17. Chapter 17
Not far was a relative concept, I discovered, as Wuffa led us further and further into the belly of the mountain. No sound penetrated this deep into the rock. The scrape of our boots on stone, the soft hissing of the flame of my lamp, a murmured word of warning every now and again seemed unnaturally loud in the silence. At least we followed a definite path and there were even stone steps every now and again, so it would be easy to find the way back. Perhaps the passage led to caves that had fallen into disuse? Although Aeffe and Leofe, when questioned, could not recall ever hearing of such.
Just as I was about to call a halt and turn back, Wuffa, in the lead, gave an exclamation. "I recognize this. We're almost there!"
We crowded round him, to find that the path ended against a sheer rock face, but in the ground at our feet gaped a square opening, clearly manmade. I slid my bag from my shoulder and knelt down next to it. When I lifted the lamp, I could make out the outline of steps leading down. Next to the opening lay a big stone slab, looking like a part of an enormous trapdoor.
"Come on," Wuffa said, and started down the steps.
I held him back. "Wait! I do not like the look of this."
Clearly the stone was meant to block the opening, although it would take several strong men to move it into place. Thinking hard, I slid my fingers along the smooth wood of my bow. Why close off this passage? To hide something away? Or keep something out?
"Where does this lead?" I asked Wuffa.
"It goes down quite a bit and then opens out onto a large cave. That's where the accident happened." He gave me a puppy look. "It's not far now."
Not far! Whatever had possessed these boys to leave the safety of the caves and go exploring so deep into the darkness? My brothers had done a few stupid things when they were younger - Amrothos running away with the ambition to become a corsair sprang to mind - but they'd usually had their reasons. However convoluted.
I fixed Wuffa with a stern eye. "What were you doing down there anyway?"
The boy shifted from one leg to the other. "Just exploring..."
He lowered his head. "We were looking for treasure," he muttered. "Helm's treasure."
"That old tale!" Aeffe exclaimed behind me. When I looked at her questioningly, she explained. "Some people hold that Helm Hammerhand hid part of the king's treasure in these caves during the Long Winter and that it's still around somewhere. But we know that his sister-son, Fréaláf King, moved it all back to Edoras."
Wuffa jutted his chin out stubbornly. "Then why have a trapdoor like this in the middle of the mountain?" he asked, echoing my thoughts. "It has to be hiding something."
Aeffe bent down and brushed the dust away from the slab. "Actually it looks a lot like the stones blocking the secret exits at the back of the caverns."
Secret exits! That was news to me. None of the plans I had studied had shown any other way in apart from the main doors.
"What secret exits?" I asked. "You never mentioned them before."
She shrugged. "Nobody but the family is supposed to know their location. Anyway, Father had both of them blocked up, because he was afraid the enemy might use them to gain entrance to the caves. But with orcs crawling all over the mountainside they would be useless now anyway."
We exchanged an uneasy glance. My first impulse was to turn back and tell Éomer about our find as quickly as possible. Surely he would know what to do. Then I saw Wuffa's stricken face. What if this meant that help for his brother came too late? I stared down at the steps, which disappeared into the darkness. As if somebody had told me as much, I knew that nothing good awaited us. But I could not possibly leave a child to face what horrors lurked down there on his own.
I rose to my feet and turned to the twins. "You two hurry back and alert Marshal Éomer."
Fortunately I had picked up the torch the boys had used in their ill-fated exploration. I lit it from the lamp and handed Wuffa my bag of belongings.
"Carry this for me. We will go on."
"I want to come too!" Aeffe protested.
I hesitated. It would be good to have another adult along. "Can you find the way back on your own?" I asked Leofe as I gave her the lamp.
She nodded bravely. "Yes."
We watched her go, the light of her lamp dwindling swiftly, before we headed down the flight of steps. Wuffa walked in the lead, Aeffe behind him carrying the torch, while I brought up the rear, my bow ready in my hands. It might not be much use as a weapon in a cave, but holding it felt good nevertheless.
The stairs led down steeply into the bowels of the earth and when after a while I reached out a hand, the wall felt slick with moisture. As we descended, the ceiling got lower and lower, until I had to walk bent over. Being underground had never bothered me before, but all of a sudden the weight of the mountain above us seemed to bear down on me. I had to take a deep breath to stave off insipient panic.
Luckily we emerged into the cavern just then. The narrow passage opened up abruptly and when Aeffe lifted the torch we saw the ceiling arching high above us. Everywhere delicate columns of limestone rose from the floor, glittering mysteriously in the dim light, as if they were covered in diamonds. As we advanced, I saw that against the far wall of the cave lay a lake like a perfect mirror, stretching away into the darkness, and I exhaled my breath in wonder at the fantastic shapes reflected in it. A drop of water fell from the ceiling and the reflections wavered and broke, only to reform slowly.
"This way," Wuffa called, running ahead. "Wulf! I'm back."
A scrabbling noise and a faint whine were the only answer. Then we rounded a couple of big boulders and with a sob the boy threw himself on a shaggy grey bundle lying on the floor.
I stared down in disbelief at soulful, brown eyes regarding me steadily. Then a tongue flicked out to lick the boy's face and a tail wagged tentatively. Behind me Aeffe swore softly. What fools we'd been!
Wuffa hugged the dog around the neck. "I've brought help," he told him, "just as I promised." He looked up at us, his tear-streaked face shining with confidence.
I sank down onto the ground and regarded the pair sourly. A dog! And what a sorry specimen as well. We had come all this way for a scruffy, mangy, flea-bitten mongrel?
The hope slowly drained out of Wuffa's face. "You will help, won't you?"
With a sigh I smothered my irritation. "Yes, of course." I had only myself to blame after all. If I hadn't been so tired I would probably have realized long ago that his friend walked on four legs, not two. But we had to hurry! The place might look like a treasure cave, but the sooner we were out of here, the better.
A small hole gaped in the wall, half filled with rubble, and the pair had obviously been in the process of clearing it, when one of the stones had rolled down on top of them. The poor beast had one of his hind legs trapped underneath the big rock, so the first task would be to free him. While Wuffa held the torch, Aeffe and I hastily cleared away the smaller stones lying around. Then we grabbed the rock by the edges, and with our combined strength we managed to lift it the few inches needed for Wuffa to pull his dog out. Poor Wulf yelped with pain and twisted round to lick his wound.
Wary of his big teeth, I knelt down to inspect the damage, but the dog seemed to understand that I wanted to help and even gave me a wag of his tail. The fur on the leg was matted with blood, yet a quick check showed the bone to be whole. I got out one of my bandages, and while Wuffa stroked the dog's muzzle, talking to him in a low voice, I wrapped it around his leg.
"Do you think you can get him to walk now?" I asked Wuffa.
For one thing was certain: we had to get out of here as quickly as possible. I still did not like that stone trapdoor one single bit. Wuffa nodded and cajoled the dog to his feet. He was a big, shaggy beast, probably used as a sheep dog, but looked undernourished and ill-kempt as he limped along at the boy's side. Our progress across the cavern floor was agonizingly slow and I did not even want to think about how we were going to get him up those stairs.
Suddenly he stopped and his head went up. A quiver ran along his body and his hackles rose as he pulled back his lips in a silent snarl.
A tremor of alarm shot through me. "What is it?"
Wuffa frowned. "I don't know. He must have heard something."
We strained our ears, listening into the darkness. The clear plink of a drop of water falling from the ceiling. Our soft breathing. Wulf started to growl, the sound vibrating deep in his chest. Then I heard it, too: a faint metallic noise from up ahead, like shod boots scraping against stone.
Could it be Éomer and his men? But I did not think enough time had passed for Leofe to fetch him. And surely Wulf would react differently. This was bad.
"We have to hide!" I hissed.
The other two looked at me uncertainly. I snatched the torch from Wuffa and swung it round, frantically searching for cover. Shadows leapt away. Another scraping noise, louder this time. They were coming! There! One of the limestone columns widened out at the bottom, almost as if it had a curtain draped artfully around it. I grabbed Wuffa by the arm.
"Behind there! Quickly!"
The boy scuttled over obediently, dragging his dog with him, Aeffe just behind him. But I hesitated. What should I do with the torch? Its light would surely betray us, yet how could we find our way back without it? The crack of metal on stone. And was that somebody cursing? So near! I looked around in desperation. The lake! As hard as I could, I threw the torch in that direction. It sailed in a slow arch across the black waters and disappeared with a hiss.
Darkness descended. A darkness so complete as I had never experienced before. No glimmer of light, nothing. I choked down a sob of terror as the mountain seemed to bear down on me again, crushing me. What if we never got out of here? Blindly I crawled across the cavern floor to where I thought the others had to be. Then a raspy tongue licked across my hand. Wulf! I hugged him so tightly that he gave a small yelp of surprise.
"Hush!" I whispered.
Loud trampling sounded and suddenly a light blossomed at the other end of the cave. Wulf surged to his feet, but we held him back. By the mercy of the Valar he seemed to understand that he had to keep quiet, even though he shook with rage.
"Well, it looks like you found the right way after all," a deep voice said. "I won't have to kill you lot of maggots yet."
Harsh laughter. More lights appeared and the cave rang with loud stomping and trampling. How many of them were there? And what if they found us! We clung to each other.
"Is it much further from here?" the voice asked. To my surprise it spoke Westron in the manner of the people of Gondor.
"Not far," another voice answered. A rustling noise. "There should be a staircase over in that corner leading to the upper levels." More rustling. "Then it's only a short passage to the first of the main caves."
"Let me have a look at the map," the first voice commanded.
A map! They had a map? I bit my lip. How could that be? With utmost care I crawled to the edge of the limestone curtain sheltering us. In one place it was so thin that it became translucent, marbled with delicate rose streaks like an alabaster lamp, and there were a few small holes in the stone. Cautiously I peeked through one of them.
Sweet Elbereth! I recoiled. Dozens of orcs milled about the other end of the cave. Huge creatures wearing black mail shirts and armed with axes and deadly looking spiked clubs. This was what our men had to face in battle? Trembling inwardly, I took another cautious peek. Some of them had taken off their helmets and joked with each other, displaying yellow fangs. Their red eyes glowed with an evil fire in their dark, leathery faces. And the largest one of them, his head crowned by a horned helmet, held a sheet of vellum in his claws.
"That is where all the women and children will be," he chuckled, tapping a nail on the parchment. "And the rest of the loot. Plunder and women, what more would you want?" As the others joined his laughter, bile rose in my throat.
Somebody stepped from the shadows. A man, I realized, but not one of the Rohirrim. He wore nothing but leather trousers, buckled at the waist with a broad belt embossed with metal studs. At his back hung an animal pelt, the paws crossed at his throat. When he stepped up to the orc leader I saw that he had smeared his face with soot, giving him a fearsome appearance.
"We want our fair share," he said in broken Westron. "This is our land. Kill thieves."
"Are you afraid there isn't enough booty to go round, Moragh?" the orc laughed. "Don't worry. The horse lovers have stored all their goods in these caves. Didn't Saruman promise your chieftain a reward? Fight for the White Hand and you will get exactly what you deserve."
One of the Dunlendings then. I had heard of their continuing hate of the Rohirrim, who had been given the lands of Rohan for their help against the enemies of Gondor and displaced them. Did he really think Saruman would treat them any better?
The man spat on the floor. "Kill all Strawheads. And we want horses."
"Do as you're told and you will get your pick of the spoils," the orc replied. "Do you remember your part of the plan?" He tapped the parchment again. "You and your men will enter the caves first and make your way towards the back. Kill as many Strawheads as you want."
Moragh looked at him with narrowed eyes. "And why should you command?"
"Because I've been chosen and trained for this by Lord Saruman himself. I am Gubrak. I am Uruk-hai!"
The man sneered. "So what will you do?"
"Once the horse-boys hear of your coming, they will rush towards the back. Leaving the way free for us to capture the entrance to the caverns and let the others in."
I had to stuff a knuckle in my mouth and bite down hard to keep from exclaiming in horror. To kill women and children in order to lure the men away from their posts! And it would work as well, for the riders were fiercely protective of their people. Éomer! Surely he had to arrive at any moment now. Would he get here in time? My hands shook as I watched the orcs and Dunlendings grab a quick bite to eat while they readied their weapons. Éomer and his men would come down those stairs one at a time. Easy targets.
Crawling back to Aeffe and Wuffa, I thought hard. Was there a way to distract them, to lure them away from the staircase somehow? But how - make a noise at the back of the cave? Only they would surely find us while looking for the cause of the commotion and then... My mind shied away from the knowledge of what they would do to us. Ironically enough, if we kept quiet we would be quite safe, while the women up in the caverns knew nothing of their peril.
The other two looked at me with scared faces. "What shall we do?" Aeffe whispered.
"I don't know!" I whispered back. Why did they expect me to come up with a plan!
That moment uncouth laughter wafted over.
"I can smell the women already," one of the orcs said, his voice carrying clearly.
"They stink of terror," their leader said. "A heady scent."
"Hey, Gubrak," another called, "leave some for us. We want to play as well!" More laughter.
"Don't worry," the leader retorted. "There is enough young and tender womanflesh up in those caves to satisfy all our appetites. And we'll have the time to do it properly, hone our skills until they beg for release. Fight well for me, and I'll let you pick the choicest morsels for your games."
A flare of anger sparked within me. What kind of creature took enjoyment from torturing others? I thought of the mothers up there with their few kitchen knives, guarding the sleep of their children. Pitiful weapons - they would stand no chance against fully armed Uruks. Filth! They had no right to invade our lands, burning and killing as they went. I bunched my hands into fists. If only I were a warrior like my brothers and could fight them!
I remembered my bow. I might manage to kill a couple of them, only what good would that accomplish? There had to be a way to entice these monsters away from the booty awaiting them up in the caverns. My eyes fell on Wuffa and I glared at him. If only he had not gone exploring for his stupid treasure! Treasure...of course...an idea started to form in my mind. I grabbed my bag and rummaged through it, trying not to make any noise. There was the small leather purse filled with gold coins that Dirhael had given me before leaving for Gondor. Not a treasure as such, but a possible distraction. It only had to hold their interest for a little while, might even make them hare off in a completely different direction.
But somebody had to provide the information. I closed my eyes, desperately searching for another plan - one that did not involve me having to face a pack of orcs. There wasn't one.
Opening my eyes again, I looked straight at Aeffe. "You stay hidden here. No matter what happens."
Not waiting for an answer, I grabbed the bag of coins in one hand, my bow and a single arrow in the other. Then I crept away towards the back of the cave, retracing our steps. Trying to ignore the part of my mind that gibbered with panic. I was a daughter of Dol Amroth and would not surrender to fear, I told myself, still warmed by anger. If I could not stop them by might of arms, I would use my wits instead.
The light of the torches made the limestone columns sparkle and glitter in a rainbow of colours. Shaped like fairy castles and underwater forests, the fantastic shapes almost made me believe that I walked in a dream. If only I could wake up safe and sound in my room in Edoras!
Too soon I reached the place where we had found Wulf. Not giving myself a chance to change my mind, I picked up a handful of stones and threw them high in the air. They landed on the cavern floor with a loud rattling noise.
The reaction came at once. "What was that?" one of the orcs called out.
Taking a step forward, I emptied out my bag of coins. The unmistakable clink of metal on stone filled the sudden silence.
"That way!" a harsh voice shouted. "It came from over there."
Heavy steps, quickly getting nearer. I pressed my back against one of the columns and fitted the arrow to the string of my bow.
The filth were coming. Let them.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.