I went to Carfax, took up Aeglos, and returned to the water without a word to the others. The lake was wadable only out to a few paces, and afterward there was a steep drop off. I glanced back, and saw Narsil shining. Gimli was chopping at tentacles like rubbery cords of wood as Legolas launched arrow after arrow into the fleshy mass that was lifting from the center of the lake. Sam was hiding underneath Butterscotch, which was a terrible idea, but they were going to be fine. They had to be.
The chill was bracing, but it affected me not at all. I had experienced worse cold at the hands of wraiths. Beneath the surface it was utterly lightless, but I found that with my eyes denied their sight another kind of vision opened before me.
Aeglos became clear first, silver and blue along its length and the spearpoint in particular, but it did not illuminate the murk. Between it and the hundred- armed, benthic horror was a space of inky blackness. The monster was limned in reddish purple hues, pulsing and hating, while Beren was a startling golden treasure in its grasp. I swam forward, but the many tentacles reacted of their own accord, seeking to snare me.
"Princesss, you need my help." Shadow within shadows, the Witch King was abruptly with me in the water, a caliginous tatterdemalion floating calmly along.
Awkwardly stabbing and thrusting at the arms, kicking madly forward, I answered him with my thoughts.
"I do not ask for your help."
"And yet, you neeeed it."
He was right. I was floundering, and soon I would have to surface for air, leaving me all the more exposed. Beren would have no such luxury as he was being drawn into the thing's maw.
"Take up my ring. You mussst."
The choice was foregone. I brought Aeglos against my body so I could hold it while I reached into my sleeve. The ring veritably leapt upon my finger, and I resisted the urge to gasp and drown.
My spiritual vision became clearer even as the mortal world faded around me. Warmth and strength filled my limbs, and the wraith was a wraith no longer, but a man proud and tall. The Witch King had skin of ebony, and ice green eyes. His smile was full of white teeth faintly stained with red.
"Do you know me now, princess? Will you allow me to feed you the words that save your friend?"
The choice had already been made when I put on his ring. "Do it!"
A song that was not my own, nor any of my people, bubbled out of my throat. It was sonorous and eerie and pressed out of me as if it were a living thing that I had tried to swallow whole.
"Nigglb Thgug Sassoth Dagon!"
The effect was immediate. The horror thrust Beren away from its maw and toward me. Its tentacles retreated, and I caught Beren in my arms. Swimming back to shore with him and Aeglos should have been impossible, but accomplished it without thinking. The Witch King was gone, and as I pulled myself and my burdens onto the rocky strand I dropped the spear and quickly stashed the ring back in my sleeve.
When I did so, all the light went out of me, and I collapsed beside my friend, barely sensible.
The sounds of fighting receded, and I felt myself being lifted by strong arms and settled against the cliff wall.
"What happened?" I said, my gaze refocusing on Aragorn. His dark hair was wet and hung lank against his handsome face.
"The beast retreated," he said. "I know not why."
I saw it in his look. "Arwen, I'm so sorry."
I struggled to see him, Beren seemed unharmed, but bloodless somehow, and then I perceived the hand. The absence of a hand. The monster had severed his right arm at the wrist and drained him like a wine pouch. My choice had been for nothing.
"He said your name," Aragorn's words were as gentle as he could make them, "but he was too quickly gone."
I barely saw the others as I leaned over Beren. Tears burned in my eyes, and I blinked them away, placing my fingers against his unscarred cheek.
"I will see you in the Halls of Mandos, my friend." This I spoke in the tongue of the High Elves, and there was a cracking of stone that in the moment I took to be a part of my grief. It was the dwarf door, opening to our need.
"Speak "friend," and enter" Mithrandir said to himself. "I have been a fool."
The reality of his self-recrimination struck me like a club, and I reeled. Anger boiled up out of I know not where, and I spoke harshly.
"When have you ever been Wise, Mithrandir? When have you ever come to a fight but once the hour for fighting had passed? Beren is dead from your bungling!"
The wizard took a step back, his boot in the water, astonished. The others looked away. Aragorn helped me carry Beren into the mine with us, where Mithrindir caused the end of his staff to glow like a lantern. Gimli examined the mechanisms of the door and found a latch which allowed him to shut it back so there would be no orcs or wolves at our backs.
I did not see it, but Legolas had collected our goods from Carfax and Butterscotch, and instructed my mare to keep the pony safe on their return to Rivendell. Later, I would regret not saying goodbye, but in that hour I felt nothing.
I had time to grieve while they debated our route. Mithrandir had been here before but didn't seem confident about the particulars, which was hardly a surprise given his own disposition and the nature of Dwarven architecture. Khazad-dum, Dwarrowdelf, named Moria by my kind after it fell to Shadow, was a maze of interlocking corridors and dead end chambers. Durin's folk were paranoid by nature, and they had designed their great bastion with invasions in mind. We were fortunate that the network of deadly traps and the arts that concealed them had all rotted away or else been triggered in decades past by unwary interlopers. Even without the risk of hidden spears and spikes and darts, crunching stones and trick floors, navigating Kazad-dum was no simple task. Gimli's insight was minimal, as all this had been constructed long before his birth and his knowledge was second hand. That left us at the mercy of a wizard's memory.
"It's all right," Gimli told me. "We'll give him a proper burial once we come across Balin and the others."
"Wood, or water, or fire," Legolas said. "We do not bury."
"What?" The Dwarf was genuinely confused.
"Our spirits do not linger on this earth when we die," I said, thinking about the preparations that would be required. "It is ill luck that our bodies should linger, so it is the custom of the Teleri to give their dead to the sea, while Thranduil's folk are given to the roots and moss. Mine can do so as well, but we often choose the pyre instead."
"What about your tombs?" Gimli said, not understanding.
"There are none. Our memories are enough. And more than that, we know we shall see each other again in Valinor." Though that would not be true of me, if I chose to remain with Aragorn.
We wrapped Beren in a sheet, and Aragorn carried him for me. Taking him with us was impractical, but I intended to give him rites whenever we found a chamber where real light filtered down from above. It would not be this night, however, as we were all well past our due rest already. Either using the ring, or removing it, had taken something from me that I did not know if I could regain.
I had a strange dream that night, in the few hours that I slept. It was not a vision of Mordor and Barad-dur, nor my ancestors. Instead, I lay in the very chamber we had settled in to rest, long stripped of any intricate details, a mere box with a rough cut entrance and exit. My eyes were open, and Beren sat with me and sang to me of other times. He shared the song that he had written about Arwen Evenstar and Aragorn. It was not really about us at all, but about love made impossible by circumstance.
I tried to apologize, and he wouldn't let me. He took off his eye patch, and showed me that he wasn't scarred, and that what had been blinded was now as clear and blue as the morning sky. I asked him where his pain had gone, for the losses of the past no longer seemed to trouble him. He showed me the hand that was not there any longer and he said, "I held them in this."
When I woke, I felt rested as I had not been since before I left Rivendell for the Shire. Then I saw Beren's body was gone.
"Where is he!" My shout woke the rest of the party. In our fatigue and despair we hadn't set a watch. Though we had all meant to, we hadn't. The sheet Beren had occupied was empty on the flagstones, and there was no other mark or sign of him.
"G...gg...ghosts!" Sam stuttered.
Frodo took him by the arm and brought him aside, eyes wide and solemn. "Don't say such things, my Sam, or they may come to pass."
Boromir was striding about with his sword out, a danger to everyone, but there was no villain to attend to here. Mithrandir and Aragorn were bent in conversation, and I came between them.
"What are you saying?"
Mithrandir did not meet my eyes, at least he knew something of shame. Aragorn's gaze held pity, which I hated. "It is possible there is something in the mines with us, and it took the remains."
"Maybe, or something more foul. As soon as we entered the mines I had the sense that we were being followed."
Aragorn and Mithrandir shared a glance, trying my patience. "If you know something," I said, "tell me."
"It may be Gollum," the old wizard said. "He is drawn to the Ring, and I believe he is near."
I took a step back. That wretched creature; former halfling, fisher in the caves, he took Beren from me?
"How? No one entered after us."
Aragorn shrugged. "I tracked him for long months, and I know he has a knack for creeping into places others cannot or will not dare. He may have been here ahead of us, crawled like a beetle down a shaft meant for air or light. There is no saying."
I turned away from them and nearly walked into the darkness beyond the grey light of Mithrandir. If it was Gollum that took him, why? What possible reason for the theft? My mind refused to wrap around the most obvious answer. Refused to consider it. There were no fish to catch in Moria.
The theory was spread among the Fellowship. Better they know or believe they know the truth than be left to their imaginations. Gollum, if it had been Gollum, was at least no threat to us awake, and we would never sleep unguarded in this place again.
"You should have killed him when you caught him," Frodo said, echoing my own thoughts and doubtlessly recalling how close Bilbo had come to death at those slick and grasping hands. When he spoke, his fingers strayed to his chest, so he may have said it out of jealousy for the Ring as well. I could understand that impulse, but now I wanted revenge for Beren's desecration.
"If ever you meet him with your Sting unsheathed," Mithrandir said, "you should examine your heart. If the voice of pity moves you, heed it, for Gollum is as much a victim of the Ring as any of us. More so."
I heard him, but his words pattered against a hardness growing around my heart. Gollum had been spared once before, by Bilbo, and had he died in that squalid Orc den he would never have been captured by the servants of Sauron and brought to Minis Morgul to be tortured. The Riders would never have heard the name of the Shire. They would not have pursued Frodo to Rivendell, because they would have thought nothing of hobbits, as they had thought nothing of them for all of history. We would not have been watched and hunted on our journey, for all Saruman might have suspected us still. Beren would be alive. Bilbo should have put Gollum out of his miserable existence nearly a century ago. That is what I thought of Mithrandir's pity.
With Carfax gone and hopefully safe on the road back to his stable, I took to carrying Aeglos with me and using it like a staff. It was hard to guess how long we would be traipsing through Moria. Our supplies would last only a few days, assuming we found water. If the wizard did not lose us in the mazes of the lower levels it would not be more than a day's sojourn to cross beneath the mountain. If.
With our pale illumination the wonders of Khazad-Dum, such as they were after generations of pillage, took on an ominous cast. Frodo was generally inward looking, but his partner was both fascinated and frightened by the wealth of sculpture and ornate moldings that we came across in the upper halls. Moria had been constructed in a different age, when Dwarves had carved out the guts of mountains without a care for anything but the grandeur of their own dreams.
"Was there much gold in this place?" he asked.
"Gold?" Mithrandir said. "More than you can hold in your imagination.".
"We did not mine gold here," Gimli gruffly corrected. "This was the single largest source of mithril in all the world."
"Mithril?" Sam wondered aloud. "Is that more important than gold?"
"Like bright silver it looks," the Dwarf said, almost in a reverie, "and yet harder than folded steel. In those days they made armor of it. Now it is so rare you would have to be a king to wear a single glove of mithril chain."
"So it's very expensive," Sam said.
"A mithril shirt," Gandalf pointed at the hobbit's jerkin, "would be worth as much as all the Shire and everything in it."
I noticed Frodo shrink strangely at this pronouncement, adjusting his clothing as if he had caught a chill.
"But how did they make this place so huge," Sam asked, "and where have they all gone?"
"Ah," Gimli took on a regretful tone, "there is the whole tale of my people in the tale of a place. You would not want to hear it."
"But I do." There are few powers in this world more affecting than the earnest natures of hobbits. Gimli found himself overcome, and undertook to fill the hours of our trek through the underground with the history of Khazad-Dum.
"Our first King was Durin the Deathless, first among the Seven Fathers of Dwarves. We call him so because he returned to us five times after in other lives, always to be Lord of Khazad-Dum. There has never been another kingdom like it, and it was never taken in battle. In the old days, when Sauron and the Elves were warring, the Dwarrowdelf shut its gates and sealed them against all entry. Not all the armies of the Dark Lord could penetrate our halls, and so we stayed free when others lost their homes. It wasn't until the Third Age, when the mithril that had run like rivers under the mountain had dried up, that Durin the Sixth dug too deep. He did not know, had no way of knowing, what lay waiting for him in the secret places of the earth. A thing of flame and shadow."
"The balrog," Mithrandir said, "an enemy as old as Sauron."
"Yes, that was a name for it. Flame and Shadow. I heard tales when I was a wee one, from my father and my father's father. The thing that Durin woke did what all the armies of the Dark Lord could not. It drove my people out of our home in the Misty Mountains, away from Azanulbizar, the region where we had dug, and scattered us to the world."
"Didn't your mother tell you any tales?" asked Sam.
"You said the tale was told by your father and your father's father. What about your mother?"
"She told stories as well," Gimli said, a bit miffed at being diverted.
"What the halfling really wants to know," Legolas commented wryly, "is whether there is such a thing as a Dwarf woman at all."
Gimli made a barking noise that may have been curses in his own tongue. Then, "I've wondered myself if there was such a thing as Elf men."
Legolas stiffened, saying nothing further.
"I'm sorry, sir," Sam said. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"Do you want to know what happened or not?"
"I do, sir."
So Gimli continued.
"Some of us went to the Iron Hills, but Thrain the First travelled to Erebor and founded the Kingdom Under the Mountain. It was him who found the Arkenstone, as you have heard of, and never there was a brighter jewel to look upon."
"There were three," I said, without meaning to.
"I apologize, please go on."
"Well, there was only one Arkenstone. And Thrain the First found it, and his son Thorin the First went on to the Grey Mountains in the North where others of our kindred gathered. But there were dragons in those farther places, and they made war on the Dwarves. Fortunes were won and lost by fire, and kings were born and died. That was lifetimes gone, but eventually our people returned to the Lonely Mountain together and it grew greater than any kingdom since Khazad-Dum. The arkenstone had gone for a time, but it was returned by Thror, grandfather to Thorin the Second, called Oakenshield, who was a friend and boon companion to my own father as you have heard.
So Erebor prospered, as did the community of Men who lived near them, and the Dwarven settlements they traded with. Good years for all. Our wealth became so great that it pricked the ears of Smaug the Desolation, and he laid waste to the Lonely Mountain and all who stayed there or fought him were lost. The king escaped with his son and his sons, and some others that went their own ways. So again our people were scattered.
Years went by, and Thror became old and bitter with the injustices against our people. He left his son and went with one companion to Azanulbizar, and walked into the West Gate of Moria, the one that was drowned when we came to it, as if he owned all that he saw.
It was his last act, for orcs had settled in the upper halls of Khazad-Dum, and they cast out the head of Thror to his companion and told him to take it back as a message to all the other Dwarves who might have thought of returning. The Orc captain had cut his own name into Thror's face, and every dwarf that has been born since is told to remember it as well as the events that followed. The bastard had the gall to write his name in our own runes.
"I'm sorry," Sam said. "That is a terrible story to learn as a child."
"No," Gimli said, clearing his throat. "It is a lesson and a good one, about what it means to be a dwarf. For Thror had been a king, and when it was heard what this Azog had done, our people came together from all corners and waged war against Orcs wherever they were found. If not for us and for that war, those skulking curs would infest half the Misty Mountains today. They were chased out, and after many battles the whole host of them gathered here and we had the Battle of Azanulbizar, which is may be the greatest in the history of Dwarves. For it was all of us, and all of them, and we were outnumbered and they had the higher ground and the defenses of Moria to cower behind. But our weapons were peerless, and our anger unyielding. Both our kind and theirs remember that day, and we lost so many of our number and our leaders it made other wars seem mere play. But in the end we won. Azog was slain by Dain Ironfoot, who was son of the companion who had carried the Orc's message back to the Dwarves. So the power of the Orcs was broken in Moria and the Misty Mountains, and in the flush of victory Thrain the Second asked the other leaders to reclaim the place with him but they would not.
Durin's Bane still dwells here, they told him. Though they couldn't know it, and our people broke apart again. Thrain and Thorin Oakenshield made homes in the East, and eventually, as you know, Thorin went on an adventure with your Bilbo, and that is all history now. But Balin and some others set out to test Moria again, and that was some thirty years ago. I'm surprised we haven't seen some sign of them yet."
"That was quite the tale," Aragorn said. "You may have missed your calling as a bard."
Gimli wanted to be offended until he saw that Aragon had meant it kindly, so he nodded. "These are stories we all know. A people are nothing without their stories."
"We have some of them," Sam said, "about Blanco and Manco and the Great Old Took."
"Not for today, I fear," Mithrandir said, as we came to a watch room with three doors and a well. Oddly, a sarcophagus had been constructed in the room as well, all of block stone, and a lid that bore the likeness of a dwarf in royal garb.
There was an inscription; "Balin, son of Fundin."
Gimli stood stunned when it was read, and the others shared their sympathies. The room had been used more recently than any that we had passed through yet, in that there were a few wooden implements, cloth scraps and pieces of furniture, all of it covered in dust but not lost to time.
"Where are the others," Gimli asked of the stone. "Where are my kinsmen?"
"Here," Aragorn pulled a battered old journal free of a few loose stones. It looked to have been hidden deliberately. Gimli took it from him and began to read. His mouth moved behind his beard and I understood only a few stray words.
"What is it, man,?" Boromir asked. "What does it say?"
"It is a record of their days here," Gimli said. "It is Balin's hand, and then Ori's. They had no trouble for a while, and then they began to hear things, tapping on the stone, and drums, drums in the deep. It says that they were harried, and they could not get out."
"You need not tell us more," Mithrandir said, and it was good, for Gimli was coming close to losing his composure.
There was a crack, as Sam clumsily knocked loose a stone from the rim of the well and it went falling. A long fall, ending in a faint thump. The company froze, and we all strained our hearing. There was nothing.
Then a faint tapping, tapping, echoed from the well and up the stones.
Okay, so I'm just going to go into the whole thing.
I dropped out of high school, and a couple of years later I was in prison for robbing banks. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I was diagnosed as bipolar and started seeking and participating in treatment and taking medication. After nearly 13 years in prison, I was granted a conditional pardon by the Governor of Virginia, and my sentence was reduced to time served.
While I was incarcerated, I was published by REED Magazine, CURA, and the Carolinian. My work appeared in several PEN Anthologies, and I was awarded seven different prizes in various categories by the PEN Prison Writing and Justice Program.
I'm currently working with Shadow Alley Press to publish my Gamelit novels, and I one day hope to be able to support myself through my writing. Until then, I work at Subway.