Tales of the North
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Through the Dimrill Gate: 3. Moria
"We shouldn't stay here. There could be anything down there," Halbarad said.
From near the entrance, Aragorn looked at the rain pelting down and replied, "It should be safe enough, if we don't both sleep at once."
After he too had seen how hard it was raining, Halbarad was easily persuaded that it would be safe to stay where they were. They arranged the content of their packs to dry near the fire, and settled down for the night.
Aragorn took the first watch. Despite the fire, he still felt cold in his damp clothes, and he sat huddled in his cloak in search of at least some warmth. As he sat staring into the darkness, he wondered whether there was anyone still dwelling inside Moria. He knew his not-so-ancient history well enough, and most likely the place was empty, unless the Orcs had returned after the Battle of Nanduhirion. He recalled hints of things darker than Orcs mentioned in some of the books in Rivendell's library, but the warnings had been vague enough that he was willing to ignore them.
In the morning, as soon as daylight was coming in, Aragorn explored further back than he had done the night before, and he quickly found the doors that led into Moria itself. He pushed them, and they opened easily, turning smoothly on hidden hinges. Halbarad came over to have a look as well, but said nothing.
A bit later, while they were repacking their now dry gear, Halbarad suddenly looked at Aragorn with a knowing smile on his face, and asked, "You want to go in and look round, don't you?"
Aragorn barely hesitated before replying, "Of course."
"So do I," Halbarad said. "As long as we don't go in too far."
"Do we have any torches left?" Aragorn asked.
"I still have two," Halbarad replied, "And there's enough dry wood here that we can use for makeshift ones."
They quickly gathered all the wood they could find. While Halbarad checked his tinderbox to see if it had dried out, and prepared some spare torches, Aragorn went outside to fill their waterskins.
Halbarad stepped across the threshold of the doors in the back of the entrance area first. When he was certain that there was no immediate danger, he walked further in, Aragorn following close behind. They entered a great hall, brightly lit from windows in the rock high above them. Though they knew Moria was dangerous, they couldn't repress their excitement at walking in that legendary place either.
"How far inside do you think we can go before we need a torch?" Halbarad wondered, as he looked around in amazement.
Aragorn shrugged. "Let us find out."
There were several piles of skeletons near the doors, still dressed in rusty armour, mouldering leather and rags of fabric. After taking a close look at the first few, they left the others alone. It was obvious that the hall had been the scene of fierce fighting at one point.
"Strange, I see nothing but Orcs," Halbarad observed. "You'd expect at least some Dwarves."
Aragorn shook his head. "Not if these Orcs died in the Battle of Nanduhirion. The Dwarves take care of their own, and I've heard they didn't enter Moria during that battle."
"Yet some must have," Halbarad said. "Orcs will fight among themselves, but I doubt they'd have gone to the trouble of stacking the losers so neatly."
"Unlikely," Aragorn agreed. He walked further on into the hall, craning his neck to look at the high ceiling. Halbarad had wandered off towards the far end of the hall.
"Come on, there's more to see," Halbarad called him from where he stood near another door.
They entered a long corridor, the first part of which was still lit from outside through shafts in the roof. The air was dry and somewhat dusty. Halbarad stopped about halfway through, and lit the first of the makeshift torches.
Aragorn waited at the end of the corridor until Halbarad had caught up with him. They now had to go down a long and wide set of stairs. Except for the flickering light of their torch, there was no light, and for the first time since they had entered Moria, Aragorn imagined he felt the weight of the mountain pressing down on him.
There was another door at the bottom of the stairs. Halbarad paused to examine the intricate leaf patterns that adorned it before pushing open the door and going through. Aragorn followed, briefly running his fingers along the patterns, realising the work was as fine as anything he'd seen in Rivendell.
They found themselves in a space that was so large that their single torch failed to light even the nearest wall. Halbarad took some steps forward, but then abruptly stopped.
"Back!" he ordered sharply.
Aragorn did as Halbarad said. He waited while the other lit a second torch, handing it to him immediately once it had caught flame. Edging forward carefully, Aragorn saw that the floor stopped abruptly about four paces from where they were standing, and beyond the edge was a black space, the depth of which he could only guess at.
They both took some deep breaths, as the realisation that this place was indeed dangerous and they couldn't afford to be as nonchalant as they had been up to then, hit them.
Aragorn followed the edge until he found a narrow bridge spanning the blackness underneath. He called Halbarad to come and look. The other quickly joined him.
"Do we cross it?" Aragorn asked.
Halbarad pondered the question briefly. "We have no idea of what lies beyond, and these torches are barely enough to light our path."
"You think we should turn back?"
"Not yet, as long as we're careful," Halbarad replied.
Aragorn took the lead when they crossed the narrow bridge. It was longer than he had first thought; close to fifty feet, he guessed. There was a faint updraft, smelling of dank, moist rock, reminding him of the silent depth beneath the bridge's stones. Though he had a good head for heights, this black abyss was different, and he was relieved to step off the other end of the bridge. He tried to shake the vague sense of dread that had crept up on him. After all, the place was empty, and mere darkness should not be enough to disturb him like this.
Halbarad's torch guttered and died as he too reached the end of the bridge. He lit a new torch, and they turned left, staying close to the edge of the abyss until they found a wall. Almost immediately on the corner there was a corridor. They went in, walking along for some time until they reached a hall. There were several corridors opening from it, and a stair going down.
Aragorn halted, looking around. The hall was almost empty, a rickety table, some broken chairs and a pile of Orc helmets, pottery shards and broken spears suggesting it had been in use while Moria was held by the Orcs. Perhaps this had been some kind of guard post.
"What do we do now? We shouldn't go too much further in, or we could get lost." He took a sip from his waterskin, trying not to think about getting lost under these mountains. The darkness surrounding them was oppressive enough without letting his imagination run away with him. It was not just him, though; Halbarad was tense as well. "At least we have enough water."
"We have three torches left, including this one. If we only use one torch from here on and turn back when we start on the next one, it will be safe enough," Halbarad said.
"Then let's see what's at the bottom of those stairs," Aragorn suggested.
Halbarad agreed, and they carefully started down the narrow steps, finding the stairs went down for a long time. After a while, Aragorn started counting the number of steps, and by the time they reached the bottom, he had made it to twelve hundred.
They found themselves at the start of a narrow and roughly made corridor, and Aragorn had gone some ten feet down it when Halbarad spoke. "I don't like the air here; it's stale. I don't think we should go on."
As he spoke, their torch faded to a weak blue flame and went out.
Aragorn was finding it difficult to breathe, and he could hear Halbarad was also breathing hard.
"Back up the stair," he gasped.
"I need to rest," Halbarad replied. "I'll just sit here for a bit first."
The idea of resting before they went up those long stairs again, was an attractive one, Aragorn had to admit. Yet, though he was feeling dizzy and found it difficult to think straight, he still knew they shouldn't stay where they were.
"No," he managed to say, "If we stop here, we die here. Up. Now."
Halbarad murmured something that Aragorn couldn't quite understand, but the sound of his kinsman's voice at least let him find the other in the dark. He managed to pull Halbarad back up, and started to direct him towards the stair.
Aragorn unexpectedly found the bottom step with his foot, and lost his balance, as he was also having to keep Halbarad on his feet. He stumbled and hit his knee hard on one of the first steps. The sharp pain served to clear his mind somewhat, and he redoubled his effort to get them up the steps. At least the stair was not open-sided, he thought, even if there was no railing to hang on to either.
Somehow Aragorn managed to get them up the first fifty or so steps, and noticed that the air seemed a little better already. He knew there was still a long climb ahead of them, and he dared not rest yet. Halbarad was slightly more cooperative now as well, so he started climbing again.
After another hundred steps, he thought it would probably be safe to sit down briefly, and at least attempt to relight their torch, before continuing up. He didn't relish climbing all the way up in the dark, even if the steps were smooth and their way easy to find.
After some fumbling with his pack, Aragorn found his tinderbox and managed to light the torch again. The weakly flickering orange light from the flame was as welcome as the brightest sunlit afternoon, after the darkness they had just experienced.
Halbarad had recovered enough that he could go up the stairs on his own now, though Aragorn stayed behind him to catch him should he stumble.
They continued on up in silence, resting several times along the way, and having to light their penultimate torch, before they found themselves in the hallway again. They both sat down immediately, and as Halbarad took his waterskin and drank deeply, Aragorn found some cram in his pack for their meal. That done, he moved to get his own waterskin and found to his dismay that he had lost it somewhere below.
"Halbarad, how much water do you have left?" he asked.
"About half this skin," Halbarad replied. "Why?"
"I lost mine down those stairs somewhere. That is all the water we have. We must head out now."
Halbarad nodded. "We should anyway, after getting caught in that bad air."
"Only one torch left; that is just enough to get us to the first hall again," Aragorn reckoned.
Halbarad handed Aragorn his waterskin, and he took a small sip before handing it back. They rapidly headed down the corridor, eager to leave Moria behind, their earlier adventurous mood gone completely, replaced by a need to be away from the oppressive dark and the mountain overhead.
They had to light their final torch fairly soon. After walking for some time, Aragorn was beginning to question whether they had taken the right corridor, since he was certain it hadn't been this long on the way in. As he was about to speak, Halbarad stopped and said, "This is the wrong way. This corridor is sloping upwards. The one we should have taken ran level."
By the time they made it back to the hallway, Aragorn was limping, the knee he had hit on the stair swollen and painful. He tried to keep up with Halbarad, but found it impossible to do so.
"Are you all right?" Halbarad asked when he had caught up.
"Yes, except for my knee," he replied. "I'm afraid I'll slow us down."
"Lean on me," Halbarad suggested.
Aragorn did as Halbarad said; and as they set off down what he fervently hoped was the right corridor, he found he could walk a bit faster if he leant on Halbarad's shoulder. It would be disastrous if their last torch burned out now. They'd never find their way out in the dark. To his relief, they soon reached the large hall where the bridge was, and heading for it as quickly as they could, they walked along the edge of the abyss.
"Can you cross the bridge on your own?" Halbarad asked.
"Yes," Aragorn said.
Careful about putting his weight on his injured knee, Aragorn stepped on to the bridge first. Halbarad followed close behind, so that they could both see by the light of their one torch. They were about two-thirds of the way across, when the torch started to gutter. Aragorn tried to hurry to get off the bridge, but he had only just stepped off it when the torch went out.
"Stand still," Aragorn said, as he took a few more steps forward so that Halbarad would not bump into him.
"I am standing still," Halbarad said. "I'm only a few steps away from the end of the bridge. I'll just edge forward very carefully."
After a brief silence, in which the only thing Aragorn could hear was the quiet shuffling of Halbarad's boots on the stone bridge, his kinsman heaved a sigh of relief.
"Ahead now," Halbarad said, "And to the right once you find the wall. The door isn't that far away, and beyond the stairs there should be light again."
"I'm at the door now," Aragorn replied, waiting until Halbarad had caught up with him.
"Do you need a hand up the stairs?" Halbarad asked.
"I think so," Aragorn replied. "Let's go."
He found his knee was now so stiff it would barely bend, but by leaning heavily on Halbarad he did make it up the stairs, though it was slow going.
The corridor ahead of them was fully dark, which at first confused them, until they realised that it must be night.
"We might as well stop and rest here," Aragorn said, "Then continue when it is light tomorrow morning."
Halbarad agreed, and they carefully made their way to the side of the corridor.
"I don't think we need to keep watch," Halbarad said. "The place is empty."
Aragorn woke just when the first hint of light could be seen. He tried flexing his knee, and found it was already a little better than the night before. At least he should be able to walk on it, and once they were in full daylight he could take a look at it. He still had an undefined feeling of unease, but now that they were away from the darkness of the mines, his spirits were starting to lift again.
It wasn't long before Halbarad woke up as well, and they quickly made their way along the corridor and down the first hall, where they had to pause until their eyes had adjusted to daylight again. Aragorn made use of the wait to take a look at his knee; he had torn his trouser leg in the fall, and he could see there was a cut just below the knee, which itself was covered in black and blue bruises.
"How's the knee?" Halbarad asked.
"Still a bit sore, but nothing that won't mend," Aragorn replied. "Shall we head out? I've seen enough of Moria to last me a lifetime."
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