A/N: This was a tougher chapter to write than I expected.


The Shadow of Angmar

Chapter 31: And Shadows in the Dark Conspired

The Battle of the Cliff, as the Dwarves had come to call it, was the most costly victory of the campaign so far. Even the battle before Mount Gundabad, and the scouring that followed, had not exacted such a toll on the allied forces. Certainly none of the more minor skirmishes that had since followed had seen such a loss of life.

More than three hundred Dwarvish dead, and twice that again wounded. It was a heavy price for their passage south through the mountains, but the cost to the Goblin attackers had been great indeed.

When light had at long last returned to the mountainside, the distant sun peaking over the high mountaintops which flanked them, it had revealed the true scale of the goblin force. Their dead lay strewn across the rocky mountainside in their thousands, and more still had surely been cast from the clifftops, or crushed beneath the great rock-fall.

An unlucky few had survived.

"They speak of a Goblin den larger than any others known in this part of the Mountains," said Fundin to the assembled commanders of the Dwarvish host. "Goblin town, they call it."

"Then we must scour it of their filth!" said Náin as he beat his fist upon the camp table around which they all were gathered. Harry looked around the table, and saw that most who were gathered there were of the same mind.

"It is likely that their strength is already spent," said Nari, with a shake of his head, "And the stone of these mountains is poor indeed. There is little to be gained here, save wasted time and lives."

"Little to be gained?" Náin asked, eyes wide. "If we leave even a few behind, they will be like rats in the grain store. Goblin town would be a festering boil in the middle of our restored holds."

Thorin, who had not left Thráin's side since the battle, lent his voice to Náin's. "If we left them be, then all those who died here will have died for nought," he said. Unlike Náin, he kept his voice calm and level.

"We must also consider Haleth and his riders," said Fundin. "They will expect us at the valley of Shâlak-zamr before the Moon of Few rises. Should we remain here to ensure none remain within Goblin town then we will be at least a week late to our meeting."

"Bah," said Gráni with a dismissive flick of his braided beard. "What harm a few days when there are goblins to kill. They are likely to be late to the valley too. The storms three days past will surely have slowed them more than they did us. The ford is sure to be impassable in the floods."

"Have our prisoners told us where Goblin town is located?" Harry asked, breaking his silence. It was a habit that he had adopted when it had become clear just how much weight his opinions were given in matters of strategy.

"If they have not already, then surely they will," said Náin with absolute certainty. "Goblins are a cowardly lot when they do not have the upper hand."

Harry restrained the grimace that threatened to overtake his face at the thought of just what the questioning entailed. He held no sympathy for goblins; even though it had been many long years since his time in the dungeons of Carn Dûm, he could still well remember the casual cruelty every one of their race had shown.

Despite that, it was his time in Carn Dûm that also gave him pause. He knew torture and suffering, and seeing it meted out upon any being, even those as wholly debased as the Goblins surely were, conjured dark memories that he much preferred to avoid. The wailing and panicked cries of the Goblins, even when they were not being put to question, was enough to draw forth memories of the sound, and the despair, of the Witch King's dungeons.

"My brother leads our scouts in searching for any sign of where this nest may be," said Elrohir. "It is ill news that so great a number of Goblins went unnoticed so close to Imladris."

"Hrm," said Nari, though his grunt was not nearly so dismissive as it might have been a few weeks before. "Perhaps if your father ever chose to bestirr himself, then that would not be so."

Despite the seemingly harsh words, Elrohir merely accepted them gracefully. "It has been a long count of years since the strength of Imladris has been enough to reach much beyond the borders of my father's realm," he said lightly. "We do what we can to thin the beasts when they venture too close, but we have long been largely without allies in this fight. The Dúnedain of Arnor are fewer even than we. Arathorn and his people have been hard-pressed for a great count of years. Arathorn's father was killed just two winters past by trolls who descended from the Ettenmoors to menace villages along the banks of the Mitheithel."

It spoke to the softening that had occurred between many of the Dwarves and their new Elvish allies that Nari did not offer a rejoinder. Instead, he merely harrumphed and said: "Either way, it will not be long before we find the nest."

"I would like to send word to my father, in Imladris," said Elrohir, after the noises of quiet agreement had abated. "As I said, news such as this would be of great import to him, and it is likely that he may wish to offer further aid in the coming fight, if we intend to drive the Goblins from this place. Certainly, he should ready his defenses in case any choose to flee westwards."

"If we allow any of them to flee at all," said Náin, which prompted a few of those present to beat the table with much enthusiasm.

"There is little chance that we will be able to contain them all," said Fundin, pouring water over that fire. "It is likely that their burrows extend far beyond what we could hope to cover."

"And a caged beast fights all the more ferociously," Harry added. "Better that they have some way to escape, lest they fight us to the last in their desperation. Elrohir is right though, we should send word to Lord Elrond of the possibility that he will see more Goblins on his borders once they are driven from here. We also should send messengers east, to the Riddermark. I think it is Brytta's son, Walda who is Lord of Stanbrycg in his absence."

"Perhaps that will not be needed," said Gráni. "It is possible that this Goblin nest of which the prisoners speak is already empty of their ilk. Their numbers in the battle were great after-all. Would it not be most wise to wait until we know the extent of their tunnels? We have already scoured a handful of holds of their presence, and on none of those occasions did we allow enough to escape to threaten those who dwell in the lower valleys."

Harry shook his head, not convinced. "In all those cases, we were meeting them in Dwarven delvings, and we knew all but a few small entrances to the tunnels. If this is a Goblin-hewn cave, it will not be orderly corridors and grand halls. It will be a maze of passages and switchback shafts, and we will have scarce chance indeed of uncovering every one of their burrows."

It was at that moment that he heard Daewen's call from outside the tent. A moment later, she was ushered in.

"We have found an entrance to what looks like it may be a large cave network, not much further down the valley," she said without any preamble. While she was looking at Thráin when she said it, her gaze also passed over Harry and Elrohir. "Elladan is exploring the area further to see if we might locate any other entrances, but it is clear that it has been used very recently indeed."

"Was there any sign that the entrance was being watched?" asked Elrohir.

Daewen shook her head. "None. In fact, apart from the trails left by the Goblins, there was nothing to suggest that it was anything more than an ordinary cave," she said.

"That is unusual," said Harry, frowning in thought. Most Goblin nests that Harry had ever encountered were surrounded by mounds of filth. "Have any of the Goblins who were captured said anything about who it is that leads them?" he asked.

"They call their leader the Great Goblin," said Fundin, clearly unsure what to make of the title. "One called him 'The Tremendous One', and they claimed that he would stamp our armies to dust."

That drew more than one chuckle from the Dwarves. The very idea of it was preposterous.

The Goblins of the Misty Mountains had for long years bred smaller, weaker and even more cowardly than most others of Orcish stock. That was the reason why they were so often called Goblins, for to compare an Orc of Mordor to a Goblin of the Misty Mountains was almost akin to comparing a Halfling to a Man, only, of course, Goblins had none of the redeeming features that Halflings enjoyed.

Those that had come to infest Moria were larger than any other of their ilk in the Misty Mountains, but even they were dwarfed by those who could be found beyond the Ephel Dúath.

Yet the same breed they were still. It was not altogether impossible that there was in Goblin Town a Goblin of stature akin to the Orcs of Mordor, or perhaps he had even hailed from Mordor originally. If he was, then he was not alone in that. Azog, the Orc-Chieftain of Moria, and the one who was responsible for the current war, was said to have a stature greater than any other of his kin in the North.

"Then let us ready our forces," said Thráin, his dark eyes serious beneath thick eyebrows. "We will attack before nightfall comes, lest we give them a chance at slinking away in the darkness."

o-o

To call what had passed that evening a battle would be no small overstatement. Either the Goblins who had once dwelt in Goblin Town had already fled in the face of the coming Dwarves, through ways and means unknown to any of the allies, or Harry had underestimated just how many of their number had been culled in the battle.

There had been no more than a few hundreds who had tried to stand against the Dwarves when they had advanced on the caves. After a short but brutal skirmish, they had been scattered, and the Dwarves had gained entry to the caves.

Yet that, surely, would be the most simple part of their attack on Goblin-town.

Where Harry had expected to find a cave not unlike other goblin burrows he'd seen previously, if perhaps a little larger, he instead found a great underground labyrinth. It was clear that most of the upper tunnels had at least begun as natural caves, which had been slowly widened and expanded by successive generations of Goblins.

"We will need to scour every hallway, and every crevice if we are to drive the goblins from this place," said Náin once the battle was won and the extent of the caves became clear.

Harry couldn't help but agree with him. Unlike the infested Dwarf-holds that had until then been the primary battlegrounds in the War, Goblin-town was not built to defend against an attacking army, at least, not in any well-imagined way. Where the cities of the Dwarves were planned with much care and attention, the tunnels of Goblin town held no such design. Wherever a Goblin had wished to burrow, they had burrowed, and the result would surely have been impossible to map.

Not ten yards into the darkness of the cave, it split into three different tunnels, two larger and one smaller. Each of those then split further, and rejoined and split again in a dizzying maze of warrens.

"If we group up, perhaps five Dwarves to a group," he suggested to the other leaders of the army. "At each cross-roads, we split up, an equal number of groups to each tunnel, then perhaps we can cover most of the tunnels."

"It is a reasonable plan," said Gráni, nodding his head. He had been near the forefront of the brief fight for the cave mouth, and his beard was speckled with dark goblin blood. "At any split in the tunnel, we should mark the stone there to direct any who might become lost back to the surface. That way, when these infernal warrens reconnect with others, we will know which direction to travel to return."

The command was sent around, and it took some time for every Dwarf to be grouped together. Five thousand Dwarves would be delving into the tunnels, while those who remained above ground watched any of the other known exits for any attempts at an escape.

At first, it seemed that their strategy would win out, as they were able to push deep into the caves of Goblin-town without resistance. Eventually, though, the size of their groups dwindled, every group of five lost in their own little section of the labyrinth, which seemed to cover a huge underground area. Harry was beginning to believe that Goblin-town was less a town, than it was an entire realm, hidden safely away from the surface world.

Or perhaps it was merely the endless miles of darkness playing tricks upon his mind.

Harry lifted his staff overhead, and allowed its white light to wash over the noisome depths. More featureless, endless tunnels. More bones, more scrap.

Suddenly, an arrow flew from the darkness of one of the many side-tunnels, but was turned aside with a flash of brilliant light. A moment later, two of the Dwarves in Harry's company charged in the direction from which the attack had come. It did not take them long to return.

"Nothing," said Buri, the elder of the two. His beetle-black eyes glinted in the light of Harry's staff, and the frustration they contained was clear to see. "The tunnels split in at least four different directions. There's no way of knowing which way the beast went."

It had become a familiar story. Brief, usually ineffective attacks, sprung from the relative safety of the maze-like warren came every few minutes, and Harry could well understand the frustration. After-all, he shared it. A mind far sharper than most Goblins was surely behind the unusual strategy being employed. Goblins were cunning, yes, and cowardly enough to flee from any fight that they were not certain of winning, but the kind of forethought needed to organise something like their defense of Goblin-town was usually beyond them.

"They need only to make one lucky shot, and we will be in trouble," said Nithi. He was shorter of beard than most of the other Dwarves there, yet Harry could tell that he was nearly as old as Buri.

"We need some way of forcing them into a battle," said Harry thoughtfully. He had considered the idea of attempting to use magic to connect to the stones of the mountain, in an attempt to have them aid them, yet he had until then discarded the idea. He did not need to turn his senses to that hidden world to know that the stone of the caves in which he stood would not be nearly so receptive to his presence as those of the old, lost, Dwarf holds. He pulled his wand from the carefully crafted slot near the top of his staff, and turned it over in his hands.

Perhaps there were more direct methods of forcing the Goblins into the open.

They continued onwards, with the light of Harry's staff sending the shadows fleeing before them. Here and there darkness clung to the stonework as they passed by, and as soon as they were gone it grew once more to fill the tunnels, spreading across the walls like a black fungus. This was a place which had never known the careful tending of the Dwarves.

Rivers had cut their way through the living stone of the mountains, finding every weakness and forcing each and every one open with the kind of irresistible strength only water could muster. Then it had been subject to long years of Goblin cruelty.

Just as the Orcs and Goblins themselves could not hope to conceive of a world in which suffering and cruelty, both petty and great, were not fundamental to every experience and interaction, so too was that true for the mountains.

They had grown cruel. After seeing just a small portion of the extent of the caves, and the Goblin infestation within them, Harry could well understand why the valley and the peaks which lined it had gained a merciless reputation. Storms often wracked the valley, and great rock falls fell from high atop the mountains. Some said that great giants of stone came there to do battle when the winds rose and the storm clouds descended, but Harry knew that stone giants were nothing more than stories for children.

Or, perhaps, depending on your point of view they were real. Perhaps they were not as children might imagine; great towering humanoid creatures of stone and earth, but instead they were the mountains themselves: tall, and cold, and full of spite.

Despite the number of Dwarves who had descended into the caves, and despite the number of Goblins who surely still called them home, it was almost unsettlingly quiet. So far from the life and light of the surface, the only sounds to be heard were the scrape of their feet upon stone, and the constant drip of trickling water as it seeped through fissures in the rock.

Then there was a new noise, almost too faint to hear: the sound of slipping gravel down yet another side corridor. He raised his hand to stop the Dwarves at his back. They all stilled, and he could feel their eyes watching him carefully, but it was not them he was concerned with.

It was a risky strategy. Goblins were poor marksmen, especially with their ability to take aim disrupted by the bright light of his staff, but as Nithi said, they only needed to get lucky once. Still, there was nought he could do but trust in the power of his magic, and so he closed his eyes, and allowed his senses to reach outwards.

If anything, the cave became even colder, and less welcoming than it had been before. The distant beat of the mountain, slow and ponderous like a great heart, reverberated in his mind, and the black hatred for all living things reached out to him like a distant echo returned from long lost caverns.

Close to him, he could hear the Dwarves as they formed a defensive ring around him, each peering into the darkness, fighting against it in an attempt to uncover that which it so carefully hid from them. Perhaps if they had been watching him instead, they would have seen his breath turn to frost as it left his lips. The cold hatred of the mountain bit at him like the deepest of winter chills.

Within that wintry vastness, though, there was the tiniest pinprick of something else. So long had the Goblins dwelled in the black deeps beneath the mountains, that the sense of them was almost lost amid the murky echoes of their mountain home. As Harry deepened his focus, however, he felt the sense grow. The mountains possessed a cold, hard, slow cruelty that was content to see those who attempted to cross its passes slowly freeze to death amid snow and icy winds.

Goblins had not nearly that kind of patience. The pinprick he could feel upon the senses of his mind, was an urgent malice. It was a being that wished to see Harry and his companions suffer, and it wished to see them suffer now.

Harry opened his eyes, and the light of his staff nearly blinded him, but in a moment he identified the direction from which his sense had come. He drew forth his wand, and pointed it down the tunnel. There were few spells he remembered from his old life. After so many years many of them had faded to little more than half-remembered dreams.

"Incendio!"

A torrent of fire spilled from the end of his wand, far greater than any flame spell he could remember from his schooling. He could feel the power of his wand surge in response to the fiery spell, revelling in the destruction it would bring. Screams, terrified and anguished, erupted from the darkness, but the roaring of the flames consumed them, just as they consumed the Goblins who had been hiding there, just beyond sight.

With a flick of his wrist, Harry attempted to end the spell. The blazing inferno streaming from his wand did not abate. The joy of his wand at being unleashed was an almost physical thing. The sensation of it was almost catching, but Harry gritted his teeth, and ended the spell.

Still the flames tried to linger, even though they had been cut off from his sustaining power. The dark evil which had seeped into the very stone fed it, but it could not feed it for long. The cold, and the damp could not sustain something which burned with such fury. Less than a minute later, the last of the fires at last guttered and died, and in the place of the roaring flames, there was instead the soft clink and tingle of cooling rock which had in places been slagged to a smooth, glass-like sheen.

Harry had to draw in a deep, settling breath. His wand had always had rather more life within it than the wand he remembered owning in his old world, but never before had it risen to fulfill his command with such ferocity. Was it some old grudge between Scatha and the Goblins of those caves, or was it something else? Slowly, he placed the wand back into the safe little slot in his staff. He would need to be more careful with it until he understood more fully why it had behaved the way that it had.

The Dwarves were silent, whether due to awe, or fear, Harry knew not, but they nevertheless followed as he picked his way through the now cleared tunnel.

Just around a bend they found that which had been hounding them. The corpses of nine Goblins, each and every one of them charred beyond any hope of recognition. The smell of their burned flesh filled the tunnel, and combined with the choking fumes produced by the fire the air was almost unbreathable.

There was little chance that he would be able to conjure much of a breeze in that dark place, and so Harry, like the Dwarves, settled for merely breathing through the cloth of his sleeve. It did little to help, in truth, but it at least stopped the feeling that he was breathing in roasted Goblin flesh with each breath.

The tunnel the Goblins had been hiding down changed as they moved further along it. It grew wider, and obvious signs of habitation started to become more common. Rodent bones were strewn upon the floor. Here and there were a few larger ones. Horses, deer, wolves, even a few which looked to have once been Men. Then, quite suddenly, the tunnel opened out into a vast crevasse.

It was still almost eerily quiet.

The walls of the crevasse stretched up and down into complete darkness, but perched upon the walls were hundreds of ramshackle wooden huts and ledges. In many places the stone had been cut away to create narrow staircases running between buildings on different levels.

"Durin's beard," said Buri, his voice barely above a whisper. "It's huge. Goblins did this?"

"How long have they infested this place?" asked Nithi. "This must surely have taken generations."

"They had long enough," said Harry sadly. The sense of malice he had felt from the mountains certainly told him that much at least.

"Where are they all?" Nithi's eyes scanned the subterranean crevasse, searching for evidence of their foe.

Then, as if in answer, they heard an echoing cry from further down the cleft, and it was followed by the clash of steel.

"Someone else found this place," said Harry, immediately moving in the direction from which he had heard the echo. It was hard to tell, but he did not think it was all that distant.

The stone was slippery underfoot, polished smooth by the passage of countless Goblins, and more than once Harry nearly lost his footing. There were no barriers or stays to stop any who tripped and fell from plunging into the unknowable depths below, and they had to slow their passage lest one of their slips prove fatal. As they picked their way carefully across the face of the rift, the sounds of joined battle grew nearer, but still they could not see the source.

Then they rounded a corner, upon which a building was perched precariously on rotting timbers, and found the source of the rising clamour. As Harry had suspected, it was another group of Dwarves, this one twenty strong, who had found the location of Goblin-town, but they had not been lucky enough to find their portion undefended.

A group of Goblins, maybe a hundred strong or more hemmed them in. Many of them had spears which they japped at the Dwarves to keep them corralled on a broad wooden platform suspended over the depths.

"Is that a troll?" asked one of the Dwarves, as he pointed in the direction of a hulking figure which was lurking near the back of the Goblin force.

Harry directed the light of his staff over the Goblins, and the creature was revealed. It was no troll.

It was a Goblin, perhaps, but if it was a Goblin then it was the largest of its kind that Harry had ever seen or heard of. It was nearly as tall as a troll, and frightfully corpulent beyond anything that Harry might have thought possible. Rolls of foul grey flesh hung from its huge frame, and a distended face, covered in sagging, mottled skin, held two tiny eyes, no larger than those of a more ordinary Goblin. On his head he wore a crown of scrap metal. This, surely, was the Great Goblin the prisoners had talked about, and suddenly Harry understood why they had seemed to regard the creature with such fear and awe.

The Great Goblin looked up at Harry and his group when the light descended on him, and he released a fleshy chuckle. "More meat for the larder!" he said gleefully, his sagging jowls swinging as he spoke.

Many of the Goblins gathered around him were carrying the roughly made bows common to their people, and they immediately took aim at Harry and his companions.

With a cry of effort, Harry plunged his staff into the stone at his feet, and wrenched a great lump of it into the air to hide behind. It blocked the first volley of arrows, but as Harry had noticed before, the stone was no ally to him. It shattered, and they were once again left exposed.

There was no way to get across the fissure to reach their attackers, and Harry feared just what ruin his wand might unleash upon the Dwarves below if he attempted a more brash brand of magic. He needed to get them away from their attackers. He was dragged around the corner from which they had emerged just as a second volley of arrows was released, and he found himself looking at the solution to his problem.

The wooden lean to buildings might have been long dead, but once they had been living, and unlike the stone, they would have known the joy of the sun playing upon their leaves, and the wind whistling through branches.

He placed a hand upon the nearest post he could find which was not already half-rotten, and he closed his eyes.

That memory of life was there, though it had long been dulled by a lifetime of darkness and wanton cruelty. The memory was all he needed. It felt like Harry had to call to that memory for an age, but in truth it was probably more like seconds. As the Dwarves in his company tried to fight back with whatever they could find; rocks, sharped sticks, returned arrows; Harry felt the wood burst into life.

Roots dug deep into the solid stone in search of water, and branches unfurled from what had once been dead wood. All around him, what once had been dead timber, burst into life, but he focused his efforts on the post he was touching. Soon a single huge bough reached across the chasm, leaves opened, trying to find a light which would never come. It would serve as a bridge, if a precarious one..

With all the agility and balance he could muster, Harry ran over the thick bough. As he neared the readied Goblin spears at the far end he flashed the light of his staff to a dazzling brightness. His enemies screamed in fear and confusion when they were blinded, and many tried to flee. Their disarray was so great that more than one of their number toppled over the edge, into the sightless abyss below.

Harry drew his sword, and behind him he heard Dwarven battle-cries echo through the abyss. A few Goblins tried to meet them, but Anguirel bit deep, and their pot-metal swords and armour were little better than cloth before the black blade of Eöl.

Most of them were put to flight in moments, but the Great Goblin did not flee. Instead, he wielded a gigantic hammer, taller than Harry, and swung it with a wild strength. Harry ducked beneath it, and stabbed up at the Great Goblin, and his sword cut into stinking Goblin flesh.

Yet the Great Goblin did not die. A meaty fist swatted Harry aside, and the sword was left protruding from the Goblin's chest. The creature didn't even seem to notice it at first, and charged towards Harry with a guttural cry of rage.

With most of the Goblins fled, and those who had not fled quickly put to the axe and the sword by the combined Dwarvish attackers, they were free to turn their attentions to the Great Goblin. Harry dove out of the way of the Goblin as it charged, and the huge hammer threw up splinters as it smashed through the wood of the roughly constructed platform. As the Goblin turned to attack Harry once more, it was met by Buri and Nithi, who sliced deep gouges into its legs.

Harry returned to the fight then, ducking under another wild swing of the gigantic hammer. In a single smooth motion he got in close, and yanked his sword free of the creature's fleshy belly. He brought the sword around again, reaching as high as he could manage, and cut a deep furrow through the flesh of the Goblin King's neck.

Instantly, the creature's arms went limp. Its lips tried to form some word, but no sound would come. Finally, with the same deceptive slowness of a distant rockslide, he toppled over backwards, and Harry felt the wooden platform shudder under the impact.

Then he heard a snapping sound, and the entire platform shuddered.

"Get off the platform!" he cried to the Dwarves, but it was already too late. With a final deafening crack, it shifted, and started to fall into the black chasm. Harry could do nothing but watch as most of the Dwarves disappeared upwards, and he, along with Buri and Nithi, dropped into the unknowable depths.

The thunder of their landing filled more than just the cave. It filled the whole world, but it was something Harry was willing to savour. He had survived the fall.

The magic he had wrought earlier to make it across the crevasse had not ended with his focus and the entire underside of the platform had sprouted into a thick bushy growth of twigs and leaves. The collision with the ground was bone-rattling, but it was not deadly.

The first thing Harry heard once the noise of their landing had faded was the quiet statement from Nithi: "Ow."

It was followed almost immediately by a weak laugh from Buri, and Harry couldn't help but join them. Perhaps it was not all that funny, but the laughter came anyway. Eventually, they quieted, and managed to extricate themselves from the ruined platform.

"Where to now?" asked Buri, staring around at all the detritus which had been lost to the darkness of the cavern over the years of Goblin residence.

They could either search blindly through what were surely endless caverns, and hope to come upon another group of Dwarves, or Harry could attempt to find some other way out.

"Watch for enemies," Harry commanded his two companions. "I will see if I can feel any kind of waterway or path which might lead us to the surface."

He closed his eyes, and delved deep into the darkness that surrounded them. For a long moment there was nothing. Just blank, cold, dead stone in all directions, but then, like the faintest star flicking in the sky, only noticeable out of the corner of an eye, he felt something else. There was an almost imperceptible dissonance in the darkness. Something did not belong.

He re-opened his eyes, and led his two remaining companions in the direction of whatever it was that he had sensed. It was not much, but it at least gave them a point with which to guide their path.

They followed the tunnel and the winding path it cut through the stone for nearly an hour before the tunnel opened out into a large cavern. In the middle of the cavern was a broad lake, filled with water that was every bit as still as glass. Not a single ripple rolled across its surface.

A crunch echoed through the cavern, and Harry turned to find the source. Nithi was frozen where they stood, their foot suspended in mid-air. Beneath his boots, Harry saw the source of the noise. Yellowing bones littered the ground here and there.

Harry stooped down to look closer at a skull that had been wedged between two stones not far from his own feet. It was a goblin skull, and there were unmistakable cuts and tooth-marks on the bone from where the flesh had been stripped away with a methodical precision. Whatever creature it was that lived so far from the life-giving sun, it surely must have learned never to waste any potential food which found its way into that dark realm.

"What did this?" asked Nithi as he turned a broken leg-bone over in his hands. It had been snapped, and the marrow rooted out from within.

"Could be other Goblins," said Buri, his tone grim. "They care not from where they get their meat. I would not be surprised if many more than these mere few had been consumed by their own kin when the spoils of their raids failed them."

"Where are they then?" asked Nithi, his eyes darting about as they searched for some nameless terror hidden in the darkness beyond Harry's staff-light.

Buri was steadfast. "Fled, likely. Like all the rest."

Harry was not quite so sure. That almost imperceptible presence was still there when he stopped to listen for it. Watchful, cunning, careful. Powerful. For a moment he wondered if perhaps they had by some fell mischance come upon another Balrog, hidden in the bowels of the earth and worshipped by the Goblins who lived in its shadow, but no sooner had that idea occurred to him than it had been discarded.

The Balrogs were beasts. The stories of their origins were many, and none truly knew how they had come to be so savage and their rage so enflamed, but there was no argument that that was their fundamental nature. That somehow, Morgoth had warped the Úmaiar into something less than once they had been.

Gone was the wisdom of the Maiar, and the grace of the Valar. In their place was left only blind rage, and burning hatred for all which lived free.

The dissonance he could feel had none of that. Some relic of the Valar who once had walked and warred upon the lands of Middle-earth, perhaps? Some relic of Morgoth?

If it was, did he want to find it?

The echo of power he could sense was tempting, though. Even if only a little. Long years ago he had given up on finding a way to return to the world of his birth, and resigned himself to his seeming imprisonment within Middle-earth. Yet that choice was one which he had not grasped with both hands, he knew. He had let go of his old world, yet never really embraced the new, not truly.

Perhaps he had been wrong to give up hope on returning? Perhaps there was still hope for that almost forgotten wish.

"Is there something down here?" asked Nithi, drawing Harry from his reflections. "I hear nothing, and see nothing. Yet it seems you are perceiving something beyond my sight. Some invisible beast?"

Harry shook his head and smiled at the idea. "I am not sure, but whatever it is, I do not know if it is a threat, or an opportunity."

He needed more light. Carefully, Harry picked his way over the uneven stone to the water's edge, and he dipped the tip of his staff into their impossibly clear depths.

Unlike the mountains, the waters that cut through them had known far more than mere cruelty at the hands of the Goblins who had come to reside there. Through endless millennia, they had cycled through earth and plant, through river and sea, through man and beast, and like all water they had come to love life every bit as much as life loved water.

Though it was still, and becalmed in the darkness of the cave, a memory that life and light was carried with it still, and perhaps just a little of the power of Ulmo still abided within them. With a whispered word of encouragement, he brought forth a great light. The entire lake lit up in brilliance white.

Like a rushing torrent it filled every crack and cranny of the cavern, and the cold and the dark fled before it into the distance warrens leading back upwards, towards the surface. A scream, an outpouring of pain and anguish, followed it almost instantly. It was the scream of some unseen being for which the light was not like the gentle caress of a summer's morning, but it was instead the burning lance of the mid-day sun in the lifeless valleys of southern Khand.

Harry tried to seek out the source of the noise, but from the echoes it was already retreating into one of the many tunnels which opened out into the cavern. The darkness there embraced the fleeing creature, still unseen, and in a few short seconds it was gone.

Even when he closed his eyes, and tried to reach out with every one of his senses to that distant power which had lured him there, there was nothing. That flickering candle flame had been snuffed in its entirety by the enveloping waves of Harry's magic. All that was left was the endless cold of the deep caverns.


A/N: Some lore stuff!

In this instance, we are talking about Arathorn I, not Arathorn II (who was the father of Aragorn).

Shâlak-zamr is 'Loudwater' in Khuzdul, which is a reference to the Bruinen, the river that flows by Rivendell. Loudwater is a translation of the Westron name of the river (bearing in mind that Westron is not English, it is merely mapped to English). I elected to have the Dwarvish name mirror the meaning of the Westron name as the antecedent languages were significantly influenced by Khuzdul.

Stanbrycg means Stone Bridge in Old English. This is a new settlement of the Eotheod which grew up around what was called the Old Ford in the Hobbit (but in the altered continuity, the old stone bridge was repaired by the Eotheod, with some help from Dwarvish allies). Brytta would, had Harry not gummed up the works, have been Brytta Leofa who was King of Rohan after Helm Hammerhand and his children died (technically, Fréaláf Hildeson, Helm's nephew followed Helm as King, but Brytta was Fréaláf's son). In this continuity, however, Haleth, Helm's eldest son did not die to Dunlendings and is the current king of the Riddermark. My plan regarding the snowballing changes is that I will continue to have recognisable characters feature, but they may be in stations that do not match canon (but which I hopefully have a reasonable explanation for). So, here Brytta is Lord of Stanbrycg, and Second Marshall of the Riddermark.

Stone Giants occupy a strange position in Tolkien's works, in as much as they are mentioned in the Hobbit in no uncertain terms, but in The Lord of the Rings, and the greater Legendarium, they are completely forgotten. In Tolkien's planning, they were an early, evil, precursor to Ents (it was a Giant named Treebeard who took Gandalf prisoner, not Saruman, for example), but all of this was eventually excised completely.

As such, I've focused on The Hobbit as a children's tale. A story written down by Bilbo to delight his young ward, and maybe other young Hobbits. In that interpretation, it draws from elements of reality, but rounds off the edges, and adds a level of whimsical fantasy which is lost in the more 'grounded' account of Frodo and The Lord of the Rings.