To be continued
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