“If Framleiðandi has held this wine cellar all this time, it is a hard-point that we can use too.” Fjiar used his tunnel-fighter grandfather’s term. “We can rest up and then see about fighting our way in to win that gold.”
But too many considerations ruled against that approach. Ecthelon repeated that the purpose of the company’s coming here was to rescue Framleiðandi, Aerin told Fjiar that he wouldn’t be fighting on that knee for at least a week, and the word came back from the winding tunnel that Tóki’s best efforts on the door would hold back the mewlips for only a short space after Yngwi and Marion ceased to brace it shut.
Fjiar smoothly revised his position. “Then let’s think of our gold as being in safe hands here as long as the mewlips keep it against anyone else. Dwarves know the value of patience. We can come back better prepared another time.”
They made haste to leave before the mewlips might take unknown ways out of their ossuary treasure-chamber and blockade the rescuers inside the sunken ruin. In the mewlips’ tunnel, Yngwi exhibited an unwonted burst of mine-worker’s labour to heap a great mass of rubble against the wedged door, whilst Fjiar prepared a stack of barrel-staves in the tunnel ready to be fired.
Aerin and Ecthelon returned to the open air where mercifully no mewlip yet prowled, and the woodman was joyfully reunited with his faithful wolfhound, Shep. They brought back Fjiar’s helm and hauberk and the poles upon which he and Yngwi had cumbrously borne the precious ale-cask through the marshes. These formed the basis of a makeshift stretcher upon which the group could bear the unconscious Framleiðandi out of the ruin.
When all was ready, Yngwi and Marion abandoned their hold of the mewlips’ door, hurrying back past where Fjiar set his fire. The evacuation proceeded entirely as planned, unmolested by mewlips and with no challenges beyond having to painstakingly dwarfhandle Framleiðandi’s stretcher eight feet up the crumbled wall to pass it out of the ruined watch tower.
And Back Again
Clear of the ruins and the dark pool before them, Yngwi led the way to a defensible rise in the ground where they allowed themselves a short space in which to recover from their hardships underground. Aerin the woodman ministered to their hurts, expertly binding Fjiar’s wounded knee so that the unavoidable travel would cause him as little further harm as possible. Framleiðandi remained unconscious, but after Aerin spent a time patiently dripping water from a cloth onto his lips he satisfied himself that the old dwarf’s condition was stable and that he should recover with time and care. The woodman agreed to join the others in order to tend to the old dwarf on their journey back to the Lonely Mountain.
Fjiar hauled himself to his feet and made one last review of the lie of the land so that they would be able to find this place again in future. “Right. Now we hard-march out of here,” he declared.
Ecthelon agreed. “The best defence against pursuing mewlips will be to get as far from this place as possible before nightfall.”
“And that means getting back to Framleiðandi’s boat,” added Yngwi. “Follow me!” He had taken the precaution of carving his rune into tree-trunks and mudbanks all along their way here, and now led the others directly back to where they had left the small boat.
With Framleiðandi and Fjiar transferred to the boat they made excellent time. They struck camp, kicking out the smoking fire and shouldering what gear they had left there, and lost no time in retracing the route along which Galion the elf had led them. Before the day ended all was full dark beneath the trees but Ecthelon unerringly led them back to their large skiff, still untouched where they had beached it. Poling by torchlight out into the current finally satisfied the woods-wise Aerin that they left no trail any natural creature could follow.
They made cold camp on a misty islet and set double watches to see out the night, remaining unassailed by any pursuit from the sunken ruins. But the steeped dread of that place they carried within themselves. In the middle of the night a wordless cry of anguish broke from Fjiar’s throat, waking the camp. Fjiar subsided into surly silence, refusing to speak of it, but in a cold sweat Yngwi spoke up. “I was dreaming too when Fjiar’s cry woke me: a dark dream. I was back in that cellar, victorious, running the gold through my hand. And then the drowned things came out of the darkness, but the most horrible thing was that one of them was—” He mutely shook his head, unable to speak the words.
“I reached out and she grabbed my hand, but only to drag me of a sudden down into black water. The weight of the gold pulled me down and corpse after living corpse piled on top of me, all their hands grabbing me and holding me under, and… Even back in the waking world, the horror of it is still on me.”
Recognition and alarm showed in Fjiar’s eyes, but he merely clutched his blanket closer about him, turned onto his other side, and closed out any further discussion.
Dawn woke greyly through the misty marshes, bringing the company only the bleak satisfaction of having seen out the night. They ate a dispirited breakfast and in unspoken assent took to the skiff as quickly as they might, the sooner to depart that haunted place.
For two days they rowed their way back north through the sluggish waters of the Long Marshes. The stiffening of the current made for harder going, but their spirits rose nonetheless the more progress they made.
Framleiðandi regained consciousness at the start of the second day, but his ordeal had left him dangerously weak. His relief to be away from the sunken ruins and his joy at seeing Tóki were short lived, as he clutched at the younger toymaker’s sleeve in wide-eyed alarm. “You should not have come!” was his first concerned gasp. “It is a curse…” But Aerin was a stern carer and insisted that Framleiðandi rest and speak no further.
They took the portage at the Stair of Girion, quietly proud before the eyes of the young Lakemen, but unwilling to add this venture to the tales of heroism they had spun on the outward leg of the journey. They had no wish for word of their gold to spread, and Framleiðandi whispered that they should speak no word about the mewlips. Ecthelon sought out Old Nerulf, toasting his good health and thanking him again for his warning about the gallows-weed. He related the truth upon which the old rhyme was founded, and urged the old man that his people must keep alive all their lore even in days when it might seem to have lost its meaning.
Another day’s rowing up the Long Lake saw them to baths, board and soft beds in a comfortable inn in Esgaroth, and one more day saw them pull into Dale-town.
Framleiðandi, though still weak, was fit to hear the dark news that a sorcerer had been abroad in the town, in the company of the Ironfist dwarf twins and their following of mercenaries. He steeled himself to make a visit with Tóki to the Docks Bow drinking-hall to view the cellar, but even this overtaxed him, and he retired for some days to his sick-bed. He summoned Thorfinn to a private meeting at his bedside, questioning the young dwarf-lord at length and giving him certain instructions which must needs remain secret for the time being.
The Curse of the Mewlips
The Master Toymaker showed his gratitude to his rescuers with a substantial purse of gold for each of them. Aerin and Marion were given the pick of the toyshop’s stock of wondrous and magical toys for their relatives’ children.
In the morning Tóki fashioned Fjiar a new axe-haft for the wondrous Falcon-axe, using the ancient blackened bog-oak that had proven itself strong to endure even as a club in the hands of a troll. And then he took Aerin in hand and showed the incredulous woodman all the sights of Dale-town, as well as many of the tastes, and several other senses besides.
Fjiar for his part requested that Framleiðandi take a commission to make him a mechanical lantern that would burn even under water, and perhaps to fashion Yngwi a leather harness covered all over with cork floats. “Don’t you make the mistake I made!” snapped the astute old dwarf, seeing exactly what Fjiar had in mind.
“Yes, why did you ‘go to find the mewlips’? And why did you bid us not to speak of them to anyone on the journey back?” asked Yngwi.
Despite his humbling experience, Framleiðandi still cleaved to his pride and was reluctant to say any more on the matter. He would explain only that the very knowledge of the Shadow was a dangerous thing in itself, kept secret by the Wardens of Middle earth like himself so that others might live their lives unwitting of it, innocent and therefore virtuous. But Yngwi sensed that this convenient explanation masked a deeper reason for the toymaker’s reticence. Over the next couple of days Yngwi, Fjiar and Ecthelon continued to badger him on the subject. At length Framleiðandi owned that the harm was already done; Ecthelon had already brought the rhyme back to the fore of his mind, and all the company had set eyes upon the mewlips’ gold. So he took the company into his ‘warden’s’ confidence.
“What I said before about lore of the Shadow was nothing less than the truth,” he insisted. He had first heard the rhyme as a young dwarf in the Iron Hills during the time of Smaug, when a traveller from the Blue Mountains recited it to him, saying it had been handed down through long years by a strange, small-statured folk who dwelt in western Eriador.
“Hobbits!” exclaimed Tóki, thinking of Bilbo Baggins and Sally Boffin.
“Quite so. But over the years the rhyme did not fade into forgetting. The memory of every word endured as though I had learned it with a minstrel’s gift. Often it would rise unbidden to the forefront of my thoughts. Over long years, even after I had come to realize that there was something unwholesome in this uncanny recall, it nagged at me with increasing force. ‘You go to find the mewlips, and the mewlips feed…’” Framleiðandi blenched, and tailed off.
Ecthelon the elf spoke then. “My people call such things ‘Rhymes of Lore’, important knowledge cast into verse form in a cunning fashion known by certain minstrels, called the lambë-ñgolmor, that ensures it is not forgotten. I had thought this verse a once-needful warning that had long since lost its import, as the mewlips were surely no more. It seems impossible that these creatures could have persisted in Mirkwood all this time unknown to the wood-elves.”
“It is the Shadow,” intoned Framleiðandi. “Evils that lie dormant but undying through long years can wake again if the Shadow becomes strong…
“But if this were such a ‘Rhyme of Lore’ it was a twisted one, a curse. The older I grew the more it nagged at me, till after I had had it in my mind for nigh on two hundred years – longer, I’ll venture, than any hobbit’s lifespan – I myself had to learn the truth of it, and went to find the mewlips. I told myself it was the duty of a Warden of Middle-earth to look into such evils, that other folk might be protected from them. But in truth I see now that I myself was the curse’s prey.
“There was such evil there in those ruins. The mewlips themselves are no longer natural creatures. And the tolling of the marsh bell held a sorcerous power.”
Several of his audience nodded, uncomfortable at the memory of the sickening compulsion the sound of the bell had caused in them. Ecthelon would not meet anyone’s eye, still deeply unsettled to have fallen victim himself to its dark spell.
“Aye, it’s not a thing I’ll ever forget,” added Aerin, reaching down to scratch Shep behind the ears in gratitude. “But the damned things may go hungry from now on, or hopefully fade away altogether!” From his scrip pouch he produced the marsh bell’s black iron clapper.
Framleiðandi was delighted with this revelation. But he urged Aerin not to be tempted to keep the thing as any sort of trophy. Though he could not know certainly whether the power resided in the clapper or in the iron of the bell itself, he encouraged Aerin to bury the thing somewhere that it would never be found again. “But for all that,” he added, “I fear that the mewlips’ unnatural existence is due to some ancient curse of the Darkness.”