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.)
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.
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.
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 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.