13. Whistling Past the Graveyard
The dim glow atop the old man's staff revealed a world beneath that had been well lived in, but not for many years.
After innumerable hours of creeping beneath the mountain, wary lest any noise of our passage alert the goblin hordes that had slain the dwarf's kin, a halt was quietly called.
A chasm yawned above us, the staff's dim magical glow lost in its distance; and we stood upon a dusty path at its bottom.
Gimli put his hand upon the wizard's arm and quietly growled in his dwarven tongue. Gandalf nodded and the dwarf stepped ahead, the old man following. Other paths, just as dust covered, met ours, but we stayed close to the only light in this frighteningly open darkness. Looking up, I could almost make myself believe we were walking through a chill, still, overcast night.
From the corner of my eye, something ahead and above reflected the staff's dim glow. It was no longer a starless night, but an unsupported void under the mountain above. I shivered and clenched my jaw.
Ahead there was the ring of steel against stone. It seemed to echo in the vastness, but more so in my own ears than in the emptiness that swallowed it. There was tense mutterings of alarm among the Halflings and a quiet whisper as the ringbearer slid his short sword partway from its sheath. The Ranger clasped my shoulder and nodded when he met my eye, then slid forward. I looked behind, straining for any sign that the noise had awakened some as yet unmet horror.
The Ranger, Gimli and the old man talked animatedly in hushed tones. There was the sound of cloth quietly torn. The old man or the dwarf may have been hurt.
In the dim glow, I could now make out a staircase hewn from the wall of the chasm. Our path ended where it began. Perhaps the iron-shod dwarf had stubbed his toe on the bottom stair.
A quiet snort that may have been amusement or derision came from the elf, then he gazed silent up into the darkness, obviously seeing what we mortals could not.
The ranger nodded to Gimli who hefted his axe in one hand. The Halflings and I reached for our weapons, but Legolas motioned that there was no concern. The dwarf brought the haft of the axe down smartly upon the step before him. I froze, but there was nothing but a muffled thud. He nodded at the Ranger, then began climbing the stair, bringing his axe down upon each step. The old man went next, then the elf, gazing up the steep, narrow stairs as he confidently climbed. The Halflings were next. Their broad feet did not fit upon the dwarf-made stair, so they used their hands, ascending as if it were a stone ladder.
The Ranger had stood aside to take up the rear guard with me. I looked up the stairs, lit only by the staff's dim glow. The steps were shallow, but square and solid in the center. To either side they were crumbling and rounded off, where the dwarf struck with his axe haft. I could make out ledges hewn into the chasm wall, to the right and left of the stair, disappearing into the darkness.
I looked quizzically at the Ranger, but he motioned me upward while we could still make out our path.
Quickly, I found the Halflings were correct. One hand, or better two, upon the steep shallow steps ahead made the climb easier.
Fifty, one hundred, two hundred steps, I found myself counting them to the muffled beat of Gimli's axe. Ahead, the Halflings gasped. I looked up at them, gritting my teeth as my head swam for a second, then saw what they had seen. The ledges to either side were now inhabited.
Seated figures gazed out into the void. Some gazed down at us upon their stair. Some were headless; some had skeletal remains lying at their feet.
Tombs. This was Moria's graveyard, and the goblins had taken from its inhabitants freely.
I felt a tap upon my heel as the Ranger urged me forward.
He whispered "I could cushion his axe haft so he would not alert the goblins as he announced his passage to his ancestors, but we are not silent in our progress. Urge the Halflings on. We must not linger upon these stairs."
I swallowed dryly and nodded. You must take every step in the White Tower. You must touch every crenellation as you walk along the Shipwall.
I too did not want any ill fate to meet me upon these stairs. I silently prayed to the stars above the mountain that Gimli had not missed a single step.
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