1. Friendship of Their Kind - by Dwimordene
"2570 … About this time Dragons reappear in the far North and begin to afflict the Dwarves." — "Appendix B," RoTK, 421.
Televor glanced back over his shoulder at his companion, whose furrowed brow and squint betrayed the grimace his scarf otherwise covered. Belendir clapped a gloved hand over his mouth and nose, blinking furiously, as the wind brought with it the oppressive smell of dragon. Not that Televor was any more happy than his friend—or, alas, any less affected, which, currently, he would have settled for in place of happiness. The stench was enough to kill a troll, he thought, as he reached back and gave the other a hand up the rocky way. He had always heard that dragon-scent was unpleasant, but rumor fell short of reality.
Up ahead, the third member of their party paused.
"Come on," Halandur said, his voice distorted, muffled on the one hand by his own thick-wrapped scarf, and on the other by the fact that he was trying hard not to breathe through his nose and consequently sounded like a plague victim. "And keep quiet," he added. "We do not know what awaits."
Televor nodded. Belendir muttered something unintelligible, but obeyed, and the two of them hurried after their companion in silence, heading towards the cave mouth.
Far below them, the High Pass wound through the grey slopes of the Misty Mountains, a dusty ribbon clearly visible from their current vantage point. A perfect perch to spy out the land and any travelers upon the road—their quarry had chosen her nest well.
Now if only that nest is empty, Televor prayed fervently, holding his breath, and not only with anticipation. Filthy creature! If only they dared move upwind, it might have been more bearable, but only a fool would dare to approach a dragon's lair so. Even when the dragon in question was now a broken, arrow-spitted carcass on the slopes below, there was still the chance that there might be others waiting. A nest of ravenous fledglings might go for some time without being discovered—a year, even, until the young dragons' wings strengthened enough for them to leave the nest. Unfortunately, weak-winged or no, dragons were never less than dangerous.
And they reek! Televor thought, gagging a bit, if quietly. And he cursed again the clumsiness that had earned the three of them this duty. Not that Halandur had had anything to do with it. He had simply had the misfortune to be assigned two yearling Rangers who had managed to give away their position to their quarry by slipping accidentally into a kill-hole—a wallow the dragon had created and then filled with soft debris and covered with a coating of dust to disguise it. Someone who knew what to look for should have seen it, but too intent upon watching the heights, they had stumbled right into it, much to Halandur's horror and chagrin.
That mistake had very nearly cost them their lives, and worse, had very nearly killed their fellows, too, who, not yet in place, had had to break cover to take their shots at the swift-descending dragon. Aragost had been livid, and the more so when a closer look at the corpse had revealed the dragon to be a young female. It had surprised no one, therefore, that their little squad had been assigned the duty to clear the nest of whatever might remain.
By now, the three hunters had reached a shelf just below the mouth of the cavern. There they paused, literally under the nose of any waiting dragons, and Halandur and Belendir quietly took down their bows, swiftly stringing them, while Televor readied a torch and tried to ignore the chill dread that gripped him. 'Tis no worse than orcs, he told himself, and wished he were better at self-deception.
Belendir had his arrow loosely nocked, and Halandur gestured for him and for Televor to wait a moment, then touched his chest and gestured towards another rocky protrusion some ten yards distant: Wait here while I take my place. The two younger men nodded their understanding and settled in to watch as Halandur slipped away, climbing carefully across the gap.
"Think he plans to kill us after this?" Belendir murmured into Televor's ear.
"Probably," Televor replied, then laid a hand on the other's knee to quiet him. For of a certainty, Halandur would kill them if they gave away their position again: not even death-by-dragon would 'save' them. There could be no mistakes this time.
As soon as Halandur reached the ledge he signaled them onward. Slowly, and as silently as they could manage, they began the final ascent, being careful to pick their trail so that Belendir had, as often as possible, support enough to pause and shoot if necessary.
At length, they reached the cave mouth, Televor and Belendir on one side, Halandur on the other. The archers nocked their arrows, and Halandur gave a jerk of his head towards the cave: Go! Wishing he could draw a steadying breath without choking on the pungent air, Televor drew a match forth and struck it, lighting the brand. Then, before he could stop himself, he stepped from cover and over the threshold.
Shadows sprang up as he entered, wavering in the torchlight, and Televor could feel his heart pounding. They had thrown for this duty before ever they began the ascent, he and Belendir. Halandur was simply too good a shot to waste upon the point, and while Televor and Belendir were evenly matched as archers, Belendir had the edge with a dagger.
Thus Televor would go first with the torch, which was another way of saying that should there be dragons, he would undoubtedly be the first target. He would have to trust Belendir and Halandur to hit whatever might come streaking out of the shadows before it reached him, for the chances of him defeating a dragon at sword-point, even a fledgling, were slim.
Televor advanced, feeling his flesh crawl, anticipating at any moment a dragon's rending claws or teeth or flaming breath. Here and there, scattered bones lay alongside bits of harness or shredded scraps of cloth, and there were ominous dark stains upon the ground. Something gleamed bright against them, like grains of sand in the sun, and when Televor knelt warily to take a closer look, he discovered hundreds upon hundreds of metal rings—the bloodied remains of a mail coat that had been rent apart. And a little ways away...
O Valar! Televor froze. Bile rose in his throat, and he quickly put a hand over his mouth, swallowing hard. For a little ways ahead lay several bloated, twisted forms—bodies of hapless travelers brought here to rot...
"Televor," Halandur's soft voice reached him through his horror, startling him badly after so long a silence. "Look."
Confused, Televor looked up, and realized that the light had found other mirrors—larger mirrors, or more of them. At the edge of the circle of light, he could make out a faintly glowing mound. A mound that, after a few moments of staring, resolved itself into a collection of shields, ewers, coins, armor, swords, and jewelry, all of which were ranged about a shallow depression in the cave's floor.
This is the nest! he realized. And as he stared at it, he realized something else, too: "There are eggs!"
"Any shards?" Halandur demanded tautly.
"No," Televor replied after a quick look about. "No shards. Just the eggs. And... some bodies." Belendir uttered something prayerful, even as Halandur joined him, then, though with bow still bent and ready. The older man eyed the nest and then the dead arranged in a loose circle about it.
"They must be near to hatching. A wyrm will keep some of her kill aside for her hatchlings when 'tis nearly time—to soften it for them. Torch," he ordered tersely, and Televor made haste to hand it over, accepting Halandur's bow and arrow in its stead. As he did so, the older Ranger, however, caught his wrist, and gave Televor a level stare. Televor realized then that his hand was shaking. "No stray arrows, lad," Halandur warned.
"No, sir," Televor replied quickly, and the other released him, turning back to the nest. Drawing his sword, he advanced on the darkness beyond it. Televor, meanwhile, fell back a few paces, and glanced over at Belendir, whose face showed pale in the dim light. Together they waited, bows braced and arrows nocked, senses straining for the least sign of a dragon's slithering, while Halandur followed the cave wall about until at length it became clear that there was nothing further to see: no tunnels, no alcoves, no dragons lying in wait. With twin sighs of relief, Belendir and Televor lowered their arms.
With a grunt, Halandur stepped over a small chest of gold and into the nest, and with a few quick thrusts of his sword, broke the eggs open, stabbing at the scaly little forms that slid from the wreckage. Despite himself, Televor flinched a bit.
"Take what you can from this place," Halandur said then, wiping his blade upon his cloak. "Anything that might be recognized, anything that seems useful. Some of it may be restored, the rest goes to our upkeep."
"What about them?" Belendir asked, indicating the bodies.
"I will deal with them. Just do as I say. And lads," he added, as Belendir and Televor moved to obey, "watch your step this time!"
Perhaps half an hour later, having signaled the rest of their party to join them, and moved what could be salvaged from the lair, Televor and Belendir joined Halandur once more within the noisome cave. The older Ranger had managed to drag the bodies so that they lay together, though the gory, glistening trail upon the floor, and the state of Halandur's hands and the tunic he had used to drag some of them to their final resting place said much of how difficult that task had been.
"Have you found aught?" Televor asked, a little hesitantly, and gestured to the bodies.
"A few tokens. Men of Dale, in the main, or adventurers from Northmen who wander still and did not follow Eorl," Halandur replied, as he emptied a flask of resin over the remains. Somewhat to the surprise of the younger men, he splashed some of it over the nest, too.
"Why not just leave those?" Belendir asked, frowning.
"Because we do not have to," came the quick, quite sharp, reply. Startled by this, Belendir fell silent, though he gave Televor a quick, puzzled look. Halandur ignored them both, murmuring benedictions softly under his breath ere he lowered the brand, holding it steady 'til the resin caught. He passed slowly from one man to the next, 'til at length there remained only the nest.
And there he paused a moment, staring at the work of the day. "They would have terrorized the passes as even orcs cannot, and the lands beneath the mountains would have lived in fear of their coming. But though they would have ravaged the country, and would have slain our folk and us, they are not beasts only, and these were as all youth are—clean. 'Twas their ill luck and our good fortune that this was no fair fight."
He shook his head. "You listen to me, lads: whenever time is given you for the duty, you tend to your dead—friend and foe, and grudge it to neither. You owe it to your fellows; but to your enemies, you owe thanks, for going ahead of you. And because you are Rangers, not brigands and not beasts, and this is often that little distance that makes the difference. Do you hear me?"
"Good. Then say your farewells." So saying, he tossed the brand into the midst. A few moments more he waited, then turned once more and beckoned a very subdued Televor and Belendir to follow him out.
In time, Aragost and the rest of the company arrived to find them sitting upon the ledge, the salvaged goods stacked neatly nearby. They rose swiftly to their feet as the Chieftain approached, eyeing Televor and then Belendir, then looked to Halandur.
"So?" he asked.
"'Tis done," Halandur assured him.
"Then let us move these things down the mountain while there is still light. We shall make for Thranduil's realm—his people ought to be able to pass them back to Dale with less suspicion than we could," Aragost replied.
"Aye, my lord," Halandur answered, as the three of them moved to help the others. But:
"A moment," Aragost said, halting them.
"How went it here? Any trouble?" he asked, once more eyeing the two young Rangers, who bore up to this as best they could.
"No, sir. Kept their heads the while. No mishaps."
"Aye, Captain. Think they might have learned something," Halandur replied. And although his expression never changed, nor his voice, something seemed to pass between him and Aragost. For Aragost, after a moment, nodded slowly, and it was a measuring regard he turned upon them this time. Televor felt the weight of that gaze, but 'twas not opprobrium that gave it gravity. He felt his spine stiffen reflexively.
Aragost grunted softly, but then waved them onward. "Good. Then let us go, lads, while fortune favors us, and leave our dragons to lie sleeping at last!"
1. Title: "'Grievous is the fall of your men; but you shall see that at least the wolves of the mountains do not devour them. It is with their friends, the Orcs, that they hold their feast: such indeed is the friendship of their kind.'"—"The Road to Isengard," TTT, 199.
2. On Dale: Unfinished Tales gives reason to think Dale had been settled well before Rohan even existed, back in the days of Narmacil II. See "Cirion and Eorl," 302.
3. On dragons in the North: As the citation at the top says, dragons were on the move just after the settling of Rohan by the Éothéod. This would have been during the last two decades of Aragost's Chieftainship. I am assuming the "far North" could have included parts of northern Eriador, and that others besides the Dwarves would have been concerned about this.
4. Also, I think I'm probably drawing more from the animated version of "The Hobbit" for dragon scent than the book, which I think has only one reference to halls filled with reek ("On the Doorstep," 189), and that seems to mean smoke and vapors. Oh well. I needed it for the "very" part of "very dirty dragon."
Edit: erunyauve pointed out that "Of Túrin Turambar" contains a passage that supports the notion that standing downwind of dragons is decidedly unpleasant: "But ere the middle-night the dragon roused, and with a great noise and blast cast his forward part across the chasm, and began to draw his bulk after. Turambar and Hunthor were well-nigh overcome by the heat and the stench..." (Silmarillion, 273). Thanks, erunyauve!
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