Yes, after many months of self-imposed absence, we have returned. Life will not wait for anyone and as things have settled down now, it’s time to return to Rathbairn’s tales. I hope you enjoy the further adventures of our Beorning friend.
“Grandmother, wake up”.
Sleep began to fade as the voice returned.
“Wake up Grandmother.”
Eyes opened and a blurred but dark haired form appeared in her vision. She blinked as sleep faded away like night upon the dawn. The old woman looked around and noticed a heavy wool blanket had been tucked up around her. Realizing that she was still in the heavy wooden chair, she sat up straighter and looked into the eyes of the young man in front of her. Light brown eyes highlighted a thin face framed by long dark hair. His smile made the boy seem younger than his fourteen winters, but her Grandson was her pride and joy.
“I’m sorry, my dear…I must have dropped off in the middle of the story, is that it?”
The boy nodded, his smile widening.
“How long was I asleep for? It felt like months.”
“Only a few hours, but it’s okay. The cubs were getting restless. I sent them outside to play.”
She smiled at him, warmth spreading to her tired and aching body. “Where is your Father and that boneheaded Grandfather of yours, my brother?”
“They haven’t arrived from the mountains yet, but they should be back today sometime, if the snows hold off.”
She nodded and pulled the blanket off and pushed herself slowly to her feet. The boy moved to help her, but she waved him off and stood up, her joints cracking. She set the heavy leather bound book down on the seat gently. Seventy winters in the Vale of Anduin and despite her aging body, she could feel the land still vibrant beneath her feet. It had been just over fifty winters since the great fires and the attack by the Orcs, Wargs and Goblins of Gundabad and Goblin-Town, but the Vale was well on the road to recovery. Trees had been planted, buildings restored and rebuilt and the gardens replanted. Pain and grief flashed through briefly, but faded like an old memory. She turned towards the kitchen and called back to the boy, who was folding the heavy blanket onto the chair.
“Stergrim, come help me in the kitchen for a moment. We’ll prepare a meal for the children.”
The boy nodded as he crossed the room and entered the large kitchen of the great hall. The original hall had burned to cinders in the battle, not even a remnant of the old hall of Beorn remained. The new hall had been the first to be rebuilt, larger and stronger than the original. More bedrooms, more space for those guests at mealtimes and a larger kitchen area.
She moved confidently, preparing fruit, honey cakes and some bread. Stergrim carried a massive jug of cream to the table, going back for a stack of cups after helping to set the table. Eight settings were placed at the huge table, all within reach of the large seat at the end. Moments later, Stergrim moved to the door and called to the six children who came barreling inside like an army.
“Nana you ‘wake!” called a blonde haired girl of six winters. She flew into the the old woman’s legs, nearly knocking both to the floor, causing Stergrim to growl in warning.
The young girl froze, her eyes wide in alarm. Two boys of ten winters turned to Stergrim and growled in defiance. Suddenly, a deep growl from the end of the table caused all the children to freeze.
The old woman smiled and waved to the table. “Sit, eat” she said shortly.
They all sat quickly and quietly as the meal was devoured. Soon, a hand crept into the air, shyly from the opposite end of the table to where the woman sat. A boy of twelve winters, his face serious and his pale eyes locked to hers spoke, his quiet voice drifting across the open space.
“Aunta, will you continue the story after we eat and clean up please?”
Pleading cries and begging eyes agreed, all of the younger children joining in the calls for more of the story.
“Yes my dear” she said, her eyes finding the quiet boy at the end who met her gaze and did not shy away. “But first, finish your food and clean up your plates and cups.”
Wordless nods all around as the meal was finished and Stergrim left to fetch water to clean the dishes in. A short time later, the eight of them sat around a freshly stoked fire as the old woman took her seat and opened the book to the spot where she last remembered reading. As she began to read, eyes rapt with imagination took her back to a time over fifty winters ago, before the fires, before the burning of the Vale and the time of loss. A time when Elves still wandered Middle-Earth and before the battles for freedom. She blinked a tear away, and began to read.
Fog…silence…the tread of booted feet on the lichen and moss was muffled by the gloom of trees that strove against each other. A spider, larger than most crept silently among the bowers above the ground, its multitude of eyes upon the forms that marched beneath it. On any day but this, any of the figures would be an easy meal, but these were no ordinary travelers. Elves, their bright armour cloaked in grey and black. Sharp, keen swords and bows at the ready, silent and deadly. The spider crept closer, perhaps even one straggler would not be missed? In its hunger, it failed to miss the lone elf that detached from the group and pulled an arrow from its quiver and in one quick motion, drew and released, the arrow flying true and dropping the spider to the ground, dead. The Elf pulled the arrow free with a sickening sound and moved back in line. The Elves had marched for days, Lothlorien long behind. The crossing of the Anduin done under the cover of night. Sentries had crossed and dispatched the watchers and spies of Dol Guldur.
At the head of the long column, a figure larger than the rest paced along silently, his soft boots making little noise despite his huge frame. Rathbairn’s eyes drifted side to side as he kept pace with the Elves beside him. Somewhere close behind, a cluster of dwarves grumbled softly as they struggled to keep pace. The company was one of many making its way through the gloom-ridden trees of Mirkwood, en route to Dol Guldur itself. The old fortress, long thought abandoned after the flight of the Necromancer, had now been discovered as a staging point for Orcs, Goblins, Wargs and even worse foes. Recent attacks on the borders of Lothlorien had been repelled, yet the threat still loomed.
Rathbairn’s thoughts turned back to the blurred days of preparation by the Golden Host as Celeborn, Galadriel and others made ready. Swords, spears and daggers were sharpened, shields made ready and armour prepared as the host moved through Mallorn trees to prepare for war. His own preparations were brief as he remembered the parting from his friends and fellow Rangers at Cerin Amroth.
Mordroskerk and Eilonwyniel had remained, the dwarf’s wound still not fully healed and Eilon’s refusal to leave him alone in a strange land a testament to their strong friendship. The friends had shared laughter and promises to meet again someday, when events made it possible. It was his parting from Leandir that stood out in his memories most of all, the silent hunter’s dangerous task in Moria casting a pall of dread over any chance of a joyous parting, if there ever was one.
Leandir had donned again that strange black leather armour that he wore in Moria, allowing him protection yet freedom to move at need. He wore no cloak, but the hood sewn into the back of his tunic and a strange face mask hanging down the side from the hood. It was Dunland make, and it gave the elf a forbidding look when worn. A quiver of arrows on his back, his twin blades strapped to his sides and knives in each boot, he was a walking arsenal.
“You are ready?” Rathbairn asked when he came upon the elf standing at the bottom of the vast hill, staring northwards.
“Yes” came the simple reply.
“Then I wish you luck in your hunt” Rathbairn said simply.
Leandir extended a hand, which Rathbairn clasped in return.
“I wish you the same, my friend” Leandir said. “Be careful in Dol Guldur, Rathbairn. The Ancient Evil of the Necromancer still lingers there.”
“I will” Rathbairn replied. As he turned away, a thought occurred to him. “Leandir?”
“Yes” the elf replied softly.
“In Galadriel’s mirror, I saw you, in Moria. There was a cave and in that place was something evil. Unlike I have ever faced. I fear for you and the elves that accompany you.”
“The Lady’s mirror shows only glances of what was, what is and what shall be Rathbairn.” The elf said seriously. “Maglor and I have prepared for this. The power of my people to resist the ancient evils still lies within us.” A smile lit his face for a brief moment, then was gone, a fierce determination replacing it. “We must eliminate Gwathnor before he becomes a threat to Moria and beyond. Fear not for me, my friend, for we will meet again, someday.” He gripped the Beorning’s shoulder briefly, then turned and walked through the trees and faded from sight.
Now almost a week later, no news had been heard about the expedition or the elves. Rathbairn shook his head and continued to walk.
Days later, the fog and gloom of the trees only intensified as the Host approached the last stretch before Dol Guldur. Scouts returned with reports of only few orc and warg scouts. As they topped a rise on at midday, the Elven Captains called a halt, runners summoning Rathbairn and the Dwarves to the Captain’s fire.
Broin stood up from the log where he sat and looked to the Elf Captain across the fire.
“So what is it you wish of us?” the dwarf said gruffly.
“Here, the Golden Host shall stay, awaiting further orders from Lord Celeborn. It is clear that he means to strike at Dol Guldur but it is too soon yet. We shall hold this ridge to prevent another attack on our borders, but from here you and the Beorning shall proceed to rescue your friend.”
Broin nodded and the other four dwarves stood also. From his seat, Rathbairn watched in silence as the Captain began to lay out the plan.
“In the days before the war for Erebor, Mithrandir himself went to Dol Guldur and through a hidden door, gained entry. It is also clear that he found Thrain there, meaning the hidden passage can gain you entry to the dungeons. Elessedil and a small group shall accompany you to find the hidden door and rescue your friend.
Broin nodded and bowed to the Elf Captain, who returned the bow and gestured to a grey clad elf scout, who stood nearby. Her face was covered by a grey mask, which she removed as she approached and bowed. With her were four other elves, similarly clad with bows and long knives in hand.
“We shall leave at nightfall, Master Dwarf, I shall meet you at the western edge of the camp. Until then.” As she turned to leave, her eyes fell upon Rathbairn and she stood for a moment, looking into his eyes before she and her companions turned away.
The gloom and fog did not fade throughout the day as Rathbairn and the dwarves prepared to leave. The Elves had given them food and water skins for the journey. Broin and his kin found Rathbairn standing alone looking north, his axe in hand.
“Home lies that way for you eh lad?” Broin said as the dwarves approached the giant man.
Rathbairn nodded but did not reply.
“Soon you’ll be able to go home Rathbairn, don’t worry. Your family would be proud of you, i’m sure”
Again Rathbairn nodded, but this time, he spoke, his deep voice echoing among the trees.
“It’s long past time I was home Broin, but there is much to do still.”
Broin laid a hand on the Beorning’s arm and craned his neck to look up at his young friend.
“Rathbairn, you’ve done a huge honour to me and my kin. You and your people will always be welcome in Moria, Erebor or wherever Durin’s folk are. We owe you that at least.”
Rathbairn inclined his head and hefted his axe. The Mithril blade seemed to glimmer among the fog as he gripped it tightly.
“Dol Guldur is a threat to my home too. Soon they will learn to fear the line of Beorn.”
“Of that lad” the dwarf said “I have no doubt” Broin said as the dwarves left to find food.
Night fell and the silence of Mirkwood seemed oppressive among the fog and sickening trees. No sound was heard among the camp of the host and the elves, uncomfortable in the strange land, did nothing to draw attention to themselves. Fires were out and scouts were on high alert as Rathbairn and the dwarves approached the western edge of the camp. At the far edge, Elessedil and her scouts awaited, grey-clad and almost invisible. The party closed up in small circle as Elessedil laid out the route.
“From here we shall bear east for some time, then turn north. There will be few patrols until we get closer to the fortress, so we will make good time. It is an hour’s journey on foot to the hidden door from here.” She turned to Broin, “You know where the hidden door is, I assume master dwarf?”
Broin nodded, “It is a small cave on the most eastern side of the rock upon which Dol Guldur is built. At the base of the cliff is the cave. It winds through a network of tunnels, then open up near a corridor that leads towards the dungeons. With luck, we can be in, grab Bori and out before they know we are there.”
Elessedil nodded, “Very well, let us go. Be on your guard at all times and make no sound. Stay together.” The Elves moved to the front and rear of the company and they left the camp, headed east. For a quarter of an hour, Elessedil led them through the trees without hesitation. Shortly after, she halted the company with a raised hand.
“From here we turn north to Dol Guldur. There will be patrols soon. We must pass unnoticed, so kill only if we have no choice. Silence is our ally.” She turned and moved through the fog, the rest following.
They continued in silence through the trees as the landscape began to change slightly. The trees here were dead, the evil of Dol Guldur robbing them of life. The entire area around the fortress was dead as well and no sound of wildlife was heard. In the distance, a warg howled and the party froze as one. No one moved until Elessedil gave the signal to move. On their left, the land began to rise. Elessedil turned the party further east, following the lower paths leading to the lower edge of the cliffs.
Another quarter of an hour later, Broin touched Elessedil on the shoulder and pointed wordlessly ahead to his left. She nodded and gestured ahead to on of the elves, who vanished ahead, fading into the gloom. Rathbairn felt uneasy in the oppressive silence, but something felt very wrong. They had encountered no sign of Orcs or Wargs aside from the distant sounds. The way to the cliff was empty, almost too easy. He continued to look about, his hand on his axe until the elf scout returned. He spoke softly to Elessedil and led the way. Shortly ahead the rock cliff of Dol Guldur loomed above them. Halfway around the base, the scout stopped and pointed at the rocks. As the party approached, Rathbairn could faintly make out the entrance. The hidden entrance lay ahead, and Broin, his excitement clear, made to head into the tunnels until Rathbairn pulled him back.
Elessedil looked to the Beorning, concern on her face.
“What is it?” she asked softly.
“This feels wrong.” Rathbairn said. “Something isn’t right!”
Broin, his beard wagging, patted the giant man’s arm.” Now now, laddie, don’t be scared of the dark!” he chuckled quietly.
Elessedil looked to the Beorning, studying his face, when a look of alarm came across her own. “Something comes! We must flee! NOW!” She made to turn the party back towards the camp when torches flared suddenly out in the dark. Robed figures surrounded the party, radiating evil. Among them, Angmarim and A few Uruks stood, black bows ready. A lone figure strode out from the dark, his face cruel and his eyes black pools of darkness.
“Welcome to Dol Guldur” his voice echoed and an evil laugh came from his lips. “My master said we should expect you. How pleased he will be to be correct.”
“Who are you?” Elessedil snapped at him, yet Rathbairn had already remembered.
“Gorothul. You are the one who took Bori from Moria.”
“Ah yes, the young Beorning, how pleased my master will be to have you as his guest. And you brought us some sport. How kind.”
Rathbairn growled in defiance as the elves readied their bows and the dwarfs hefte axes. Gorothul’s cruel laugh sounded again as he raised a hand.
“Enough of this!” he shouted. He pointed to Elessedil and Broin. “Take those two and the Beorning, kill the rest.”
Shouts erupted as chaos erupted all around. Rathbairn swung his axe and took the head from a rushing Uruk. He pivoted and buried the axe into the chest of another Uruk as he let go and prepared to change form. From the side he heard Elessedil’s scream as Gorothul raised his hands. A wave of fell light was about them and Rathbairn felt a blow to the side of his head. As darkness took hold, the last sight was the crumpled form of Elessedil, Gorothul standing over her, a cruel smile on his lips.