Sixteen men. Among the original company of fifty-five mountaineers that had embarked upon the high passes of the Misty Mountains from the vales of the Anduin only six and ten could now be accounted for in the aftermath of the calamitous avalanche that fell down upon them from on high. All else had met their end either by suffocation during live burial, plummeting rocks from above or were swept over cliffs to their dooms.
Of Wildaria, their self-appointed chieftain who had led them from the beginning, there was no trace; nor was there any sign of Cernan, nor the company’s two medicine men nor even any of their beloved horses, mules and other beasts of burden. They were gone and would never return. So too was the bulk of the company’s provisions. Only a few morsels of dried biscuit, raw oats and various nuts, mushrooms and wild roots, the latter which proved to be quite edible when cooked but virtually inedible when raw, could be found after the few survivors had at last begun their laborious search of the area for what may be found of their rations. Yet even this latter deed could not be performed until all had gathered together in a crowded bunch so they might warm one another with their bodily heat up against the overhanging wall of rock.
The sixteen companions found themselves facing an evil plight indeed. It was true enough that at the time of the avalanche the company had well passed the half-way mark of their mountain journey, and before them lay mostly descending passes that would ere long lead them all into greener pastures where the snow was sure to be slight and the air warmer as they progressed down into the western foothills of the Misties. But they were not there yet. They could not hope to continue forward for long without the aid of proper rest, warmth and sustenance. Most of them found themselves experiencing a wide variety of emotions now that the area seemed settled down. A few were eleated at their own survival and found new hope of escaping the clutches of the mountains, for what greater evil might fall upon them following so terrible a chance as they had just endured? There could be none in their minds.
Yet these few were in the minority. Most of those who were left found facing this new predicament well-nigh unendurable. They were convinced that they were all lost and could no longer hope to discover any signs of the pathway that they had been following, for it was now buried deep beneath a sea of snow and ice. They could, it was admitted, manage to struggle onwards down any of the nearby adjascent slopes for an indeterminate allottment of time, but to what avail? They had all been thoroughly warned about straying away from the main pass before they even ventured into the foothills of the eastern side of the Misties. They might easily encounter any wide variety of natural perils on the way down, such as falling into hidden cravasses, coming to dead ends over cliffs or even falling into another sudden blizzard, where they would almost certainly become hopelessly lost and lose any lingering hope of retracing their steps. In such an event they would all surely perish in the cold wilderness.
So what might be done? The remaining Rhovanion mountaineers had at length gathered themselves together and, after more weeping and nursing of their wounds, decided to make an initial push down their immediate hillside, for Urlavia, who had been swept part of the way down the slope, had claimed to have spotted what looked to be, from their present vantage point, a small cave entrance further down the mountainside and across a wide valley. Knowing that they would all quickly freeze to death if they lingered underneath the overhanging rock that had served as a meager shelter from the forceful gales before the avalanche, it was a unanimous decision to make for the valley, whether Urlavia’s cave entrance existed or not. At least they would be on solid ground that provided them not only with a more level terrain to walk on, but also sported many trees, which in turn just might provide enough suitable wood to create a fire.
It was not easy going. Even in the mildest of conditions such a decent would demand a calm disposition coupled with a hightened awareness for caution. Yet in their weakened and weary state, to say nothing of the numbing cold they felt, the way down proved an almost unbearable torment. There was no easy way to climb down with the burial of the main pass. Two among the survivors still had in their possession two long coils of rope, and these they used to tie around their waists in lengths so as to save one of his companions from falling down the slope to their deaths – or at the least what would certainly be broken limbs or some other irreversible injury.
One of the younger men in the group, an apprentice smithy, by trade, who went by the name of Barden, and who had already suffered from a deep laceration to his left ear (an ear that had very nearly been severed off by jagged ice) and frostbite to some of his toes, had indeed lost his footing at one precarious moment in the party’s slow decent and would have fallen the remaining distance down the cliff had there been no rope to cling to. His cries of panic echoed throughout the little valley below as he clung with panting breaths to the snow and rock beneath his feet. It was some time before he could be enticed to resume climbing downwards, he being so entirely consumed with thoughts his near-death plunge. He wept openly for several minutes in morose frustration and refused to go any further, crying bitterly that they were all going to die anyway, so what did it matter? In the end it took savage threats of abandonment (for all words of initial hope and encouragement from his companions fell on deaf ears) by Urlavia – and indeed threats of death to move Barden to resume his climb. Vilthavia’s uncle had seemed to now take it upon himself to be the sixteen survivor’s new leader and guide, for now he alone among them had come this way once before, many years ago though it was.
If the mood of Urlavia, huntsman, successful trader and haggler from Rhovanion, had softened in the two days before the disastrous avalanche, all signs of that brief kindness had quite vanished now. It was replaced by a severe intolerance and impatience with any who might try and supercede or undermine his new leadership of what remained of their former company. He placed all justification for his new role on his past experience in travelling the passes of the Misty mountains, though in truth he had come this way well nigh ten years previous and during the warmest times of the year when the high passes were relatively safe to navigate. But none of this did he divulge to his companions. He sought to conceal his inner feelings of terror that he experienced at his first sight of the rapid tumbling snow and ice that rained down upon the company. Never in his life had he been so scared at what seemed to be his impending death. He had bolted away like a frightened mouse fleeing from the garden snake at first sight of it. He, too, had his feet knocked under him as he was swept down the slope but fate was not cruel to him this day, for he had managed to grab hold of a broken tree that rode the icy current nigh him. The dead evergreen had nearly toppled over a steep drop-off but somehow became wedged between two boulders of stone and it was there that Urlavia was saved. In the end he found himself buried beneath an obscure shadowy whiteness that had no end, but he clung to his tree nonetheless and eventually squirmed his way out of the snow. He escaped the jaws of death with only a bloodly lip and tongue along with various bumps and bruises. But the near brush with death had shaken his wits and unstable courage, and this now angered him greatly and made him intemperate.
For Vilthavia this new trial of scaling down a precipitous slope that he feared could give way beneath their feet at any given moment and send them all at last to their deaths down below was one of the most trying ordeals he had ever faced in his short life. It was bad enough that he had only just survived his first avalanche and was now sore and numb in the limbs, yet also his old fear of high places was an extra knife in his side. If it were not for that mysterious liquid opiate compound that he had sipped from after his timely rescue he had not the slightest doubt that he would completely unable to perform the risky decent by rope and boot that he now, amazingly enough, found himself presently engaged in with his companions. The medicinal mixture seemed, temporarily anyway, to stave off the effects of altitude sickness and even, at least in his own case, to keep his dizzied vertigo in check.
Nonetheless, he grasped the hemped coil of rope around himself as tight as he possibly could as he slowly followed the other members of the group down the snowy slope. Whenever the company was called to a halt by his uncle Urlavia (who had taken up the first position along the rope in their single file decent) Vilthavia forced himself to raise his eyes up and look out across the enormous unfolding landscape before them. The view by any standards was spactacular. All around them the mighty Misty Mountains stretched far out in jagged brown and white peaks as far as the eye could see. His eyes roamed back and forth across the inumerable peaks, slopes and valleys in wonder. Despite their injuries and ever-present perils Vilthavia could not help but feel awestruck at what he saw. He could easily understand why Vidui was so fascinated by them. The main fact that troubled him at this sight was that he had expected to be able to see traces of more greenery off towards the west. If they were truly well past the half-way point as both Wildaria and his uncle had proclaimed, why were there no signs of green grass and meadows off in the distance. He knew his eyes were keen enough. He ought to be able to see these signs of the foothills from their present height.
He was shaken back to the situation at hand by the voice of his uncle down below. Knowing of Vilthavia’s fear of high places, and seeing his nephew looking out around him with his mouth agape, Urlavia called out to him to refrain from gazing abroad and instead concentrate on the climb before him. It was not a piece of helpful advice, nor was it worded compassionately, but rather sounded like a captain barking out orders to a disobediant foot-soldier.
“If you slip and fall you shall not only kill yourself but may take one of us with you on your way down! Pay attention, Vilthavia! I shan’t tell you a second time!”
Vilthavia, cold weary and sore as he was felt a stab of growing anger well up in him, and he was about to shout something offensive back down towards his uncle in reply, but Vidui, who was directly behind Vilthavia in the climbing order, counciled him to keep silent, saying, “Words of wrathful retort from you now, Vilthavia, will not help our situation here. Let the rogue have his way of things for now. It will not always be so.”
Vilthavia was mildly pleased to hear Vidui refer to his irksome uncle as a ‘rogue’ this time. It reassured him that there were at least a few others here who might support him and take his side if things became worse later on. He paused again and turned round to look at Vidui behind him, who was perhaps a dozen yards further up the slope along the length of the rope. Immediately behind Vidui was Elendis, who now virtually clung to Vidui’s back with clenched fists. She was quite obviously in considerable pain by now with her arm most likely being broken during the avalanche. Vilthavia marveled that she had been able to make it this far down the slope, let alone climb the remaining distance downwards.
He looked into her face and saw that her eyebrows and lashes were becoming caked over with icy droplets – this occuring because of the tears she was unable to restrain due to her throbbing pain. Yet despite knowing this Vilthavia could not help feeling a touch of jealously towards Vidui in his friend’s temporary role of being Elendis’ bodily prop and bodyguard as she leaned heavily up against him from behind as she clung to his back for support. He wished that she would turn her weary glance downwards towards him – if even for a moment in order to offer him the slightest of concilatory glances to reassure him that she knew he was there and acknowledge his compassion – but she did not. The eyes of Elendis were either closed, squinted or stared hazardly down to the white powder beneath her feet. Vidui cocked his head sideways to utter some reassuring words in her ears before gesturing down at Vilthavia that he should move on now.
It was getting darker with every passing moment as the company straggled downwards. It was slow work. The unmarked slope did not look all that long from up above, but as with many aspects of mountain travel appearances are often deceiving. Many of the clouds that had lingered above them after the storm had given way to clearer skies at the approach of the dim orange and grey dusk. This was not a wholly welcome boon for many of those already suffering from exposure among the group, for as the clouds slowly dissapated the temperatures began to drop. Wherever they found themselves this night it was sure to be a frigidly cold one.
After several more moments of achingly slow progress Urlavia called up for the group to come to a halt. At least two of the men had grown despondant at the prospect of failing to reach the bottom of this accursed cliff face before nightfall. They openly chastised Urlavia for his poor judgement in leading them all astray. Urlavia, being as weary in body and spirit as any other man among the group turned round to glare at the two complainers but had no words for them at that time. He spat angrily and lay his coil of rope upon the deep snowdrifts and began to stride away in another direction. At this the men demanded to know where he thought he would go then, but Urlavia ignored them and labored his way off to his right and somewhat downwards. He had noticed that a section of the slope looked to level off in this direction and he had a mind to stand there and gaze out and downwards towards the floor of the valley they all longed to reach ere the coming of total darkness. He too had begun to second guess his own decision by now.
He had traversed a a distance about as far as a young boy might hurl a small stone when he felt his feet strike something solid within the depths of the icy snow. He stumbled upon it and toppled sideways, extending his arms as he fell to break his fall. His first thought was that he had tripped over a stone, but when his extended hand plunged into the snow and felt something solid but far too soft to be stone. He righted himself and began to dig away the top layer of snow and ice with his hands in an attempt to uncover whatever lay buried in the snow. When some of his companions called out to inquire in regards to his actions Urlavia selected two of his more able-bodied men who still retained some of their vigour to assist him. When the three men at last managed to remove enough of the snow to unravel the mystery one of the assisting men froze as he stood up and looked down with jaws agape at the dead body of one of their missing companions. Doubtless he had been one of the victims of the avalanche and had perished by way of suffocation beneath the weight of snow much snow and ice.
“Do you recognize him?” asked one of the men to Urlavia with chattering teeth. Urlavia lowered himself to get a better look at the poor man who had died thus. The face of the deceased was turned sideways as he lay on his back in his frozen natural grave. The face had taken a bluish color by now and was as hard as ice to the touch. The man had been heavily bearded and looked ot have been past his middle years; one of the elder men of the company. His eyes were shut but his mouth was still open in a silent cry for help. Only snow lay inside that voiceless mouth now.
“Aye,” replied Urlavia. “I know this man. He was Cernan, the man from Rhudaur. Poor wretch.”
When the men called back up the hill to answer the inquiries of their curious companions one of the two diggers, whose wits must have surely fallen into numbness with the incessant cold, called back to them that they had found the body of one of their companions.
“Urlavia says it was the Rhudauran man,” replied the fool. “Cernan, I believe his name was.”
Urlavia could not stop the man from uttering the name of the deceased before the fool, whose name happened to be Harbrad from the Dale country, revealed the late Cernan’s identity to their companions – including the distressed Elendis. Upon hearing of the news that the body of her old friend and much loved protector had been found Elendis let out a gasp of shock and fell to her knees in the deep snow. Her tears again began to flow down her pale cheeks as the sobs slowly began to gush out from her throat. Feeling a new wave of sympathy come over him for this girl whom he had come to feel so deeply for in so short a time, Vilthavia turned and let go of the rope and unfastened it from his belt so that he might scramble up the slope to come to comfort the distraught Elendis. Vidui, who was still at the girl’s side, tried to check Vilthavia before he could leave his position in the climbing order.
“Stay where you are, Vilthavia!” barked Vidui hastily. “Do not release yourself from the rope! The snow is too loosely packed on this slope. Elendis is safe enough! Don’t be the fool that your uncle is, lad!”
Elendis paid little heed to the actions of Vilthavia, nor of the exchange between him and Vidui. She tried to cuff away the freezing tears from her bloodshot eyes with her sleeve but only succeeded in smearing more snow across her face. She, too began to unhook the rope from her belt loops as she rose to her feet. Breaking his attention away from the approaching Vilthavia Vidui turned abruptly around and seized Elendis by her coat, refusing to allow her to walk off.
“I must look upon my old friend and protector once more ere we leave him, Vidui! I must bid farewell to him!”
“Nay, my lady! That you cannot do, alas! The slope is treacherous and we loose the light with the coming of nightfall. Your Cernan must remain where he lays now. Come!”
“Nay, I must see him,” cried Elendis despondantly. “He had family in Rhudaur that would dearly like some sort of remembrance or weregild of him! I must at least retrieve his family amulet that he wears around his neck. It was given him by his only daughter who awaits him at home.”
Again Vidui held her back firmly but gently enough not to increase the pain in her wounded arm. He spoke more comforting words to her and even pulled her close to him and embraced her, telling her that she might succeed only in falling on her way down and would achieve nothing more than her own death in the process. She buried her head into Vidui’s chest as she sobbed again, at last succumbing to his advice. Vilthavia sat upon his knees in the snow as he watched Elendis sobbing into the chest of Vidui, who in turn stroked her wet blonde hair as he sought to comfort her. Vilthavia felt another and more strident pang of jealousy come over him at this sight, and he longed to show up his friend. A desperate thought occured to him then and he decided to act upon it without pondering on the wisdom of it beforehand.
“I shall retrieve it for you, Elendis,” he said plainly as if he had already consigned himself to do so without a worry. Vilthavia then stood up and began wading through the deep white powder and debris down towards where his uncle and the two other men stood looking down on the submerged body of Cernan. This naturally aroused more protests from Vidui and two other men further down the length of the rope, who feared rather more delays in the young boy’s brashness than of worries over his safety. But Vilthavia ignored them and forced himself onwards, nearly losing his footing twice along the way. He feared that the positive effects of the medicinal opiate that he had consumed earlier, and which had seemed to ward off some of his vertigo was quickly expiring now, for he felt his hands trembling with that old familiar terror he had known for so long.
“Get back! Get back at once, I say!” snarled Urlavia as he turned and saw his nephew clumsily making his way down the hazardous slope. “You shall get yourself killed, you foolish boy! Curse you!”
Urlavia immediately ordered his two younger companions to go back up and intercept Vilthavia in order to drag him back to the safety of the rope where the rest of the beleagured company looked on. This was accomplished in a few moments time, and as the two men each seized one arm of the youthful Vilthavia and began to force him upwards again Vilthavia protested, explaining that Elendis had a right to retrieve her old friend’s belongings so that they may be returned to his family in remembrance of him.
“He is gone, boy!” replied Harbrad, who was nearly out of breath by now. “He has nothing to retrieve on him.”
“His amulet!” shouted Vilthavia, struggling in vain to break free of the two men’s grasp. “He wears the amulet around his neck! The lady must have it and return it to his kin! I must fetch it for her! Let me go!”
“Quit struggling, boy!” cried the other man roughly as he sought to control Vilthavia’s wild movements. “You shall send all three of us down the cliff to our deaths with your resistance! Up you go!”
“Urlavia!” shouted Harbrad down to Vilthavia’s uncle, who had not even bothered to watch his two companions struggle with his nephew. Instead he had been hovering over the body of Cernan with his eyes examining with uncanny scrutiny the deceased old man. Upon hearing his name he turned round.
“Urlavia, your nephew claims that the old man possesses an amulet that he wore around his neck! Do you see it still upon him in the snow? Seems the little lady desires to retrieve it for his next of kin!”
Urlavia sighed with a frown upon hearing this. He bent down and began to visibly search the body of Cernan for the piece of jewelry in question. After a few moments he turned back and claimed that the deceased bore no such amulet around his neck.
“He bears no amulet or any other such device on his person!”
Elendis, who had turned her face away from the safety of Vidui’s chest in order to watch all that was taking place with the Vilthavia and the three others, had overheard the claim of Urlavia and voiced her objections.
“It must be there!” she cried aloud down to Urlavia. “He never removes it from his neck! Aye! Pray look again! It is not large – about the size of a hen’s egg and in the shape of a silver star!”
Urlavia frowned and searched the body of Cernan again. Vilthavia had stopped squirming in the clutches of the two men and looked down upon his uncle, who at length again called back up that there was no trace of the amulet that Elendis insisted must still be around old Cernan’s neck. Elendis began to grow visibly wrathful with Urlavia’s claims and again insisted on going down to look for herself. Urlavia pointed at her and ordered her to remain where she was.
“Your friend has lost the piece in question, lady!” replied Urlavia. “Anything might have happened to it when he was swallowed up by the avalanche! We cannot spare any time to look for it. Dusk is well at hand and we are all in peril here! We must get down into that valley ere it is completely dark or else perish from cold up where we stand!”
At that moment something dreadful occurred. Of all of the dangers one can encounter in mountainous travel few perils can match the sudden horror one feels at the sudden loss of one’s footing. In some cases – if the mountaineer is skilled and experienced enough to do so – a sturdy purchase for one’s footing can be gained before falling to one’s death. Sometimes a random well-placed handhold such as a tree limb or exposed root can be grasped just in time to prevent the innevitible plunge into open air. But virtually nothing at all can be done when one encounters the sudden failing of hidden cravasses beneath one’s feet. Such was the case in this instance.
Harbrad, who had been one of the two men who had forcibly restrained Vilthavia by the arm (the other man being a certain Brandon, also from Dale) suddenly cried out a dreadful shreek of terror as he felt the ground beneath his feet unexpectedly begin to disappear right beneath his feet! He had time enough only to glance down at his ragged boots for an instant ere he felt the horrible feeling in his gut. Fortunately, he had released his hold on Vilthavia some moments ago else he, too, would have joined Harbrad in the death plunge. Harbrad flailed his arms wildly in a vain attempt to grab hold of anything in order to prevent the unavoidable fall that awaited him, but to no avail.
Brandon and Vilthavia stood rooted in horror as they witness the snowy terrain between themselves and Urlavia quickly begin to disintergrate as the wailing Harbrad fell into the dark abyss below. Vilthavia gasped aloud. Brandon said nothing but looked around him wildly. In a state of sheer terror, Vilthavia gave in to the irresistable instinct to turn and flee back up the slope heedless of all else. He had been fortunate. Had he now been standing in the very spot that Brandon now owned he would have been the next to fall into shadow.
Coming to his senses by the shouts of his fellows around him, Brandon turned and made to follow the young Vilthavia back up the slope. Too late. As he labored in the heavy snow he suddenly felt that inexorable sense of uncontrolable free-fall. The snow behind him began to quickly crumble away with a deep rumble.
“No! No, no! In the name of Eru! Help me!”
Brandon’s pleas for help went unheeded by Vilthavia, who was the only one close enough to him that could possibly have rendered him any assistance even if he had had a mind to. But Vilthavia was overwhelmed by uncontrolable vertigo and therefore incapable of anything save flight at that moment. He had only just managed to gain surer ground as he waded bodily through the snow uphill – all the while praying that the ground beneath his feet would remain solid.
Brandon’s final words ere his death were drowned out by the horrific cries of those around him, who could only watch in horror as they clutched ever more tightly to their ropes. The last they saw of that poor innocent young man, who had been well-liked by all for his propensity for laughter and the telling of tales, was the way he seemed to cease struggling at the last moment and give himself up to the hoplelessness of his present fate. Those that had refused to shut their eyes at this new dreadful woe later swore that they could see the doomed Brandon smiling with closed eyes before he fell into the cold shadows far below him and was gone.
It was all over as quickly as it had begun. Vilthavia had only just managed to gain his place on the rope again before he could force himself to reflect on his second close encounter with death in so short a time. He no longer felt the cold, nor the icy breeze upon his cheeks as he sat there panting for breath with trembling limbs. All else were safe for the moment. He turned and looked back at where he had been standing only a few moments ago. Where there had been deep snow before was now nothing but thin cold air. He could hardly believe his eyes. They had unwittingly traversed a hidden cravass! Then he thought of his unlovable uncle Urlavia. There he was! Again luck had been with him, for he had been on the opposite side of the invisible chasm and fell not to his death.
“Urlavia!” cried the others aloud to him. “Urlavia! Are you unhurt? Pray stand back from there or else you might fall as well! Urlavia! Can you hear us?”
Urlavia heard them but could not reply, for he was speechless with fear. Like his young nephew that he had wantonly chastised for timidity and weakness all too often, Urlavia again dropped to his knees next to the body of the deceased Cernan in wonder and amazement.
“Oh plaintive spirit rejoice!” he cried aloud, the echoes of which could be heard be all. Then he could not restrain his tears any longer and wept openly.