Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain

Many Revelations
In which much is learned of the deeds of the foe, and a little of the latest victims . . .

(Previously in Middle-earth… THE TREASURE OF THE HOUSE OF DATHRIN,
INTERLUDE: The Awakening of Framleiðandi’s Duck and THE MARSH BELL)

THE COMPANY:

Fjiar head contrasty Toki head contrasty Yngwi head contrasty Bw de bg ed croppy 50pc Marion bw mid croppy on white

Fjiar the Firebeard, Tóki the Toymaker, Yngwi Sandstone, Ecthelon the Wood-elf, Marion Ursaris

THE TALE:
A Murder of Gorcrows

  1. Investigations in Dale-town
    In which the Company learn somewhat more of their enemies and the sorcerous ritual they enacted in Dale
  2. On the Edge of the Waste
    In which the Company makes some discoveries about a second, completed ritual
  3. …And Back Again
    In which the trail leads back to Dale-town, and a confrontation with the elusive foe draws near
  4. The Battle in the Bluestone Quarter
    In which our heroes at last beard their foes in the ramshackle back streets of Dale-town
  5. The Battle in the Bluestone Quarter II
    In which our heroes carry the victory in the contest of steel…
  6. The Battle in the Bluestone Quarter III
    In which our heroes take the day, but find the fallen crow-sorcerer to have escaped them

MERSDAY, THE SIXTH DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946, continued

Once Fjiar had led Yngwi and Tóki off at a run towards Dale-town’s Mountain Gate, Ecthelon took stock of the scene.
    Marion the Beorning was battered and bruised, and fixing all her will on the Daleman and the dwarf who had yielded to them. Between the building where Beil’s band had camped and the street outside it were half a dozen fallen dwarves and men. The smoke of the firework had cleared but the street still held a sense of shocked silence, the nearby Dalefolk remaining out of sight except where one or two peeped from the crack of a doorway or from behind a cautiously raised tent-flap, and up the street where a woman and her young son scurried nervously forth to put out the fire where Fjiar’s thrown axe had upset a brazier of hot coals.
    The runner Ecthelon had sent for Fjiar and Yngwi in The Black Shaft ventured round the corner, improbably bearing a lidded tankard in one hand. He waved aside the payment that Ecthelon offered, saying he would await Fjiar’s return.
    “The name’s Kilfir,” he added. “It’s been my pleasure. Round here we reckon that bad lot had it coming to them, I can tell you.”
    Ecthelon deftly bound the hands and feet of the prisoners with one of several hanks of light rope lying around in their own camp, then assessed the injuries of their fallen comrades. He and Kilfir dragged the three that still drew breath back into the building. But neither he nor Marion, nor the three dwarves when they returned, were able to keep them from dying. The mercenary and brigand ‘Captain’ Beil, known to Fjiar the Firebeard for many years, drew his last bubbling breath in the makeshift structure in Dale’s Bluestone Quarter without ever regaining consciousness.

First Questions for the Prisoner

They turned their attention to the sole surviving dwarf of Beil’s band, tying him to a post. Ecthelon looked to the gruff and mighty Marion, but she seemed not to be feeling herself and made no sign of stepping up to get the answers they needed. He let her be. He drew himself up to his full height and stooped over the helpless captive. “One of you said, ‘You were supposed to pull those dwarves in.’ Everything here: the mule-cart, the serving maid at The Black Shaft, the runner who led us here, this was arranged as a trap for us, wasn’t it?” he postulated. “Tell us, who set it up?”
    The dwarf spat on the ground and sneered, “Or what? You’ll murder me with bandages like you did to those others?” Ecthelon took a breath and made a fresh start, trying to get the dwarf to confirm that Arfa of Dale was behind it all, but neither that nor any other demand prevailed against the obdurate dwarf.
    At length Tóki came up behind the prisoner’s post and gestured Ecthelon aside with a nod. “Maybe you’ll talk to me,” he suggested. “Or maybe you’ll talk to… Mister Flibble!”

Toki   mr flibble cleaned up

The toymaker produced a glove puppet from behind his back, twitched a finger to make the puppet give a little wave, and then used the whole puppet to deliver his fist squarely into the prisoner’s nose. “I’m a reasonable dwarf, but Mister Flibble isn’t reasonable at all…”
    He proceeded with a charade intended to convince the prisoner that he was deranged enough to do anything. Where looming height and indeed Tóki’s own striking of blows had little effect on the hardened dwarven mercenary, this play act was unsettling enough to alarm even Tóki’s own compan¬ions. The dwarf’s resolve cracked.
    “No, that wastrel, Arfa of Dale, didn’t set anything up,” he scoffed. “He just did what the Ironfist twins paid him to do, with a purse of that painted man’s silver. Same as the Captain and the rest of us.” When asked where Dwîm and Dwîma were now he said they were probably still up in the Lonely Mountain, the last place Beil’s band had known them to be, or wherever the two Ironfists had driven the painted man’s body, when they took off with him and his crow through the back of the shelter.

Shallow Grave: the Revelation of Eldi’s Demise

Shortly after this Fjiar stepped in, bearing a tray with five lidded tankards of The Black Shaft’s fine stout. After finally receiving his original, interrupted pint of stout from Kilfir and paying the man his immensely generous two shillings, it had occurred to Fjiar that it would be well worth another penny to have him fetch a further round of drinks. Kilfir had duly obliged.
    Yngwi and Marion, who was both pained and somewhat distant, dragged the bodies of the fallen off the street and out of sight inside the makeshift building. The area slowly began to return to a semblance of normality. Meanwhile the companions made a thorough search of their victims’ possessions and the building they had occupied. They pragmatically took the smattering of coin their victims had owned, with Tóki’s pragmatism stretching so far as to take a gold tooth from an owner who no longer had any use it. Fjiar found a suit of armour that one of the dwarves must not have had time to don when the fight ensued, which he took to be a specimen of the smithcraft of the Blacklock dwarves from the utmost east of Middle-earth. But none of Beil’s band’s possessions had any bearing on the sorcerous sacrifices or the whereabouts of the Karghal Ironfists.
    Then Ecthelon’s sharp eye fixed upon the packed earth floor beneath some crates the ruffians had been using as seats. Only crudely concealed, he spied that the earth there had been patted down with shovels only recently. He pushed the crates aside to reveal an area of disturbed earth four or five feet long and about half as wide. Fjiar started on seeing this and almost spilled his pint. “The grave of another child victim!” he gasped.
    The mattocks and shovels about the place were not just the usual trappings of a band of dwarves, but had had a darker and more particular purpose. Fjiar and Yngwi took up tools and soon opened the shallow grave. They discovered the body not of a child but of a dwarf on whom both skin and beard had been grotesquely scorched in many places by red-hot knife blades. A rope gag was still bound about his mouth.
    “We know him,” said Fjiar grimly. “He is Eldi son of Ranver, from the kitchen of Thorfin’s mansion.”
    “But we were there just four days ago, and nothing was amiss.”
    “The grave is fresh, and he appears to have been dead only a day or two.”
    “Then our warnings to Thorfin were in vain,” protested Ecthelon. “But it seems from this torture that these ‘Ironfists’ must pursue some overwhelming grudge against Thorfin and his house.”
    “Or the torture was for a specific reason,” suggested Tóki, “like learning a password or some such.”

Talking to the Neighbours

At Fjiar’s request, the ever-willing Kilfir called together a handful of the more notable people residents of the street. Beil’s band had not been good neighbours since they forced out the original owners of the plot and took up residence a few weeks ago. They kept strange hours, and drank and often brawled amongst themselves throughout the nights. The locals were not surprised, and not a little satisfied, to see the thugs meet a bad end; but they remained alarmed at the sheer bloodthirstiness of the fight on their very doorsteps.
    “Marion may have been the first to throw a punch,” conceded Tóki, confirmed by a silent shrug from the Beorning woman, “but they were the first to draw weapons. They brought this on themselves.”
    Fjiar regaled the neighbours with a speech, saying that the company had vanquished a scourge of the community, bringing justice down upon the men – and, regrettably, dwarves – who had not merely been thugs and bullies but who had taken, tormented and murdered innocent children of Dale. To those who were willing to see it, he showed the body of Eldi as proof of the crimes of Beil and his band and the depraved individuals whose coin they took. His audience were fully impressed by the enormity of these crimes and pledged whatever assistance they might offer.
    Coming to the purpose of this gathering, Fjiar asked the good townsfolk what they might know of their unwanted neighbours, and particularly the ones who hired them. Between them they could relate a handful of visits from disreputable-looking greybeard dwarves, but couldn’t say whether these were Dwîm and Dwîma themselves, and they had no knowledge of any black-garbed ‘painted man’. It seemed the crow-sorcerer’s comings and goings must have been made only by means of the covered mule-cart, and that he kept as low a profile in the Bluestone Quarter as he previously had in his room at the Docks Bow drinking hall. Nor did the locals know anything of the outsize crow that the companions had seen upon the fallen sorcerer’s breast.
    The companions wondered whether the great gorcrow, that seemed to caw orders to someone out of sight just before the sorcerer’s body was dragged into the cover of the cloud of smoke, could have changed its skin to become the man whom they never saw, but whose voice was heard to complain about ‘an army’ having been pulled in.

A Talk at the Toy-shop

At length, leaving the bodies of the fallen for the Dale-town authorities to dispose of, with Yngwi staying to explain events and to watch over their prisoners, Tóki led the other companions back through the streets of Dale to Framleiðandi’s toy shop.
    Relating everything about their recent encounter, he asked his mentor whether any Shadow-sorcery offered the power for a man to change his skin to take the form of a gorcrow.
    “Is it really true that in the Battle of the Five Armies there was a man who was a skin-changer, who took the form of a bear to slay the king of the goblins?” he asked.
    Framleiðandi said that yes it was true, though he said no one seemed to know what sort of a magician he could be. Ecthelon saw that Marion was not of a mind to enlighten them, so he spoke up himself. He had been an archer amongst the Woodland Host in the Battle of the Five Armies, and had seen the destruction wrought by the mighty bear with his own eyes. He added that the skin-changer was Beorn, now the leader of a new folk west of Mirkwood, but the ability to change his skin to that of a bear seemed unique to Beorn himself. Ecthelon mentioned that the Beornings generally held little love for dwarves, at which Fjiar got his dander up and made a few choice comments. The others shot worried glances Marion’s way, but the Beorning axewife was frowning into the fire on the hearth, making no sign of having even heard.
    It seemed unlikely that the company had crossed the path of another such singular individual as Beorn. Framleiðandi said, “If I heard of anyone else claiming to have a magical power of skin-changing, I’d reckon he was a liar. And if there seemed to be any truth in it, I’d reckon it was all deceits, even if there was real sorcery in the trickery and illusions behind them.” Everything he’d ever heard was consistent that no power of magic ever afforded anyone the ability to fly, even the great elven wizards of the ancient days.
    Ecthelon nodded in confirmation, and added that the elves held it to be a misdeed to use any power of enchanting appearances deliberately to deceive.
    “Aye,” said Framleiðandi with a look at Tóki, “and as I taught you, such is like to lead into the Shadow. But at any event, it seems your crow-sorcerer is more given to necromancy, the disposing of souls. That wouldn’t be possible with regular creatures, but perhaps gorcrows have a little of the devil in them which gives a necromancer something to work with.”
    “Necromancy as in The Necromancer, who was driven out of southern Mirkwood with his tail between his legs five years ago?” asked Tóki. “Could it be he?”
    “Well I doubt that, as no tale ever associated him with gorcrows, even if they’re not unknown in Mirkwood. But necromancy is a rare thing even amongst sorcerers, so it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of some connection.”
    A thoughtful silence descended, marked only by the puffing of Tóki’s pipe and the slosh of ale in the bottom of Fjiar’s latest tankard.

“Did you hear that?” asked Marion after a few moments. But no one had heard anything, and Marion could not or would not say what she thought it had been. “Forget it,” she muttered, and fixed her gaze back on the hearth.

To the Mountain, and the Revelation of Bofur’s Disappearance

Returning to the immediate situation, the fact that Beil’s band had taken Eldi son of Ranver proved that the foe’s attentions lay on the Mansion of the Dathrins. The company decided to return there without delay, even though the sun had already dipped beneath the ridge of the Lonely Mountain above them. They collected Yngwi and concealed the bound and gagged prisoners under blankets in the bed of their own mule-cart, with Eldi’s stiffened corpse for grisly company. Ecthelon drove the cart, and was passed through by the guard on Dale’s Mountain Gate without incident.
    Arriving at the Front Gate of the Lonely Mountain in the full dark an hour later, Fjiar announced their business to the dwarven guard there, revealed the prisoners and declared that they were taking them to meet with justice for the murder of a dwarf of the Kingdom of the Mountain. The guardsdwarves nodded them through with grim approval.
    Thorfin and most of his household were in the main hall of the Mansion when they arrived, and Fjiar and Yngwi related events around mouthfuls of a much-needed late supper. Thorfin said that Eldi had disappeared three days ago, the very day after the company had been there and warned everyone to vigilance; he had gone to purchase supplies in Dale-town and had not returned.
    “But this is not our only bad news,” Thorfin added grimly. “We have not seen Bofur since first thing yesterday morning.”
    “‘Those dwarves’!” Ecthelon exclaimed. “We have presumed all day that whoever said ‘You were only supposed to pull those dwarves in,’ was referring to a trap for ourselves, or for Yngwi, Fjiar and Tóki , at least. But they must have referred to ‘pulling in’ first the cook and then this Bofur!”
    It seemed that when put to the hard question, Eldi the assistant cook must ultimately have talked, and his testimony must have turned the foe’s attentions to Bofur Ironhand. The company tried to think what might make Bofur so important. He was a brewer of potions, a maker of fireworks and – of course! – the member of Thorfin’s company who had unravelled the Door-magic of the secret Vault in the mines. That Vault had been the goal of Dwîm and Dwîma when Thorfin’s company had crossed them the first time.
    “Double the guard!” urged Ecthelon.
    Thorfin sent a runner immediately to Garthar, the acting captain of his guard whilst Fjiar was otherwise engaged. He was directed to strengthen the defence at Minehead Town’s great gates, protecting the entrance to the North Spur Mines.
    As for Bofur himself, it could only be hoped that his lore of Door-magics was valuable enough to the foe that they would need to keep him alive.
    “Hold on,” cried Fjiar. “His lore of fireworks! The smoke-bomb that one of those dogs used against us, which right there at the time someone called them an idiot for doing, it must have been Bofur’s own work!”
    Tóki, who had even recognised the smell of the smoke-cloud as being like the smells of Bofur’s workshop, inwardly cursed himself for never making the connection.

The Revelation of Marion’s Plight

With the company’s warning Thorfin to vigilance on Sunday, four days earlier, he had directed the most able associates of his household, Bofur Ironhand and Toledur son of Mankar, to investigate the possibility of plots against them. Making such enquiries had probably exposed Bofur to the foe. Toledur sadly could not say where Bofur’s enquiries had taken him, and did not know whether he had ventured down into Dale-town.
    “But on Trewsday,” he said, that being the day before Bofur had last been seen, “it was almost as though he was drunk, or maybe hung over, staring into space and asking questions to which he should already have known the answers, like: ‘Remind me, where did we get the Great Ward Key from again?’ It was as though he wasn’t himself—”
    “Like Marion has been, ever since the fight!” hissed Ecthelon. Marion, drinking alone down on the ale-benches away from the others, showed no sign of having heard him.
    “We heard the sorcerer shrieking something in a crow’s voice before the rest of us could even see him,” Ecthelon continued, Tóki nodding his agreement. “But it seems she must have been placed under some sorcerous curse!”
    In a whispered conversation Ecthelon and the dwarves agreed that they could not let Marion know their true plans. Within her hearing they should say the opposite of what they really intended and, Fjiar suggested, they should encourage her to drink herself into a stupor.

A Dwarf, drugged

It was long after midnight when the company took their rest following their extremely long and eventful day. But they were woken again before two hours had passed by the runner back from Minehead Town.
    Bofur Ironhand had been there, just hours ago. He had said he had urgent questions and had gone into the supervisor’s office with Garthar. After Bofur left Garthar had been found slumped insensible in his chair. Of Bofur, and of the Great Ward Key to the North Spur Mines, there was no trace.

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The Battle in the Bluestone Quarter III
In which our heroes take the day, but find the fallen crow-sorcerer to have escaped them

MERSDAY, THE SIXTH DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946

The thug down the shantytown street half-turned and paused, his eye on the majestic Falcon Axe of the Dathrins. Then, despite the axe-wound to his leg and undeterred by Fjiar’s barked command to surrender, he leant on his staff and hobbled over, stooped with a grunt of pain to seize the Axe up, and made off with it around a corner.
    Fjiar gave chase, roaring wordlessly and brandishing his short sword as he shot past Tóki and the cloud of stinking smoke filling the unfinished building their enemies has come from. The sound of axes could be heard, ragging down a section of wooden wall. And a voice could be heard to grunt, “You were only supposed to pull those dwarves in – not a cursed army!”

Tóki the toymaker, shaken by the fight and armed only with a fallen cudgel, made his way around the back of the mule-cart where the grey dwarf had ducked off, and found clear air round the side and rear of the structure.
    Hold! Hold! he heard a crow-like voice squawking, some way beyond.
    Tóki edged his way forward.

Fjiar ran down his quarry within moments. The man, shocked at Fjiar’s speed, had yielded immediately and Fjiar had frog-marched him back round the corner.
    “You, sit on the ground and don’t move,” he ordered. “Ecthelon, if he moves, shoot him dead.”
    The elf looked up from examining Marion’s wounds, and wordlessly took his bow and arrow in hand once more.

Yngwi, running up, showed none of Tóki’s caution and launched himself into the murk of the smoke. In the far corner of the space beyond he saw a rough hole hacked out of the wall, before which glared two rough-looking dwarves at guard.
    “Yield, dwarves, or you will die right here, right now,” hollered the mighty minstrel.
    “Aye, right,” sneered one, in an Iron Hills accent. “Come test my steel.”
    “City guard! Drop those weapons!” ventured Tóki, coming up to Yngwi’s shoulder.
    But Yngwi was already upon them, wielding his single axe two-handedly to beat down both axe and sword of the first dwarf and strike him hard in the chest. Reeling and winded, the dwarf could only flail his weapons ineffectually. His cohort grimly retaliated with an axe blow which Yngwi just met, but which nevertheless staggered him onto one knee.
    Tóki stepped up to join his cudgel with Yngwi’s axe, and the battle was two dwarves against two dwarves – axe and sword, axe and shield against a single axe and a single cudgel, but with the better-armed pair of disreputables intent on holding their position rather than stepping forward to seize the advantage.
    Yngwi abandoned caution and threw himself upon the first, winded dwarf, striking a ringing blow to the helm which left him hanging on by a thread. “Yield, mother-curser!” bellowed Yngwi, his blood running high.
    Tóki struck at the other side of the second defender with an overhead murder-blow which beat his upraised shield ringingly down and away. And then a ferocious Fjiar burst in between his companions and struck upwards with his great axe, a blow up between the legs that felled Tóki’s hapless opponent in a massive welter of his own life-blood.
    “Oh, stow this!” grunted the dazed dwarf left standing alone beside him, and he let his axe and sword slip to the ground in surrender.
    Fjiar never even paused for breath in hurling himself onward through the breach the two dwarves of Beil’s had defended at such cost. He found himself in the back of a dyer’s workshop, all festooned with hanging bolts of cloth.
    “Follow the calls of the crow!” Yngwi shouted after him, and he doffed his helm to listen as he advanced, but he met neither sight nor sound of elf-shot sorcerer or anyone else.

Tóki prodded the surrendered dwarf out into the street and into Ecthelon’s and Marion’s keeping. “You’ll be all right, won’t you Marion?” he checked, as the Beorning woman attention appeared to be elsewhere. Marion replied with a gruff nod that brooked no further question, so Tóki followed after Yngwi and Fjiar.
    They hunted all through the aisles of hanging cloth and round the simmering tubs of dyestuffs to no avail. At length it was Fjiar who spotted the fresh water-splashes beside the wheel ruts in the street beyond which showed a cart to have recently been driven away by person or persons unknown.

Putting himself in his quarries’ place, Fjiar reasoned that they would be looking to get out of Dale-town before the authorities could be raised against them, and would therefore head for the nearby Mountain Gate. The three dwarves trotted double-time for the gate and set themselves up in a position of watch, but no cart presented itself. Yngwi mused that they might better have split up to quarter the streets in the hope that one of them might get a direct sighting. But it was all now by the by.
    Fjiar felt the need for a drink. “Oh no!” he exclaimed, both amused and concerned. “I told that fellow to bring my tankard of stout and not spill any… I bet he’s still there waiting for his reward!”
    Their quarry seemed to have eluded them, so the three dwarves headed back to where Ecthelon and Marion held the two prisoners under guard.

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The Battle in the Bluestone Quarter II
In which our heroes carry the day, in the contest of steel...

MERSDAY, THE SIXTH DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946

Yngwi and Fjiar in The Black Shaft waited, hands close to their axes, to meet whatever the serving-maid Alys’s departure might bring. And they waited.

“Wassail, good men of Dale!” an impatient Fjiar hailed the two merchants at the nearest table. “Barman, another round for these two fine fellows, and another stout for me. No, make that a quart!”
    “What are you doing?” hissed Yngwi.
    “I’m carousing, aren’t I? Good sirs, do you ever see greybeard dwarves in here? Not greybeards as in the respected elders of the Mountain, but downtrodden-looking dwarves of mean appearance, pale in the face and grey in the beard before their time?”
    The townsmen seemed embarrassed by this, and eyed the ornate blade of Fjiar’s great-axe warily, however casual he sought to be about it. They shook their heads and muttered that they normally only saw an occasional Lonely Mountain merchant or artisan of good repute.
    Yngwi managed to coax Fjiar back to their post at the bar. “You are overbold,” he frowned. “Dwîm and Dwîma and the Maker only knows how many hangers-on could set on us at any moment—”

He was interrupted by a commotion at the entrance. “Yngwi and Fjiar!” called out a crude-looking Daleman, panting from some exertion, and batting off the hand of the barman who had smartly appeared to block his progress into the inn.
    “There’s a ruckus in the Bluestone quarter, and a fellow with a bow and arrow sent me to tell ‘Yngwi’ and ‘Fjiar’,” he gasped out.
    “What? What is it?” cried Yngwi and Fjiar.
    “He said it was worth a shilling to me,” the man hedged.
    Fjiar strode over. “You’ll get your shilling,” he assured the man, clinking shut the lid of his tankard and handing it over, to heft his axe in both hands. “Just tell us— In fact, no, you’ll have to be our guide. Just take us there and you’ll get double. And another couple of pennies if none of my stout is spilled by the time we get there!”
Fjiar, Yngwi, and their guide trotted out of The Black Shaft and cut through side ways to emerge upon the street beside Dale’s eastern canal. Despite the stout sitting heavily on Fjiar’s stomach, it was their already-winded guide who kept them from a faster pace.
    “I already ran flat out all the way here,” he protested.
    “Why?” asked Yngwi as they passed the Docks Bow on the other side of the canal. “What exactly is this ‘ruckus’? You’d better not be leading us into a trap!”
    The man gaspingly described Ecthelon, Tóki and Marion, and said they’d gone up against a rough crew in the street next to where he lived. He said there were upwards of half a dozen men and dwarves there, led by a one-eyed dwarf.
    “Beil! Again!” spat Fjiar.
    “Take that second left,” said their guide, pulling up. “And left again at the corner where there’s a leatherworker’s booth with the awning all collapsed…”
    The two dwarves needed no further urging, and left their guide to follow at a broken walk, still nursing Fjiar’s lidded tankard, as they put on a final burst of speed to sprint round the last two corners…

Marion and Tóki held the width of the alleyway between the makeshift buildings, giving ground before their attackers who, joined by two further dwarves with sledgehammer and sword and a more hesitant mannish thug with a quarterstaff, could still only attack two at a time. Also appearing from the crude doorway was a huge black bird, a gorcrow, which flapped onto the chest of the fallen sorcerer and proceeded to caw loudly as though remonstrating with whoever failed to come to the man’s aid.
    A slender dwarf with an ill-kempt beard shot with grey emerged from beyond the mule-cart, but saw Ecthelon with his bow at the end of the alley and ducked back into cover.
    A battered Marion fended off the club blows of her assailant, whilst Tóki was not so lucky. Armed only with the shattered remains of his toy case, he evaded Beil’s axe only by slamming himself bodily into a wall.
    Then the club-wielder hesitated, fatally, and Marion swung her splitting axe overhead to plant it in the middle of the man’s chest. Tóki deftly rolled aside from Beil, who underestimated his unarmed victim. The toymaker smoothly grabbed up the fallen cudgel and swung it back beneath Beil’s outstretched guard to crunch resoundingly into his mailed flank.
    His shield drooped as Beil reeled from Tóki’s blow, and Ecthelon was quick to seize his opening. Having advanced from the leatherworker’s on the corner to come within twenty paces, his unerring clothyard shaft sprouted from Beil’s chest, and the dwarf choked on a mouthful of his own blood.
    “Cover me!” Beil croaked out desperately to the two dwarves stepping up to join the fight, as he himself sought to escape it. Marion pressed him hard, relentless great swings of her axe forcing him to hold his ground and throw his shield up again and again. But in so doing she left herself open and the new dwarf stabbed his short sword into her ribs.
    With a massive Beorning roar Marion threw herself on Beil, a sideways axe-swing caroming off his upthrust shield but then spinning full circle to strike again, knocking the helm from his head and laying his scalp bare. The ‘captain’ of the dwarves tumbled to the ground.
    “You’re next, sh—” she boomed at the sword-wielding dwarf with a colourful curse-word. Tóki struck him a cudgel-blow as he gawped, and Ecthelon shot him in the arm above his buckler.
    “Captain’s down! Out here, all of you!” bellowed the wounded dwarf. And even as Marion looked up to see whether this was some bluff, he snaked his blade past her axe-haft and stabbed her in the thigh. The dwarf at his side stepped up to plant a foot on either side of Beil’s body and swung out, his massive sledgehammer knocking Tóki’s cudgel aside and striking him hard.

And then with a double roar, Fjiar and Yngwi charged past Ecthelon and into the fray.
    Tóki threw himself aside, and Marion found herself pushed back, as the two rained blows upon the pair of dwarves who now held the alleyway against them. Yngwi just turned aside in time to avoid a desperate riposte of the first dwarf’s short sword, while Fjiar shrugged off a mighty hammer-blow to his armoured shoulder. He replied with a stroke of the Falcon Axe that struck halfway into the skull of the hammer-wielder, killing him instantly.
Yngwi batted his opponent’s sword aside and struck him hard, and as he opened his mouth to issue another order, Ecthelon shot him right in the gullet.

The alley was suddenly theirs, bestrewn with five bodies, and with the more hesitant of their enemies now in fleeing before them A sixth body, that of the sorcerer with the gorcrow on his breast, was no longer in sight.
    The man with the quarterstaff turned to flee. Ecthelon’s arrow sped past his ear and he instinctively flinched aside.
    “You cannot escape us,” Ecthelon suggested. The man remained bent on defying him, but Fjiar reached back and hurled the Falcon Axe to spin through the air and strike him to the ground. He was up again and fleeing at a limp even as the axe swung on through the air, knocked over a brazier full of embers and lost itself in several thicknesses of tent-wall canvas.
    “Give it up!” yelled Fjiar. “If I can throw an axe the size of that one, you know I can have you!”
    And then a great cloud of smoke erupted from the main doorway of the bandits’ shack.
    “No, you f— idiot!” came a curse from within.
    Fastest forward, Tóki threw himself into the smoke. The smell of it nearly made him gag, but he remembered smelling it before, in the fireworks workshop of Bofur Ironhand. Hearing several other people scrambling about in the smoke, swinging about themselves with their weapons, Tóki backed out.

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... And Back Again
In which the trail leads back to Dale-town, and a confrontation with the elusive foe draws near

Afternoon – HEVENSDAY, THE FIFTH DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946

A Murder of Gorcrows (continued)

Ecthelon peered dubiously at the sketches Tóki had made of the ‘runes’ scored into the scalps of the gorcrows, and made his own inspection of the blood-crusted head of each of the dead birds, but was forced to concur that the sketches were accurate.
    “Apart from the form,” he said: “the vertical and diagonal lines prove these signs to have been designed to be carved, into stone or wood – or…” a sidelong glance here at the gorcrows, “or whatever else – these marks have no connection with any variant of the Cirth or Angerthas that I have ever encountered. One might conclude them to be the characters of the Morbeth, your ‘Black Speech’.”*
    He looked to Marion for confirmation, but the gruff Beorning woman merely shrugged. The two looked over to Tóki. The dwarf knew nothing of such, but blushed before the expectant gazes of these two companions and desperately racked his memories.
    “No!” he exclaimed at length. “I remember. Framleiðandi once told me that the Black Speech is scarcely ever rendered in written form. Even the two or three fragments he had ever had described to him only used the runes of the Angerthas or the elf-letters.”
    “The Tengwar,” Ecthelon supplied absently. “So this must remain a mystery for the present.”

Fjiar raised the curiosity that the sorcerers should have taken away the gorcrow bodies and hidden them, whilst leaving the body of the young shepherd in plain view on the crest of the ridge. Yngwi suggested that where the callous heathens had no regard for their dying victim, perhaps some affinity with the gorcrows meant they treated them with more respect. But it this was just another thing that would have to remain mysterious. The big dwarf was more keen on returning to the spot where Marion had spied the mule-dropping and pursuing upon their tracks.

Tóki and Ecthelon returned Holvidur to his steading, despite his protests that he wanted to come with the company and avenge his son’s death. They told him to keep to the steading, or remain hard by it, and not even to greet any other strangers. Ecthelon puzzled out how to hitch the mule back to their cart, and the two drove out to rejoin their companions.
    Marion, Yngwi and Fjiar had meanwhile gone straight to the intended spot and searched the area more properly. The stony and charred terrain offered no signs to the eyes of the two dwarves, and after a while they relented and just attended to Marion. The huntress ranged silently about, intent on her task, quartering the area and circling right round it. At length she turned back to the dwarves and announced that while she could readily follow the track back north-east in the direction from which the cart (and at least three or four people on foot) had come, she could follow it forwards only a little way before the tracks petered out.
    “We’re not interested in where they came from!” exclaimed Yngwi. “We must not waste time in giving chase or we’ll never catch up with them.”
    “Can’t you just talk to the land again?” asked Fjiar, as calmly as if he saw people practice such magic every day.
    “They already have a lead on us of at least five days. And that was Ecthelon, not me,” Marion gruffly replied. “Dwarves!” she sighed to herself under her breath.

Returning to Dale

By the time Ecthelon and Tóki drove up, Marion had cautiously approved a plan of Fjiar’s. “We’ll form up in a skirmish line thirty paces apart and strike forwards with everyone keeping their eyes peeled for wheel ruts, hoofprints or any other sign of passage.”
    Tenuous as this approach was, Tóki’s meticulous gaze got them off to a good start, and once he had his eye in he found himself picking up on tiny signs that impressed even Marion. Ecthelon’s elven sight proved a great boon, and Yngwi also found scuff marks that proved they were on the right track, just as their hopes were beginning to falter after a lack of any slot or sign for over a mile. The route gave Holvidur’s Stead a two mile berth but otherwise proceeded south-west, back the way they had come, before finally veering southwards and rejoining the road to Dale. The company carried on, with wary eyes upon the margins of the road for any sign of cart-tracks leaving it again, until the road split. Ecthelon, Tóki and Marion returned to Dale, but Yngwi insisted on carrying on down the Lake-town road until they could confirm at the wayside inn he knew, The Halfway House, whether their quarry had travelled that way.
    Yngwi and Fjiar marched on without rest until they gained the yard of the inn. They asked their questions about whether anyone had seen a covered mule-cart driven by grey-bearded dwarves – or a man dressed in black, hooded and with a scarf over his face! Even a generous consideration from Thorfin’s purse failed to elicit any information, but Yngwi felt the mannish folk might be close-mouthed with strangers. Fjiar proposed they stay at the inn till the end of the night and win their trust and goodwill. Tales were told and songs were sung, generous services offered, kitchen knives and wood axes sharpened to perfection with Fjiar’s best dwarvish whetstone, and of course a great deal of ale was drunk.
    At the close of the evening Fjiar made one last heartfelt plea to be told of anything his friends the staff might have seen. Yngwi judged the audience to have been won over, and was finally forced to concede that there was nothing they weren’t being told. The sorcerers must indeed have returned to Dale-town after their sojourn in the wild.

Earlier that afternoon, even as they drove their cart in through the Trader’s Gate, Ecthelon sniffed at the guards’ previous assertion that no one answering the description had been seen to pass the gates in either direction. Marion pointed out grimly that the guards had only said they could not confirm having seen those people leave town; no one had claimed that they couldn’t possibly have got through unremarked.
    “And silence can be bought, if you have the purse for it,” she added, darkly. This only caused Ecthelon’s frown to deepen further.
    Tóki went home to the toy shop and Ecthelon and Marion retired to their rooms in Kote’s Inn, and they all passed the night uneventfully.

In Dale

MERSDAY, THE SIXTH DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946

They met up again at Framleiðandi’s toy shop the next morning and over a long breakfast related the findings of their foray out into the North Dalelands. The old whitebeard listened gravely to everything they recounted about the murderous sacrifice of the shepherd lad and the dark rite that followed, the sorcerer summoning gorcrows to him from across the expanse of the Waste, and the mystifying use of runes that were not of any known Cirth.
    When Tóki finished telling all they knew and sat back to light a pipe of the halflings’ weed, Framleiðandi said that the way the gorcrows flew in in dribs and drabs suggested that the summoning spell simply drew all the birds from a certain area, and was probably continued until the ritually significant number of nine gorcrows had answered the call. They summoning spell must also have made them pliant to the sorcerer’s will, given the scribing of the ‘runes’ upon their heads, but Framleiðandi felt the most incisive detail was that the grasses had not sung anything to Ecthelon about the killing of the birds – upon which there was no visible sign of the cause of death. He deduced that they had probably been ‘killed’ mystically, by the sorcerer separating their spirits from their bodies by some power of Necromancy, and either taking them into himself or binding them into some receptacle. If they had already been ensorcelled as his familiars, sent forth to spy over the landscape – whatever they might be expected to see in that empty land – he would have had no cause to kill them.
    “So what we really need to know,” he finished, “is what this man did, or still intends to do, with nine disembodied gorcrow-spirits. Why gorcrows? They are nastier and more intelligent than ordinary crows, and lend themselves to spying or the theft of shiny things. But nine of them…”
    Having remained silent throughout, Marion at length spoke up. “If he has markings like a gorcrow upon his own skin, he probably works with gorcrows because that is what he is, instead of choosing them for their particular nature.”

Even by mid-morning Yngwi and Fjiar had still not returned to Dale-town, but their companions saw no cause to go haring off in search of them. They set about commencing on a more extended plan of campaign to glean out where the sorcerer and his accomplices might be hiding.
    Tóki’s main concern was how to ask people whether they’d sighted Dwîm or Dwîma. He painted up a sign offering a reward for information, but he wasn’t satisfied with the likeness he’d been able to achieve with a brush and paints, and turned to his stronger skill to carve a foot-high wooden puppet into a strikingly good resemblance of the twins. ‘Have you seen this dwarf?’ his sign read, but he hoped to have more success once he took the puppet out onto the streets and started showing it to passers-by and asking them in person.
    Ecthelon took it upon himself to better familiarise himself with this mannish town and all its neighbourhoods, and actually went out to run through the streets like a watch recruit in training – though an elf of Mirkwood had far more grace and fleetness of foot than a mannish levy with a pack of rocks on his back.
    Marion started to go through the taverns of the waterfronts, using her great lungs to belt out rousing songs of heroism, and to impress upon any witnesses that she – and a reward of Thorfin’s silver – was deserving of any tip-off they might not otherwise share.

Fjiar and Yngwi stoically hiked their way back up the Lake-town road from The Halfway House, passing below Ravenhill and into the Dale by midday. Then Yngwi led the way off the Merchant’s Way and up the rough track to the steading of Arfa of Dale.
    Asked whether any of his horse-trader and wheelwright friends had known anything of the movements of Dwîm and Dwîma, he blathered on at some length about his diligence in pursuing everyone he knew, without success and all at his own expense—
    “Still your lying tongue!” bellowed Yngwi, sensing evasion. He cursed the man roundly, grabbing him by the shirt and demanding to be told the truth. Barely shorter than the Daleman and twice as wide, Yngwi made full use of his physical presence to demand the fawning Arfa tell him everything he knew.
    “I did ask around!” protested Arfa. “I wouldn’t lie to you about that—” Yngwi waved away the bluster and urged Arfa on. He seemed to be telling the truth when he said that no one had had that cart come in for repairs or made any other sighting of the dwarf twins. But the previous morning, a dwarf who’d heard that he was asking around had come out to his farm, and offered to double Thorfin’s offered reward if Arfa would tell the company nothing, but instead send word to him if they returned to Dale.
Yngwi had to lean on him again before Arfa gave up the name of this dwarf, Foron.
    “Foron? Foron son of Jidli! Foron Forktongue, more like. He has crossed our path before!” Arfa nodded, adding that he was to send word to a barmaid called Alys in the up-market inn, The Black Shaft, on Fountain Square.
    Yngwi laid into his man one more time, repeating his threats of violence to Arfa’s person if Dwîm and Dwîma – or Foron – were to find out anything from him. (“You really will be ‘Arfa’ man…”) But, subsiding a little, he also impressed upon the man that Thorfin and his dwarves of the Mountain were on the side of right, and the outlander dwarf twins were thieves and child-killers.

Yngwi and Fjiar met up with the others at the toy shop, and the five lost no time in making their way to the Bluestone quarter and Fountain Square in the centre of the town. Approaching cautiously they satisfied themselves that The Black Shaft did not appear to be under any watch from outside. Yngwi announced his intention to go in there, and the others split into pairs to keep a watch of their own. Tóki chose to hide in plain sight, peddling toys to passers-by and Marion feigned interest in his wares. Ecthelon watched inconspicuously from another corner, but Fjiar fretted at his side, looking daggers at every patron coming or going from the inn.
    Ecthelon murmured, “If you can’t be any more casual—”
    “Aye, you’re right!” grunted Fjiar and, before Ecthelon could finish speaking, launched himself forward.

Yngwi had made his way half way round the main room of the inn. He made an imposing figure of a dwarf, but the lute in his hands gave onlookers a reason for him to be there. None of the patrons paid him any more attention than might be expected at the prospect of a tune, and he in turn satisfied himself that neither Dwîm and Dwîma nor any of their known accomplices were in the place. He had just called a barman over and asked whether Alys was working there this afternoon when a resounding crash came from behind him as the doors were slammed open.
    Fjiar stood framed in the doorway, his hand upon the head of his great axe. “Get me a beer!” he hollered, and glared around the room inviting challenge.

Moments later, Marion spied a very ordinary–looking potboy sidling out of the side door from the kitchens and heading out into the square. He made for the nearest corner at a pace just shy of an open run. Marion strode after him, and when she rounded the corner herself she saw him in full flight up the main road northwards through the heart of the Bluestone quarter.

View
On the Edge of the Waste
In which the Company makes some discoveries about a second, completed ritual

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.

View
Investigations in Dale-town
In which the Company learn somewhat more of their enemies and the sorcerous ritual they enacted in Dale

STERDAY, THE FIRST DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946

The Cellars of The Docks Bow

As soon as Framleiðandi felt fit, his rescuers led him to the scene of the sorcerous crime of the dwarf twins Dwîm and Dwîma and their mysterious black-clad cohort.
    The cellar of the Docks Bow was back to being used as a store room, but the owner was still devastated that renting the space out to his guests led to their using it to inflict such horror on a young girl. He immediately had his staff clear the space once more for the detailed examinations of lore-master Framleiðandi and company. Drinks were ‘on the house’ while this went on and Fjiar, ever the ardent ale-quaffer, distinguished himself by taking a foaming tankard in each fist. ”I only wish I had more hands!” he guffawed loudly.

Despite the flagstone floor having been scrubbed, Ecthelon the keen-eyed Elf could still make out the traces of tallow-stains from the ring of nine candles, and of the large amount of blood that had pooled on the floor, uncollected by any vessel, in their centre. Fjiar puzzled at the miscreants having made no effort to catch the blood of their victim, and Framleiðandi murmured grimly that this pointed away from blood magick, and meant that the purpose of the bloodletting was either to sap the strength of the victim, or to invoke her fear of death, which mannish folk feel more acutely than dwarves or elves, precisely to muster the Shadow.
    He was sure that the use of nine points to define the ritual circle would have some significance to the sorcerers, but whatever that was, he had no knowledge of it.
    Whilst these examinations were going on, Yngwi chanced to notice that the innkeep was pointedly avoiding the gaze of his wife, hovering at the stairhead with one of the barmaids. He bustled up to speak to them, and learned that when the girl had been cleaning up the cellar, she had found a shred of black feather, which she had kept even though the innkeep called her a fool. Holding it up to catch the light just so, Ecthelon saw the dirty green iridescence that proved it to have been torn from the end of a feather – a tail feather, he believed – of a craban, or gorcrow as the common speech has it. Having pursued an interest in the plants and wildlife of the Lonely Mountain, Ecthelon could confidently state that no gorcrow would ever normally come nearer than several leagues from Dale-town or Erebor, the Lonely Mountain.
    Framleiðandi retired upstairs to the drinking hall to avail himself of a jug of ale on the house and contemplate the slender evidence. The gorcrow feather seemed significant, although he had never heard of any tradition bearing such as magical fetishes. He surmised that if the nature of the ritual was primarily to amass a force of the Shadow, and if that were bent upon a gorcrow, it might mean various things. It could have summoned a gorcrow from long leagues over Wilderland, possibly bearing some message, although at great magical cost for such a thing. It could have forged some sort of link with the spirit of a gorcrow, either binding it to the sorcerer’s will, or maybe enabling the sorcerer to mimic or steal some attribute from the bird. But no, he said in response to Fjiar’s suggestion, not even sorcery could ever afford anyone the power of flight.

The Anguish of little Arnia

Leaving the others with Framleiðandi in the Docks Bow, Tóki led Yngwi round to the home of the miscreants’ victim, the seven-year-old Arnia, via the toy shop where Tóki collected a toy to give her, a carven puppy imbued with a magic of yapping back the last word spoken to it.
    The family home was a rude timber shack in one of the rough quarters of town, her father apparently a poor but proud man who moved here to get work in the rebuilding of Dale. Tóki was greeted with every honour the girl’s mother could offer, and Yngwi spoke honourably of their wish to track down the evil dwarves whose deeds were a stain on the honour of the race. Tóki’s sensitive offering of his gift, and a song of Yngwi’s about bravery in the young persuaded the mother to let them ask Arnia about her ordeal.
    The girl was snatched a little further from home than she would normally venture, looking for the stray cat the family had adopted. She was gagged and a sack was thrust over her head, and the two or three smelly men put her in the back of a cart, scaring her half to death with the foul-mouthed threats of what they would do if she so much as wriggled her toes. She remembered one of them cursing the ‘stupid dung for brains mule’. They didn’t take her far, kept her in a place where several more men and dwarves had a cook fire and a cask of grog, and then after the bells of Dale had rung nightfall two dwarves had bundled her into the cellar of the drinking hall.
    With tears starting down her cheeks again, Arnia bravely spoke on in gasps between soft but heart-rending sobs, to describe what happened when the sack was taken from her head. One of the straggle-bearded grey dwarf twins tied a cloth over her mouth, bound her wrists and hoisted her up off the floor. So that her eyes were level with those of a man who wore a black hood and had a scarf masking his face. But now that Tóki and Yngwi were able, gently, to ask her about this man at greater length than before, she recalled that as well as the painted shapes revealed when he took off his gloves and pulled up his sleeves, the man had the same black paint on the little of his face that she could see around his eyes.
    “Could you tell what he talked like?” asked Yngwi. “Did he sound like a Daleman?”
    “…Daleman?” echoed the toy puppy.
    “No, he sounded like a Southerner,” she said, but this proved to mean only that he came from ‘Downriver’, which included all of Middle-earth further afield than Lake-town. “And mostly what I heard was when him and one of the dwarves did that nasty, nasty song. Their voices were all different then, and it was like the whole room got horribler.”
    Her bravery gave out at this point and she surrendered to a bout of inconsolable crying. It was only after a good while had passed and a comical ditty from Yngwi had cheered her up that her mother allowed them a few more minutes, as long as they didn’t ask any more about that part of the night.
    “Did you ever hear what name the dwarves called the hooded man?” asked Tóki.
    “…man?” yapped the toy puppy.
    She said shook her head and said, “No. They just put the candles in a circle and lit them without really talking. But I think one of them might have called him ‘Master’ one time.”
    “And did you see a bird at all? A crow, perhaps?”
    “No. But!”
    “Yes?” said Tóki and Yngwi together.
    “That’s what the painting on his arms and hands was! It was like two scaly raven legs on his arms, with the claws here and here.” And she indicated the backs of her two hands.

Yngwi and Tóki praised Arnia for being so brave, and told her she could keep the toy puppy. They thanked her mother profusely and persuaded her to accept a few silver coins to make sure that Arnia would want for nothing until the whole episode was far behind her.

Plans and Deliberations

Harrowing as it had been to have the little girl recall her dreadful ordeal, when the two returned to The Docks Bow Yngwi the storyteller recounted it all again for the ears of their companions.
    Marion the Beorning suggested that the crow-designs on sorcerer’s hands and arms were probably tattoos rather than temporary body art specific to the magical ritual, as that would explain why he never left the inn room hired for him. None of the company knew of any culture in which tattooing was common, though Framleiðandi thought it probably pointed to the Easterlings, amongst whom dwell Dwîm and Dwîma’s dwarven tribe, the Ironfists.
    And when Yngwi repeated the girl’s description of the sorcerer’s voice when uttering the incantation of the ritual, Framleiðandi blenched. “The Black Speech!” he exclaimed. “I have seldom heard it uttered, but it answers the girl’s description.
    “The Morbeth, as it is called by the lore-masters of the elves!” added Ecthelon.
    “Aye,” said Marion. “The language devised by the Dark Lord himself in the Second Age of the world, before he was slain by the son of the first King of Gondor. It is only heard now on the lips of the very worst of orcs, and it is said that it embodies the Shadow in its every word.”
    But if the girl’s account elaborated the foulness of the sorcery afoot, it was Yngwi who brought them back to the one small practical detail that they could pursue. “The fact that they had a mule-cart may help us to track the blackhearts down,” he said. “There can only be maybe a couple of dozen mule-carts in the city, and that gives us a new question to ask the gate-guards – and perhaps the cartwrights!”

Whilst Yngwi and Tóki were gone, Fjiar had also been busy. Making free with the purse of Thorfin’s gold given him for expenses, he had bought so much ale for any of the regulars in the Docks Bow who might have seen the comings and goings of the miscreants that word had gone round the nearby streets and Dale-folk had flocked in. Being unaccustomed to public speaking he failed in his attempt at a rousing speech to urge them to do the right thing and tell him anything they might have seen. But pitching the situation as a mystery to which there had to be an answer did have the desired effect.
    One ‘Lomund’, a local storyteller who made it his business to know everyone else’s business, had taken an interest in the people involved that night and was keen to boast of his knowledge. He had identified that there were three customers in The Docks Bow, a man who never came out of his room and two grey dwarf twins in the next room who made all the arrangements. Outside of The Docks Bow itself there had been sightings of maybe half a dozen grey dwarves, and they seemed to have been associated with the eyepatched dwarf, Captain Beil, whose hangers-on included a handful of not so reputable dwarves from out of the Mountain or the Iron Hills (apart from one black dwarf in outlandish garb), and three or four mannish thugs.
    This Lomund said that no one had seen any of them since the night that the three patrons of the Docks Bow had left in such a hurry, but that they hadn’t been seen leaving town either – and there are only two proper roads out of Dale-town. He also said that if they were still in town but lying low, they were likely to have heard of Fjiar’s grand gestures seeking to find out anything about them.

Finally Ecthelon spoke up. “Rather than following a cold trail around Dale-town, you need to get a step ahead of your quarry.”
    The others turned to him, all ears.
    “You say these dwarf enemies of yours were previously the prisoners of your King Under the Mountain?” he asked.
    Fjiar answered defensively, “Well, Dwîm and Dwîma themselves weren’t there when we led the soldiers in. But yes, the rest of the Karghal clan that were holed up in a farmstead, or all those that survived, were taken as prisoners of the King.”
    “And they were cast out, with their lives to be forfeit if they were to return?”
    “Yes, that’s right.”
    “Then what in Middle-earth could be so important to them that they would chance that fate? You need to find out from your lord Thorfin what their goal could possibly be, and track backwards from there to identify their probable next step.”

SUNDAY, THE SECOND DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946

The company spent the next morning going round the ostlers of Dale-town, most of which were in the streets round the gate where the Merchant’s Way enters the town. None of the cart-mules that any of them had stabled around two weeks ago had belonged to anyone suspicious.
    Finally, close to midday, the company called on mule-breeder and cart dealer, Arfa of Dale, on his stud farm in the townlands a short distance outside the gates. Duly impressed by the sum of silver offered for information, he remembered selling a mule and cart to a pair of twin dwarves maybe six weeks ago, some time about the middle of the month of Rethe.
    Yngwi suggested to this Arfa the likelihood that dwarves unaccustomed to mule-wrangling and cart-driving might be likely to have needed repairs by now, and impressed upon him that there would be a considerable further reward for information if any cartwright or wheelwright of Arfa’s acquaintance might know anything about the movements or whereabouts of these dwarves.

Return to the Lonely Mountain

They continued on up the Dwarf-road to the Front Gate of the Lonely Mountain. The dwarves on the gate confirmed that they remained alert for any attempt of the Karghal Ironfists to return to the Mountain, and that none of them had passed the Gate.
    Fjiar, Yngwi and Tóki vouched for the good names of their guests, Marion and Ecthelon, and the company entered the Mountain.
    In the Mansion of the Dathrins they found Thorfin and related all their news to him. The mission to the eaves of Mirkwood had been successful in rescuing Framleiðandi, and he had been able to offer some admittedly slight new insights. They shared the tidings with Thorfin, and warned him of the possible threat to his estate or his personal safety. Ecthelon posed his fundamental question: what interest could sorcerers and renegade dwarves possibly have in the House of Dathrin that they were prepared to risk so much to pursue it?
    Thorfin said he would have had no idea that anything to do with him or his forefathers’ holdings could interest anyone but themselves. “But since regaining possession of my fathers’ mansion and the contents of certain vaults which escaped the desecration of Smaug the Terrible…” He tailed off, appraising Ecthelon and Marion with narrowed gaze. He found himself strangely moved to trust this elf, and the huntress’ gruffly straightforward manner betokened reliability.
    “Speak not of this outside this hall, but I have been learning that my House were the heirs of one Bavern of Khazad-dûm, who had clearly been a crafter, lore-master and magician of certain powers and purpose. This pendant about my neck was enchanted by his hand. Perhaps Bavern crossed the paths of sorcerers in the last days of Moria before the coming of Durin’s Bane.”
    And Thorfin related that in one of the secret vaults of his House was a memorial plaque to ten unnamed dwarves of ‘The Shield-wall of Bavern’. It said, “They fell in Khazad-dûm, that the treasure entrusted to their House should remain to the Dwarves,” even when the dwarves, on going into exile in the Great Lands, were forced to seal so much within the vaults and armouries of Moria.

View
Framleiðandi, Rescued
In which the Company return Framleiðandi, the stricken Master Toymaker, to Dale-town

“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.”

Yngwi s ngw rune

   “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.”

View
Where They Count Their Gold
In which the Six give battle before withdrawing and finding Framleiðandi

[Mention the dwarves’ triangular Fellowship Focusing]
[Needed more attention to the mewlips’ ‘Foul Reek’ stink in the foregoing.]
[Fjiar never got his hauberk on]

A poised moment saw Fjiar and Yngwi facing down three mewlips, at bay in the tight confines of their tunnel. The soulless eyes of the monsters betrayed no emotion, but in that moment they seemed reluctant to advance.

Ecthelon repeated the exhortation that none of his companions had heeded before: “Try to take a prisoner! With a bit of time, we may be able to gain some understanding with the brutes.” He fixed the gaze of one of the cowering creatures and gestured down at the floor with a flick of his nocked arrow.
   This met without even a glimmer of recognition from the three mewlips, nor any exchange of glances amongst them.
   Then Fjiar chose a more overt tactic, launching himself ferociously at the gap with a mighty ZIRAZ-TARAG AI-MÊNU!” A Firebeard is upon you!
   The mewlip that already bore a deep slash from Fjiar’s axe recoiled from him and with a pathetic grunt dove away back into the tunnel.
   “Are you the mewlips?” demanded Tóki , but his question met with no more recognition than Ecthelon’s gestured command. First one and then both of the remaining creatures simply sidled back into the tunnel and scurried after their cohort.
   With a look inviting Fjiar to support him, Tóki pursued them. Fjiar followed right behind, joined by Yngwi.
   “Push on!” cried the minstrel. “Think of Framleiðandi.”
   Ecthelon, Aerin and finally Marion all fell in after the dwarves.

The Treasure-chamber of the Mewlips

They heard the makeshift door thump closed in the darkness ahead, but as the six companions reached and spread out in the space in front of it, Tóki deftly applied his mattock and levered it creakingly open again.
   Beyond the door was a great dripping cavern, its walls lost in the darkness, untouched by the glow of the single candle that flickered a few paces ahead. The candle was planted upon an ancient mannish skull, which rested atop a great mound of hoarded wealth: polished gold coins and other shining objects, silver table knives, cups and dishes, lamps and candlesticks. More than simply glinting in the candlelight, the treasure seemed to their eyes to glow with a life of its own.
   “Beware a glamour—” Ecthelon began to call, but his warning was in vain. Fjiar’s legs were already carrying him into the cavern where he fell to his knees before the precious hoard, his mouth working silently. Tóki also suddenly found himself in the cavern right behind Fjiar, but one small part of his mind remembered a lesson of Framleiðandi’s and with an effort of will he pulled himself together. [Hope] He saw the candlelight glinting back from countless pairs of eyes in the darkness on every side. Then the soft scuff and flap of many feet announced the attack of the eerily voiceless mewlip horde.
   Tóki thrust himself forward to defend the dumbfounded Fjiar with great sweeps of his mattock and even with his own body. As the first half-dozen mewlips fell upon the pair the washing wave of corpse-stench all but reduced him to gagging and he sustained a mauling from the claws of several of the creatures attacking upon every side, but protect Fjiar he did. [‘Foul Reek’: 1 Hope to do anything but attack, + the 1 Hope for Protect Companion. I’ll let this stand, but it should have been 1 Hope for every attack you interpose yourself against!]
   Yngwi charged into the fray, axe and shield up as he laid about him to drive the mewlips off his companions.
   Fjiar now hacked out and beat his attackers back. In desperation he recalled his battle drill [Hope] and yelled out, “Fight in a wedge, and retreat till we get the door at our backs!”
   Marion stood forth amid the three dwarves, swinging her long splitting axe in great circles above their heads, and Ecthelon and Aerin shot their bows into the mêlée, two mewlips falling to their arrows.

Knocking away, evading or even enduring many a groping stroke from the wall of uncanny monsters bearing in upon every side, the companions fought on. Fjiar felled one with a single blow, cleaving it from shoulder to hip. Yngwi [Hope] brought his full strength to bear and cut down another. Marion’s axe [Hope] glanced the scalp of a mewlip, leaving it reeling on the spot, at which Ecthelon shot it through the heart. And Tóki buried the spike-point of his mattock in the skull of another, prying it free with his foot just in time to block the attack of its neighbour. But the press of the mewlips was such that where any was slain there were many more ready to take its place in the fray with the same uncanny desperation.
   Marion peered about, over the heads of the milling mewlips. “This isn’t just a natural cavern, there’s shape to it…”
   “Niches in the walls,” called Aerin after another moment. He loosed another arrow and added, “Filled with something pale.”
   Ecthelon’s eyes saw clearly enough. He announced flatly, “The walls of this place are filled with the bones of the ancient dead. But I see no sign of Tóki’s master having recently joined them.”
   Then grasping hands closed upon the rim of Yngwi’s shield and hauled it down, pulling him off-balance before his grimacing attacker’s fang-like teeth. At Yngwi’s gasp, Fjiar whirled and Falcon descended with dreadful precision, a single stroke of the broad-bladed axe hacking through the wrists of both grasping hands. But others seized upon the moment and Yngwi was grabbed, clawed and even bitten in several places before he could power them off him and get his shield up again.
   Marion raised her great gruff voice to a verse of a Northman war-song of fighting on when embattled, [1 Hope to do it, +1 Hope to succeed] and the dwarves took heart, steeling themselves against the pain of their injuries to fight on. [ custom]
   “We’ve got to get out of here!” rasped Fjiar.”Keep order, but back out of the door.”
   Axes and mattocks swung, bowstrings thrummed; mewlips were cast back only to be replaced by more of the horde pressing ever in. The archers, Aerin and Ecthelon, stepped back out of the doorway. Marion gave some cover to Yngwi and the two gained safety till only Tóki and Fjiar still traded strokes with the massing mewlips right before the doorway. But even as Fjiar despatched another mewlip with mighty overhand axe-blow, still another dived under his guard and daggered the claws of both hands deep into his leg all round his knee.
   “Come through! Come through!” urged Yngwi.
Fjiar retaliated against his low attacker with a crunching axe blow flattening it to the floor [Hope] before he allowed himself to hop and half fall through the doorway. Tóki was so overwhelmed by numbers he could not swing his mattock but backed out until the considerable combined weight of Yngwi and Marion pushing the door shut scraped the last grasping hands off him.

“We came for Framleiðandi,” pointed out Ecthelon as the dwarves drew great panting breaths. “If he met that slavering pack then he is beyond our aid. If he is anywhere else, we will be hard put to it to get him away with the pack so roused.”
   “If these two can hold the door while I work, I can wedge it and jam its hinges till it will take those… things a certain while to force their way after us.” Tóki produced a mallet and leather roll of dwarvish fêlak chisels that could double as wedges in such a time of need.
   “We can can hold the door,” grunted Marion.
   The three remained to see to it.

Ecthelon and Aerin, with sword and axe, and Fjiar bearing his lantern at their rear, sallied back to the cellar from which they had come.

The Dwarf in the Wine Cellar

[This is a reconstruction of how the next section might have unfolded if we’d had to do the detail in the session itself.]

The cellar had four other exits beyond the ones they had just explored, three of which were all the same. As with the one Yngwi had first glimpsed by the light of his torch, a square-cut tunnel ran off in a straight line for some way, with paired archways on either side every few paces giving onto small cells of forgotten purpose.
   “It’s like a gaol,” mused Ecthelon in a hushed whisper, half the way down the second of these tunnels. “But what gaol could need to hold so many?”
   Aerin added, “Men would surely never have lived below ground like this through choice? Meaning no offence, friend dwarf.”
   “None taken. Woodman. We don’t only live beneath the earth, we choose solid rock for our tombs when we are dead. I think these were the burial vaults of some race of men who honoured their dead the same way, burying them with their grave-goods of gold, and… Gold…
   “Forget the gold!” hissed Ecthelon, leading the way back to the central cellar. “The cells must be empty because the mewlips have defiled everything: the bones of the dead separated and stacked in that gruesome ossuary and the grave goods they were buried with, all collected in that other cavern and steeped in evil.”

From the cellar the very last arch was the one picked out with inserts of coloured stone and glass, which each of them had privately regarded with faint, uncertain suspicion. This led down a short flight of marble steps and then along a few paces of level passage to a door just out of view from above. The door was hinged and bound with lacquered iron, but the heavy timber between was heavily scarred and gouged, and a probing touch found that its lock held firm.
   “Framlei-what’s-your-name! Can you hear me?” called Ecthelon. He thought he heard a suggestion of a sound in reply, but though he called again, and pounded on the door and pressed his ear to listen through the wood, he heard nothing further.
   Fjiar stepped up. “Lock mechanisms are something Tóki’s very good with. But since he’s not here yet, let’s just see…”
   “Keep the door intact!” said Ecthelon, eyeing Fjiar’s great axe with concern.
   “Well if Tóki could open it without the key, maybe Framleiðandi – ‘Fram-lei-ðan-di’ – could have locked it without one too.” Fjiar produced a narrow file from the pouch that held his whetstone and used it to pry inside the keyhole. The lock sprang and he gave a delighted cry.
   Beyond lay a large cellar supported by many columns, between which were racks of bottles and earthenware pots, and great barrels lined the walls to left and right. In a space behind a barrel in the furthest corner, they found the recumbent form of a white-bearded dwarf, a silver bell still attached to the point of his claw-tattered green hood.
   Aerin bent to Framleiðandi’s aid, and found his injuries to have been properly treated, though the dressings were now old. His pack and his canteen were empty and he seemed to have succumbed through lack of food and water. If Ecthelon had truly heard a reply to his call, it must have cost the dwarf the last of his strength.

Favouring his injured knee, Fjiar sank down to sit with his back to a pillar. “Framleiðandi’s survived barricaded in here for however long. I reckon we can do the same,” he gasped.

View
The Cellars Where The Mewlips Sit
In which the Six Companions meet with Mewlips, and mow them down

The Companions took stock of their situation, reunited in the dripping cellars of the ruin. Soaked to the skin with noisome cold swamp-water, Ecthelon had been roused from the mindless oblivion of the sorcerous Marsh Bell by Marion’s song, and they and Fjiar stood dripping in the darkness a few long strides from the pool of torchlight where Yngwi, the Woodman traveller and Tóki were making certain that the two downed mewlip monsters would never rise again.
   “This man is ‘Aerin’, a Woodman from the west of Mirkwood,” announced Yngwi. “He’s ferocious with that axe.”
   (Ecthelon was surprised to hear what he knew as a female name in the grey-elvish tongue, but thought better than to go into that now.)

Two More

Tóki started at a twitching of movement in the sodden sack strapped across his back. He withdrew the magical toy duck of Framleiðandi and placed it on the wet flagstone floor, regarding it with concern as the duck’s wings flapped and made it begin to turn slow circles. “There is a dark magic in this place,” he declared.
   “Tóki, look out!” cried Marion.
   Another mewlip had slunk from a pitch-black side passage and sought to fall upon the dwarf but Tóki, warned just in time, snatched up the toy duck and brought up his mattock to fend off its attack.
   The companions converged from all points of the cellar to attack the mewlip and
   Aerin hurtled across the cellar and swung his axe at the mewlip, causing it to give ground and retreat further away from Tóki and Marion, back to the entrance of the passage, where it had a more timid cohort still lurking in the darkness.
   Yngwi barreled past Aerin but was betrayed by the slimy puddles underfoot, losing his balance before he could rightly swing his axe and fetching up heavily against the blockstone wall right beside the mewlips.
   Fjiar threw the great Falcon axe to soundly strike the lead mewlip. The axe swung impossibly in the air to arc around, still spinning end over end, and returned to the hands of the onrushing Fjiar.
   Yngwi’s target sprang around as the big dwarf passed him, ducked under the hesitant thrust of Ecthelon’s sword, and fell upon Yngwi’s back. Wrapping its great bestial arms around him, it paid no heed to the threat of his companions hemming them about, but scrabbled to bring its broken teeth to his neck.
   Yngwi span round and smashed repeatedly back into the wall, denying his grimly silent assailant, but not managing to shake its grasp and bring torch or axe to bear. The other mewlip joined the brawl and raked its claw-like nails the length of Yngwi’s thigh, rending the fabric of his britches and gouging deep into the flesh beneath.
   Fjiar ended his charge with a massive perfectly-aimed upswing of his great axe, which struck clean through the neck of Yngwi’s attacker. Its severed head flew right up and clacked soggily against the stone roof before rebounding to the floor.
   Marion closed for a more measured attack, hewing out with her splitting axe and sending the second mewlip crashing into the wall of the passage. Ecthelon, just two paces behind her, slid past and thrust, spitting the mewlip on his sword and killing it instantly.

The Tower

For a second time, the Company took stock of their situation. This time they found no further monsters to be lurking anywhere. Fjiar returned to his interrupted task and got his lantern lit. As the light swelled in the cellar, Ecthelon noted that the whole place was full of the muddy prints of bare feet, but they ran thickest between the steps to the submerged portal and one of the passages nearest to it.
   Heedless of this, Marion retied her axe over her back and gripped her spear, leading the way into the narrow passage where Yngwi’s attackers had been. It ran only a few paces before ending at the foot of a spiral staircase now half-choked with great blocks of rubble fallen from above, seemingly opening it to the sky to let a faint glimmer of light shine down.
   She clambered upward as cautiously and as softly as she might. Fjiar, displeased not to be at the fore himself, regarded the stonework warily as he climbed after her, his mail hauberk scraping over the rubble with the ring of metal on stone. Then as Marion neared a daylit chamber above, the black outline of a mewlip stepped into view and with both hands cast a great rock into the stairwell at her. Marion leapt aside and the rock struck the wall where her head had been; Fjiar in turn narrowly avoided its clattering progress down the stair.
   Leading with her spear, Marion surged upwards into the small chamber where the mewlip had no place to hide. She jabbed it in the belly and then ducked aside as Fjiar burst forth, swinging his great axe expertly in the constricted space and cutting the mewlip down.
The space they were in was a circular chamber in the foot of a fallen tower, where an arrowslit gave a narrow view onto the dark pool in front of the ruin. Four stone steps were all that remained of the stair that once climbed the tower.
   Returning to the others they related their findings.
   “They peep out slyly through a crack,” murmured Ecthelon.
   The company agreed this fallen tower offered a swifter way out of the ruin than climbing up the chimney past the hanging bell, and far preferable to the water-gate.

The Tunnel

Marion led again, this time into the passage where Ecthelon had identified the greatest traffic. The straight stone-faced course of the passage ended almost immediately in a cave-in, but a narrow way had been tunneled from the seeping packed-earth wall to the left. This wound back upon itself to the left before turning through a longer, slightly rising curve to the right until a last tortuous twisting left and right again brought it up abruptly to a swollen-timbered door.

The Cellars Where the Mewlips Sit

The door was half a hand’s-width ajar, and Marion’s eyes just made out that a faint yellow light shone somewhere in the space beyond, before Fjiar rounded the last bend and the light of his lantern overwhelmed it. And they heard a hissing echoing sound of many throats all drawing breath at the same time.
   Fjiar drew on his grandfather’s tales of tunnel-fighting [Hope]and backed smartly away, hissing at Marion to pull back after him. “Hold them at that corner!” he said, as Marion reached a section of the tunnel straight enough to give her spear free play.
   The first mewlip to slide into view was met by Marion’s spear and took a gash down its side, but twisted and lurched past the spear point to rake its claw-like nails across her forearm. A second pressed close behind, ready to throw itself into the fray.
   The vacant-eyed creatures showed little instinct for their own preservation, and threatened to overwhelm the Beorning warrior-woman. “Everybody back!” urged Fjiar, and Ecthelon behind him passed the word.

The six companions had edged one at a time into the tunnel as Marion led the way in, but Aerin the Woodman was still at the entrance when Yngwi relayed the instruction to withdraw. Aerin took a position to the side of the opening and as the others each emerged in turn he directed them to follow suit to left and right.
   Marion kept up a fighting retreat, her backward progress through the twisting tunnel guided by Fjiar’s hand on the back of her belt, such that she was able to keep her spearpoint moving fast enough to deny the mewlips a way past it. Nevertheless she was glad to retreat clear into the open cellar and see Aerin flanking the opening, axe raised above his head in both hands.
   “Come and get me, you mindless wretches!” she taunted.
   The first mewlip hopped forward and Aerin’s axe chopped into its back, felling it to the muddy floor.
   Yngwi and Fjiar fell upon the second one, the Falcon axe smashing it horribly before it could shove itself back into the further creatures pressing up behind.

A poised moment saw the two dwarves facing off against three mewlips at bay in the tunnel where the close confines offered some protection against axe-strokes. The soulless eyes of the monsters betrayed no emotion, but in that moment they seemed reluctant to advance.

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You Go To Find The Marsh-dwellers
In which the Five Companions encounter a sixth, and find the dripping cellars

[Retro: It had been a proper violent fight with that troll. All felt Fjiar showed genuine heroism on the offence, despite getting mightily thwacked twice, including that one so hard he opted for the knockback.
“Tóki the Trollslayer.”]

“Maybe we’ve just slain the mewlip,” ventured Yngwi, trying not to betray his eagerness to turn right around and leave the marshes immediately. But no one seemed to think that likely.

Even with their return to their campsite taking in the gathering of fuel for a second day’s smoky beacon, they were washed, bandaged and breakfasted and ready to set forth by the time the Sun — somewhere up there — was halfway to noon.
   Fjiar and Tóki kept their feet dry in Framleiðandi’s boat (on which Tóki’s repairs held up well). Yngwi, bigger than either, was happier to wade on his own two feet than to have anything to do with so small a boat. Fjiar threw him a rope to haul, and sat back to rest his aches and pains as best he could.
   Back to where Tóki had made two mattock-gouges in the form of a big X out of the bark of the tree nearest where he’d found the sunken boat, and on further south they went now.

Yngwi, with a real effort of will, surged through the slimy waters with more force than either Ecthelon or Marion could muster. And lurched onto any rising of semi-solid ground as though his life depended on it.
   He found bones. “Marsh pig” Marion concluded, but with the massive leg bones split for the marrow, and not by any blade.
   Then more bones, and sometimes brittle ancient ones jutting from deep in the clay as though the marsh had built up around them over long ages. And not just the bones of marsh-beasts, one thigh-bone, split down its length, was clearly mannish.
   No one spoke the thought alound that this might be how they would find Fram.

Then some time in the middle of the day, when Fjiar was stretching his boat-cramped legs, his foot struck something truly hard just beneath the muck. His heart rose to find anything solidity under this insipid characterless tract, and when he gleefully scooped it out to show Tóki and Yngwi, it proved to be a quarried cobble-stone of a man made roadway.
   They didn’t find any more bones for a time after that, and began to suspect they were moving further away from the lair of the murderous creatures responsible — both gratefully, but also half-dreading that the Mewlips’ lair would be exactly where they’d need to go. But Yngwi continued to scout indefatigably left and right of the company’s route, and announced the discovery that the swamp was still littered with the bones of many ancient kills everywhere except from the line of the now-submerged roadway that they followed. Tóki felt that there must be some power at work here, if only he had the lore to know what it might be. Ecthelon told that the elves of Mirkwood had warding ways to keep creatures of evil intent off their elvish paths, and he suspected a similar effect to be at work here.

They were now proceeding for better or worse along a definite course, and the lie of the land was changed sufficiently that Ecthelon thought it worthwhile to scale a tall tree and survey the roof of the forest once more. Straining his keen eyes he made out a stretch of forest a few miles off where the naked upper limbs of the trees provided a roost for a number of unmoving dark shapes which he supposed to be birds. If those are ‘gorcrows’, we may indeed hope that we are on the right course," he said on climbing back down to rejoin the others.
   As they carried on, it was Yngwi who first noticed that an ivy-draped stump was no tree, but made of masoned stone. And as they neared the point where Ecthelon had seen the birds, they passed a man-high pillar of the same construction, with an ornately carved capital. A gargoyle! For all its ancientry and vagueness, the poem of the mewlips was proving to unfold with uncanny accuracy on some details.
 

The Marsh Bell

And then as they advanced, line abreast, into where it seemed they were entering an area where a stone-built town, probably of Men, had once stood, the silence of the forest was broken by the baying of a hound. The company hastened onward, past stony humps of fallen walls where occasional arches still stood tall. It seemed to them that they could hear — or ‘almost hear’ — the tolling of a bell. They hastened their steps, Ecthelon, Marion and Fjiar pressing the pace until their line advanced practically at a run, and reached a long wall.

Ecthelon vaulted a low section where the wall had half-collapsed, and the others shortly rounded its end. They saw before them the flat expanse of a dark pool before an impressive arch built of creamy-golden stone, and there on the strand was a green-clad traveller beset by a wolfhound, pulling him back by a mouthful of his cloak as seemed to want to escape it by entering the water of the pool.
   “Ho, stranger. Stand fast and give your name or my friends will kill you.”
There came a splash from the end of their line where Ecthelon dove into the pool. Fjiar and Marion also seemed oblivious to the stranger, seeking to enter the pool themselves even without the need to escape the attack of any hound.
   “Snap out of it!” Yngwi bellowed, slapping Fjiar across the face. The Firebeard impassively failed even to notice that he had been struck, and Ygnwi was forced to put all his strength [Hope, refunded for saving his Fellowship Focus] into seizing Fjiar in a wrestling hold.
   Tóki threw himself upon Marion, desperately tackling the huge Beorning woman in the first few feet of the pool’s shallows and shouting in her face. “There’s enchantment here!” he hollered. “Fight it! You’ mustn’t go into the water.!” {Hope] Her glazed eyes slowly cleared, and took on a healthy expression of alarm, but Tóki has no time to explain. He turned to swim out past where Fjiar waded in his mail hauberk after Ecthelon, whose underwater progress showed only in a trail of bubbles on the surface of the pool, rapidly winking out.
   Yngwi, scared rigid of being lured to a watery death, was also duly wary of the massive hound, as tall at the shoulder as himself. But it proved an ally, its grip on the traveller’s cloak being the only thing that had saved him from a dark fate.

There was no time for introductions, or indeed for Yngwi to give anything more than the most cursory explanation of what was transpiring. Marion had cast a coil of rope to Fjiar and begun tying off the other end on an outcropping of wall she trusted would hold firm. Fjiar in turn had cast his helmet back to the bank and shrugged out of his hauberk of dwarven mail to plunge below the surface after Ecthelon.
   Tóki trod water with some difficulty, as Marion dived in and stroked powerfully over. Fjiar came up for air one last time just in front of the stone archway, and then after long enough that Tóki began to misdoubt how long Fjiar could hold his breath, there came the signal of two tugs which meant that they should follow the rope down underwater and give Fjiar their assistance.

Yngwi hid his reaction with a minstrel’s smoothness, but in fact felt sick in the stomach at the mere thought of deliberately swimming underwater. He led the still-bemused woodman around the pool to the ruin.
   “Has to be another way down,” he grunted.
  The woodman contemplated the purposefully receding back of the big blond dwarf, then regarded the situation of the others out in the dark waters of the pool. “Very well,” he assented lightly. “Come, Shep.” The loyal wolfhound fell into step, following the two as they trudged round towards the ruined hall
   As they ranged about, hey heard another stroke of the bell that had so beguiled them, before they knew to harden their resolve against it. It sounded much closer now, though clearly no belltower still stood in these swamp-infested ruins.
Yngwi declared, “The way that bell echoes, it’s in a smallish space, and underground!”
   His adopted companion regarded him in disbelief.
   “You think a trained musician who’s lived his whole life inside a mountain can’t tell these things?” After a brief exploration of the area, his eye fell on a structure of the right dimensions and sure enough, staring down into the stump of a half-collapsed chimney, he beheld a great rusty iron bell in the flue of the chimney, somehow installed on a bar wedged into the masonry.
   Yngwi hastened to climb down, heedless of the grime of ancient soot and less ancient bird droppings. The woodman followed, but paused in passing the great bell to cut the clapper from it. The rusted iron piece proved to be tied inside the bell by a length of sickly sinew, whose origin he durst not guess.

The Dripping Cellar

Fjiar, diving beneath the water of the dark pool where the last bubbles had shown the ensorcelled Ecthelon to have swum, had discovered a sunken portal. He had pulled his way under the lintel and along the roof of a short passage, until his head broke the surface in a dank dark chamber. A faint glimmer of light from an opening ahead revealed steps rising up out of the water on which was stretched the inert form of Ecthelon. Fjiar gave the arranged two tugs on his rope and moved to tend to Ecthelon.
   The elf still drew light but regular breaths, but did not rouse at Fjiar’s shaking. A splashing in the darkness behind announced Marion’s arrival, and then Tóki’s. Fjiar produced his lantern and his watertight tinderbox, and prepared to strike a light as Marion tended to Ecthelon. She could not stir him at first, but she gave voice to a Northmannish waking song. The echoes in this dank space defied her, but she raised her powerful voice and was rewarded by Ecthelon beginning to stir. [Hope; replenished immediately for succouring Fellowship Focus] Alarmed at the noise, Tóki hurried to stand guard at the doorway with his mattock at the ready.
   A short passage ran from the doorway to open out into a great dark cellar, at the far end of which a dim shaft of light shone down into an open hearthplace. Tóki’s fingers tensed on the haft of his mattock when scuffing sounds issued from the chimney, but then he saw Yngwi and then his Woodman companion drop to the ground.

Yngwi recognised the gruff voice of Marion raised in a surprisingly pitch-perfect song somewhere out in the darkness of the cellars. But not wishing to declare his presence to anything else that might be out there in the darkness, he knelt in the curiously rubble-free fireplace at the chimney’s foot and began to strike a spark to light his torch.
   Yngwi’s torch flared up before Fjiar’s lantern and torch and axe held out before him he stepped forward into the cellar, the woodman with his long-hafted axe right behind.
   As he stepped out, the light of his torch fell on two hideous figures that had been slinking silently up in the darkness. Tóki saw them too. “Look out!” he cried.
   “To arms!” hollered Yngwi. “For the Mountain!”
   The pair of mewlips were shambling man-shaped creatures with pale clammy flesh like drowned corpses left to rot in the water. A fell light in their small eyes suggested a wicked vitality and intent, and they mutely reached out their mighty misshapen arms, clawed hands grasping at the air.
   Yngwi swung his torch flaring in the dank air to fend off the attack of the first mewlip, and as it recoiled he struck it a blow of his axe.
   The Woodman gave a yell of rage and hurtled past him, swinging his long-hafted axe in both hands to crunch into the chest of the second mewlip, felling it instantly in a mess of broken bone.
   Ecthelon and Marion moved out cautiously into the dark space, left and right.
   “Framleiðandi!” cried Tóki as charged with no such care through the dark cellar towards the light of Yngwi’s torch. He swung his mattock at the wounded mewlip that flailed ineffectually at bay before Yngwi, and with a shattering of the bones in its arm dropped the creature in a heap. Even before Yngwi could react, the Woodman’s axe descended again and hacked the mewlip’s head from its shoulders.

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