MONDAY, THE THIRD DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946
In the Lonely Mountain the Company had learnt little that they did not already know. Thorfin and his followers – Bofur, Toledur and Garthar, the acting captain of Thorfin’s guard whilst Fjiar was away – had been unable to persuade Arnia’s mother to let them ask the girl about the events of that night. Nor had they learned anything at all about Dwîm and Dwîma’s movements. They had spent several days cajoling the town watch along in conducting a search of the inns, hostels and bunk-halls of Dale, until the watch had concluded that that the dwarves and their masked cohort had somehow managed to leave town unnoticed.
As for the sorcerers’ motives, Ecthelon and Marion were now privy to what their dwarven companions knew. Dwîm and Dwîma’s “master” had designs upon Thorfin, upon the hoard of the Dathrins, or upon some specific ‘treasure’ that they believed to lie within it.
“But, I’m forced to admit, nor are we much the wiser,” commented Ecthelon. Marion grunted something about the whole Mountain being a dead end.
“That prisoner we questioned, Fhêk,” said Yngwi, “told us that all he and the other Ironfist dwarves knew was that Dwîm and Dwîma had sworn them to acquire some ‘thing’ for that man, which was going to make them all rich.”
“Well let us hope that master Thorfin can discover what it is, now that he knows how unrelenting these dwarves are in seeking to take it from him.”
Tóki spoke up then. “If they’re so dead set on it, then even if they abandoned that ritual once, when Framleiðandi’s duck led Hush, Sally and me to the Docks Bow, they won’t have stopped trying. They may have taken other children. We have to get back to Dale-town and find out!”
The captain of the Dale-town watch did not share Tóki’s sense of urgency on the matter of the disappearing sorcerer-dwarves. Only after a longish wait at the barracks of the watch, repeatedly requesting to speak with him, did he finally had two of his sergeants show the company in.
Even then he was keener on questioning Tóki about the details of that evening at The Docks Bow, as though he hoped to find some grounds on which to reject the whole business. Tóki forbore the captain’s questions, answering respectfully, until eventually the man sighed, sat back, and asked what the company wanted.
Tóki asked him about other people, especially children, having gone missing in Dale in the last two weeks – or worse, if any bodies might have been found with all the blood drained out of them. The captain replied that there had been no such corpses, and nobody reported as having gone missing, though that didn’t rule out the possibility that a vulnerable person might have been taken. But there had been a shepherd from the borderlands who had come into town claiming that his son had been murdered. “I told this shepherd, this ‘Holvidur’, that affairs on the borders of King Bard’s lands are no concern of the Dale-town Watch,” he said archly. He had sent the man to the army at the Royal Barracks to let him try and put the matter to First Captain Elstan.
At the Royal Barracks the company soon learned that there had been no military response to the reported death of one shepherd lad out on the border of the Waste. King Bard’s army could only patrol so much territory, and it was known that bandits roamed out beyond their borders.
They ended a tiresome day with the resolution that if the authorities in Dale-town could not be relied upon, they would journey to Holvidur’s Stead themselves.
To the Edge of The Waste
TREWSDAY, THE FOURTH DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946
Fjiar took charge of provisioning for the trip, which chiefly involved ensuring a plentiful supply of Dalish ale. Yngwi saw that this would call for their taking a mule cart of their own, and lost no time in committing a purse of Thorfin’s coin to obtaining one without delay. Everyone gathered up all the battle-gear they had borne into the Long Marshes and variously girt it on or tossed it into the bed of the cart.
Outside the Merchant’s Gate of Dale-town, trails led away into the townlands in every direction, but the first few miles of the company’s way followed the old dwarf- road that led to the Narrows north of Mirkwood and up into the Grey Mountains beyond. The greater part of King Bard’s folk were settling the pasture lands to either side of this road, west and north of the Lonely Mountain, between the eaves of Mirkwood on the west and the Desolation of Smaug stretching north and east.
Folk on the road were friendly enough to wave them on in the direction of Holvidur’s Stead, and the company enjoyed the easy going. Ecthelon from time to time commented delightedly on some hardy perennial that had survived the fires of the dragon, or the new shoots of a herb that had self set from wind-borne seed and clearly throve in the potash soil of Erebor’s flanks, but Marion noted that the elf was making a special effort to not to miss anything that might reveal itself up on the slopes of the Mountain itself. Yngwi was a far more affable traveller on the bench of a cart than on the thwarts of a rowing boat, and both he and Marion brightened the day with various songs and tales.
They turned the cart off up a trail that branched off to the right of the north road to head in the direction of the Stead, and passed through one last village where they heard that Holvidur’s people dwelt a further couple of leagues away over open country.
The Plight of Kaell
The steading was a small settlement with a longhall and a small cluster of outlying buildings enclosed by dry-stone walls. A group of steadfolk warily regarded the approach of the company and their cart from the gateway.
Ecthelon the elf cast his gaze over the company and noted in a murmur to Marion, “None of us is exactly an ambassador, but you are a fellow Northman to these good folk, and would probably be better received than a dwarf or an elf.”
“Good day to you,” Marion called out in her fine contralto, slowing the mule and skipping lightly to the ground. “I am Marion Ursaris, and my companions and I come from Dale-town seeking the man Holvidur, to give aid where no others have been sent.”
“I am Holvidur,” replied the evident head man of the group. “My son lies in his grave unavenged, and glad would I be to see that put to rights. You had better come sit at our table, and tell us your interest in our plight.”
Holvidur’s eldest son, Kaell, was a boy of twelve summers, old enough to take a flock out on his own in these empty lands, though his father cursed himself now for allowing it. The lad had not come home last Sterday night, which was unusual so early in the season, but not unheard of. They had a bothy or two out on the fells. Only then Kaell hadn’t come home on the Sunday night either, so next morning the menfolk went out to search for him, and found his dead body on a ridge two leagues away to the east. It was no wolf’s work as the corpse was naked and the only marks on him were several long gashes cut the length of each of his limbs, though crows had taken his eyes, curse them.
In their turn, the companions said only that they were friends of a girl in Dale-town who had narrowly escaped a similar fate, rather than concern the good folk with tales of dread sorcery. Somewhat wary of the motives of this odd group, Holvidur nevertheless offered them the hospitality of his roof and agreed to show them the place where Kaell’s body had been found.
HEVENSDAY, THE FIFTH DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946
They set off in the first light of the chill dawn, leaving the cart at the steading and hiking out on foot.
Halfway to the place that Holvidur had described to them, Marion stood stock still and pointed at a spot maybe fifty paces away. “That… is a mule-dropping,” she stated confidently. It proved to be five days old, or a week at the outside, and though the ground was hard Marion was certain that she could find the spot again and follow a trail from it. But everyone agreed to follow Holvidur to the ridge before pursuing that.
As they climbed the last few yards up the gentle but craggy rise Holvidur confirmed that this was the very edge of the new kingdom. And cresting the ridge they saw the endless empty grey land before them. “No one likes to take the name of the dragon, even in death,” he said, “so what used to be called the Desolation of Smaug we mostly just call ‘the Waste’. Not even a goat can scratch along any further out there, and the only travellers would be outlaws, fled beyond the reach of the King’s justice.”
*“And this is the spot,” he said. “We found my son lying dead on the rocks right there.” Dark blood crusted the stone and had flown down on two sides to soak into the thin soil.
A Murder of Gorcrows
Of a sudden there came a quacking from Tóki’s toy-sack and he drew out Framleiðandi’s duck.
Marion kept the shepherd company in his grief, as her companions sought to learn what they could from the area.
Tóki circled the area with the duck in his hands, the wondrous device making the odd flap of its wings until Tóki returned and confirmed, his eyes full of meaning, that the exact spot where Kaell died was where the dread had been strongest.
Yngwi ranged in a wide circle further out, and after a short time cried out that he had found something. Discarded in a shallow gully perhaps fifty paces away he had found a heap of carcasses, the dead bodies of nine outsize crows with an unsightly green highlights glinting from their greasy plumage. Most particularly, their foreheads had been carved with some sharp implement and despite the obstacle presented by their black feathers, specific designs could be made out on most of them. Two were too mangled to make out individual strokes, but the others were almost like runes, though not the runes of the Cirth or the Angerthas familiar to dwarves and Northmen.
When Yngwi had called out and everyone else had gone over to see, Ecthelon had remained alone at the spot where Kaell had been slain. His hair fluttered about his ears as he faced into the wind, closed his eyes and softly hummed in faint snatches as though trying to catch a tune.
Marion came back over, all curiosity at this behaviour, and Ecthelon opened his eyes and turned to speak to her.
“The rock and the earth and the grasses were witness to it all,” he said. “The first crow-call came from the throat of a man, and then in ones and twos the gorcrows came in response to his cries. They made no protest as a song of dread that offended all of nature was sung over them. The blood of the boy was spilled into the earth and the horror of the song waxed greater, and then the gorcrows fell lifeless, and the man and his smaller companions took their carcasses from this place and cast them away, and they left the boy, and finally the boy died.”
“Elves," said Marion, shaking her head to herself in wonder.