Lalaith disliked the look of the fissured, broken valley they were entering almost immediately when she saw it. The bitter, driving wind that had lashed Caradhras had died, but the overcast sky above them, slowly fading into the muted tones of twilight, was still a dirty, dingy gray, adding to the barren, lifeless look of the thick, misty terrain they were making their way across. The air was still cold, but there was no longer thick snow blanketing the ground, and the hobbits, wrapped in their little cloaks, Sam now leading Bill, could walk unaided. She managed to peel her eyes away from the three hobbits, who marched along bravely, but with weariness in their movements, and lift them up to a curious looking piece of workmanship, arching high over their heads, where what looked like what had once been an aqueduct, or a giant stone sluice of some kind from ancient days, pouring a steady fall of water down onto the rocks below, forming a dirty little river that trickled away into the mist, amidst the broken and cracked rocks.
Lalaith cast a glance at Legolas, whose face mirrored her own uncertainty at the path before them. His eye caught hers, and he managed a twitch of a smile at the corners of his mouth. “None but Gimli likes this sight.” He muttered beneath his breath.
Lalaith again glanced down at hobbits, trudging along, and at Aragorn who walked just ahead of them. He was not as weary as the hobbits, but Lalaith could tell that he was not eager to be here any more than the elves. But Gimli, walking just in front of Aragorn, was hopping and strutting eagerly along, as if he felt the company was not moving fast enough. Boromir walked just ahead of him, with Gandalf and Frodo only paces ahead.
“Frodo, come and help and old man.” Lalaith heard Gandalf called out to the young hobbit who lingered a few steps behind him. Frodo hurried forward, taking part of Gandalf’s weight onto his own shoulder.
“How’s your shoulder?” Gandalf asked Frodo.
“Better than it was.” Was Frodo’s answer in return.
Lalaith tilted her head, pricking up her ears, but could still not hear the next question Gandalf asked of Frodo, though by the expression on his face, it seemed of utmost importance. The two of them had stopped walking, and Boromir had caught up with them, and passed them, and as he did, they both glanced up and studied him, somewhat suspiciously. Lalaith released a soft breath of air, guessing now, what the two were talking about.
“Whom, then, do I trust?” She heard Frodo whisper as she and Legolas drew closer, his small voice beseeching Gandalf.
“You must trust yourself.” Gandalf murmured in return. “Trust in your own strength.”
“What do you mean?” Pleaded Frodo.
“There are many powers in this world for good or evil.” Gandalf answered. “Some are greater than I am. And against some, I have not yet been tested.”
Legolas had heard the last part of their interchange as well, and cast a questioning glance at Lalaith. But she shook her head and gave him a helpless look, not knowing what Gandalf meant, any more than he.
With that, a sudden gasp of awe came from Gimli, and he pointed ahead, his face written with an expression of veneration. The mist had cleared for a moment, revealing a sheer cliff face of gray stone, ragged and furrowed with the ravages of time, wind and water. “The walls of Moria.” He murmured reverently.
Lalaith drew in a breath. The air, still and dead, and as cold as it was, still managed to reeked of mold and age, and any plants or trees to be seen along the black acrid lake of water that pushed up, almost to the very walls of Moria, were either already dead or nearly so, with webs and mats of moss growing on them, sloping away into the unseen depths of the filthy lake.
Lalaith shuddered. Perhaps it was only because she was so used to the clear, clean, sweet smelling streams of Rivendell, but the very look of the water disturbed her. As if it was alive, alive and unfriendly.
“I do not like the look of that water.” She whispered as they drew closer to the narrow ledge of land between the water and the cliff wall.
“Nor do I.” Legolas returned. “It is as if the water were watching us.” He squeezed her hand, pulling her closer to his side in a protective gesture, and said nothing more as the dingy twilight surrounding them slowly faded to the shadows of night.
“Dwarf doors are invisible when closed.” Gimli piped up cheerfully, as they hiked along the narrow edge of rubble between the sheer cliff, and the black water, tapping the back of his ax against the hard stone wall, and tilting his head near, listening carefully.
“Ask Gimli.” Added Gandalf, his own eyes carefully searching every crack and crevice of the wall for signs of a door. “Even their own masters cannot find them if their secrets are forgotten.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Legolas asked, with a sardonic look at Gimli.
Lalaith smirked and dropped her eyes to the broken rubble at their feet as Gimli growled and muttered inaudibly.
“Oh!” A frightened chirp, followed by a soft splash brought her head up sharply. Frodo, marching along the ledge of the water, had apparently slipped, and his foot had splashed momentarily into the water. Lalaith shuddered. Just the thought of touching that water made her skin crawl, and she started forward toward Frodo, half expected something horrible and unnamable, to reach out of the water and pull him by the ankle. But nothing happened. Frodo was unhurt, thankfully, as he scrambled away from the water’s edge and continued on.
Ahead of them, Gandalf had stopped. He stood beneath the overarching boughs of one of the few living trees at the edge of the water, and was standing back, examining a portion of the cliff wall. There seemed nothing extraordinary about it, at first glance, but then Lalaith saw what Gandalf had seen as he stepped forward and ran his hand along what appeared to by a carved notch in the wall, curving upward.
“Ithildin.” Gandalf murmured reverently. “It mirrors only starlight, and moonlight.” Gandalf turned and glanced upward at the sky, where wisps of thinning clouds rolled from before the silver face of the moon, revealing its soft muted light onto their company, and the gray cliff before them. As the silver moonlight rested on the portion of wall Gandalf stood before, the carved notches, which had at first only appeared as mere chiselings from some mason’s mallet, lit up and glowed like mithril. Lalaith’s brows lifted, impressed.
Gandalf stepped back, and smiled, satisfied, before lifting his staff, and following the words over the top of the glowing frame. “It reads, `The doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter.'”
“What d’you s’pose that means?” Merry queried.
“Oh, it’s quite simple.” Gandalf explained readily. “If you are a friend, you speak the password, and the doors will open.”
Drawing in a breath, he stepped back, and lifted his staff, pressing the blunt end against a star shaped carving in the middle of the doors, just beneath the figure of a hammer and anvil, and spoke in powerful, commanding tones, “Annon edhellen, edro hi ammen!”
Lalaith leaned forward slightly, expectantly, but nothing happened. The doors remained as they were, the dark night silent, unchanging. The dark water behind them softly rippling against the rocks. She traded a silent glance with Legolas, then turned and glanced down at Pippin beside her who looked up, and gave her a shrug.
Gandalf grunted beneath his breath, but continued undaunted, “Fennas nogothrim, lasto beth lammen!”
The doors remained closed, and silent, as before.
“Nothing’s happening.” Pippin murmured helpfully. Lalaith glanced down at him, and nudged him gently, hoping that would urge him into remaining silent. Gandalf did not seem in the mood now, for Pippin to be chorusing everything that was not going according to plan.
“I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves, Men, and Orcs.” Gandalf muttered, his shoulders hunched tiredly, voice at last becoming frustrated.
“What’re you going to do then?” Pippin chirped, clearly oblivious to Lalaith’s hint.
“Knock your head against these doors, Peregrine Took!” Gandalf growled, turning and casting a scathing glare at the young hobbit. “And if that does not shatter, them, and I am allowed a little peace from foolish questions,” Gandalf drew in a breath, gathering what little patience he still possessed, and finished, “I will try to find the opening words.”
Properly humbled, Pippin shut his mouth, and kept silent.
Lalaith sat wearily on an outreaching root of the tree that Legolas stood beneath, as Gandalf continued chanting spells in different tongues, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. In frustrated desperation, he’d even tried to chant them backwards. But even that, had not worked.
A tight knot was beginning to grow painful in the back of her right shoulder, and Lalaith reached for it, kneading the muscle, but that did not seem to help the tense, throbbing pain. The ache only seemed to grow hotter, almost as if a brand were being seared into her very flesh.
“Lalaith, what is it?” Legolas asked quietly, drawing near, and dropping down on the root beside her.
“It is nothing.” She gasped between clenched teeth with a shake of her head, her forehead furrowed at the pain. “The muscle in my shoulder is tight. That is all.”
“It seems more than that, by the look on your face. Here, let me try.” He offered, and edged closer. The fletchings of her arrows, and the handles of her knives thrust above her shoulder, right over the spot that hurt the most. But Legolas had no difficulty maneuvering his hand around them. As if by magic, the moment his fingers touched her shoulder, the burning pain and tension faded, cooled and relieved apparently, by the simple touch of his hand, now gently massaging the muscles beneath the cloth of her tunic.
“Oh, better.” She breathed with a nod of surprised relief. A moment later, she had been sure, and she would have been crying in pain. “Much better.”
“Already?” Legolas asked. His voice was threaded with regret as he drew his hand back.
Lalaith turned to look at him, perplexed to see disappointment etching his features. But then she smiled, understanding. “I didn’t tell you to stop, Legolas.” She smirked. “I only said it felt better.” Legolas grinned, and his hand came back, gently kneading the now softened, relaxed muscle.
“Mmm.” She murmured, closing her eyes, and resting her chin in her hand. “Thank you, Legolas.”
“It is my pleasure, my Lady.” Legolas returned softly.
“Uh, my Lady.”
These words were spoken in the Common Tongue, by a voice she had not expected to hear. Lalaith’s eyes opened, and her gaze shot up to see Boromir standing above them. He had drawn closer as she and Legolas had been speaking, yet she had not noticed him until now. He was gazing down at the two of them, his brows pulling inward, in what looked to be an almost sad expression.
“What is it, Boromir?” She asked at last when his pause grew long.
“Uh,” he thought for a moment, then as if remembering, stammered, “Bill would not do well inside the mines, and Sam has decided to send him home. I thought you might-,” he gulped, his words strangely heavy and broken, “might want to see the pony off.”
“Oh.” Lalaith pulled away from Legolas, and rose to her feet. “I would. Thank you Boromir.” She offered him a quick smile and he nodded, and smiled weakly in return as she scurried past him and along the ledge of rubble to where Aragorn and Sam stood, gently taking off Bill’s packs and harnesses.
“The mines are no place for a pony.” Aragorn was saying softly. “Even one so brave as Bill.”
“Boromir said you were sending Bill home?” Lalaith asked softly as she reached the two.
Sam gulped and looked up at her sadly nodding of his head.
“He would not do well, inside those mines.” Aragorn answered softly, with regret.
“Oh, Sam.” Lalaith sighed, and squeezed his small shoulder gently. “It’s for the best.” Lalaith stepped to the pony, and stroked his nose, warm, and velvet soft. She would miss this brave, faithful pony.
“Bye bye, Bill.” Sam said with a choke in his voice, as she stepped back.
“Go on, Bill. Go on.” Aragorn said with a gentle pat on Bill’s rump, sending him clomping back the way they’d come. “Don’t worry, Sam. He knows the way home.”
Lalaith missed Bill already, but she was almost happy, for the pony’s sake, that he was leaving this cold, frightening place. Gandalf did not seem to know a way through the stone doors, and the night was growing darker as they waited. The silence was stifling, frightening in itself, and when a loud splash rocked the water of the dark lake, Lalaith jerked, and almost shrieked in fear. Pippin had thrown a rock into the water, she discerned immediately. He and Merry had grown bored of waiting, and were looking for ways to entertain themselves, gathering up rocks along the broken shoreline. Another splash, this time a rock flung by Merry, caused ripples even farther out in the water.
Again, Pippin lifted an arm to throw a third rock, and was caught, in mid swing, by Aragorn, who had rushed forward past Sam and Lalaith, to grab his arm.
“Do not disturb the water.” He hissed into Pippin’s confused face.
Lalaith narrowed her eyes. So she was not the only one with an unfounded fear of that dark, dirty lake. Knowing now how even Aragorn feared that water, she felt a sudden need to return to Legolas, and she did so quickly, scampering past their other companions, and joining him beneath the tree, finding comfort in his closeness, and his welcoming smile.
“Bill has gone?” He asked softly, reaching for and taking her hand up into his own.
“I almost envy him.” She nodded wistfully, but then smiled. “But not really. If I were in his place, I would be leaving you, and I do not want to do that.”
Legolas smiled, his thumb running slowly over her fingers. “What of your shoulder?”
“The pain is entirely gone, strangely enough. A few minutes ago, it was throbbing, as if there was a fire in my very muscle.” Lalaith shook her head, confused. “But the moment you touched it, the pain went away.”
Legolas looked thoughtful. “Has this ever happened before?”
Lalaith looked up into his eyes as they searched hers intently. “Not this intensely.” She furrowed her brow. In Loth Lorien, two hundred years before, in their battle with the orcs, she remembered feeling a slight twinge in the same shoulder. But the pain was so much more intense now, that there could be no comparing.
“Oh, gracious.” Gandalf muttered, flinging his staff to the ground, and pulling his pointed hat from his head as he flopped in frustration onto a rock beneath their tree.
Aragorn and Boromir were gazing out over the dark water, with concern on their faces, and Merry and Pippin were squinting out into the darkness as well. There was something out there, that, with their mortal eyes, they could not quite see. Lalaith almost turned to follow their gaze, but then Frodo spoke.
“It’s a riddle.” He said suddenly, and with confidence. “`Speak, friend, and enter.'” He glanced hopefully at Gandalf. “What’s the elvish word for friend?”
Gandalf glanced up, his face mirroring sudden inspiration. “Mellon.”
At that single word, a low grumble came from the doors, and a stony scrape echoed about them as the double doors of Moria scraped open, revealing a dark, empty void.
Though Gimli leaped up, snatched up his walking ax, and strutted eagerly forward toward the darkness, Lalaith was less sure, and gazed deep into the blackness beyond the doors. Gandalf however, started in willingly, fixing a clear, shiny stone to the end of his staff, and this, at least, gave her a measure of confidence. With Legolas’ hand in hers, the two elves hopped down from the tree’s roots, and started in. Aragorn and Boromir kept glancing backward, but Lalaith kept her eyes ahead, more concerned about what might lie ahead of them in the darkness, than in what they were leaving behind outside.
“Soon, my elf friends,” Gimli chortled, poking Lalaith playfully in the arm with the blunt edge of his ax, “you will enjoy the fabled hospitality of the dwarves! Roaring fires, malt beer, ripe meat off the bone!”
Lalaith barely heard him. Something didn’t smell right here, but even her elven eyes could see little in this darkness. Gandalf a few steps away, blew gently on the clear stone set into his staff, and it flared to life, a soft, almost star-like light, that lit the room around them, and to Lalaith’s sudden, sick horror, illuminated scores of rotten bodies, bodies of dwarves, armor and wisps of beard still clinging to blackened, rotten skeletons, some still clutching weapons, their ruined bodies frozen in their last futile efforts to defend themselves against whatever it was that had murdered them. Arrows protruded from their frozen, tortured corpses, and here and there, massive black axes, not of dwarven make, were still struck grotesquely through cracked and shattered breastplates, and helmets.
“This, my friends, is the home of my cousin, Balin.” Gimli continued gleefully, and Lalaith turned to stare at him blankly, numbly realizing that he had not yet noticed the carnage that surrounded them. “And they call it a mine. A mine!”
“This is no mine.” Boromir managed to mutter, his voice, muted and sickened. “It’s a tomb.”
Behind her, she heard a muffled clatter, and soft, frightened gasps coming from the hobbits. The four of them, clinging in a bunch, had nearly tripped over a corpse.
Gimli, at last seeing the bodies, released a muffled cry. He darted to the nearest body, and knelt over it, as if futilely demanding his senses to deny what they were seeing. “Noooo!” He howled, his voice pathetic, and enraged at once.
Legolas darted from her side, and knelt over a corpse, yanking out the arrow that had killed it, and staring hard at the design of the arrowhead. “Goblins.” He hissed, and flung the arrow away with a clatter.
Lalaith’s eyes shot to the stairs at the end of the entry hall as she snatched an arrow from her quiver, and fitted it to her bowstring, pulling it taut as Legolas and Aragorn did with their own bows, while Boromir drew his sword forth, with a soft metallic hiss that sounded odd and loud to her adrenaline heightened senses. Lalaith waited, fully expecting to see the dark hunched bodies she so well remembered from two centuries past, come lunging down the steps from the unseen heights above, but nothing came. Nothing stirred in the darkness.
“We make for the Gap of Rohan.” Boromir snarled to the others. “We should never have come here.” No voice sounded in disagreement, and as one, everyone began backing slowly toward the yet open doorway. “Now, get out of here.” Boromir ordered. “Get out!”
A movement behind her, near the door, followed by a startled, fearful gasp coming from Frodo, barely caught her attention, her senses fixed on the darkness before them. The three other hobbits, however, turned to rush out the door, splashing down into the water.
“Strider!” Sam shouted toward the door at Aragorn, at last alerting Lalaith that something dangerously wrong was going on behind her, and she and the others turned their focus away from the inky darkness of Moria, to the muted moonlit night outside the door.
Sam was whacking at something that had pulled Frodo down on his back and partway down into the water, something snake-like, that had Frodo by the leg as Merry and Pippin were grasping Frodo each by an arm, hauling him desperately back toward the shore. The thing half severed at the end by Sam’s blade, released Frodo’s leg then, and as it retreated back into the depths of the murky water, Lalaith’s mind struggling to grasp this new horror, at last understood that the thing was a tentacle. A long, sickly-gray tentacle, belonging to some deep water creature that rarely saw light. A watcher. Lalaith’s mind whispered. She’d heard myths of such creatures, but never until now, had she seen one, or even quite believed that such creatures existed. The tentacle, with grasping finger-like protrusions on the end that hung broken and limp now, thanks to the work of Sam’s little sword, disappeared into the depths of the water, but Lalaith had scarcely drawn a breath, before the water erupted with countless more tentacles, that lunged onto the shore, slapping Sam and the other hobbits but Frodo to the stony ground, as one tentacle snatched his ankle, lifting the poor hobbit, thrashing and screaming, high into the air, and out over the black water. Several other tentacles rose and snaked around Frodo, slapping at him, and jabbing him, as if searching for something.
Can it be, that the creature on the end of all these tentacles somehow knows Frodo has the ring, and wants it as well? Lalaith wondered, drawing her arrow, already nocked to her string, back to her cheek, and letting it fly. Her arrow struck the tentacle holding Frodo clear through, and another arrow, released from Legolas’ bow, followed a moment later, striking just above the spot where Lalaith’s arrow had hit. The wounded tentacle faltered, but their elven arrows did little more to hinder the determination of whatever massive creature was on the other end of all these tentacles.
Aragorn and Boromir had rushed out into the knee deep water as Lalaith and Legolas had fired their arrows, right into the midst of the thrashing forest of tentacles, chopping at them, as if at the trunks of trees, severing each one clean through with a single slice of their swords, followed by a massive splash as the dead, severed tentacles flopped lifelessly back into the water.
The water beneath the tentacles boiled then, angrily, as if the water had suddenly become superheated, and a massive head emerged from the depths of the ink black water, a wet, slimy, vile looking head, with black, evil looking eyes, and tentacles protruding from it at all angles. Massive jaws gaped open, large enough to swallow the little hobbit whole, lined with rows of vicious, flesh tearing teeth. Undaunted, Boromir and Aragorn, thoroughly soaked now, thrashed through thigh deep water, and Boromir chopped through another tentacle, cleaning felling it into the water with a splash as Aragorn swung his sword through another one, the tentacle that held Frodo by the ankle, and at last the terrified little hobbit fell shrieking, tumbling through the air, to land into Boromir’s arms.
“Into the mines!” Gandalf ordered, as the two humans struggled to escape the churning water, and the thrashing tentacles that lashed angrily at them, trying to get at the hobbit again.
“Legolas!” Boromir cried. “Lalaith!”
Lalaith drew back another arrow, aimed, and released it, the arrow flying past the heads of the humans, through the creature’s swinging tentacles, and straight into one of the creature’s eyes in the same moment that Legolas’ arrow hit it in the other eye, eliciting an unearthly howl of rage and pain.
“Into the cave!” Aragorn shouted, as he and Boromir, still with Frodo, scrambled up onto the bank.
“Come on!” Boromir ordered the hobbits, who had been standing back, gaping, horrified at the sight before them. He dropped Frodo to his feet, who hit the ground, his feet already running run back into the dark recesses of the mine.
Everyone, for the moment, was accounted for, and Lalaith, only all to willing to face the darkness of Moria now, rather than the ire of the angry beast, turned and sprinted with the others through the stone doors of Moria, and into the darkness.
The creature’s tentacles snaked in behind them, wrapping onto the doors, and the cracked, ragged stone of the cliff, bodily hauling itself up out of the water, ripping at the stone in an effort to get at Frodo once again. Its strength and anger was such that it ripped the doors away from the cliff face, tearing rocks and boulders down onto its head in a deafening, thunderous crash. Moonlight flashed in and out between falling rocks, as Lalaith and the others turned to watch in dismay as boulders crashed down behind them, crushing corpses, and even the watcher itself now, snuffing the last of the moonlight and completely blocking their way back out as boulders and rocks clattered, at last to a rest, leaving them nothing but silent blackness, and air filled with thick dust.
“Lalaith?” Two worried voices from different directions came at her at the same time, and Lalaith, gasping, struggled to answer both Legolas and Boromir who had spoken her name at once.
“I am here. I am not hurt.” She gasped, coughing on dust. “What of everyone else? Frodo?”
“Yes, I am here, too.” Came Frodo’s breathless voice from the darkness.
“Me, too.” Answered the other three hobbits, with gasping voices that shook as they spoke.
“Gandalf? Aragorn?” Lalaith asked, fearful of the ensuing silence.
“I’m here.” Aragorn’s voice came from the void, answering her query.
“Here I am, my dear. Don’t worry.” From the sound of Gandalf’s voice, he was sitting down perhaps on a nearby rock, still fighting for breath.
“Oh, don’t bother asking about me.” Gimli’s voice came out of the darkness near her. In spite of his initial shock and horror at the discovery of the bodies, and the ensuing fight with the watcher, he seemed to have regained much of his former composure. “Don’t worry about the dwarf, now.”
“Are you hurt at all, Gimli?” She asked, ignoring the underlying growl in his voice.
“I’m fine.” He reluctantly grumbled in answer.
A thump on the stone floor came from the direction of Gandalf’s voice and the stone in his staff ignited, shedding light on the room in which they stood, now littered with tumbled rocks as dust particles flickered through the air. The end where the doors had once stood was now completely blocked by broken and cracked boulders.
“We have but one choice.” Gandalf murmured. He had risen to his feet, and walked through the center of the bedraggled, dust covered group. “We must face the long dark of Moria.” Lalaith tightened her jaw at the tones of his voice as he said this, her eyes fixed on his face. “Be on your guard. There are older, and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.”
Lalaith and Legolas traded a glance as he said this, Legolas’ eyes filled with concern as he reached for, and took her hand, once again, into his own as the group started after Gandalf, up the long, dark steps, littered here and there with a dwarven corpse. Lalaith glanced over her shoulder at the hobbits, and at Gimli, noting that Frodo, and the two humans at the back of the group, were still drenched, their hair and clothing still dripping with water. Her eyes found Boromir’s for a moment, and she offered him an encouraging smile, but he only shook his head lightly, and glanced away. Lalaith’s smile fell, and she turned away from Boromir, to face forward and upward, up the steps in the direction where Gandalf was leading them.
“Quietly now.” Gandalf continued, his voice hushed. “It’s a four day journey to the other side. Let us hope our presence may go unnoticed.”
Lalaith sighed, and shrank closer to Legolas’ side at Gandalf’s words, feeling exhausted already. In response, Legolas released her hand, and his arm went around her waist as he pressed a soft kiss to her brow, lending her strength. Behind her, a quiet, almost inaudible groan came from Boromir’s throat, but Lalaith, her senses filled with nothing but the feel and scent of Legolas, scarcely heard.