Rathbairn came out of the heavy fog of sleep reluctantly as he felt a light touch on his shoulder.
“Friend Rathbairn, it is several hours after dawn”
Sitting up with a groan, he found himself looking up at Dornhador, the elf smiling down at him.
“Before you groan again, please remember that you requested this early wake up.” The elf’s grin was mischievous as Rathbairn pulled himself to his feet and stretched, his near seven foot frame towering over the elf. His back cracked as he stretched as high as he could and then began to swing his arms back and forth, working out the stiffness. Satisfied, he looked at Dornhador and spoke quietly.
“I wandered far last night, but didn’t see any half-orcs, orcs or even a Dunlending. I did see a campfire to the east a ways off, but didn’t go near it. If we are to keep the company’s trail clear, I need to know where to start. ”
Dornhador nodded and walked towards a large square stone that functioned as a makeshift table. On it, held down with stones, was a crude map. The elf waved to Rathbairn who approached. The rest of the Elves in the ruined tower were apparently already awake and gone, as aside from the elf and Beorning, the tower was empty. Golgallon, Lenglin had agreed to return through the pass to the Trollshaws to look for some sign for Calista. Rathbairn was about to ask about the rest of the elves when Dornhador began to speak, pointing at spots on the map.
“To the east here, is most likely where the campfire you saw is.” He pointed to what looked like a hill far beyond the tower to the east, nearly at the foothills of the mountains. “There is a large hill that has become from what we can see a camp for some of the men of Dunland. It is fenced and ringed with stakes. We can only guess how many are there but it appears to be three to four dozen at least.”
Rathbairn nodded, “So these men of Dunland, why are they here then?”
“They have been searching the trees surrounding their camp and looking towards the paths to the mountains. The Company’s route may have taken them towards the pass of Caradhas, but some of us feel that may not have been possible. The snows have been heavy and Caradhas is known to be cruel to those that cross his ways.”
Rathbairn snorted in derision, “My people have crossed storms in the Misty Mountains where the drifts are higher than ourselves, yet we fear no mountain. But perhaps you are right. I will deal with this camp tonight. Where else have you seen trouble?”
Dornhador frowned and then pointed. “Below here are the ruins of Tham Mirdan, the place where the great elf smith Celebrimbor forged the great rings. The soldiers of Angmar have been seen here, but I feel that is not something you should concern yourself with, for our scouts report that a group of adventurers have recently raided there. Here…” He pointed to a spot south-east, near a marking labelled ‘Moria’. “Here is the outpost of Echad Dunann, where many of my kin guard the road to the walls of Moria. Near the halfway point is a curious sight. There is a hill that we have named ‘The Burnt Tor’. It is a perfectly round hill, yet at the top is shows signs of fire and only ‘round the crest of the hill. We have seen many orcs and wargs there. There is no camp or outpost, but I have gone there myself. If I was to guess, I would suspect the company would have been there. That should be your first stop. You should make your way to the burnt tor, investigate for signs of the company and ensure the orcs and wargs don’t locate anything. If they do, you cannot allow the messengers to escape. Only then, you should head to the Dunlendings camp. If there is sign they pursue the company, you should keep them occupied also.”
Rathbairn stood silently, studying the map and memorizing landmarks. “I will leave here in an hour after I have eaten. Without my horse or supplies, I will need to gather food myself. Hopefully your friends had luck finding Calista.” He looked around and asked, “Have you anyone travelling to Echad Dunann soon?”
Dornhador pursed his lips in thought. After a moment, he nodded. “Golgallon and Lengliel should return soon and Golgallon spoke of an errand there. Why do you ask?”
Rathbairn handed his axe to the elf “Have them take this and leave it with someone there. I will claim it before I make my way to Moria.”
Dornhador’s face was shocked, “friend Rathbairn, if you intend to encounter Orcs and wargs, you will be unarmed!”
Rathbairn’s grin was feral, “No, I won’t” and he said no more.
An hour later, Dornhador was still the only elf in the tower as Rathbairn strode out the east doorway. He walked for nearly a half hour when he found a few wayward bushes of berries. He helped himself, feasting until he had picked the bushes clean, leaving the smaller berries for the animals nearby. He wiped himself clean on the grass and resumed his walk east. Nearly an hour later, the faint smell of burnt wood and grass hit his nostrils as he approached the tor. He spotted a few Wargs roaming around the bottom, their noses to the ground.
Knowing that the wargs would eventually smell him out, Rathbairn shifted form and charged, roaring. The Wargs started quickly, heads rising in alarm as the bear charged. The first wargs to reach the bear were quickly smashed by the bear’s huge paws, their skulls crushed. From the top of the tor five orcs rushed the bear, crude swords waving. The beast roared its fury and two of the orcs slowed, hesitating. More Wargs charged the bear and were rent apart by claw or tooth mercilessly. The first of the orcs reached the bear and lashed out with it sword, scoring a minor scratch in the bear’s tough hide. The orc had no time to cry out in joy as the bear reared up on its hind legs and crashed down with both paws, its bulk landing on the orcs torso, crushing it instantly.
The next two orcs wisely approached from either side as more wargs tore at the bear’s legs. The wargs couldn’t penetrate the bear’s fur and fell to its claws and teeth. With the attacking wargs down and the rest fleeing, two of the four orcs attacked from either side, hoping to score a hit and retreat. The remaining two orcs had stopped halfway down the hill, frozen in fear. They made no move to aid their brethren as the bear suddenly lurched right and caught the closest orc in its jaws, its leg caught in a death grip. The orc was pulled backwards and onto its back and its throat was torn apart. The remaining attacking orc rushed forward while the bear turned back around. The orc stabbed forward desperately, trying to push the sword deep enough to slow the now enraged beast, yet failed when the crude sword snapped at the hilt, the crude weapon falling to the ground just as the bear ‘s right foreleg swiped and its claws dug into the orcs torso. Blood spurted as the orc screamed, the bear pulling the orc closer toward its death. When the orc scream cut off suddenly with a gurgle, the two coward orcs, standing frozen on the hill fled back up towards the top again, dropping weapons with their legs churning as fast as they could. Breath churning and chests heaving they reached the top of the tor and made for a small cluster of burnt pines, looking for some escape. A bloodthirsty roar echoed all around the tor as the bear came closer, its steps coming closer. The orcs began to run again, heading down the hill and turning east, hoping to reach the foothills of the mountains and disappear. Yet the bear had their scent, and caught the first orc before it reached the bottom of the hill, its neck in vise-like jaws. A sudden snap ended the orc with silence. The remaining orc didn’t hear its companion’s death, but knew that the bear must have caught the other one by now. It fled eastward, legs burning, yet fear drove it on. The bear, closer than the orc realized, slowed its pursuit and stopped silently. With a grumble, it began to shift and within moments, Rathbairn stood, kneeling where the bear had before.
Holding the small gash on the side of his arm, Rathbairn watched the orc flee, knowing that it would report the terror it saw to others. The orcs would not come to the tor again for some time. He climbed the hill again, hoping to determine what had caused the devastating fire that seemed to only burn the top. When he reached the top, his eyes cast around. It was noon by then and the sun made the burning smell permeate the surrounding area, the stench almost unbearable. In a dead tree near the far side, Rathbairn noticed a peculiar spot near the mid-point of the trunk where a scorch mark was darker than the rest. Something had hit the tree here first, causing it to possibly catch the entire tree on fire. Looking around, Rathbairn determined that this tree had been the centre point of the blaze. Remembering suddenly that the wizard Gandalf was with the company, Rathbairn stared at the spot more, his mind racing. Perhaps the company had been attacked and the wizard had set the tree on fire to scare off foes? A glinting across the field drew Rathbairn’s attention suddenly. He strode over and picked up the steel object. It was an arrowhead, small yet perfectly crafted. Only elves made arrowheads such as these, Rathbairn thought to himself. This arrowhead and the scorch mark all but proved that the company had indeed been here. Pocketing the arrowhead, Rathbairn looked around to get his bearings. The Dunlending camp would lay to the east and north, near the path that led up to the pass of Caradhas. He crossed the top of the hill and began descending the hill, heading towards the direction the Dunlending camp would be. The trees began to thin and eventually gave way altogether as Rathbairn came to the edge of a small valley in the foothills of the mountains. In the distance, he saw the winding path that led eventually up and over Caradhas itself. The mountain was a huge sentinel, harsh and unforgiving for all who crossed its heights. Rathbairn sat down to rest next to a tree and studied the valley. The Dunlendings would most likely make their camp with the mountain at their backs to limit foes from attacking from all sides. The southern edge of the valley most likely to be where the camp was, he thought. He decided to wait until nightfall, knowing the torches would make it easier to find the camp. He reviewed the information that Elrond’s people had given him on the Dunlending people. Superstitious and wary, they were clannish tribesman who until recently had shied away from outsiders.
The scouts from Elrond and Eregion had reported that many of the clans of Dunland had joined Saruman now and along with Orcs and Uruks, the renegade wizard had many tools at his disposal. Rathbairn decided silently that the white wizard had much to answer for, and indeed it would soon be time to settle accounts. Standing and moving back farther into the trees, Rathbairn found a secluded spot and lay down to rest. Sleep took him almost as soon as his eyes closed.
The crack of a branch startled the Beorning from sleep as his eyes snapped open. Another crack sounded to his left and behind him as the he lay very still. A rough voice sounded from amongst the trees, broken common drifting to Rathbairn’s ears.
“These orcs smell bad, I don’t like them Narshag” a voice said.
“Quiet fool! They might hear you! The wizard promised us revenge on the horseman and to do that, we must work with the orcs. All we do is watch for any travellers and report it to the orcs. It is easy work to earn our revenge on the men of Rohan. So close your mouth and keep looking” the second voice spoke as if speaking to a child.
The first voice didn’t answer as they continued to come closer. Rathbairn slowly raised himself to a sitting position. He was unarmed yet if these two saw him, they would raise the alarm for sure. Slowly, he pulled himself up to a standing position and peered around the tree behind him. The two Dunlendings were barely ten paces away, oblivious to the massive form hiding behind the cluster of trees. Rathbairn turned to his right and crept carefully along until he was behind and between the two men, his feet making no sound. As he got within reach, he reached out with both arms and gripped both men around their necks, squeezing tightly. Both men’s arms came up to try to pry the tree-trunk like limbs that were squeezing tightly, cutting off the air. The man on his left dropped his hand to his belt, attempting to draw his dagger. With a forceful twist, Rathbairn twisted his left shoulder, a dull crack of the man’s neck the only sound as he dropped to the ground bonelessly. His left hand free, Rathbairn gripped the remaining Dunlending’s throat with both hands and squeezed, his victim’s face turning purple, eyes bulging. His hands beat furtively against Rathbairn’s arms and chest and he vainly tried to kick the giant man in front of him. Finally, his eyes closed and he went limp. Rathbairn dropped him and felt for a heartbeat, finding none. He dragged the two men farther into the trees and looked around, gasping for breath. Seeing no one around, Rathbairn looked at the evening sky. Night was close, within the hour and Rathbairn set out from the trees, heading east towards the valley ahead of him. He knew that any Dunlending that spotted him now would know him for a foe and sound the alarm. Rathbairn resigned himself to the fact that he would have to kill again if he came upon any guards.
Luck was with him though, for as night fell, he spotted torches and a wooden palisade ringed with stakes. A small gap on the southern side was guarded by three Dunlendings with spears and bows. Rathbairn circled to the north and found a second opening on the northern side of the camp. Only two guards with bows stood at this end, their eyes roaming the grass. Rathbairn, concealed behind a group of boulders, knew that the northern gate would be his entrance point. Studying what he could see of the camp, he counted several dozen men, all armed. Unconcerned, for his bear form would not suffer wounds easily, he began to wait till full dark, planning his attack.
An hour later, Rathbairn stood up and prepared himself. He was hungry, his only meal the berries he had eaten earlier in the daytime. This would make his other form more angry, which seemed to be a help. He drew a deep breath and began the shift, his limbs and bones snapping and a growl of pain coming from his throat. When the change was done, the bear began to run silently towards the camp.
The two guards who stood at the northern entrance to the camp leaned negligently against the fence, unknown that terror was less than on hundred yards away. They were new men, and ordered to the most boring tasks, such as guarding the camp. Bored, they had fallen into a half-sleep when a roar sounded from the darkness ahead. Before they could cry out or draw an arrow, a pale monster appeared out of the blackness. The guards both died before a single cry or arrow as the bear entered the camp, roaring with rage. The Dunlendings in the camp, caught unawares, shouted and grabbed weapons to face this monstrous threat that had come from nowhere. They tried stabbing with spears and shooting arrows, but the bear’s tough, thick hide repelled them. They drew swords and axes, but couldn’t get close enough to attack, the beast’s claws rending men asunder without mercy. The bear slew anything that came within reach of its claws and its teeth. Within minutes, several dozens of the Dunlendings lay dead or dying, blood soaking the ground by torchlight. The remaining survivors fled from the south gate, screaming in terror as the bear pursued. Several more were caught and trampled or torn to pieces, the remaining Dunlendings disappearing into the night. The bear stopped and turned back to the camp, sniffing for foes. It began to lurch then, shambling sideways as it began to change. Soon after, Rathbairn knelt on all fours, breathing heavily, his energy nearly spent. He wearily stood up and began to slowly look around.
The camp lay in shambles, tents torn and burning, weapons scattered and chests overturned. Rathbairn searched everything, looking for any clues. He found several parchments and maps inside a collapsed tent, stuffing them inside his tunic. A chest hidden at the rear of another tent contained several pieces of elven jewellery, which Rathbairn also took. With a satisfied grunt, Rathbairn left the now abandoned camp and looked up. It was near the middle of night and his goal, Echad Dunann, lay several hours around a jut of foothills to the south. He knew he wouldn’t make it with his weariness, so Rathbairn shouldered a bedroll he had taken from the camp and headed back towards the trees at the top of the valley, his legs burning and his stomach growling with hunger. He reached the edge of the valley and pushed back into a thicket, far from the bodies of the two Dunlendings he had hidden earlier. He spread the bedroll onto the ground and lay down, his weariness overtaking him as sleep claimed him.
He came awake, sort of and found himself standing in a lush garden, stone walls and stairs around him. At the centre, a stone basin with a large silver bowl atop it stood under a trellis of wood covered in ivy. In front of it a glowing figure with hair the colour of pure gold in a white dress that shimmered in the moonlight. She was an elf, her ageless face youthful, but her eyes blue as the midday sky full of wisdom. She beckoned to him.
“Come” her voice soft yet rolling with power.
Rathbairn approached cautiously, not sure if he was truly dreaming. “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am Galadriel” she replied “I have been watching you for some time Rathbairn, grandchild of Beorn. Your footsteps have shaken the very foundations of Middle-Earth.”
“What is this place?” Rathbairn asked, looking around in confusion.
“You are in my garden, in the land of Lorien, beyond the walls of Moria. I can appear to you in your dreams only for a short time, but my need is urgent. You must come to me in Lorien, for events in Middle-Earth now move quickly and your fate has been tied into it.”
“I don’t understand, I was sent to this land by Elrond to ensure the company remains unfollowed.”
“And they have been. They have passed through Moria and are here in Lorien, resting from their travels. They have passed through the darkness and have seen much pain and loss” her face clouded for a moment, then was gone.
“So what is it you wish of me now?” Rathbairn asked.
“Enter the Mines of Moria and lend your aid to the dwarves, for I see much darkness there. Only you can help the dwarves free their ancient homeland from evil. But be cautious, for I cannot see all, yet a darkness and ancient evil moves in the depth of Moria. You must face it, or the lands to the south will fall into shadow if you fail. Be true to your line Rathbairn, and you will prevail. I must go now, sleep in peace and wake free of weariness.”
She began to fade as his vision began to cloud, “I will come” he said as sleep claimed him.