Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain

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.

View
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.

View
Beside the Rotting River
In which the Five continue the search, they return to camp to lie in wait — for a troll!

The Company had no clue as to the lie of the ‘land’ away south of the campsite — having been led in from the north by the Wood-elves. Ecthelon perfectly happy — indeed, for his own part, more confident — to investigate at night, even if he couldn’t see as clearly as in broad daylight. But he made no attempt to persuade the others, who were in any case adamant that they were not exploring a swamp where unknown creatures had tried to lure them and then departed — or, worse, remained lying in wait — when they could not even see in front of their own feet. They sat tight.

Double watches for the rest of the night after the strange lights finally went away and didn’t come back. Breakfast cooked up early, since they were awake anyway, but meagre fare from the reduced provisions they’d been able to bring away from their boat before the elves disappeared. It did little to raise their moods in this forsaken tract of darkened land.

[IN FACT CORRUPTION ROLLS ALL ROUND LEFT MARION AND FJIAR ACCRUING +1 SHADOW POINT EACH.
I WAS HOUSE-RULING THAT IT’S TOO STEEP FOR THIS STRETCH OF M-E TO REQUIRE A ROLL OF FEAT + 1d6 / WISDOM vs a TN of 14 OR ACCRUE A SHADOW POINT EVERY DAY. THE 50% OF PCs WHO FAVOUR VALOUR OVER WISDOM HAVE V. LITTLE CHANCE OF MAKING A TN of 14. SO I MADE IT EVERY 3 DAYS.
I THINK I SHOULD HAVE MADE IT DAILY BUT vs A TN of 10.]

[First rule of Shadow-lore: don’t talk about the Shadow.]

As a grey light slowly raised the blackness of night to the gloom of day, some time well after dawn, the five looked for sign of what creatures had been out there during the night.
They found not track nor slot nor spoor.
At length Fjiar the dwarf surprised both the keen-eyed Ecthelon and the seasoned tracker Marion, pointing to a trail of some three-toed wading bird’s footprints in the top of the silt that lay a foot beneath the surface of the water. This delicate substrate proved that nothing larger than an insect had been out there last night.
“But those were no fire-flies!” insisted Yngwi (who had seen the fire-flies that Bofur Ironhand bred for their glowing glands).
“Nay,” agreed Marion. “Marsh-lights, like I’ve heard tell of among the folk on the Great River.”
 

The Wood of Hanging Trees

Return to the search for Framleidandi.
The campsite was on the southern end of a gentle spur of dry land that rose away to the north and west. South of them was a tract of worsening swamp which was mostly flat water drowning the tangled boles of hoary crack-barked willow-trees that grey so densely the searchers could rarely see the sky.
After wading only a few hundred paces, Toki pointed out how easily they could become lost in such a tract and never find their camp again. (If they didn’t trip and drown anyway, Yngwi added softly, for his own ears only.)
Tóki and Fjiar agreed a plan to create a fire that would make a smoky beacon that anyone’d they’d be able to see just by climbing one of the taller trees. Fjiar had everyone collecting sodden fuel even as they trudged back, then swiftly made a fire, banked it and heaped the wet stuff over it to smoke, then dry, then eventually burn. No one argued with the dwarf when it came to fires, and Fjiar said that this one would smoke on till nightfall, barring a rainstorm or the interference of treacherous elves.

For the first half of the day the five fanned out in a broad line and waded and squelched their slow way through the darkling mire without finding the faintest sign that anyone had ever travelled it in a hundred years. They ate a cold lunch perched on mossy logs, relieved to get their feet out of the water even for a brief spell.

But they stuck at their task, and later in the day as Yngwi clambered up over a tangled mass of exposed roots, he spotted that the usual moss was missing from a broad swathe across them. Marion came over and identified a deeper scoring across the bark of the roots, a continuous line a couple of fingers wide, like the keel-timber of a light boat. A thin layer of slime proved the boat not to have been dragged over here less than a week ago, but nor was the moss grown back.
“It’s Framleidandi, I’m sure of it!” concluded Toki.

They changed their line to trend a little further west, following the line the bot had been dragged, and rewarded later in the day by another discovery.
After hours of hearing nothing but the rhythmic sloshing of own wading legs, the monotony wasbroken by a sudden cry of surprise and pain from Toki. Both Fjiar and Yngwi immediately lurched in his direction, bellowing out to demand what had happened.
Ecthelon and Marion were concerned too, but Ecthelon remembered himself [HOPE] in time to see a twitch of movement in a pile of mossy growth on a limb a Fjiar approached to pass beneath it.
“Look out!” yelled the elf.
Fjiar felt a pendulous vine of moss touch his cheek and, forewarned, threw himself his full length into the water on his left. The thick vine was pulled up into the air with an audible snap, to disappear back onto the branch overhead.
“Gallows-weed!” gasped Ecthelon as Fjiar pulled himself back to his feet and let swamp-water drain out of his sleeve.
Tóki — his cry of alarm momentarily forgotten by the others at Fjiar’s narrow escape from being hanged by gallows-weed — proved to have barked his shin on something submerged beneath the water.
This was the gunwale of a sunken boat, a skiff that would take two men, which they manhandled out of the muck. Righting it and setting it on the surface of the water, they found it intact, but with its seams ruptured and slowly shipping water. Looking at its underside, it bore numerous scars made by something sharp (but not as sharp as a blade) and the wood of the gunwale-rail had been crushed to splinters in a few places. They reached the conclusion that the damage was caused by claws and bites.
“Can you fix it?” Fjiar asked.
“No,” replied Tóki. “I mean: yes. Yes I can.”
Even with nothing better than mud and moss for caulking, within a few minutes he had the boat afloat again and letting in scarcely any water.

Having identified the appearance of gallows-weed lying coiled on a branch in readiness to seize its prey, it was easy to find another specimen and trigger it’s ‘attack’. The vine proved strong, resisting the cuts of anything less than a mattock or great axe, and capable of yanking upwards easily the weight of a large man.
“‘…Tread lightly…’” mused Ecthelon. “It would be bad enough to be suspended by the neck by this creeper, but if it had gained a purchase on Fjiar, he would have had the full weight of his dwarvish steel hauberk dragging down on his neck!”

By this time the day was done and the paltry light already dwindling into darkness. Ecthelon lithely climbed up the limbs of a sturdy-looking willow tree and confirmed the direction back to where the plume of smoke from Fjiar’s fire revealed their campsite.

Back at the camp the fire was remade for cooking, and a passable if uninspiring evening meal was prepared. But after the curious events of the last night, they were anxious for their safety again. After much discussion, it was agreed to use Framleidandi’s two-man boat, upturned, as a ‘hide’ disguised by bits of swamp-vegetation, in which Fjiar and Yngwi would install themselves ready to rush out with surprise on their side against whatever the lights of last night might be.

We Have a Swamp Troll

Sure enough, the lights returned again, a little before midnight as far as anyone could judge, but the ambush did not go entirely according to plan.
The lights were not as obvious as they had been the previous night. Fjiar [HOPE] spotted a dim glow in the faintly misty night, not a hundred paces out as before, but almost on top of them. Just a couple of lights were there, but not directly visible as they were in the lee of some obstacle. Then one of the lights bobbed forward a little and its radiance limned a scaly outline of a huge form easily ten feet tall.
We have a swamp troll! he thought bitterly, and sounded the duck lure that Tóki the Toymaker had lent him from the satchel of oddities he insisted on travelling with.
The troll proceeded onwards, a few paces to one side of Fjiar’s and Yngwi’s hiding place, heading for the light of the campfire. Ecthelon and Marion were in their bedrolls whilst Tóki sat up with his back to a tree, but he had failed to notice the approach of the troll, and failed to move even as the duck-lure was sounded. Tóki had been fast asleep on watch!

Fjiar surged to his feet, throwing back the shell of the skiff and hurling the Falcon Axe of the Dathrins in a double-handed overhead cast at the troll’s back.
Baruk khazad! he yelled.
The great falcon-bladed axe looped end over end to strike the troll squarely in the back, and spin on, disappearing through the trees on one side.

Ecthelon and Marion leapt to their feet, the elf dashing back to gain space for a bowshot Marion swining her axe right at the approaching troll, but the darkness defied her and the ill-aimed blow glanced off the troll’s scaly hide.
“A DWARF!” it bellowed thickly, ignoring Marion at the sight of Tóki.
Tóki woke from slumber at the last moment, snatching up his mattock and swinging out with it even as he scrambled to his feet, but his own twisting movement spoilt his aim and the mattock thunked deeply into the sodden turf for all the world like he was digging his own grave. Thrown badly off balance by his missed attack, that seemed all too possible.

Yngwi was up behind the troll with axe and shield, but his stroke went astray.

The flying axe carried on its course out in the darkness and now snapped back to the outstretched hand of Fjiar as he closed on the troll without a thought for his own defence, bent on hatred for the race that had taken his grandmother’s life. No sooner was it grasped than Fjiar buried it in the side of the troll, black blood gouting out in response to strike the wet turf with a hiss.
From out of the darkness, Ecthelon’s arrow struck true if not deeply in its armoured hide, and the troll let out a great bellow of anger.

It laid about it with a scarred and gnarled tree-trunk that served it as a club. “I HATE DWARVES!” it hollered, thumping the tree-trunk down with poor aim, missing Tóki by several inches.

Yngwi struck again, forcing himself to his best effort (HOPE) and planted his axe into the great troll’s thigh.
“Splitter!” came Marion’s gruff battlecry as she swung her great axe in a perfect arc and its heavy wedge-shaped head took the troll high in the ribcage with a great impact like the crushing of rocks. The troll reeled back, but split the night air with a roar or anger and continued it attack even with the black blood pouring down its chest.
Tóki pulled his mattock from the soft earth and swung ineffectually, then in the face of the troll’s anger Fjiar was between them. The tree-trunk swooped down with a stroke that would surely have broken Tóki’s skull but Fjiar had interposed himself — helm, hauberk and Falcon axe — in the path of the blow. Tree-trunk struck axe haft with a worrying crack and the weight of the blow carried through, taking Fjiar in the chest and sweeping him back off his feet to fall several paces away.

Ecthelon loosed again, sure enough of his aim to add an archer’s incantation. The arrow flashed silver in the darkness in the moment between leaving Ecthelon’s bow and striking the troll, but shy of a killing shot it merely lodged a couple of inches deep in the monster’s neck.
Yngwi Sandstone gave little heed to his own protection and hewed at the troll again, and more black blood sprayed in the night.
Then Tóki struck upwards at the body of the wide-stanced troll looming over him. His mattock crashed through the armoured skin of the troll and bit deep.
THere was an instant in which everyone was still, and pain contorted the ugly features of the stone-troll, and then with a final roar of anger it kelled over and fell to the ground dead.

View
The Long Marshes
In which they pick up Framleiðandi's trail amid the swamps of the River Running

NOTES STILL KINDA SCRAPPY

the huddle of huts where the some-time Stair porters lived.

No amenities, so camping, but the simple young men of the camp-village have a tented booth with a couple of hogsheads of ale, and there’s drinking at a couple of the campfires.

Camp set. All happy to mingle with the locals.
Impressed with anyone who comes this way, only well armed and courageous merchants. Yngwi knew he could be sure to entertain them with a tale or two, but thought to lift their spirits with a song. [TOR: His Speciality of Storytelling could have guaranteed a regular success.] He strikes up on his lyre and gives them a song, but their claps are only polite, uninspired.
Marion strikes up with a song of Beorn’s leading a goblin-slaying escapade in the Misty Mountains (Yngwi improvising an accompaniment on his hand-drum) and this is far more like it.

Later on, as Fjiar’s prying Toki’s hands from Thorfinn’s purse strings to offer ale all round and instigating contests of arm-wrestling, two of the young men usher old Nerulf to the fire and seat him beside Marion.
Prompted by Fjiar, Toki asks after Framleiðandi, saying that they’re heading south into the marshes. Only party through here anything like recently was a group of seven dwarves heading off on a trade prospect to the Sea of Rhûn.
Old Nerulf says — an ancient-looking decrepit Northman, hardly intelligible when he speaks, but when told that the companions are heading south he repeats to Marion over and over again what seems some words of warning or rhyme of lore he learned when he was a child:

“If you go south in the marshes take heed: tread lightly and fear the gallows-weed…”

All of this was in Dalish. Ecthelon could tell that it was a Northron tongue, but Marion understood it well enough to translate for him.
Ecthelon: detects a fragmentary rhyme of lore, even if its pedigree is only a lifespan or so of men. Every word likely to have import.
In fact, wracking his memory, he became sure that gallow-weed is the mannish name for a certain plant that grows downward from flat-spreading boughs, only in wetland areas of the forest, and mostly in the south: only where touched by the Shadow.

Next morning, boat onto open frame wagon and down the trackway with its carved wheel-courses like the dwarves knew from mine tunnels.
Below them the flat and fenny land blanketed in deep fog, but burning away in the morning sun so that before they reached the bottom they could see the river stretching out before them, fractured into a hundred interweaving courses.
At the bottom Ecthelon bade one youth take a silver farthing for Nerulf, as a token of thanks.

Ecthelon moved to the prow to watch for submerged hazards and spot out the best route. Fjiar to the helm, following his directions. At times it took Fjiar a major effort to avoid becoming grounded on mudbanks invisible in the murky water, even with the long poles he’d had the forethought to cut. Everyone was appreciative of his efforts.

Yngwi and Marion scouting and hunting upon sandbanks and islands on either side as they proceeded. Couldn’t possibly quarter the whole marsh, but could stay alert for signs.
Yngwi found a broken arrow-shaft in a marsh-alder, snapped off a hand’s breadth behind the arrowhead that was so deeply embedded that it took him some time with his knife to carve it free. Fjiar pronounced the arrowhead to be unminstakably of fine dwarven steel.
Late in the day, Marion spots soot-stains up the bark of a tall willow-stump and finds the site of a campfire and the neatly-stacked bones of a marsh-deer, bearing the blade-marks of skilled butchery.

Camp in the open, before the river plunged into the dark wall of the forest of Mirkwood now only a mile or two distant.
Yngwi sticking at the poem and (INTRODUCE EARLIER:) map, trying to identify the area of Mirkwood to which they should travel, convinced despite Ecthelon’s rejection that the poem must be intended as literal directions.

Next day, onward, into the forest, where all sounds of natural life were stilled. No birdsong, nor even the buzz of marsh insects could be heard in the eerie silence.

Marion found the site of a recently felled tree, dead not greenwood. Fjiar confidently pronounced the cuts to have been made at a dwarf’s height rather than that of a man or an elf. (Demonstrates with a swing of Falcon.) A search of the immediate area soon turned up a campsite that looked to have been used for quite a while. Gutters had been carved in the loam on three sides of a space the size of a one- or two-man tent, drag-marks on a bank showed where a boat had been drawn up; though the rain had softened everything in the time since. Regarding the camp-hearth lined with stones brought from who-knew-where, Fjiar said he knew dwarven firecraft when he saw it.
This was surely Framleiðandi, and if he had a boat then he could hardly have smuggled it unnoticed past the porters at the Stair of Girion. He must have passed through in the company of the dwarves travelling further downriver.

Tracking from the campsite, Ecthelon identified a route along dry land which someone had used repeatedly for up to a mile — though it was less travelled the further it went, suggesting a search pattern fanning out all along the route.

Out on this trail, Ec caught sight of a wood elf flitting along parallel to his course. Stepping smartly out of range of his companions he warily approached, and an elf stood out from behind a tree trunk. Bow held low and unthreatening, he nevertheless had his hand out in admonishment.
Soft he demanded what business Ec had here in this tract of Mirkwood, in the company of dwarves. Clearely a touchy subject; Ec recognized Galion the former butler/winekeeper of King Thranduil; dwarf- and hobbit-hater since the escape of Thorin Oakenshield and company from the halls of the Wood-elf king. Three other archers made up his group.
Ec said that he and the dwarves were seeking another dwarf, who they believed was searching for the mythical ‘Mewlips’, and — laconically — if it was any consolation, the ancient rhyme described such searches as leading to a dark fate.
Galion declared that he had never heard of ‘Mewlips’, and confirmed Ecthelon’s belief that there were no creatures in this march of the forest that might warrant such a name. But he confirmed that there had been a crazy lone dwarf in the area a few weeks ago, acting like he was searching for something. Galion consented to lead Ecthelon to the place where this dwarf had had his last camp before he disappeared — which had not concerned Galion in the slightest. This camp was a few hours southwards on foot; he would not tarry for straggling dwarves who could not keep up, and returning for their boat would be their own affair.

Ecthelon trotted back to the others and told them to strike camp in haste and bring only the essentials with them, as party of wood-elves were leading the way to where they’d last seen Framleiðandi, but they weren’t waiting for stragglers.
Marion moved swiftly to Ecthelon’s side, and the two looked back in some dismay as the three dwarves identified a keg of ale as a travel essential and were proceeding to lash it to two of Fjiar’s long poles in order to carry it between them.
“We can’t trust the water in this place!” puffed Fjiar as he and Yngwi jogged after the others, with Toki alongside the keg itself trying to steady its jouncing.
The wood-elves pulled far ahead, and the Company from Dale were soon strung out in the darkling forest, their fraught haste preventing all hope of retaining their bearings and leaving them defenceless against any peril their unseen guides might fail to protect them from. did not. The simple weight of the keg was something they could sustain all day, but it was a struggle for Yngwi and Fjiar to maintain a matched pace as the way led over gnarled tree-roots and splashing through mud-choked creeks. I HAVE TO RETCON HERE: THIS IS WORTH -3 ENDURANCE, DOUBLED IF YOU FAIL AN ATHLETICS vs TN:12, AND ACCRUING 2 FATIGUE IF YOU ROLL AN ‘EYE’. SO YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN A ROPIER STATE THAT NIGHT THAN WE’D PORTRAYED.
[BUT AFTER A ~HALF-HOUR REST YOU GOT YOUR HEART-SCORE’S WORTH OF ENDURANCE BACK, AND AFTER THE NIGHT’S KIP YOU GOT THE REST OF YOUR END BACK. SO ONLY SOMEONE GETTING AN EYE WOULD STILL BE DOWN BY MORNING. THE END OF THE

The beams of sunlight filtering through the dark canopy slanted up till they no longer reached the forest floor, then faded, and then were gone. The company jogged the last hour in complete darkness within the forest. Fjiar efficiently struck spark to tinder and handed Toki a torch to hold up to light their steps, but they remained largely dependent on the elvensight of Ecthelon, and slumped down at the end inwardly glad that the ordeal was over.
“Who’s for a jack of ale?” quipped a breathless Fjiar.
“It was good stuff last night, a heady brew with a notes of fruit; I hope it travels well,” said Toki.

100 paces from the campsite Marion found a place where a small boat had been repeatedly dragged out of the water and ‘beached’.
Fjiar: “Elves could have let us boat our way in.”
Now long gone. they’d said to Ec that Fram had not been seen back here in the last three weeks, nor anywhere within a day’s ranging.

(They spent as little time as they might in this area ‘for the obvious reasons’ — MIRKWOOD-LORE accounting for this by the proximity to the Shadow-reeking Mountains of Mirkwood.)

View
Onto the Trail of Framleiðandi

HIGHDAY THE 16TH DAY OF CHITHING, TA 2946

At first light Tóki the Toymaker made his hasty way from Dale-town up into the Lonely Mountain and the Hall of the Dathrins. He roused Thorfinn and those of the Company who, having aided in liberating the hoard of his forefathers, now enjoyed the hospitality of his Hall, and told them his dire news.
   “Dwîm and Dwîma are back!” he gushed. “Unless they never left, and were just hiding out all this time.” After Thorfinn had reported the crimes of the twin dwarves, Dwîm and Dwîma, and the other Ironfists of the Karghal clan, the authorities had instigated a dwarfhunt but had been unable to find any trace of the remaining Ironfists or ‘Captain’ Beil and his so-called mercenaries. “Whatever they wanted with your family’s vault, Thorfinn,” Tóki continued, “they obviously haven’t given up on it. And it looks like they’re in the company of a mannish sorcerer.”
   “Yes, I remember,” said Yngwi the Storyteller. “That prisoner we questioned — ‘Fhêk’ — he said that Dwîm and Dwîma had been meeting a mannish stranger, and had been very secretive about some ‘thing’ that he wanted them to get, for which he would make them all rich dwarves.”
   " ‘Some thing’ that they sought to steal from the vault of my fathers!" exclaimed Thorfinn bitterly.
   Tóki proceeded to tell the others everything that had happened the previous night. But he was forced to admit that after he and his friends freed the hapless quarterstaff-wielding guardian from the same ensorcellment as the Karghals had used on the giant mole-monster, they had not been able to stop the evil twins and their sorcerous accomplice from getting away. Nor could they glean anything from the candle-burning blood ritual as to what the nature of the dark magic had been.
   Thorfinn directed Fjiar to double the guard both on the Hall of the Dathrins and on the North Spur Mines. Thorfinn himself would go back to the King’s Officers and demand a repeat dwarfhunt of redoubled intensity, as the wrongdoers were not only still in the area, but had now proven to be consorting with sorcerers intent on committing the darkest of misdeeds.
   “But if only we knew what in Middle-earth they are after,” he glowered.
   “My master, Framleiðandi, might have been able to help us,” mused Tóki sadly. “I was always sure he knew much more about sorcerers than he ever told me — as though even the knowledge of such things was a burden he refused to inflict on anyone else. Such is the road walked by the wardens of Middle-earth.”
   Thorfinn was in agreement. “So we need to find him and bring him back from wherever his mysterious business has taken him. Take this purse and do whatever it takes to find out where he went, get after him, and bring him back to help us against this sorcerer.”

* * *

Over the next couple of days Tóki and big Yngwi went round all the gate guards of Dale-town, asking whether any recalled seeing Framleiðandi the Toymaker leave town three moons ago in the month of Frery, just after Yule: a whitebeard dwarf in an emerald hood with a silver bell on the end. They paid respectful calls upon several wise whitebeards of the Lonely Mountain who might have known him, since he was a loremaster as well as a toymaker, and his mysterious business might have been known to others. But it seemed he had slipped away in complete secrecy and told no one any more than he said to his toy-making apprentice, Klerkur: “I am going away upon business; I may be some time. Give this to Tóki and tell him to keep it with him at all times of day and night.” The item in question was of course the masterpiece magical toy duck, the true nature of which Tóki had only just discovered.
   On the evening of the second day Tóki and Yngwi wearily slumped into two booth seats in the Gold Hush Tavern and ordered a pair of ales. Tóki set Framleiðandi’s duck on the table and treated himself to a smoke of his new batch of hobbit pipeweed.
   Yngwi inspected the wooden duck’s blank gaze. “So that thing really spoke with old master Framleiðandi’s actual voice?” he asked.
   “Well, it was his voice saying ‘Quack!’ — by some magic I never even knew could be invested into any toy. Certainly he never taught it to me…” Tóki tailed off, savouring the Longbottom Leaf.
   Yngwi regarded the toymaker inhaling the smoke of the weed and blowing it out again, and then he saw a shrewd look slowly dawn in Tóki’s eyes.
   “What Framleiðandi did know I can do,” he said, “is give life to magical things.”

Back in the toyshop Tóki cleared a space on a workbench and placed the duck in front of him. He laid both hands upon it, closed his eyes, and went through a succession of songs, broken fragments of the spells of the dwarven masters of the ancient days, until he found one that worked. And then he flooded new strength into Framleiðandi’s magical creation.
   Tóki opened his eyes. “It’s done.”
   “So now what do we do?” asked Yngwi, seeing no change in the duck.
   “Where is Framleiðandi?” Tóki intoned to it, flicking its bill open with one finger.
   I do not know where he is, replied the voice of Framleiðandi, the duck raising its wings and wagging its lower bill as the words came out. He has gone to seek the Mewlips of legend where the Rhyme of Lore surely says they must be, southwards along the eaves of the forest of Mirkwood. And then it lowered its wings and was still.

* * *

So it was decided that whilst Thorfinn and the others would remain in the Lonely Mountain and do everything they could to track down the Karghal twins and their sorcerer associate, Tóki, Yngwi and — against the dangers of Mirkwood — Fjiar the Fearless would undertake the expedition to follow Framleiðandi’s trail.
   In Dale-town the affable Yngwi led their enquiries about journeying southwards, speaking to traders and caravan captains in the Merchants’ Quarter. But Tóki and Fjiar realised after a time that where everyone was directing them to the Docks Quarter to travel down the River Running, Yngwi persisted in asking after overland routes. Even when, exasperated, they challenged him on this, he deftly changed the subject by saying that they also had to find out about the Rhyme of Lore the duck had mentioned.
   “I may be mostly a tavern storyteller and young, but I have learnt some of the histories of Durin’s Folk.” The oral traditions of the houses of the dwarves each comprise staggeringly long sagas of the deeds of the forefathers through all the Ages of Middle-earth, all rendered in the secret Khuzdul tongue which they never use in front of other folk. “A ‘Rhyme of Lore’ sounds like the same thing for the other Free Peoples; we should ask minstrels and storytellers and such like about this rhyme of ‘The Mewlips’.”
   He plunged through a drinking hall door before the other two could stop him and took a seat at a table right in front of the platform on which a singer was performing: an immensely tall leather-clad woman with a powerful voice.
   And so the three dwarves met Marion Ursaris, a towering woman of the Beornings from the passes of the Misty Mountains. Though she was a singer of the songs of the Northmen’s traditions, she gruffly dismissed any notion of ‘Rhymes of Lore’. But when Tóki spoke of their mission to bring back the missing master with the lore of the Shadow, Marion suddenly took an interest.
   “If your old dwarf was a master of that lore, then I will help you to find him!”

“Excuse me,” came a light voice from behind them. “I enjoyed your performance very much, madam. And I couldn’t help overhearing you mention ‘Rhymes of Lore’, just now.”
   The speaker pushed back his hood and revealed himself to be a slender elf.
   “What do you want, elf?” demanded Fjiar brusquely, eyeing the mailshirt beneath the elf’s cloak and the sword at his hip.
   “I am something of a collector of of such rhymes, and I wondered if I might be of some assistance. Ecthelon of Mirkwood, at your service.”
   Tóki hurriedly introduced himself before Fjiar could say anything further, and briefly recounted their goal of following the trail of Framleiðandi, who had gone to seek the Mewlips along the eaves of Mirkwood.
   “I do not know of any ‘Mewlips’, but it is true that there is an ancient rhyme about them. If I recall correctly it is notable for being a rhyme composed far to the west, but referring to the east of Mirkwood. It is badly corrupted, with invented names like the ‘Merlock Mountains’ and the ‘Marsh of Tode’ inserted in it, but I believe I could can recite it accurately.”
   He took himself apart and sat curiously inert, seeming as one asleep save for his eyes remaining fully open. And then after a short space he came back to himself, returned to others, and recited the recollected tale.

The shadows where the Mewlips dwell
Are dark and wet as ink,
And slow and softly rings their bell,
As in the slime you sink.

You sink into the slime, who dare
To knock upon their door,
While down the grinning gargoyles stare
And noisome waters pour.

Beside the rotting river-strand
The drooping willows weep,
And gloomily the gorcrows stand
Croaking in their sleep.

Over the Merlock Mountains a long and weary way,
In a mouldy valley where the trees are grey,
By a dark pool’s borders without wind or tide,
Moonless and sunless, the Mewlips hide.

The cellars where the Mewlips sit
Are deep and dank and cold
With single sickly candle lit;
And there they count their gold.

Their walls are wet, their ceilings drip;
Their feet upon the floor
Go softly with a squish-flap-flip,
As they sidle to the door.

They peep out slyly; through a crack
Their feeling fingers creep,
And when they’ve finished, in a sack
Your bones they take to keep.

Beyond the Merlock Mountains, a long and lonely road.
Through the spider-shadows and the marsh of Tode,
And through the wood of hanging trees and the gallows-weed,
You go to find the Mewlips — and the Mewlips feed.

“If your dwarven master is as learned as you claim, then I would be keen to learn the truth of that rhyme.” said Ecthelon. “My people have known of no such creatures within the borders of Mirkwood for many yen — ‘many centuries’, you would say.”
   Yngwi exclaimed, “But here’s a rhyme that Framleiðandi — in his own voice; I heard it! — said he was following. And not a month ago, Toleður found verses in the Devotion of the Dathrins that we followed right to the secret treasure-house. Even though I’m a storyteller myself, I’ve never known poems and rhymes to take on such significance.”
   Dwarves, Beorning and Elf resolved to undertake the expedition together, a company of five, in search of Framleiðandi.

* * *

Ecthelon repeated what the folk in Dale-town had said all along, that the only sensible way to make the journey would be to take boats down the Celduin or “the River Running” to Esgaroth or “Lake-town” and then onwards down the Long Lake until the river flowed out southwards at its further end.
   A subdued Yngwi Sandstone slowly brought up the rear as the group made their way to the docks. When Tóki produced Thorfinn’s purse to negotiate the hire of a boat, Yngwi spoke up. “I’m not getting on any boat…” To go by land, even with ponies, would be to double the time the journey would take and double the hazards they might encounter in the marshes south of the Long Lake, but Yngwi seemed quite irrational on the matter, until Marion observed gruffly that he was obviously just plain scared of water. Yngwi admitted then that he had seen his mother die of drowning when he was only a young beardling.
   At length Tóki resolved to hire the largest boat the Lake-town man at the docks had to offer, still manageable for the five of them, and hopefully stable enough in the water to put Yngwi’s mind at rest. But the big dwarf was still reluctant, and finally consented to get on the boat only once he had availed himself of a large, water-tight barrel.
   “According to the tale, this worked for Thorin Oakenshield and his Company, so hopefully it will work for me,” he said.

* * *

Ecthelon was the most knowledgeable about the route ahead of them, so he took the steering oar in the stern. Yngwi sat squarely amidships on the central rowing bench, clutching the rim of his barrel with both great hands, and the others took position around him as they were able. Their course lay downstream, so the rowing was not onerous.
   A morning’s easy going took them down the River Running, past Dalefolk farmlands and new-planted orchards that were reclaiming the former Desolation of Smaug. In the early afternoon they passed between the two low hills that stood like a gateway and came out upon Esgaroth, the Long Lake, which stretched away into misty distance in the south.
   Rowing was a little uncertain, as none of them were experienced boatmen and even though they hugged the shallows just off the lake shore, every time anyone moved about the boat Yngwi complained loudly that they would capsize and drown. But eventually they found that Tóki and Fjiar rowing on one side more or less matched the mighty sweeps of Marion on the other, and by the time the sun began to dip to the western horizon the moorings of Lake-town hove into view.
   Thorfinn’s purse secured them board and lodging and after a hot meal and a tankard or two they retired for the night.
   Early in the morning Tóki made enquiries around the wharfmasters about a single whitebeard dwarf in an emerald hood with a silver bell on the end, travelling southwards in the month of Frery, just after Yule. But none recalled anything of such a dwarf passing through Lake-town.

Ecthelon said the next milestone would be the Stairs of Girion at the southern end of the Long Lake, most of a day’s rowing away, since they must give a wide berth to the final resting place of the dragon. The very mention of Smaug kindled a yearning in the hearts of the three dwarves. The whole belly of the dragon had been armoured with precious gemstones from the Lonely Mountain — wealth beyond reckoning. But not even thieves dare approach that spot, quoted Ecthelon, clearly knowledgeable on the matter, for the evil of the dragon lives on in his very bones and it touches folk in the heart before they can even draw near.
   “Dread before Dragon-sickness,” muttered Marion. “The Shadow is layered all about us even we we cannot see or feel it.”
   “Framleiðandi used to say something very much like that!” exclaimed Tóki.
   The big woman stared levelly at him.
   “Are you a warden of Middle-earth too?”
   She shrugged. “Never heard it called that before…”
   Tóki fell silent and only realized later that Marion had not answered one way or the other.

For much of the day the far end of the Long Lake reached as far as the eye could see. With the others rowing, only Yngwi and Ecthelon watched forward, and for a long time after his keen eyes recognized the Stair of Girion, Ecthelon made no comment. Imperceptibly a faint rushing sound gathered in the air.
   Eventually even Yngwi saw. “The end of the Lake is nearer now — but there’s no lakeshore beyond it! That noise! It’s a waterfall, isn’t it? A force of water! Steer us to the nearest shore right now, Elf, or so help me…”
   “Very well,” Ecthelon complied with an unreadable smile in his eyes.
   Yngwi splashed ashore through knee-deep water and trudged his way south as the others rowed without incident along to the jetties before the huddle of huts where the stair porters lived.

View
The Awakening of Framleiðandi's Duck
In which Tóki and his new friends discover a dark deed afoot in Dale-town

MERSDAY THE 14TH DAY OF CHITHING, TA 2946

The Gold Hush Tavern

The lone woodman traveller, attracted by the sign over the steps down into the Gold Hush tavern, had made her shy way inside and was glad of the quiet gloom after the day spent amid the bustling throngs of Dale-town. Propping a great bow against the wall beside her she signed for an ale, ruefully counting out the meagre contents of her purse.

An hour later, with the traveller halfway through her jack of ale, a far more unusual figure entered. Tóki the Toymaker escorted none other than a little lady hobbit into the tavern, a sight no one in Dale-town had ever seen before, though all knew that a hobbit named Baggins the Burglar had been instrumental in the downfall of Smaug the dragon. Tóki introduced her to the dwarvish proprietor, Bavor the Broadbeam, as a daughter of the family that was going to plant a crop of their pipeweed in the farmlands right here in the Dale. (She was going to do no such thing.) Bavor was interested chiefly in tidings of Bilbo Baggins, and when the young lady admitted that she was some distant cousin of the Hobbiton Bagginses, she was soon sipping an ale on the house — which came in pints!
   “Salvia Boffin of the Southfarthing in the Shire, at your service, mister Broad Bean,” she said, having misheard his name. “My friends call me Sally.”
   “And I am Tóki Longbeard of the Iron Hills, known to the folk of Dale-town as Tóki the Toymaker.”

Looking to impress the hobbit lady, Tóki claimed that he and his relatives had also been involved in the slaying of Smaug. (They hadn’t.) And he proceeded to tell a tale of his own involvement the previous month in the retrieval of a hoard of dwarven gold from a secret vault hidden deep in the Lonely Mountain (which was true), as having gained him the ear of Dáin II Ironfoot, the King of the Dwarves himself, no less. (Which it hadn’t, really.) Proclaiming himself a ‘warden of Middle-earth’, Tóki said it was his calling to protect all the Free Peoples from the evils of the Shadow upon the land.
   The traveller along the bar from them had silently been as impressed by Tóki’s inspiringly recounted tale as the hobbit, but a snort escaped her at this last.
   “Can we offer you a drink, mistress?” offered little Sally, impeccably polite. “I don’t believe we caught your name…”
   “Hush,” said the woodman woman.
   Your name,” whispered Sally, puzzled.
   “I am Evina daughter of Edoric — from Rhosgobel to the west of Mirkwood — but people call me ‘Hush’. In Rhosgobel we know something of the Shadow, as you call it, master dwarf, but it is not a thing to be spoken of loudly, even in a bright town such as Dale.”

The three repaired to a discreet booth, where Tóki related that Framleiðandi the master toymaker to whom he had been apprenticed in the making of magical toys had also gone to some lengths to teach him lore of the insidious darkness which has its seeds in the very hearts of dwarves, elves and men.
   “None know this better than the Woodmen of Mirkwood,” said Hush, soft but firm. “We live our whole lives within the forest where even the beasts and the trees have been twisted by the Shadow upon the land, roused through the evil of the Necromancer.”
   Getting beyond the toymaker’s bluster, the two established that Framleiðandi and the wise folk of Rhosgobel had much lore in common, despite their different traditions. Sally looked from one to the other, agog at the dire talk so strange to her hobbit ears and wishing it wouldn’t have been rude to pull out her journal and make notes immediately.
   Tóki explained his concerns about his master, who had not returned to Dale for three moons, and asked the two recent arrivals whether they had seen or heard anything of Framleiðandi upon the road—
   “Quack!” said a voice from under the table.

Tóki reached into the sack under his chair and produced the most magnificent toy that Sally had ever set eyes upon. He placed upon the table a beautifully detailed wooden toy duck of exquisite workmanship.
   “It sometimes does that,” said Tóki, and explained how his master had left this toy with the special instruction that it was for Tóki, who must keep it in his possession at all times. “I’ve no idea why it goes off when it does…”
   “Quack!” said the duck again, in what was now recognizable as a dwarvish voice, and it flapped its wooden wings, twisting slightly on the tabletop.
   “Ooh, how delicious!” exclaimed Sally. “And what is this strange writing on its collar?”
   Tóki explained that they were the runes of the Angerthas Erebor, the writing system of the Lonely Mountain dwarves, but they just spelled out a piece of childish nonsense: WHAT FLOATS ON WATER?
   “But don’t you see?” said Sally. “That’s a riddle that any hobbit-child would know! Wood floats on water, or very small rocks, or—” she lowered her voice conspiratorially, “witches!”
   She quizzed Tóki at great length on everything he could remember of the toy duck’s previous behaviour, as it continued to quack periodically with Framleiðandi’s voice. Then with the distant ringing of the belltowers of Dale tolling the hour after sunset, it came to them. The duck had only ever ever come to life in the hours of darkness. They concluded that the magical duck was no common toy but a rare gift, possessing a power to detect the workings of sorcery.
   “‘Morgûl’, that’s what its called by the Wise,” whispered Hush. “And in case you hadn’t noticed, the duck stopped turning on its wheels once it was pointing at that wall. There’s morgûl sorcery being worked right now, somewhere in that direction…”
 

The Docks Bow Drinking House

They drank off their ales and shouldered their belongings, Hush and Tóki making to hasten up the steps into the street, and the fascinated Sally Boffin could not but follow them. Then with a last moment thought, Tóki went over and held a whispered conversation with Bavor, rejoining the two womenfolk holding a mattock on his shoulder.
   “Sometimes he has to break up tavern fights… I know, I’m as surprised as you are that he actually let me borrow it.”

Whenever Tóki set his duck down upon on a stone step or atop a low wall, its flappings — which were coming more often now — caused it to swivel on the spot until it was pointing the same direction. In this way the duck led them across Dale-town, over canals and past fountains, until they were in the Docks Quarter at the northernmost point of the bend in the River Running. When the duck turned and pointed back the way they had come, they narrowed in until they identified the focus of its attention to be a large and raucous drinking hall called the Docks Bow.

In the glow of the lamps within was a great press of lary Dale-man dock-workers, stevedores and labourers, sailors up from Lake-town, and caravan-guards in outlandish garb from far and wide. Sally baulked at the crowd of so many dangerous Big Folk, but Tóki and Hush on either side ushered her protectively in until they were lucky enough to see a party leaving a booth and shouldered their way in to the table where they could relax a little.
   Tóki glowered worriedly across the hall at where a party was seated around a table near the great blazing hearth. “I don’t think he saw me, but I know that dwarf.” he said, tugging up his hood. “He calls himself ‘Captain’ Beil, and claims to be a leader of Iron Hills hireswords, but according to my friend Fjiar the Fearless he’s nothing but a thug and a brigand. Last I knew he was working for those outlander dwarves that had designs on the treasures of Thorfinn’s family, that I was telling you about earlier.”
   Sally and Hush peered cautiously over at the eyepatched dwarf and the unsavoury-looking dwarf and the rough Dale-men who were his drinking companions, and believed everything Tóki said about them.
   Keeping his hood up and his back to the hall, Tóki cautiously withdrew Framleiðandi’s duck, making sure to keep its bill closed this time. Its flapping came quicker now and its wooden wings beat higher, and it swivelled on the table until it was facing in one definite direction.
   Sally stood up on the bench and peered cautiously over its back into the next booth for a few tense moments before dropping back to her seat and reporting. “There are just three men sitting there, not very well dressed and looking a bit glum. And beyond them is just the stone wall that carries along from the bar.”
   Hush slipped from her seat without a word of explanation and wound her way through the crowd, hovering at the bar for a minute or two, and coming away again. “Through that wall is just a storeroom, with kitchen staff coming and going all the time. I don’t think there can be anything in there more evil than a ripe cheese.”
“Then it must be upstairs,” declared Tóki.

They would be in full view of Beil and his ruffians if they went up the stair and along the gallery to the half-dozen rooms (and the loft that was used as a flop-house by less discerning patrons), but that could not be helped. As they climbed the stair Hush stole a glance over at Beil’s table but saw no sign that any of them were watching at all.
   The reason became plain after a few tense moments outside the closed door of the last room, when Tóki pushed open the door. No one was in there, and the sole inhabitant had left nothing more valuable than a tatty, mud-spattered woollen cloak on the back of the door.
   When the duck was put on the floor it sat and flapped like before but without turning at all, even when pointed in several different directions.
   Sally clambered up onto one of the beds and looked out of the window, and finally beheld something suspicious. The Docks Bow backed onto one of Dale-town’s canals where it had a small timber loading-wharf at the level of its ale cellar, and wooden steps leading up to a door at the back of the kitchen. Down on the wharf the dark shape of a man stood in front of the loading doors through which ale barrels were presumably unloaded from barges into the cellar. The man stood still as a tree, armed with a quarterstaff in his two fists held level before him. The source of evil must be in the cellars, with the eerily motionless man standing guard outside.

The Guardian

The three went back downstairs, passed out through the throng and back into the night-time street to slip into the alley beside the Docks Bow’s kitchen. Hush grimly strung her great bow and leaned out over the low wall at the alley’s end, saying it would be simple to reach out to the wooden railing and clamber to the top of the wooden steps. No sooner said than done, she swung out into space and hauled herself lightly over the railing. Flat to the wall, and with an arrow swiftly fitted to the bowstring she looked down the steps, but the man with the quarterstaff was oblivious to her, unmoving as ever.
   Sally crawled up onto the low wall next, but she looked down at the surface of the canal ten feet below, and said there was no way she was going to do it. “Hobbits like to keep their feet firmly on the ground, and with good reason,” she insisted. Only with much cajoling did she allow Tóki to hold her under her arms and lean out into the empty air until Hush could grab her outstretched hands and pull her over to the railing. Tóki handed over his mattock and the sack containing the magical duck and his other toys, then followed robustly if without grace, and at length all three stood on the planks at the top of the steps.
   “Right,” said Tóki, reclaiming his mattock. He gave a theatrical feigned hiccup, practiced a drunken little sway, and proceeded to clatter down the wooden steps. The man with the staff showed no sign of having noticed him at all (which was just as well, since his play-act was atrocious) until he advanced off the bottom of the steps.
   The man turned mechanically, swinging his staff up until he held it upright in front of him. “No…” he said, in a flat and toneless voice.
   Tóki advanced, holding his mattock as unthreateningly as he could.
   “No…”, the man said, with exactly the same lack of tone again.
   “They’ve sent me to get something from the cellar,” said Tóki, advancing with a mock stumble and heading to just push past the man. But the staff swung out at him, forcing him to block it with the haft of his mattock.
   “No…”
   Hush spied a gleam of gold at the man’s throat. “He’s got a golden collar!” she cried incredulously. “Like that monster you said you fought in the tunnels of the Lonely Mountain.”
   Unhesitating, Tóki swung the mattock in an overhead blow but completely missed his target, the weapon gouging into the wooden wharf.
   “A golden collar? Then he is ensorcelled! Don’t kill him! We have to get the collar off him.”
   And then Hush took her shot. As the man began to swing his quarterstaff a perfectly-placed arrow struck the wood and knocked it from his hands to tumble into the water of the canal.
   “Turn him round!” cried Sally, holding up her skirts to hasten down the man-sized steps.
   Tóki ducked under the man’s clumsy grasp and tried to roll past him, but managing nothing more than to sprawl to the decking beyond.
   Ponderously the ensorcelled man turned and tried to punch down at the dwarf, but in that instant Sally jumped up on his back, reached for the golden torc and plucked it deftly from his neck.
   “What the—” said the man, looking all around him with sudden vitality. “How the hell did I get here? I only went out for a p—”
   “I think you need to get back to your friends in the pub,” said Tóki firmly. “Up those steps, but don’t go into the kitchen or you’ll have to explain yourself to them. Just hop over the railing and go round.”
   Too confused to argue, the man complied and shambled off.

The Scene of the Crime

The loading doors of the Docks Bow’s cellars were barred from within, but the resourceful Sally said she could get them open. With the point of the knife from her bag she pried at the wooden bar through the crack between the doors and fraction by fraction edged it aside.
   Hush stood ready with another arrow at the string, but even as Sally worked, she heard hurried footsteps on the other side of the door. “I think they’re getting away,” she whispered. “But I hear something else too. It sounds like a child crying.”
   Sally finally edged the bar aside and Tóki barged through. He found himself in a cellar full of kegs and casks, and with an open door showing through to a second cellar lit by flickering yellow light.
   In the second cellar room they found a young girl sobbing hysterically into a cloth gag, suspended by the wrists from the barrel-hoist of the trapdoor to the store-room above, with a circle of stinking tallow candles around her on the floor. She was dressed only in her shift, and long shallow wounds had been scored into her arms and legs, letting out much blood to pool on the stone flags beneath her. The child’s plight was a veritable horror to behold, but Tóki, Hush and Sally mostly felt relieved to have saved her.
   Hush reached up and cut the poor girls’ bonds, letting her sag into Tóki’s arms. Removing her gag, Tóki recognized her as little Arnia, one of the children of Dale-town who spent half their lives peering in through the windows of Framleiðandi’s shop. He took a glove puppet from his sack and did his best to distract the poor waif from her suffering whilst a businesslike Hush dressed her wounds.
   Inviting Arnia to talk to the puppet, Sally asked what had happened to her, and slowly the tale unfolded. Arnia had been kidnapped by three people, two dwarvish twins with short, straggly grey beards — “Dwîm and Dwîma!” exclaimed Tóki — and a tall man in black clothes whose face she never saw on account of his hood and the scarf across his face. When they hung her up on the hoist, one of the dwarves had chanted some horrible song in a language she didn’t understand while the man in black pushed up his sleeves, and she saw strange shapes painted all up his arms, and it had been him who had used a curvy-bladed knife to score the blood from her arms and legs. Then the chanting dwarf with the golden collar stopped, and started saying “No…” over and over, and moving his arms around strangely… And then he stopped doing that too and said a curse word, and said that they had to go. And the three of them just left.

Tóki and Hush caused some consternation when they went up the cellar steps and emerged in the Docks Bay’s kitchen. The landlord explained that he’d seen nothing of the girl before that moment (which meant she must have been taken into his cellars by way of the loading doors), but the cellar had been hired by three of his patrons who had paid handsomely in gold for privacy for the duration of the evening. They’d said they wanted more privacy than they had in their room up on the gallery, and the dwarves had said they wanted stone walls around them, so the landlord had taken their gold and let them use his cellar…
   It turned out that these three had now gone out into the night, leaving their rooms empty despite having paid up front for a week’s lodging. And Captain Beil and his henchmen were also gone from the main drinking hall.
   Though Tóki, Hush and Sally had foiled some deed of foul sorcery and rescued little Arnia from a ritual that might have taken her young life, they had no inkling as to what the sorcerous undertaking had hoped to achieve. That was a riddle they could not yet solve…

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The Ironfists' Monster in the Mines
In which they turn to fight their enemies, but find themselves facing a Giant Armoured Moldewarp

HEVENSDAY, LATE AFTERNOON

EVERYONE AGREED TO TOLEÐR’S PLAN OF AMBUSH, but where he himself was the fastest on his feet he had lost too much blood in the fight with the Ironfist dwarves. So it was Yngwi and Tóki who volunteered to play the part of the bait. They left their packs and even their axes with the main force, though Tóki fished his bag of marbles out of his pack just in case, and they wisely kept their shields strapped to their backs as they hurried off.
    Toleðr had said for the ones in armour to be ‘the anvil’ but the mail-clad Fjiar and Gymir, his brother in ruthlessness, that they should be ‘the hammer’ to fall on the enemy’s rear, and Thorfinn made no objection. The two left their packs with the rest of the company and took a lantern and a leather sack to shroud it round into the other tunnel.
    Thorfinn, Toleðr, Bofur and Mêgrim piled up the packs and set about gagging their three Karghal prisoners and binding their ankles.

“Heigh hooo—” began Tóki in his best singing voice, before Yngwi cut him off.
    I know we’re supposed to play blundering idiots, but don’t overdo it! he signed.
    The two kept up a more normal banter as they advanced back up the sloping tunnel, faltering only slightly as they got further and further without encountering anyone. They still heard nothing as they neared the last bend where the tunnel would give onto the dished chamber at the foot of the Force of Stone. The glimmer of light betrayed the fact that their enemy were there.
    “Yes, all of us, now silence!” came a hissed order in response to some unheard question, and they knew that their approach had been detected.
    “I’m telling you I’m bursting. I’ve just got to go right here.” Tóki declared in a stage whisper. He just about managed to suppress a giggle and his fingers flickered, If they come round that corner and we’ve got our breeches down flashing them our arses, that’ll definitely make them chas—
    His fingers froze as there came a flurry of noise, big heavy scrapings over stone. The light ahead was blocked out as a huge shapeless shadow was cast into the tunnel, and suddenly there it was! A monstrous thing the size of a cart that practically filled the tunnel, with great claws more than a foot long, a mass of tentacles at its snout and great plates of bony armour growing out through its black fur.
    “Run for it!” they each cried to the other, and the pair fled as fast as their legs would carry them, all thought of feigned flight utterly forgotten.
 
The appearance of the moldewarp bw
 
Thorfinn and Toleðr had their group all in order, flat against the tunnel wall just beyond enough of an inside curve to hide them. Mêgrim, no fighter, kept watch over the three prisoners at the back and with a sack ready to throw over the lantern when the enemy neared. Weapons and shields were at the ready, and Thorfinn had briefly drilled them in moving out to form a shieldwall, though Bofur dearly hoped Yngwi or Tóki would take his place when battle was joined.
    Fjiar and Gymir lay in wait in the other tunnel, testing the edges on their blades. Both relished the prospect of battle, the proving of skill and the winning of wealth.

“Abandon the plan!” boomed Yngwi’s holler down the tunnel.
    “Everybody out!” followed Tóki. “It’s a freaking great giant moldewarp monster!”
    “They have a cave mole!” Yngwi interpreted. “A monster of horn and ivory that gnaws the world beyond our deepest delvings.”
    “For gold’s sake don’t get stuck in that dead end!” the two kept clamouring as they came, their own pounding bootsteps proof that they were in desperate earnest. They had easily outdistanced the ponderous beast but not slackened their pace one bit.
    “No!” protested Fjiar. “Stick to the plan! This is still the best place to fight!”
    Yngwi met Fjiar and Gymir at the fork in the tunnel, and stopped to persuade them. “Beggar that!” he that he cried. “They’ll be having that armour back off you, if you even live to yield it up.”
    Tóki kept on running down to the others, where he clutched up his battleaxe and ran to get his pack from the pile. Thorfinn directed Mêgrim and Bofur to do the same while he started cutting the ropes from the ankles of the Ironfists.
    “Don’t!” protested Toleðr. “We don’t have to run faster than the monster, we just have to run faster than them.”
    Thorfinn fixed Toleðr with a frosty look and carried on cutting the bonds.
    Toleðr groaned his aggrievement, abandoned the idea and instead raced up to the fork. “Can we wound it – turn it into the other tunnel?” he asked Yngwi.
    Yngwi shook his head. “No. It’s covered with bloody great plates like dragon-armour. But Fjiar still wants to fight it.”
    Fjiar was just as adamant. “We can’t flee down a tunnel we haven’t even explored. We could be over the edge of some chasm before we know it! Or into a dead end where there isn’t a wedged boulder making the passage too small for a giant monster to get at us!”
    “The Karghals are with it,” Yngwi added. “They were there in the chamber before it came at us. Look, I’ll wager my armour to yours: come with us and if we live to tell the tale, you’re a mailshirt up on the deal.”
    “No.” Fjiar refused bluntly. “Taking an unknown tunnel is madness.”
    Then it dawned on Yngwi. “But we do know what to expect that way. It wasn’t down the dead end, so that way leads to the Empty Pie. This is the route that the riddle in the Devotion is telling us to go!”
    “And anyway,” said Toleðr, relieved, “it’s not down to voting. The others are already running…”

Empty pie bw 33

Scarcely a hundred yards later the curving tunnel gave onto the Empty Pie, a large open chamber dominated by a depression where segments of the circular portion in the middle of the cave-floor had collapsed. The miners’ name for the place made perfect sense, as the fallen segments looked for all the world like sunken-in slices of pie crust.
    “Go round it!" came the cry from behind. “You have to skirt around the Empty Pie!”
    Tóki ushered the Karghal captives around the ledge on the left-hand side, making for the far exit. As the others arrived with more lights, they saw that two tunnels came down into this chamber, and a single one led onwards to the north. It was on the threshold of this tunnel that the company downed packs and formed a loose line of battle at which to put up their defence.
    Gymir gave little for the chance of killing the monster with bowshot, and clutched one of the oil lanterns ready to throw.
    “He’s going to immolate it,” said Toleðr. “Im-mole-ate, get it?”
    Fjiar grunted, and took up Gymir’s bow, preferring a slender hope over none at all.

The giant moldewarp surged into the cavern, dragging itself along with its foreclaws almost like it was swimming over the rock.
    Bofur and Fjiar loosed but in their haste in the half-light neither struck home. Fjiar fell foul of a split string and his arrow shot wild, straight up into the ceiling.
    The others bided their time with lantern, throwing axes and even rocks that they wanted to throw in concert when it came closer. The moldewarp scraped on its belly straight over the lip and down into the centre of the collapsed space. The company held their breath, praying that the ‘pie’ was only half-sunk and that the monster’s weight would collapse it into a deeper cavity, but the only movement was the spray of clinker that it scattered left and right as it shovelled itself across the stone.
    There was a glow of light in the tunnel out of which it had come and two dwarves, one hooded and one helmeted emerged at the entrance in the moldewarp’s wake. Fjiar abandoned his useless bow and set off at his best run round the outside of the chamber, snatching out his axes as he went.
    Gymir lofted the lantern high in the air, and it clattered into an armoured plate on the side of the monster’s head, but only when it fell to the floor did it break and a splash of burning oil start up beside the creature’s flank.
    Yngwi hurled his throwing axe, chipping into the armour on the beast’s brow before glancing away, inflicting no more harm than a hangnail.
    Bofur’s second arrow flew true, but merely lodged itself in the armour of the moldewarp’s heaving shoulder. Still the monster came at them, making for the middle where Bofur stood beside Thorfinn. Thorfinn brandished his great sword, but Bofur with only his bow backed away from the battle-line.

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2 Leagues' Journey Under the Earth
In which they question their prisoners, and dwarfmarch them onwards and downwards, following the Riddle.

“WHAT’S YOUR NAME, and what are you doing here?” demanded Yngwi as he neared them.
    “We w– We weren’t…” the dwarf stuttered, looking around at the trio of Lonely Mountain dwarves surrounding him with drawn weapons.
    “Come on, you don’t need time to lie. Tell us who you are and what you’re doing here! Drop your sword! Surrender and you won’t be harmed.”
    “Fhîk,” the dwarf relented, lowering his short sword and then letting it clang to the rock floor, “My name is Fhîk. We’re dwarves of the Ironfist Clan Karghal.”
    “And what are you doing in the sealed caverns of the Kingdom Under the Mountain?”
    Fhîk confessed, fearfully, that he didn’t really know. He was here with his clanfolk, looking for ‘this thing’ that his kinsman said was meant to be in here. Yngwi and Toleðr, joined by Bofur, continued to question him while Fjiar rejoined the rest of the company, binding up the other captives, confiscating their gear, collecting stray marbles and generally composing themselves after the fight.
    The Ironfists hadn’t come in through the Great Gates, but had delved their own way in from the mountainside of the Northern Spur. Fhîk didn’t know what it was that his kinsman was seeking, except that Dwîma said it was very old—-
    “Dwîma?” exclaimed Bofur. “With a brother called Dwîm?” Fhîk nodded. “Them again! And do you know a Longbeard called Foron?” Fhîk said he didn’t know anyone of that name.
    This ‘Fhîk’, Yngwi said with a flicker of Lonely Mountain iglishmêk from behind their prisoner, is no traditional outer name like ours, and it sounds Khuzdul. The others frowned. Surely even Ironfists had more honour than to use their inner names openly.
    Fhîk explained that the Karghals hailed from no hold, but lived on the hills and plains of the Easterlings, beyond the city men called Shrel-kain. There were eight of them here with Dwîma and they’d been here for a month or more.

“So there are five of the worms left, and Dwîm and Dwîma will still be smarting from the last time we met,” Toleðr was reckoning, when Fjiar came back from the group on the ledge, carrying something in his hand.
    “There’s one other thing,” he said, glaring down the tunnel where Fhîk had sought to flee. “I found this spoon. This lot were camped out, with fuel for a cook-fire, a couple of bedrolls, and four sets of bowls and spoons.”
    He turned to the prisoner. “Tell us where the other one is! Tell him to come out or you really will only need three spoons.” And he snapped the spoon in half to make his grisly point.
    Fhîk gulped, genuine fear showing in his eyes, but said that his cousin wouldn’t still be there, he would have been long gone.
    “So all this camping out: you were a rearguard set to keep a watch?” Yngwi surmised, and Fhîk admitted it.
    They dwarfhandled him back to the others and Tóki trussed up the three captives, all stripped to their breeches, as Thorfinn and company held a whispered council. This runner had been gone at least half an hour by now and had not yet brought anyone back to come to his comrades’ aid. But nothing would be gained from lying in wait for them; they would surely approach with caution.
    “We go on,” pronounced Thorfinn. “But what about these three?”
    “Kill ’em,” spat Fjiar.
    “Cut out their tongues,” suggested Gymir.
    “We can drive stakes and tie them to the wall,” Yngwi proposed hastily, alarmed at his companions’ bloodthirstiness.
    “Oh no,” Toleðr countered. “They’re coming right along with us. They get to go in front!”

Force of stone

They clambered back down the ledge to the chamber floor and considered which route to take. Yngwi took charge of the roped-together captives, scarcely daring to trust them to anyone else. He had Mêgrim light them a torch and warned them not to even think of letting it anywhere near their ropes.
    Gymir went to the lip of the dark pit across from the Ironfists’ ledge, looking dubiously down. “That must be where that axe went clattering,” he commented.
    “My heart tells me we will need to go down there too,” Bofur said dourly.
    “Check your lodestone again,” Toleðr suggested. “We’re in Lodestone’s Maze and the next clue is to ‘use the force of stone’ if we don’t want to ‘come undone’.”
    “Look at the way the flowstone cooled in shapes, down that ledge and across the chamber then down here. Almost like a river,” Bofur continued. “A river flowing over a pair of waterfalls.”
    “Waterfalls! That’s it!” exclaimed Yngwi, to the bafflement of the others. “‘Force’ doesn’t mean strength or power – it’s a Dalefolk word for a waterfall!”
    “‘Use the Force of Stone’,” nodded Bofur, hardly pleased at being right.

A torch lowered on a rope showed the drop to be not quite vertical for five or six fathoms, and then to fall away into space for another two before reaching a floor hollowed out like a bowl. It was no simple matter to lower the three handfast captives protesting down the moulded rock, but Mêgrim’s experience with ropework from his mason’s apprenticeship was a great help. Toleðr didn’t relish the climb, but jested callously that he’d be all right as long as the Ironfists were bundled up at the bottom to break his fall.
    Eventually they were all down with the reluctant Bofur coming last, clinging to the rope like grim death to inch his way painstakingly down. Fjiar suggested twitching the grapnel free, but they decided to leave it in place.

The chamber floor rose up a broad step beyond the bowl-like depression, and a tunnel continued out from one side of this. It promptly curved around before more or less straightening out and threescore paces later Bofur declared them now to be heading north-west; the lodestone was holding true once more.
    Before they had gone much further the half-naked Ironfist captives halted their resentful trudge, at a place where the tunnel forked. With no sign of which way to go, and the left-hand passages having worked out so far, that was the way Yngwi bade them take. Moments later there was a glint from something ahead, but as they stole forward with all caution, it proved to be no more than a firestone rock formation with a finish like a potter’s glaze.
    “Lo: ‘the Guardsmen standing by’,” intoned Yngwi.

Guardsmen

The tunnel beyond snaked its way in a more or less steady north-westerly direction for a hundred paces before they encountered another feature. A great boulder was wedged between roof and floor, and the tunnel widened around either side of it.
    “Why are we stopping?” called Toleðr from the back. “‘Lo: the Empty Pie’?” But no one thought it was. The two ways rejoined immediately beyond the boulder and they proceeded onwards, until the tunnel ended abruptly in a rockfall.

Returning the way they had come, they had scarcely manoeuvred everyone round to put the three Ironfists at the front again when the one Fhîk had named ‘Khela’ stumbled and fell, his weight on their ropes pulling Fhîk over with him.
    “Argh, my ankle!” he bellowed. “I’ve bloody sprained it!”
    “So hop,” came an unsympathetic order from further back.
    “Really? Balls to hopping!” he bit back fiercely, a shouted retort louder than was needed to be heard.
    He’s playing to the gallery, Yngwi realised. “Now you listen here. I’m the nice one, and I know you’re faking. You get up or one of this lot— Stop that!”
    Sitting in the tunnel with their hands bound before them, Khela’s and Fhîk’s fingers were twitching away in a gesture-code that Yngwi didn’t know.
    “We’re going to have to separate them,” he said.
    Gymir immediately volunteered to take one, but in the end the troublemaker, Khela, was passed back into Thorfinn’s keeping and at Fjiar’s suggestion the hands of all three were retied, this time behind their backs. The delay had taken some time, and it was only as they regained the last junction that they realised the depth of Khela’s wickedness. If the pursuit had reached them during that time they would have been bottled up in a dead end.
    Fjiar took this as a cue to drop back as the others headed this time down the right fork. As the sound of their footfalls receded behind him he craned into the darkness, and heard… He was not sure what the noise was. It was not close by, but as it echoed from a distance all he could make out was a sound of something, or several somethings, scraping long and very hard at a surface of stone.
    He scurried after the others, and described to them what he’d heard. “Do we run, or do we use the junction to our advantage in fighting them?” he asked in a whisper.
    “There are only five of them,” Toleðr pointed out. “We should take them. Two of us, the fleetest, do a bit of play-acting and blunder back into the Ironfists then feign flight to draw them into the chase. They lead them back to our main force that lies in wait down this fork of the tunnel with the armoured warriors ready to step out as a shield-wall: our ‘anvil’. The runners come back and through the line, and once the enemy is committed to battle our skirmishers, ‘the hammer’, close in on them from behind.”
    “It’ll be like shooting rats in a trap!” exclaimed a darkly gleeful Bofur.
    “No shooting when the battle is joined!” growled Thorfinn sternly.
    “And what if they don’t fall for it?” asked Gymir.
    “Then we go to Plan B…”
    “Plan B?”
    “Plan B,” Toleðr nodded solemnly. “All rush in and attack anything that moves!”
    “BARUK KHAZÂD!”

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