Colors of Royalty: Home at the Last

Many moons had passed since Thoif had last set foot here at home in the Iron Hills. When he had walked these decorated stone halls, the temperatures had been cooler. Truly, though, temperatures had never fluctuated too erratically under the mountains. The dark caverns and their winding streams of water kept the air crisp and surprisingly light.

 

He had missed his family, his friends, and the cozy hearth that welcomed him back to his just as comfortable den; but most of all, ashamedly to admit, the sweet Dwarven drought of the Iron Hills! The humor brought a slight grin to his lips, but it was all hidden by his heavy, sand colored beard.

 

No place like home, indeed.

 

The return journey had not been without incident. After the Gondorian Mablung the Bold had returned to the Dwarves their lost treasures, and the subsequent assassination attempt of his leader Ondoher, Mhulo ordered their weary company return to the Iron Hills with much haste. All agreed with the Dwarf: surely their people would rejoice at the discovery that was made.

 

As if the Valar had seen fit to jest and twist the fates, many attempts had been made by the legions of Evil to impede their mission home. The same Orcish warband from Mordor that had hunted the Dwarves from the beginning, led by Snagash the Terrible with his poisonous whip, ambushed their company just west of the dense boughs of Mirkwood.

 

At that juncture, the Dwarves numbered nine stout, heavily armored bodies (many more than the previous encounters with the foul Snaga), and promptly bested the grotesques back into the wildlands, successfully guarding that precious cargo which they carried.

 

Soon after, as the Dwarves had made their way farther east amongst the rocky southron outcroppings of the Grey Mountains, a seemingly stray cave troll had burst through their campsite, roaring and tossing small boulders at their broad shields. A roaring, slobbering troll was a terrible sight indeed, but the Dwarves knew not the tendrils of fear that grasped at their hearts.

 

With Iron will and drilled martial excellence, the troll was brought low and Kemlek buried the blunt end of his mattock into the brains of the creature, for good measure.

 

Now, as Thoif scanned this Great Hall, he was truly able to grasp the scale of their mission. The return of Mhulo and his company was met with such fanfare as none of them had ever witnessed. Word had been sent to Torvim of their company’simpending arrival, in addition to the precious artifacts they were carrying with them. Dwarven citizens from many a district in the Hills had gathered to welcome them home, and celebrate their victory.

 

Most importantly, they were greeted by King Gror himself.

 

So here they were in the Hall, the royal colors hanging unabashedly from every stone pillar, balcony and palisade. Near the far end of the room they resided, merely speaking distance away from Gror and his mighty color guard. Torvim and several of his aids stood shortly off to the left of the throne, books and scrolls hanging from heavy chains about their belts. Mhulo was at the fore, right of Thoif, on bended knee like the rest of his company.

The presence of the King was stifling. As trained and disciplined as the Dwarves were, to be here in this moment was not so much a burden on their minds as it was a heavy, pressing wonder. Thoif was sweating slightly, though he was unsure why. To his left, Kemlek was still as brick, mailed fist to the ground, followed by Nasek and Thalrir. On the other side of Mhulo knelt the rest of their company- Duk, Dolvin, Khain and Mon.

In front of them all rested the gilded chest given to them by Ondoher and his company of Gondorian Men. The lid was open and the tomes displayed. The King, still on his throne, sat with arms extended- the blue, lambent mantle flowing down through his outstretched fingers. The mystical ancestry on the outer facing of the cloak was highly visible, emanating a soft white light like that of a trapped star.

“Here today, Mhulo and friends, you have brought to your people the knowledge of our histories, and so much more. Our Loremasters have nigh begun to scrape merely the surface of what precious gems reside inside those books before us.” Grorrumbled softly. Despite his quiet demeanor, the stone chambers radiated his commanding tone. “Rise, good Dwarves.”

Mhulo at the lead, the Dwarves stood as a unit. Their iron armor had been repaired, polished and lacquered for the occasion- not a finer sight in all the lands stood above the armor that gleamed with its dark silver and golden accents. The sounds of layered pauldrons and tassets clinking echoed shortly, then died after the stone hall would carry them no more.

“It was unbeknownst to me, until a short time ago, that these things before us were recovered by the Western Men, of Gondor.” The King continued. His beard was densely adorned with jewels and iron decoration, so much that the light reflected dimly around the chambers.

“Aye, my lord.” Mhulo replied. “It saddens my heart to tell you that I had failed in my original mission to take these things from the lands I had been sent to retrieve-“

Gror stayed the Dwarfs words with a gilded gauntlet.

“My son. Does this chest not sit here before us? Or do mine eyes deceive me like foul nightmares?” came the kings low, rumbling response. “Yes, young one. Be humble in all things, and indeed thankful to the friends that brought us these prizes. Our people are now deeply indebted to their causes. Did you not carry these here yourself, however? How many Orcs, trolls, and evil men had you slain and rebuked when you returned and set foot upon these hills? Indeed, have you sat idle upon your journeys? Are those scars that you and your kin now bear for naught?” Gror retorted, gesturing to the assembly before him.

Mhulo knelt again, humble and speechless in gratitude and in modesty.

“Our friends need help, Mhulo.” Gror said, now standing and walking around the group before him. “Duk, Dolvin, Thoif, Khain, Kemlek, Nasek, Thalrir, Mon. All, brothers of Iron! Here, Dama.”

As the King gestured, a color guard stepped forward, bearing a flag of marvelous make.

Dama, you shall travel with these companions and share in all of their glories. Take my colors, and stay the enemy with your wrath and your will.”

Dama saluted, slamming the stave into the ground.

“I am King Gror, of the Iron Hills. The Men that assisted us in our recovery, we will find them. I wish to thank them myself for their kindness. We will march together friends, in the morning, we move out.”

Thoif stiffened. Had he heard that correctly? The King moved to war with them? He swelled with an intense pride, and closed his eyes. History was being forged before him now, and he would relish every bit of it.

 

Govadmiluin Sarianu- A Tale of Tempered Iron

​And so it was that plans were made. The sun had departed from the lands, leaving dwarves and men to make camp in the darkness of night. As the dusk fell deeper, the winds howled a little louder, a little more ominously- only the stars and moon above were gracious enough to shed their little light upon the world.

For fear of alerting any ill-intended passerby, no fires had been raised- meals were made of bread, dry cheese, and salted meats. Water had been gathered from local springs near to the east, and as soon as the food was finished a watch plan was set into motion. Man and Dwarf, Dwarf and Man- all were to keep watch, for the Darkness was deafening this night, and evil things were surely lurking about.

​Mablung, the Gondorian spearman who had thrust himself into dwarven legend with the recovery of Durin’s relics, had set off just outside of camp to investigate something he believed he saw in a patch of shrubbery. Bugs chittered and nocturnal foul hooted, but it was a metallic glint that caught his eye- the moon had reflected something, and he intended to see it. Kemlek raised his eyes in time to witness the worst- he grasped his two-handed axe and opened his mouth to give warning, but it all happened too swiftly.

​All at once, arrows came in from the north and the south, a deadly dance of death that saw splintered wooden shafts plunge into shields, and off of the nearby bridge. Mablung cried out-

​“AMBUSH!! Now for Gondor, and the Iron Hills…”

​No sooner had Mablung given his shout than the bushes came alive, golden armored figures revealed themselves and brought down the warrior through weight of number- he stood no chance. Kemlek stared in disbelief as he saw the warrior quickly dispatched, his silver armor quickly disappeared as he was dragged back with a knife to his throat.

Unhelmed, brow busted and bleeding, Mablung attempted one last shout before a sack was roughly shoved over his head, muffling his warnings and fears. The men of Rhun had made their appearance- and with this opening strike, they made a cruel statement.

​“Ready up lads!! Shields to the North!” ordered Mhulo.

​Kemlek turned to see Duk, Dolvin, and Khain form a shieldwall with a pair of rangers and a warrior- they were facing down a teeming horde of goblins! It was a two-pronged attack, an attempt to neutralize the armored advantage of the Dwarves and Men. Kemlek roared his approval- if battle was to be met, it would be met with vigor! Mablung would be avenged this day, at the edge of his mattock.

​“Form up men! Spears behind, support our allies!” shouted Ondoher from his horse behind the front line. He then rode to Mhulo and continued- “These are the Easterlings we faced some time ago! They wish to see my head on a pike!”

​Almost by plan, the southern enemy fully revealed their power in time with Ondoher’s words. Out from the tree line, a small host of Rhunish warriors formed a gleaming shieldwall, supported by archers on each flank, spears, and even pikes! Their golden helms bore the very same features as the one that Cooper had laid before them in the Halls of Gold.

Indeed the stories had their truths- Kemlek bore witness as the enemy advanced methodically forward, testing the patience and mettle of the armored alliance before them.

​“Aye, they might friend, but tempered Iron bends not so easily! As long as there is one dwarf here who yet draws breath, you’ll have an ally the likes of which they sing of in the halls of Old!” retorted Mhulo, brandishing his gleaming runic mattock. “Nasek! Form up alongside Ondoher, ride them down on the flanks!”

​With that, Ondoher fell in line behind Nasek and his bleating war goat, cutting wide to the left flank.

To the north, a warrior named Malbeth had dug in on a ledge adjacent to the shield brothers, defenses up and spear lowered to accept any blows the Goblins might give.

Upon the stairs of Govadmiluin Sarianu, two rangers by the name of Turgon and Hurin returned fire at the enemy, trading precise shafts of fate with the ill-trained minions of Evil. Beside them Thoif and Thalrir, the dwarves own archers, drew level their crossbows, and attempted to bring down the Easterling archers that were intent on ending Ondoher’s existence.

​Closer the men of Rhun came, and Kemlek itched for their blood. His ire was up, and after seeing Mablung taken so cruelly, he intended to repay that blow in full.

​“Hold brothers, the right moment needs come!” commanded Mhulo as the Easterlings closed on their defenses.

​Kemlek glanced to his left and saw an arrow strike true to Ondoher’s mount, sending the Gondorian tumbling from the saddle behind Nasek. The mounted dwarf turned heel to assist Ondoher back onto the ledge defenses, then in the blink of an eye waited no more- Nasek broke full speed toward the Easterling flank. Sensing the tides of battle shifting, the Rhunish leader broke rank and charged forward.

​“Come meet the end of Jandol’s blade you stunted Dwarf-child! This is the day you die, little one!” shouted the caped Easterling leader, now known as Jandol, as he brandished a curved blade hilted in gold.

​A return insult? Mhulo gave none. Kemlek’s superior gripped his mighty mattock, donned his helm, and let roar the fury of the Iron Hills in one bellow.

“BARUK KHAZAD!!”

And with that, Kemlek leapt forward, swinging his axe with all his mighty strength.

​The counter offensive proved successful to an extent. After stagnant melee, the servants of Evil found a way to rid themselves of Ondoher, and knocked him unconscious with an arrow to the shoulder. Like retreating water upon rocks, the Easterlings and Goblins slipped away into the night once their deed was done, taking with them Mablung the Heroic. Despite heavy casualties, the evil alliance snatched victory from the closing jaws of defeat, and the unhurt Dwarves all swore their undying grudges.

​Soon after the dust had settled, a Numenorian Ranger happened upon their camp at the stairs and told of a nearby tower housed by the allies of men that needed tending to. Promised medical care and shelter, the Gondorians agreed it was the best course of action to move along- despite missing one of their own.

​Mhulo thought it prudent to return to the Iron Hills, if only temporarily, to give the Loremaster Torvim the prize he sought. They would be welcomed as heroes, but Kemlek would tell them all of Mablung of the White City. And so they made their long journey back, stopping along the way, once again, to dine in the Halls of Gold with their kin in the Misty Mountains.

Drinks were on Mhulo, one and all. For victory was had with the recovery of their heritage.

But as in life, the sun sets on every day.
Evil will always take root in the dark, dank places of the world.
It will not rest.

Govadmiluin Sarianu

​So here they were in northern Rhudaur. Further north, Mhulo could make out the Ettenmoors, and the Coldfells to his east. Memories returning, he lifted his armored gauntlet to rest on his chest plate, still feeling the Orcish sword that had somehow penetrated his defenses that day, tearing into the upper torso near his shoulder. Aiwendil, the Brown Wizard, had worked miraculously to mend his ailments, and here Mhulo stood this eve- awaiting the company of Men that sought him.

Though the sun was still setting, the moon was already visible in the eastern skies. Amber and violet hues danced across the heavens, and pinholes of light that were the stars had just begun to make their nightly appearance. Soft, warm winds lifted the limbs of the scattered woodlands surrounding Mhulo and company, creating a distant rustle that reminded the dwarves of an ocean break.

The rock formation they inhabited was an arch of stone, and steps had been carved onto the ascending sides that led to the flat platform at its apex- which is where Mhulo took his watch. Patches of green weeds and sparse grass sprouted here and there through the cracks in the mineral, as father time had settled the conglomeration into the soft dirt. Govadmiluin Sarianu was its namesake, Mhulo believed. The letter he had received from the Gondorians, delivered to him by Cooper the Dunedain Ranger, had stated as much.

For the time being, it seemed as if the letter was accurate- Thalrir, the newest member of their battle company, keenly spotted a throng of armored figures eastward making their way to the stone arch, and gave alert. Soon enough, the Tree of Gondor could be seen enameled across the broad shields of the foremost warriors as they made their approach. Mhulo counted nine men, one of them mounted, and two of them were carrying what looked to be a heavy crate between them- his heart skipped a beat.

So it was true…Torvim shall be pleased indeed.

From the throng of visitors came a deep voice, and Mhulo discovered it belonged to the mounted warrior Ondoher, their leader as described in the letter.

“To be sure, I did not believe you’d have arrived so soon Master Dwarf. It is good to see friends in these cursed parts indeed!” exclaimed the man, dismounting his steed.

“We Dwarves are natural sprinters, dangerous over short distances! A few breaks were had along the way, however.” chimed Duk. Some chuckles rumbled through Mhulo’s company at the jest.

“Well met, Gondorian.” Came Mhulo’s meted reply, hand on his sword belt. “It seems we have crossed paths most fortunately. If all you say is true, you and your men have done a favor large to the folk of Durin’s lineage.”

The Gondorians approached, and the setting sun gave a muted glow to the steel they bore across their engraved bosoms. A few were covered by cloaks, rangers perhaps? Nasek leapt his goat down from the steps onto the rocky dirt below and dismounted, his mount’s hooves *clopping*. Ondoher’s mouth gaped briefly at the sight of such an animal, incredulous, but was shortly able to compose himself.

Two of the men ascended the rocky base and laid the Dwarven chest beneath the bridge. Mhulo descended the stairs of the archway to lay eyes on the contents of the chest.

“It was most favorable that my Lord Beren got word of it!” stated Ondoher. “Assuredly, we would be more than happy to pass on these relics to you folk of the Iron Hills. They are of gorgeous make, indeed, even more beautiful than we could have ever guessed in the South. We’ve had such little dealings with Dwarves ourselves, forgive our manner.”

“Aye, and for good reason, meaning no offence. Our people are most solitary. Now, our Loremaster sent us leagues from home for such a gift. Let’s see what that gift be…”

Duk and Dolvin followed Mhulo, shields slung, and even Nasek’s curiosity could not be sated. Speaking in Khuzdul, the three quietly and excitedly conversed as their leader opened the crate, and removed the contents within. Nasek’s war goat bleated, hopping back up the archway to feed on a patch of green leaf.

“By the beards of the Old…” whispered Mhulo.

A cloak of impeccable make fell like water over Mhulo’s armored hands. A brilliant blue the color of the Great Sea shimmered and shone, the cloth soft as a newborn calf. Furs lined the rim and shoulders of the cape, but all such features were simple compared to what appeared suddenly on the back-

As Mhulo stood to measure the cloak, holding it out before him, there shone a beam of starlight from the skies lighting up the cloth and showing its true nature. Silver lines grew along its face, crawling and curving until the final embroidery was revealed- a vast and intricate family tree that went all the way back to a single name at the top.

“Durin the Deathless!” exclaimed Dolvin. “Aye these Gondorians deserve a round of ale on our coin, at least. Kingly make, suppose it could be from the reign of Brilo the Blue?”

Nearly breathless from wonder, Mhulo took great care and handed the cloth to Duk, who stood motionless and quiet, seemingly afraid he would scare the cloak away simply by looking at it. Mhulo reached further into the chest and withdrew the final contents.

A set of three bound, leather tomes revealed themselves, plated in dark iron and bejeweled with dazzling sapphires in the spines. Shining Dwarvish runes framed the bound books, and they were all locked.

“Indeed, these are work for the Loremaster.” Mhulo said softly.

Placing his hand on the front of the first reader, Mhulo closed his eyes and meditated shortly. After a minute or two, when the Men of the West begun to murmur in the background, Ondoher silenced them curtly, and Mhulo finished his musings. Nasek had climbed back to the stairs of the bridge, shouting in Khuzdul, as his goat was curiously approaching the Gondorian warhorse, causing a ruckus. Nasek wrestled his goat away from the bystanders and remounted.

“Ondoher, my friend, wordless I stand.” Mhulo spoke as he approached the man.

Mhulo reached out to Ondoher and together the leaders clasped forearms, a show of solidarity and brotherhood.

“Indebted to your cause, we Dwarves of Durin be, leader of these free folk. These gifts will further enrich our history and culture, cementing an alliance between our people. Where we failed in our mission to retrieve these artifacts of old, you were victorious. How would you have us repay such a gift?” Offered Mhulo.

With a wide wave of his arm, Ondoher motioned towards one of his men.

“Mablung! Quick, lad.”

The warrior stepped forward, spear in one hand, shield in the other.

“This is the man to whom you owe gratitude, Master Dwarf. He went to grievous lengths to retrieve what you sought, and here we stand. He was mighty valorous in fighting off many a servant of evil, and to that end, he is your hero.” praised Ondoher. “Otherwise, simply provide what aid you can to our Northern kin.”

Mhulo looked over the boy (compared to the Dwarves, he was young at least).

“Ne’er a finer example of bravery in the face of such adversity, I’m sure.” beamed Mhulo. “Mablung, a noble name indeed. You are forever welcome in the halls of our people young pup. Mead or meat, gold or glory- If you seek it, I will lay myself down to ensure you have it. Nasek! To me! Reach into that saddle bag of yours, I wish to reward this man in the moment”

The war goat bleated as Nasek spurred it forward, still munching on some grass it had found earlier. Mablung stood tall, chest out- he was clearly flushed, but proud he was indeed. Mhulo reached into the saddle bag and pulled out a scabbard, flourishing the fine blade then sheathed it.

“Here my boy. This is no broad sword by your folks standards, but the smiths at home in the Iron Hills rival all those across the land. This should be by your side for as long as you wish, a reminder of how you’ve done us a great service. A good short sword it will make for you.” offered Mhulo.

Mablung bowed and took the sword graciously, with a smile as wide as the River Running.
“Many thanks, my lord.” replied Mablung.

“Songs will be sung of you Mablung. You are a hero to our people.” ended Mhulo.

And with that, the Dwarves of Mhulo’s company and the Men of Gondor set watch as their leaders pulled together privately. Gaieties aside, plans needed made, for there were evil winds stirring behind every hill and every bush.

Halls of Gold

That lovely amber liquid, how it called his name. The sweet, yet bitter taste of the golden brew that relaxed his muscles, and slowed his speech. Yet- it took his mind away from the horrors of fortnights past, and that was what Duk needed.

The shaking in his hands was now gone, thanks to Drorber’s ale in his Halls of Gold, but the dread memories flashed anew across his mind. Despite the hearty gaieties echoing round the alehouse, Duk’s recollections sprang forth to his forethought.

How their party had stumbled upon Mirkwood yet again was a complete mystery- and thinking of how it was possible drove them all to near madness. They had been involved fighting a rogue band of Uruk-Hai on the southron edges of the Trollshaws, near some dense forests, when, alas, they were beaten back. As Mhulo had called a retreat into the trees, everything changed.

Darkness enveloped them all, and the forest closed in unnaturally around them. The sky was hid from their eyes, and malicious whispers fluttered through the grasping branches. Their injuries slowed them, and after what seemed like ages upon ages, they came to a halt in an empty, grassy clearing.

Duk remembered no more past that moment, save for the sound that still haunted his sleep- the desperate screams emanating from his brother Dolvin. As surely as his memory escaped him, Duk eventually found his way out of that cursed wood, panting and covered in silky, sticky webs.

Thereafter he was visited by stark, isolated recollections of the soft voices of the Elvish folk, and knew then that he and his kin had been rescued from the malign forces of the forest realm by the Mirkwood Patrols.

After a brief encounter in which Thoif took down an Orc named Iggy, the dwarven clan found their way out of that forest and back into the mountains to the west. To this moment they had been led, dining in the halls of the Misty Mountains, amongst their kin in the ale markets of the Stone district.

Dolvin sat beside him feasting, drum of foul in one hand, pint in the other. Thoif was across the small table chewing on a smoking pipe, resting silently, and re-stringing his new dwarven bow he’d won in the markets of the Iron district (a hearty challenger believed himself keener with an arrow, and lost his weapon in the gamble to show for it). Nasek, the war goat rider, was off snoring in the corner, feet propped and helm covering his closed eyes. The fiery Kemlek had been long lost to the drinking games he hosted in the nearby breweries, though he was bound to turn up passed out on his featherbed back in their quarters in the wee hours of twilight.

Earlier in the eve, Mhulo had disappeared and then arrived again with something of a surprise. Torvim, Mhulo’s uncle and Loremaster of the Iron Hills, had seen fit to send relief aid to their company. With two others by his side, Mhulo returned to the company in good spirits and introduced their new friends.

A hardy Dwarf called Khain, a renowned spear-wielder in the ranks of Iron Hills, pledged his sword and honor to their quests. His green eyes stood out brilliantly to his orange beard, much like Kemlek’s own. The brothers welcomed this Dwarf especially, as another shield would prove vital if their missions were to succeed. The other was born by the name of Thalrir, and he bore a crossbow much alike Thoif’s own “Iggy’s Demise”.

In all, these dwarves were welcomed as brothers. As their meals wrapped up and the alehouse emptied, Kemlek stumbled in drunkenly only to pass out at the feet of Mhulo, grumbling about spiders and goats. Behind him slipped a tall, cloaked figure who stepped up to their circle, and pulled down his hood. He wore a dark brown leather jerkin, plain and unassuming. Clearly a traveler, his black boots were dirty and wet- much to the annoyance of Drorber, having tracked prints everywhere in his recently cleaned pub. His sandy hair fell shoulder-length, and his brown eyes were tired and low. The dwarves were silenced, curious as to the advance of the stranger, especially a human man here amidst the halls of Dwarven stone.

“Name’s Cooper, and I’ve not much time. Which of you gentle lads is Mhulor? Mewlen? Ah, I can’t possibly get it remembered. Apologies…”

“Mhulo, sir. And you’ve business with me then, ay?” Replied Duk’s friend.

“Indeed. I’m of the Dunedain, ranger and watcher of the wild lands that lay outside of your cozy halls. A message needs read m’lord, if you will.” He handed Mhulo a folded letter, with a wax seal the color of cream.

“Aye, we know of your lot.” Replied Mhulo as he took the offering. “This is the seal of the White City, Dunedain.” Stated Mhulo curiously. “What do the Lords of Minas Tirith have to peddle with the likes of us?”

“Surely you will find out. This is news only for the eyes of Dwarf-folk, of import most definite. What I do know is that I was to give you this, and bid you well in your missions amongst this land. Servants of the Dark Lord most foul have been ruthlessly invading once peaceful cities. Some even whisper of sightings of Men of the East roaming and pillaging. To our misfortune, I can attest to these atrocities.”

With a swoop of his cloak, which revealed a sword belt nestled on his waist, the Ranger revealed another token he bore. With a muted *clunk*, a golden helmet rested on the round table before the dwarves.

Its features were sleek, slits for the eyes that reminded Mhulo of a hawk. Plating ran down the face of the helm, covering the mouth, and had mail covering where the throat would be. Metal spurs that looked like the ears of some evil bat protruded from the crown, displaying workmanship more than mere Orcish slap-work.

“Men of the East indeed, Cooper. May your eyes be keen and your sword swifter, Ranger.” Mhulo replied respectfully.
The Dunedain lifted the helm, and took his leave, cloak swirling as he briskly left the now vacant alehouse.
Duk finished the remainder of his brew, and thought hard about what he just witnessed. If Easterlings were raiding into their lands, the Iron Hills would be first to know. Back home, his lands and family were likely fighting these beasts, and here they were in these parts too? Dark times indeed, for these were omens of powers not seen in many years.

Duk had never expected to be right in the middle of it.

Siren Call

A tale of ancient magicks and fierce rivalries

​Dolvin spun his heel into the dirt, and out of reflex his broad shield raised defensively as he listened again for that old familiar sound. His brother Duk, Mhulo’s right hand, sheathed his short sword and made eye contact- they nodded grimly. Their sparring session was over, but it was only to welcome the rush of real conflict: today, once again, they would dance with death.

Bark erupted from the tree next to Dolvin, and he shielded his face from the wooden shrapnel. He had known right- the sound of arrows loosed from their bows, and the sharp *WHIZZ* as they took flight towards their intended target. They had been spotted, but the dwarves knew not from where. The arrow that had impacted against the tree found its rest next to Duk’s foot- an oily black shaft thick as an iron rod, fletched with the bloody feathers of some ill-fated foul.

“Kemlek!” the brothers shouted together.

Per the snores still emanating from the Kemlek’s full beard, it seemed he had not been stirred quite yet, despite his shouting kin. The damned dwarf could sleep through anything, barring perhaps a kick to the gut.

​“UP! YOU BLOODY LOG, THERE’S ORC TER BE FIGHTIN’” Dolvin belted, and accentuated his alert with a swift kick to the sleeping dwarf’s side.

“AYE, I been dreamin’ o’ it, fer certain!” Came Kemlek’s rumblings. He had muttered more than that, but neither Duk nor Dolvin had the time to coax sense out of the groggy, and potentially drunk, fighter- all they needed was his mattock and his violent companionship.

Keeping low to the ground, the dwarves quickly found some shelter behind a section of downed trees. Behind them, Mhulo rounded the statue from where he had been honing his weapon and called out to the others.

“Any o’ you lot seen Thoif? Last I saw he was out on his watch!”
Another arrow whizzed past Kemlek’s tree, and rustled the bushes near where their camp lay.

“No sight o’ ‘im since he took his rounds.” Replied Duk. “We could use that bow o’ his ‘bout now.”

Dolvin cursed their fates. Why couldn’t these foul creatures come out and fight them face to face like a true warrior! He lifted his shield once more and peered out towards the direction the arrows had come from. Then all was revealed to him.

On the open hill to their direct west, a small Uruk-hai conclave gathered at its apex, hastily fortifying their overlook with anything they could grab with their greasy black and red hands. Their leader was a monstrous foe, towering and clad in the crude but effective metal plate oft boasted by their kind. An Uruk sword he clasped in one hand, a spiked shield in the other. Archers loosed more arrows towards the dwarves, but they skittered off of tree trunks and disappeared into the dirt before them.

“Oi! Mhulo! To the Northwest, on the rocks. He’s low!” called out Duk in hushed tones.

Dolvin adjusted his eyesight, and saw exactly what his brother spoke of- Thoif had found a vantage point atop a rocky outcropping over-looking the Uruk defenses. He lay prone, neatly tucked onto the rocks, his dark armor acting as a disguise against the dark granite.

“That’s it then, lads. Thoif has the make of it. On his mark, we act as one and charge into their formation. Duk and Dolvin to the fore- hoist thy shields high, and level thy war spears low.” Mhulo ordered.

“Fighting uphill, sir? With what army?” contended Duk.

“They may outnumber us, but it is not enough for them old friend. Do not doubt Thoif’s aim, for they shall outnumber us even less when battle is met.” Explained Mhulo. “Kemlek, trail low behind the shield wall and break loose once we join the fray. The cursed orc sport archers of their own, and we’d all be worse off without your ire in combat.”

​“Bugger the dirty orc archers! ‘Ave ‘em throw down those twig shooters and draw sword to fight me t’my face!” Exclaimed Kemlek. With that he brandished his mattock, gripping the leather tight and firm, and he crouched low, stance ready to run uphill.

Dolvin fixed his eyes back to Thoif, and in an instant he saw the signal they were all waiting for. Thoif let loose the first bolt, and its course stayed true, streaking down to punch a hole in the chest plate of the Uruk nearest the edge of their makeshift holdfast. Remarkably, a second bolt plummeted into the midst of the screaming throng, bringing down a scout clad in greasy brown and black leather- all before the minions of the Dark Lord knew what was happening. Thoif was surely earning his reputation as a marksman, and Dolvin thanked Durin that he was present to aid them.

Mhulo rose to full height, pointed forth his mattock to the confused crowd of rowdy Uruk, and turned to the others.

“NOW! For Durin and the Iron Hills! BARUK KHAZAD!!” bellowed Mhulo, charging up the hill to take advantage of the confusion.

His brothers in arms followed suit. Kemlek roared his approval and echoed Mhulo’s own battle cry. To their east, Dolvin spotted another Dwarf assaulting the hillside, lengthy, razor sharp war spear thrust forward in advance. Nasek had returned? Without his war goat? Curious indeed, but Dolvin cared not where his help arrived from- so long as it arrived.

Dolvin and Duk exchanged one final glance as they advanced, sharing a wordless bond.

“’Til the end, brother.”

….


The Dwarves of the Iron Hills tasted defeat that day. Whatever malevolent force guided the hands of the enemy was keen and precise. Whilst the hardy dwarven armor bore by Mhulo’s company stood hard against the meager arrows of the enemy, in fierce combat the Uruk’s numbers overwhelmed them, and they were forced to retreat into the forest.

For leagues the dwarves fell back, they could not afford to be caught by the enemy. Kemlek bore Mhulo’s weight- his chest wound had reopened in the battle with the ferocious leader of the Uruk-hai. Nasek had been courageous and unrelenting with his war spear, but had been surrounded and taken down with a wound to his leg. Dolvin was able to intervene in time for the Uruk to take flight, their leader ushering them elsewhere.

The forest continued to close in, becoming denser by the minute. Preternatural darkness started to fall in around the weary coterie. Finally after what seemed like hours, Dolvin pushed into a small clearing, Nasek in arm.

A small cottage stuck out amidst the vast labyrinth of wood and darkness. Its dim lights flickered through the windows, candles lit in observance of some sort of religious ceremony, or perhaps merely to see- Dolvin cared not, he could only guess. There remained no visual sign of occupation in the small farm, but a soft, sweet lullaby floated through the air. The feeling of belonging, of being loved, of being safe from harm. The sweet, sweet song- it warmed them all.
The others stopped to catch their breaths, and to rest their injuries. Dolvin lowered Nasek to the tall grass as he collapsed of weariness, ready to rest. Mhulo was given rest by a fallen tree covered in spongy moss. Kemlek was covered in blood.

The dwarves needed the help of the farmers, so Dolvin decided to ask for it. His armor jangled as he moved his impossibly heavy legs, and everything seemed so slow. His body needed to shut down, to rest. To find the peace he and his kin so desired, he had to open that wooden cottage door. He stepped onto the wooden door front, raised his mailed fist, and knocked.

But he didn’t knock.

There was no door.

There was no cottage.

There was no light.

Everything faded into a mist, and reality itself crumbled around Dolvin’s eyes-leaving him desolate in complete darkness. He was scared, for the first time in his life. A warrior of near unmatched martial prowess, reduced to emotion and desperation.

​Dolvin turned back to where the others were, only to find that there was no one.

“What foul sorcery…” he muttered, breathless.

Dolvin fell to his knees, consciousness escaping his overworked mind and body. As his head fell to the grass, his senses caught one last fleeting sound. The sound was laced with a malice that dripped through his ears, ageless in its eternal hatred, burning the very inside of his head. Dolvin screamed, but there was no noise.

“Welcome to Mirkwood, my friend.”

Of Goats and Hedgehogs

​Winter frosts had turned to Spring rains, and it was justly said that these rains in particular would seemingly never end. The chirping of the insects surrounding Thoif and company became a thunderous annoyance, and he could hardly stand it any longer. All of the dwarves had been in their moods of late , with never-ending downpours weighing down their boots as well as their spirits.

​With a miffed grunt Thoif hoisted his crossbow and stood from the log he had called his resting place. Streams of suffocating moisture rolled off the divots in the dark metallic armor, falling to miniature lakes where the dwarf stood. He was exasperated to the point of action- no longer could he sit and stare needlessly at the chittering bugs clambering for harbor from the relentless rains. He needed to take watch to distract himself from his thoughts, and so he did.

​Thoif made his way through the party’s campground, carefully stepping around a snoring Kemlek. How that dwarf slept in this dread weather baffled Thoif, but it was no matter. Duk and Dolvin sparred silently amidst a small, cleared patch of grass, trading practiced lunging maneuvers and defensive stances. Mhulo was awake whetting the axe head of his mattock, his back against an old broken statue resembling that of a man holding some sort of tome; Time and Nature ensured the features were well worn and nigh unrecognizable. Mhulo spotted Thoif, and with but a curt nod of recognition continued his tasks.

Mhulo’s wound from their encounters with the raiding Orc warbands in the Coldfells had been healing well. Many times better than expected, if truth were told. Almost unnaturally the wounds sped up their healing processes- but then again the means by which they were treated were not exactly natural. As Thoif rounded an elongated boulder lined with drooping purple vines, he corrected the course for his patrol and brought up the memories of fortnights past……

The sound of hooves thudded repetitively in the distance. The dwarves pulled up and formed a defensive perimeter around their wounded and ailing leader- all of them exhausted, their heavy, rapid breaths fogging up the morning air. They had been fleeing for nearly a day, should it be much longer and they would surely perish from lack of rest and supplies.

After their stalemate with an Orc warband led by some evil creature with a whip, they fled south to find respite somewhere, anywhere that had yet been touched by the foul taint of the dark minions. Here they were found, and here they would make their stand. But what creatures of Evil would be riding mounts with hooves?

Seconds would pass, and they would know the answer.
Thoif readied his crossbow, sliding a bolt into place and cranking the lever. With a *CLICK*, the taut string pulled and set. Wordlessly, Duk and Dolvin flanked Thoif. They planted their heavy iron shields, and lowered their war spears. Kemlek shouted a hardly intelligible insult at whatever was coming, and dug his feet into the ground next to Mhulo. At this juncture, the fetid wound in their leader’s chest was surely going to be the end of him. Dwarves were known far and wide for their belligerent nature- the fact that the company had made it this far without losing Mhulo outright was a testament to his resolve and fortitude.

The clamor finally rounded the hill behind which their small, weary party stood- and a sigh of palpable relief washed itself over the dwarves; this was soon followed by joviality, and in turn, quite unexpectedly, curiosity. In any case, the dwarves lowered their guard, welcoming the sight in front of them as a lost Halfling to its mother’s breast.

A large mountain goat barreled around the corner; a glorious and noble armoured steed ridden by a dwarf- and someone else. The goat rode up to the circle of dwarves and slid to a halt, the rider on the rear hopping off almost clumsily. This being bore dirty brown cloaks, and wore a hat of some sort of fur. He had a long beard, was as tall as a human man, and had a lopsided gait that was almost, just almost, intentional.

“Many thanks for the ride my friend! It seems your horned companion has a heart of fire- almost as if he sensed the dire need of your kin.” The stranger said. “Back in the long ago I too had a majestic goat friend, he was very good at finding my stores of fruits and nuts, irritatingly. But I digress! AH, what we have here my weary looking…. Dwarves eh? Not that I should be too far surprised, I just travelled all sorts of distances with your-“

A gurgling laugh came from Mhulo as he lay on the ground, apparently pleased or amused at what he was witnessing. Whatever it was broke the stranger’s rambling.

​“Oh dear, yes, so sorry my friend. I forget myself. My name is Aiwendil. I’ve been following your little party for a moon’s minute. I had means to catch up to you myself, I’ve got some extravagantly quick hares that adore a good sprint, but I found your friend Nasek here and just couldn’t say no to a goat ride! Thankfully the steed found me fit for a travel partner, otherhow he’d have probably thrown me off in way east Rhovanion. This little squeaker is my hedgehog friend. He has no name, but I think-“

“Do not take us so eager for a long talk, stranger.” Kemlek rumbled. “Our leader here is dying from disgusting wounds and here you are going on and on and on. Can you help us or will you merely talk us all to death?”
“My deepest apologies, let me get right to it…” muttered the wizard as he lit a pipe and knelt with Mhulo.

A snapping twig brought Thoif back to the fold. The rain had ceased, but there were other worries at hand. The goat rider from the Iron Hills that had been introduced by the strange mage, Nasek was his name, had departed from their crew shortly after the healing of Mhulo. He had a “quick errand” to run, and gave promises of his return to them soon. They needed his help now more than ever, but wait they did.

Another tree in the distance was ruffled, and Thoif lay low, concealed and covered by wet leaves and dirt. As he peered into the forest in the direction of the noise, he discovered the culprit- a stray Uruk scout slowly crept through the drooping foiliage. Thoif had to warn the others, but how could he do so without alerting the enemy? There remained no easy answer, so he aimed and pulled the lever….