In An Age Before – Part 55


Chapter Fifty-one

Rhovanion – The Third Age of the Sun


Now following the wedding of Elrond and Celebrian, Helluin and Beinvír made their way by the high pass from Imladris, o'er the Hithaeglir and into Rhovanion. Never aforetime had they tread those paths amongst the windy and snow clad peaks. Rather they had gone far to the south, through the Gap of Sîr Angren into Calenardhon, or more oft, 'neath the mountains through Hadhodrond. Here the way from Imladris wound high amidst barren stone, oft with precipitous drops upon one hand and a sheer face upon the other. In places too the trail had suffered somewhat since the passing of the Host of the Alliance, from the cycles of freeze and thaw that ever contrived to crack stone and loosen rocks. Thither too upon that march were there caves and cracks and openings in the upslope. In days of old some few of these had been the doors to warrens of Yrch who had first come thither in flight from the War of Wrath, and had persisted thither through all the centuries since. At times these heeded the summons of their master to the south, but oft too they lived generation after generation as renegades, ruling their own, and acting only for their personal gain against any traveler.

In those days upon the eastern face of the Hithaeglir roamed many bears, and some of these were more than they seemed. 'Twas a long and unpublicized war they fought, these shape-shifting descendants of Helluin's old friends, Berlun and Grinda. Their perennial battle against the Yrch had come down from the ending of the First Age, when the settlers had been driven from their homes in the mountains by the onslaught of newly arrived enemies from the wreck of Thangorodrim.

Now though these folk had never been plentiful and their numbers seemed not to increase o'er time, still they maintained themselves in the Vale of Anduin from century to century. To most in Middle Earth they were unknown, and though the Elven realms of Lórinand and Calenglad i'Dhaer were aware of them, they seldom met. Of all peoples 'twas the Naugrim who knew them best, and though even these met them but rarely, at such times they honored each other as friends of old, and sometimes allied themselves against their mutual enemies, the Yrch. Such a joining of forces occurred perhaps once or twice a century during dark times, while'st in times of peace, 'twas some limited trading in which they engaged.

The settlers had need of iron tools for their farming, fittings for their homesteads, and weapons for defense. These they got mostly out of Khazad-dûm, as no other craftsmen produced such things of comparable quality north of Gondor. But no flowers bloomed in the Dwarven halls. No bees sipped nectar in their mansions of stone. Yet cakes and mead had need of sweetening and the Naugrim had developed a taste for honey. Trade they did, iron for that syrup which they called 'flowing sun gold'.

'Twas upon the night of 11 Cerveth, (July 11th), and that being their second night in the heights of the pass, when Helluin and Beinvír availed themselves of the shelter of a shallow cave that opened onto the trail. Neither sought the depths save for to assure themselves that 'twas indeed unoccupied, but rather kindled a fire and set their bedrolls 'nigh the cave's mouth for to enjoy the mountain airs and watch the sky. O'erhead the stars of Elbereth wheeled slowly in their courses, shepherded by Ithil, in the black sea of the night. Helluin leaned back against her bedroll which padded the cave wall, while'st Beinvír leaned back against her chest, using her thighs for armrests. They were quite content, warm, fed, and unharried by cold, rain, or wind. 'Twas a peaceful night alone together and each had all the company they needed.

Beinvír had let her mind wander, likening the stars above to those she had once seen from the high talan atop the mainmast of the Queen's ship Valacirca out of Romenna in Númenor, upon the night when first she and Helluin had consummated their love. 'Twas a memory she cherished more than almost all others. Helluin was't simply enjoying the moment, the night, and the warmth of her lover's body resting against her. Both were still as stones, silent as the rocks themselves, and the fire had burned low. Wrapped in their Elven cloaks, they were well 'nigh invisible.

'Twas after some hours of this that the dark Noldo slowly became aware of a shuffling and sniffing coming from a distance. Indeed the sounds seemed to grow so slowly and had begun so softly that they had seemed to hath crept upon her with the unnoticed stealth of growing moss. She could not hath marked the precise moment at which she was't certain that an animal 'twas approaching upon the path from the direction they had yet to travel. Helluin listened as the minutes passed, noting the care and patience with which the creature advanced. Shortly she was't certain that this was't a large beast and she gently stroked her beloved's hair to rouse her.

The Green Elf sighed and withdrew from her pleasant memory, then turned to look into her lover's eyes.

Whyfore hath thou drawn me hence from the recall of a sky even more dear then that which lies above us now, meldanya?

I hath marked the approach of a large creature upon the path, meldis meldwain nin. I deemed it prudent to wake thee ere it came hither.

Beinvír nodded and then cocked her head towards the sounds.

'Tis a bear and one of great size at that, the Green Elf stated with certainty. Think thou that it shalt pass us by or seek refuge in hither cave?

I think I shalt invite it hither, Helluin replied, bringing a widening of Beinvír's eyes in surprise, for I deem I know this bear's kindred. An ancestor was't a friend and ally long aforetime. To this the Green Elf nodded in understanding. Helluin had told her the tale of Berlun and Grinda long ago and she had viewed the homestead of an earlier descendant in S.A. 1701. At that time they had not met any of the settlers, nor had they since. Now Beinvír found herself quite curious.

Think thou that any of that kindred shalt recall thee or thy friendship with one of their own after 'nigh on 3,400 years? She asked. Helluin had first met Berlun in S.A. 151.

Surprised would I be to find any recall of me in the lore of that people, Helluin replied, yet one thing is sure; he who doth approach shalt be an enemy of the same enemies as art we. We hath much more in common than not in that, and 'twill be solid grounds for our acquaintance, I wager. Beinvír nodded her acceptance of this and relaxed back against Helluin's chest. Together they silently awaited the approaching bear.

Now the bear sensed their camp long ere he sensed their actual presence, for no animal is oblivious to the presence of fire. The bear stopped abruptly and sniffed, and the two ellith heard a low growl rumble in his throat, for who upon the mountain pass was't most likely to tend a fire save the Yrch of the mountains. Thus 'twas with increased stealth and wariness that the bear advanced thereafter, and little further sound did the Elves hear to report his presence. Their first knowledge of his appearance was't the moon shadow cast by his bulk 'cross the mouth of the cave. A single sniff confirmed this a moment later, and then, with infinite patience, slow as the movement of Ithil himself, an ear, and then a jowl, and at last an eye did they see appearing 'round the edge of the rock.

The bear stared into the darkness and by the scant light of the embers, espied to two ellith waiting for him with shining eyes. They were indeed armed, he saw, yet neither held a weapon ready, nor moved to draw such at his appearance. Indeed both remained totally still. They simply watched him watching them. Finally, after some minutes of taking each others' measure, the Elf nearest the cave wall softly spoke a welcome in Sindarin.

"Suilannam cin, meldir ifant¹,"Helluin said. ¹(Suilannam cin, meldir ifant, We greet you, (m.) friend of old = suilanno-(v., greet) + -(a)m(pl sub suff, we) + cin(2nd pers sing obj pro, you) + meldir(m. friend) + ifant(old) (gen construc, friend of old) Sindarin)

The bear moved not at first, save to acknowledged Helluin's greeting with a blink. After several moments he withdrew his head beyond the edge of the rock. The Elves then heard a curious sound, as of a bowstring stretching, but somehow wetter. A few more moments passed and then a shadow in Man's form crossed the threshold, and the Man followed, stepping into the entrance and fully into their sight.

He was't a hand's length o'er a fathom in height and burly of build, with powerful shoulders and arms, and sturdy legs. His head was't covered with thick black hair, and the black beard that grew o'er his cheeks 'twas dense as upon one of the Naugrim. His dark eyes were bright, not with Elven light, but with native intelligence and spirit. In a dark-brown, long-sleeved tunic and trousers was't he dressed and tall sturdy boots he wore, and a jerkin of thick leather o'er all. When he addressed them he spoke just as softly as Helluin had, but in a deep rumbling voice.

"Suilannon lin, mildis nin¹,"he said, and then asked, "Ir ifant istoannel min²?"¹(Suilannon lin, mildis nin, I greet thee, my (f.) friends = suilanno-(v., greet) + -n(1st pers sing sub suff, I) + lin(2nd pers pl obj pro, you) + mildis(f. friends, pl) + nin(1st pers sing poss pro, my) Sindarin)²(Ir ifant istoannel min? Whence (when of old) did thou know (have knowledge of) us? = ir(when) + ifant(old) (gen construc, when of old) + isto-(have knowledge) + -anne-(past tense v suff) + -l(2nd pers pl subj suff, you) + min(3rd pers pl obj pron, us) (gen construc, knowledge of us) Sindarin)

"Indeed long hast it been since last I met one of thy kindred,"Helluin told him, "yet in that time, with Berlun son of Brulun and Narin of Khazad-dûm, did I assail a foul lair of the Glam in the Hithaeglir to the south. Thither, with their companies did we find victory o'er our enemies, slaughtering them to the last. Thence for many years thereafter was't I a friend to Berlun and his wife Grinda, and later to his son and daughter, Brekun and Falla, and oft I came amongst them and had welcome of their people."

The man squinted at her in concentration, obviously searching his memory for the names. Finally he gave up and shrugged, saying, "I doubt thee not, yet I hath no knowledge of thy friends or thy campaign. I wager that in thy long life, such friendship mayhaps came to be long ago, for 'tis said amongst our people that the Gonnhirrim be long-lived and our folk hardy, but all fall eventually to age or wounds or sickness. Yet the Eldar live forever if they art not slain, and their memory stretches back even unto the days ere days of which we hath heard only rumor. Therefore in token of the friendship thou shared with our folk of old, I offer thee my friendship now. I am called Bartan son of Brayan."

He stretched forth a hand to Helluin, who clasped his forearm in greeting.

"I am Helluin Maeg-mórmenel of the Host of Finwe, and here also is my beloved, Beinvír of the Laiquendi of Eriador. We go thither unto Gladden Fields 'nigh Anduin, for I feel compelled to examine the site of an ambush in which Isildur, King of Arnor, and many of his kith and kin were slain by Yrch of Hithaeglir 'nigh on 109 years past."

At her words, Bartan growled low in his throat and his eyes hardened in anger.

"I know of this attack in which the Men of the Sea were slaughtered. 'Twas to our disgrace that such enemies yet lurked to wreck such havoc. Since the opening of the past Age my folk hath warred against the foul Glam, yet never doth it seem our fate to fight a final battle. Indeed we art too few and the Glam too numerous, yet ever shalt they bear our hatred and ever shalt we fight them. Tonight I come to seek for clues of some such who hath taken prisoner a company of our allies and friends, the Gonnhirrim of Hadhodrond. These were traders but recently amongst my people and they art close to us. I fear for them in the hands of their enemies and would free them from their tormentors. Indeed we may share purpose or at least a focus for our hatred this night, for these Glam art of the same kindred who once slew King Isildur."

At his last words, Helluin's eyes narrowed and she felt the first flickers of wrath kindle in her heart. Elves of Lórinand and Calenglad had come to drive off the Yrch after the slaughter of Gladden Fields, but they had never taken upon themselves the task of exterminating those responsible. Only the Naugrim of Khazad-dûm and these Men had tirelessly waged war against the Yrch of Hithaeglir.

"But thou art alone,"Beinvír said, "and the Yrch may be many. And they art hidden in their foul tunnels and pits far from the sun and moon. Whither shalt thou find them, and how shalt thou free thy friends?"

"Oh, I know whither their lair is hid,"Bartan said grimly. "No doubt hath I of the where, and as for the how…I shalt rend them limb from limb as ever aforetime. They know and fear me and my kindred, yet expect us not for the fewness of our numbers. We art that nightmare which they meet at times unforeseen, the bringers of their doom."

"I should savor bringing doom upon them as well,"Helluin muttered. "I'll show them a nightmare."

Beinvír groaned to herself. She felt the tension growing in the body behind her and knew this mood of Helluin's. She foresaw their course. It seemed that they would soon be passing out from 'neath sun and moon themselves, and not into the friendly halls of Khazad-dûm. She expected to find nothing fit to eat.

"Wherefore doth thou seek the entrance to this lair of thy enemies, O Bartan?"Helluin asked.

The Man grinned at her and slowly raised a hand to gesture at the rear wall of the cave. The two ellith's eyes followed the line of his pointing finger in shocked surprise.

"Thither lies an enchanted door,"he told her, "hidden from sight and most easily opened from within. Yonder in the dark lie the festering passages of the Yrch. The tunnels go on for many miles and upon many levels and hath other entrances. Thither I hath come a few times, following my nose."

He grimaced at the memories of the stenches he had encountered aforetime. Now 'twas Helluin who grinned; no den of the Yrch could create so putrid a stench as that which she had encountered in the dungeons of the Barad-dúr. For her part, Beinvír groaned aloud at the prospects and shivered at the thought of having camped upon the doorstep of a warren of Yrch.

Thereafter 'twas decided that Helluin and Beinvír would indeed join Bartan on his quest to rescue the traders of Khazad-dûm, for that people were friends to the two ellith as well. For Helluin, 'twas also a chance to avenge in some measure, the slaughter of Isildur's party and perhaps even learn some tidings of the battle and the Ring. Thus shortly later, Barton changed back into his bear form and with a determined charge, flung his bulk against the hidden door and sundered it from its hinges. It crashed in splintered pieces, falling into the dark tunnel behind, for it had been 'naught but flimsy planks faced with a thin slice of rock.

All looks and no strength, thought Helluin as she regarded the fragments of the ruined door, and typical of the shoddy construction of those foul creatures. Huh. I should hath suspected just such.

Now the three made their way downwards for some time following Bartan's nose, and venturing ever deeper into that underground lair. The smell indeed increased in pungency, blending a miasma of rotten meat, rancid grease, stale sweat, and old smoke. The walls were rough-hewn after the fashion of the Glam, and the floor was no more finished, making for sometimes hazardous footing. The darkness would hath been absolute, save that Helluin allowed to glow forth a measure of blue fire from her eyes and in that minimal illumination the keen sight of the party showed their surroundings. The Man seemed to know the way without question, ignoring side entrances and bypassing many branching tunnels. The Elves committed all to memory, internalizing a mental map in case of separation.

"Art we drawing 'nigh thy goal?"Beinvír asked in a whisper at the third hour.

"We art drawing 'nigh the inhabited areas,"Bartan replied just as softly. "Indeed shortly we may encounter sentries or companies on some assignment. I needn't say that any such whom we meet must be either avoided or silenced."

Avoiding anyone in the closed tunnels they had heretofore traveled would be well 'nigh impossible, the Green Elf thought. Unless some fortuitously placed side entrance appeared at just the right time, t'would be silent slaying they'd need to do.

'Twas not long thereafter when the fall of iron-shod feet reported the coming of several Yrch. They were heading down a tunnel towards the three bearing a torch, and they jostled and cursed each other for the clumsiness of their loping strides. With a sigh, Helluin let her eyes cease their light and the Elves and the Man waited in the darkness, pressed against either wall, the ellith in front, shrouding their companion with their cloaks. In the dim light of the approaching torch, they appeared at first glance as little more than boulders or an irregularity in the side of the tunnel. The soft whisper of steel upon leather reported the drawing of Anguirél.

Now Helluin's keen sight reported a party of six Glam jogging towards them, the leader bearing the torch, the followers shoving and grunting and trying to keep up. Their guttural Black Speech came to the ears of the three, igniting a simmering rage in their hearts for that race bred long aforetime of Morgoth's perversity. Closer and closer the foul creatures came, unwary and oblivious to the presence of their enemies. In fact, as they came 'nigh, the leader turned to chasten those behind and never even saw the whistling black blade that hewed off his head and the heads of the two closest behind him with Helluin's first stroke.

Now when the Noldo swung her blade, she stepped forward into the path of the Yrch to gain room for the arc of her swing, and as the first three heads fell at her feet, she pivoted upon her leading foot. Thus she was't amidst the Yrch and had but to continue her rotation to hew off the heads of the remaining three ere they could voice their shock. 'Twas o'er in a moment and the whistling blade stilled as Helluin completed her turn. The fallen torch sputtered on the tunnel floor and then flickered and went out, plunging the scene again into darkness. The smells of smoldering oil cloth and spilt blood came to their nostrils o'er the dry scent of rock dust and the ever present rot.

In the silent, night-black tunnel, the sword's cold voice whispered, "'tis a foul draught, the blood of these accursed enemies of old, but welcome none the less, O Helluin."

The warrior stooped and apologetically cleaned her steel upon the ragged tunic of the nearest Orch.

"Thou art welcome, O Anguirél, sorry am I to cleanse thee now upon cloth already so befouled."With a hiss of steel on leather, she slid the black sword into it's scabbard.

Now o'er the course of the next hour, this scene was't repeated twice again, save that upon the final engagement, Beinvír also took part, for the Yrch numbered a dozen. The Green Elf came amongst the enemy in a crouch, her knives flickering while'st her partner's sword hewed off heads above her. By this point, the three had advanced so far into the enemy lair that they could hear a drone of voices echoing through the tunnels in a constant hum. More tunnels too they found intersecting, some delving deeper and a rare few rising higher.

Shortly after their last engagement, Bartan indicated a tunnel leading down to a lower level, and they made their way hence to a less populated section of that subterranean maze, whereupon, they presumed, some dungeons were to be found.

"For the first time I hath caught a scent of some not of the Glamhoth,"Bartan whispered. "I deem we hath found at last 'aught of what we seek."

Helluin and Beinvír nodded and now followed behind him with drawn weapons. The passages here were dimly lit by a miserly number of sputtering torches that choked the space with sooty smoke and the stench of spoilage. While'st passing one, Beinvír wrinkled her nose in disgust.

"Ugh. Rags soaked in rancid grease,"she muttered. "Care they not for the rendering of fats?"At an amused look from her partner she chided herself with, "Of course they care not. They art Yrch. Of what could I hath been thinking?"

Now the trio passed some sturdy doors set upon crude but sound hinges. These were secured with hasp and padlock, both rusty and of haphazard workmanship, yet like the hinges, stout enough to be serviceable for the confinement of the prisoners within. The cells behind the doors seemed to be for the most part deserted, and the trio passed them by, still following Bartan's nose. He sniffed carefully at each door, passing some with a growl and others with a sad shaking of his head, but rejecting them all one by one.

'Twas at the end of the dungeon that they came at last to the furthest door, and this the only one with a window hole cut in it, and spanned with a pair of iron bars. Bartan sniffed once at the threshold and then quickly moved to the window. Helluin and Beinvír drew in close behind him, the Noldo casting wary glances back the way they had come.

"Helluin, station thyself at the entrance, I pray thee,"Bartan requested, "and there waylay any coming hither. The prisoners art within and I must free them."

Helluin nodded once to him and set off, quickly and silently retracing their steps to the dungeon entrance. From there she heard a rising clamor echoing down from the levels above. She sighed. 'Twas no doubt their earlier victims coming to light at last. She looked back to where Bartan and Beinvír stood and let her eyes flare with blue battle-light, catching her beloved's attention.

I warn thee; hasten thy efforts. Our presence hath been marked!

In the same moment, her sensitive ears heard again the stretching sound. She heard Beinvír's almost silent feet backpedaling in haste a couple fathoms. And then she heard a low growl, and with it a rending of metal and a splintering of wood, followed by a subdued crash. From above she heard the cursing of the Yrch and a grating voice shouting commands in the Black Speech. Some parts she struggled to translate, enough to know that a search was't ordered. Not long hath we now, she thought, and only with difficulty shalt we win free to the surface.

Now from behind her came the snapping of the chains of bondage and the shaky voices of prisoners speaking Sindarin, but they were not the voices of Elves. Rather, they were the voices of Naugrim, weakened by thirst and ill-treatment. Precious heartbeats passed as they were given water. Thence came a rapid but stumbling flight of feet, no less than eight pairs, she wagered. Good, they move quickly, Helluin thought, none lamed nor too badly weakened for flight.Would that we had weapons they could wield…ahhh well.

Moments long as Ages of the world seemed to pass ere the prisoners came with Bartan at their head and Beinvír at their rear to where Helluin stood. She little liked the arrangement yet could not gainsay it.

The prisoners, she saw, were grim and had suffered much abuse at the hands of their captors, and yet they were hale and hardy after the fashion of their kindred. Despite crude bandages covering untended wounds, most of their hurts appeared to be minor and the Dwarves seemed to be in good spirits. Eagerly did they eye the passage leading upwards, and they were undaunted by the echoing voices of the Yrch ahead.

"I should give gold for a good axe in this moment,"one muttered close by Helluin's elbow. She looked down at him as he eyed her sword with a covetous glance. A grin shaped her lips and she drew forth her dagger and offered it to him, hilt first. The Dwarf took it eagerly, bowing deeply to her and smiling broadly.

"I thank thee, O dark warrior of the Eldar. I am Garen son of Guron of Khazad-dûm, and I hope to anoint thy blade with the blood of our enemies in thanks,"he said.

Helluin nodded to him and then turned her attention again to the way ahead, wishing she had more than one blade to spare. At the back of the group, Beinvír proffered her own dagger to another of the Naugrim, having seen what had transpired 'twixt Helluin and Garen, and he too received the gifted weapon thankfully.

Now 'twas Bartan who led them hence, and in his bear form he was't bulky and broad, such that no foe could hath passed by him in the confines of the tunnel to threaten the company behind. Sparks were struck from his claws upon the rock floor of the tunnel, and from behind him came the fiery blue of Helluin's eyes.

They had barely gained the level above the dungeons when screeching and cursing in the Black Speech betrayed their escape. The clatter of many feet reported a great company of Yrch hastening to waylay them and all steeled themselves for battle. Now the tunnel they'd ascended from met upon the upper level with a way that stretched off in two directions, and from both charged enemies thick as flies upon a carcass. With many a howl and guttural cry they came recklessly on, their black hearts bolstered by their numbers. 'Twas as if shadows had sprung to life, jerky in the torchlight, and brandishing a forest of cruel and jagged blades.

To Be Continued

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