3. Chapter 3: 2841, The Bruinen to High Pass
Heri looked out at the murky waters of the Bruinen churning over the ford and shook his head. "It's close today, very close, but still too deep for us to cross."
An's sons shared a puzzled look. "How can you tell?" asked Hanar. Balin still couldn't tell them apart without careful study, but it seemed to be fairly safe to assume that if one of them spoke, it was Hanar. The other brother pursed his lips and frowned—yes, that had to be Anar. Not only was he standoffish himself, but he always looked annoyed with Hanar when he was a little less aloof.
Heri gave no sign that he had noticed Anar's displeasure and went to stand beside Hanar. Looking at the river over the younger dwarf's shoulder, Heri pointed to a spot near the middle. "See there? Wait, it's gone again. There!"
Hanar watched the river where he was directed and presently said, "Is that a rock just under the water?"
Heri clapped him on the shoulder so hard he staggered a bit. "So it is! You've good eyes on you, lad. When the ford is passable, the top of that rock sticks out of the water by about a foot. The water's low and clear enough now that you can see the top of it if you know where to look, so we only need another couple of days without rain upstream to let us cross."
"If the sky is any guide, we will not get two days without rain," said Thráin, looking northward where they could see more dark clouds building. "We have been here for weeks now. This should be the driest part of the summer, but the rains have not stopped. We must take the trail on the western side of the river and cross at the headwaters if we hope to cross the mountains this year."
Heri scowled and shook his head. "Better to wait here for a little longer. I've never been that way, nor spoken to anyone who has. That Brunn fellow sounded honest enough, but if the trail was really as good as he describes it, there should be someone apart from him who's used it, and there's not. Mark my words, we'll find this path to be no better than a game trail. It's nothing but foolishness, and we'll waste more time on an untried path than we will if we wait for the river to go down a bit and cross at the ford."
Anar's eyes went so wide that Balin nearly burst out laughing. Evidently, Balin wasn't the only one in the party that Anar disapproved of.
Thráin folded his arms and glared at Heri. "Remember, if you will, who leads this company."
"You do," said Heri promptly, "but you asked me to join you on this journey because of my knowledge of the road. Why invite me if you didn't want my advice?"
For a moment, Thráin went very still. "I want your advice, but I am still king of Durin's House and you would do well to curb your tongue."
Heri chuckled. "And a fine House it is, but it's not my House."
"Whichever that may be," muttered Vili. He might not have meant for Balin to overhear, but he had, and his family still owed Heri for his assistance. Balin shot Vili a disgusted look, then pointedly looked away.
Heri still had his eyes on Thráin and had not noticed Vili's comment. "I'm happy to help Durin's House when I can, but if you were looking for courtly manners, you came to the wrong dwarf. " He paused and looked around the watching dwarves with a sly grin. "Now, Vestri there is a well-spoken fellow. Maybe I could have him polish up my words a bit for you."
"That will not be necessary," said Thráin, not quite managing to suppress a smile. After a quick and sobering glance at the river, he said, "I will give the ford two more days. If the water has not fallen by that time, we will try the western trail."
"Fair enough," said Heri.
It did not rain at the ford that night, but they could see lightning flashing to the north. In the morning, the river had risen and more storm clouds piled on the western horizon. Thráin grew impatient with the wait and took Móin with him to search out the blazed trees that marked the beginning of Brunn's trail. They returned to report that the path looked promising as far as they had gone.
The river rose steadily all day, until even Heri was shooting worried looks at the mountains beyond. They could not afford to wait much longer. The next morning they started up the western path.
The trail was in better condition than Balin had been expecting. They could only go single file, but the surface was firm and clear of underbrush. The path followed the river up into the mountains at a tolerable slope, and the valley was still fairly wide, though it was bound to narrow as they climbed. Around midday, the sun even came out for a few hours.
The road did not stay good for long. Over the next two days, the trail narrowed and roughened until everyone had to admit that Heri's prediction of ending up with a mere game trail had come true. The valley narrowed rapidly, but the path showed no sign of climbing up to the ridge top. As they went on through frequent showers, the expressions on Heri and Thráin's faces grew steadily more uneasy. They watched the river and the clouds more closely than they did the path.
On the third day, they woke to sodden air and a bank of heavy clouds pushing towards the mountains. No one brought out any food for breakfast; Balin was too tense to have any appetite and set to readying his pack instead.
"We have to get out of this valley now," Heri said to Thráin in an undertone. Balin perked up his ears at the urgency in Heri's voice but continued packing.
Thráin looked up at the steep, rocky walls of the valley. "Is there time to go back to one of the side streams? This will be a difficult climb even for the hardiest among us."
Heri peered upstream anxiously. "The river's going to be out of its banks any minute now." He waved an arm further up the valley. "Look how narrow the valley is now. Once the wind pushes those clouds far enough up the mountains, it's going to pour. Even a small storm could drown us all, and that one won't be small. We have to get out now."
Thorin nodded and flung his pack over his shoulder. "Choose the best route you can while I get them on their feet." He turned to the others and shouted, "Everyone up! There is a flood coming and we must get out of the valley now."
The others froze, startled, then began to throw what was not yet packed into their knapsacks.
"Leave it," ordered Thráin. "Follow Heri!"
They started up behind Heri with only what was already in their packs. The side of the valley was steep enough that they would be climbing all the way, and Balin could see no place where they could really rest before they reached the top. Balin could see nothing about the section of the bluff that they were scaling that made it look better to climb there than anywhere else. Heri climbed quickly on some sections, but on others, he moved cautiously, scanning the slope for as long as he dared and testing the stone before he trusted his weight to it.
Before they were even halfway to the top, Balin's arms shook from exertion, and he had to drape himself against the bluff to rest them for a few minutes. The hand that had been injured ached in the nagging way that he knew he could ignore for now, but He risked a look back at the valley. The rain was light here, but the river had covered the entire floor of the valley. Either they had made slower progress than he thought they had, or the water was rising very fast. As he watched, a boulder the size of an anvil bounded across their campsite as if it weighed no more than a cork. He shook the cramp out of the fingers on his damaged hand and continued to climb.
Balin was in the middle of the group, and found it hard going where those ahead of him had packed down the sparse patches of soil. Heri appeared to be searching out the best footing he could, but there were some areas where they had no choice but to cross a steep patch of mud. Balin kicked toeholds into the slick earth where he could, but was almost afraid breathe whenever he had to trust his weight to them. Dwalin was behind him in the line, and as they crossed one of those sections, Dwalin's toehold gave way and he started to slide. Balin reached out instinctively but he was too far away to catch his brother.
He could see Dwalin clawing at the mud. His fingers dug into the damp ground, but it was too soft to do more than slow his slide.
"Ware below!" called Frer, who had seen Dwalin slip but was no more able to help him than Balin was.
The climbers below looked up in horror. Only Móin and Nidri, bringing up the rear, were still on a rock outcropping that could support them if Dwalin bumped into them.
Dwalin's feet scrabbled at the hillside, trying to find a purchase. Just a few feet above Vestri's head, his boot caught on a spur of rock and he was able to stop himself. He clung there for a minute, breathing hard, then began to haul himself back up. When he reached the place where he slipped, he hesitated for a second, then started climbing again, skirting the area that had been packed slick.
Balin watched him climb up to the next ledge of rock. "Don't do that again, you fool!" he growled. "Couldn't you see the dirt was mostly clay? It was bound to be slick!"
"Not thinking. Sorry." Dwalin was still breathing too hard to argue. Evidently he had no trouble seeing through Balin's attempt at fierce familial authority, because there was a hint of a smile on his face. Well, Balin had never been able to do that convincingly before, so it was hardly likely that he could manage it now.
Balin began to climb again. It was still a long way to the top of the ridge. For now, his hand was working as it ought, but he could feel strain that told him he would be lucky if he could move his fingers at all tomorrow. The healers said he had made a fine recovery, but they had told him quite bluntly that no matter how well it healed, his hand would always make him pay for overtaxing it. He rested his hand as much as he dared, but right now it was low on his list of concerns.
He had long stopped thinking about anything except forcing himself to climb when he realized that the bluff was not as steep as it had been. Looking ahead, he saw that they were almost to the crest of the ridge. A little below the very top was a small, stony hollow. Heri had already reached it and was sitting and waiting for them there.
Balin threw all the rest of his energy into climbing. As soon as he reached the hollow, he cast aside his pack and collapsed onto the blessedly flat ground. Dwalin was right behind him, and did the same.
Finally they were all in the hollow, panting and sweating even in the chilly mountain wind. They had no fuel for a fire—the ridge was barren rock—and several of them had left things behind that they were sure to miss sooner or later. Once they had rested and caught their breath, Frer and Frór took inventory of what the company still had. They had their heads together for a long while before Frór announced," We still have most of the food, so there is one good thing. But we lost some clothing and blankets, a piece of canvas, a pot and some cups."
Heri shrugged. "Not good, but we could have come out much worse. Everyone get some rest. There's no telling when we'll meet up with the path again, so we will be blazing our own trail for now."
Heri was unexpectedly quiet about how accurate his predictions had turned out to be, but Thráin avoided meeting his eyes anyway. The group huddled together under the blankets they had left. Balin cradled his hand under his shirt, hoping that warmth now would stave off some of pain the next day.
He was beginning to feel a little sorry for himself when Thráin said, "No matter how hard this day has been, at least we are over halfway to the Lonely Mountain now."
In spite of everything, the others nodded and looked more cheerful.
"What was it like?" asked Dwalin. "Mother always says that the lights in the Chamber of Thrór were as bright as the sun."
Thráin actually chuckled a little at that. "Well, the winter sun, perhaps. But there can be no doubt that the Chamber was a glorious sight. The lampwrights truly outdid themselves there. All of the guilds gave their finest: the stonework was so delicate and flawless that the Men of Dale believed that it had been done by magic. At the tables were vessels of gold and silver, beautifully proportioned and ornamented with gems of every kind. The hall itself was so large that every dwarf who lived in the Mountain could gather there, but so well-designed that when the King spoke, all could hear him as well as if he stood beside them. The families who lived there…."
Balin fell asleep smiling.
He woke before dawn with his hand feeling as if it had been pulled into the mill again during the night. He gritted his teeth and tried without success to flex his fingers, but nothing was likely to help except time. When the others woke, Dwalin took one look at Balin's face and packed his gear for him. Luckily for Balin, the top of the ridge was wide and flat enough that they were able to walk rather than climb all that day and the two that followed.
On the fourth day, they met their next obstacle. For most of their climb, the slope of the ridge on the northwest side opposite the Bruinen was steep and rocky. Frer and Nur stooped from time to time to examine the stone, and their verdict was always the same: the stone on that side had weathered to the point where it was no longer trustworthy. They kept to the Bruinen side of the crest where the stonemasters said the rock was sturdier and made fair progress until the ridge curved around to run due east. They stopped short. There had been a landslide.
The north face of the ridge was gone, the crescent of raw stone reaching almost to the top of the ridge. Far below, the rubble had torn a wide path down through the trees to the bottom of the valley, where the flood waters were still cutting a new channel. The slide had left a narrow slice of the ridge behind, only a few inches wide and with dizzying drops on either side.
Thráin frowned at the scar left by the slide and turned to Nur. "How sturdy is the stone that is left?"
Nur beckoned to Frer and they squeezed past the others to have a closer look at the ridge. As the lighter of the two, Nur tied the end of rope into a harness and crawled a little ways out while Frer and Móin anchored him. He tapped and prodded at the stone for some time, then edged back to confer with Frer.
"The rock is not badly fractured at the top of the ridge, but there is nothing to buttress it on the northern side, and this is not a particularly strong type of stone. My advice would be for only one person to cross at a time on the narrowest section: from there to there," said Nur, pointing. "I can't tell from here if it will be wide enough to walk across all of it, but it may be."
"If the narrow part is short enough, we may be able to use the rope as a handrail for some of the group," said Heri.
Thrain nodded. "If we send a few of the most agile across with one end of the rope, half of us could cross with a handhold before we run short of people to anchor it on this end."
"Who goes first and last?"
Thráin looked around the group. Frer met his eye and said, "I'll cross first. It will give me a chance to check the whole length of the route."
"I can go next," said Dwalin. "In spite of how it looked yesterday, I am not really that clumsy."
The rest of the group sorted itself out with Móin, Nur and Nidri bringing up the rear. Balin wanted to cross with Dwalin, but Thráin had forbidden it since his hand was still not completely recovered.
Frer was able to walk most of the way, but there was a short section where it was so narrow that he carefully dropped down to straddle the ridge and scoot himself along until it widened enough to walk on again. Dwalin and Hanar did the same.
Vili watched as they crossed and said, "That's well enough for the young fellows whose stones haven't dropped yet, but I'd rather not have to explain to my wife that I scraped mine off on a mountaintop. Do you suppose with the rope we can cross the whole way on our feet?"
After so long on the road together, none of them were still using their best manners, but with so many in the party who had never married or had not yet reached sexual maturity, the comment sounded a little too much like boasting to Balin. Before he was any more tempted to snap at Vili, Balin took hold of the rope and started across.
He was normally surefooted, and most of the way was no narrower than the beams he had sometimes walked during building projects. If he concentrated on the ridge just ahead and did not look down, it was not too bad. When he reached the narrowest part, he hesitated. If he tried to walk across and slipped, he did not think his injured hand had recovered enough strength to save him. In the end, he crossed it astraddle as the others had done. Once he reached the other side, Thráin followed, making the whole crossing on his feet and only relying on the rope for balance.
The rest followed one by one, without incident. When Móin was safely on the uphill side, Balin had all he could do not to cheer. As Móin wound up the rope, Nidri announced, "In honor of this occasion, I have prepared a song." He hummed a few bars, enough for everyone to recognize the tune of an old dwarven children's song, and then began to sing in Khuzdul. It took a few seconds before it registered with Balin that Nidri had substituted his own words, and that they were a very vulgar commentary on Brunn and his trail and what should be done with both of them. Balin burst out laughing at the contrast between the innocent tune and the words, and looked around to see if Dwalin had heard.
Instead, he saw An and his sons standing where Dwalin had been. The three of them looked either blank or confused as everyone realized how Nidri had changed the words. They glanced at each other and around the rest of the group. A little after the others caught on, they laughed politely, as if they did not understand the joke. It might be that they had never heard the song before, but it had the sort of bouncy, cheerful tune that every race seemed to use for nursery songs. It seemed more likely that they did not understand the words. He thought back over the incidents that he had taken as evidence that the sons of An were unfriendly and wondered if he had completely misjudged them.
As they started up the ridge, Balin nudged Dwalin and said, "I don't think Anar and Hanar speak Khuzdul."
Dwalin considered a bit. "You may be right. If An grew up in a family that was trying to be less like dwarves, he might not have learned the language. I suppose his wife might know it, but it would be hard for him to learn a language when he was already past one hundred, and hard for his sons to learn if he couldn't speak it. I wonder if there is some way we could offer to help them learn?"
" They are bound to be touchy about it, but if you can think of a good way to suggest it, we should at least offer."
Dwalin nodded and seemed about to add something else when his gaze focused on his sleeve. "I don't believe this! It's snowing."
Fortunately, Dwalin's snowflake did not bring any others with it. For the next few days, they made good progress, finally reaching the headwaters of the Bruinen and crossing the stream to rejoin the road. Heri looked up and down the trail to get his bearings and announced that two more days should see them on the eastern side of the pass. The company greeted the news with a great deal of back slapping and raucous cheers in Khuzdul. Dwalin happened to be standing near Hanar and edged a little closer to murmur, "That's Khuzdul for 'victory'."
Hanar startled and looked as if he would argue for a moment, then whispered back, "Please don't tell the others. We're trying to learn it, but Father can't help us much and it embarrasses him. It's no fault of his, and I won't have anyone mock him for it!"
"No, no! We wouldn't do that. Balin and I thought we could help you learn more of it if you wanted."
"I'll have to talk to Anar, but I think I can get him to agree," said Hanar, a little uncertainly, but he gave Dwalin a hint of a smile as he went to rejoin his brother.
The following evening, when they were only about a mile from the pass, it began to snow in earnest. Balin watched the flakes settle in his beard as the elders argued.
"If we push on now, we will be over the pass before the snow gets too deep," said Thráin.
"There is no need for that," said Heri. "The High Pass doesn't snow shut this early."
"As hard as it's snowing now, we cannot take the chance. We must go on," said Thráin.
Heri shook his head. "Why? We wouldn't reach the Lonely Mountain this year even if were already across the pass. We can pass the winter as well on this side of the mountains as on the other."
Balin peered up the trail unhappily. Thráin was right; it was snowing very hard now, so hard that he had difficulty making out the path under the thin layer of snow. This didn't look to him like anything that would melt off straightaway once the sun came out. But attempting the pass at night in a snowstorm....
Heri seemed to be thinking along the same lines. "The pass is dangerous enough by day. On a clear night, we could probably manage it, but not when it's snowing so hard we can't see an axe-length in front of us. Even if no one misses the path and walks off a cliff, we will have injuries. We should wait here where there is at least a little shelter."
Several of the others murmured their agreement. The rock where they sat was undercut enough to keep the worst of the wind and the snow off of them. It was not much of a shelter, but far better than stumbling around in the storm.
Thráin looked around at his traveling companions. "Who is with me for crossing the pass tonight?"
No one spoke.
"Balin?" he asked, a little sharply. A dwarf had a right to expect loyalty from his kin and courage, if not outright daring, from the line of Durin. Balin shifted uncomfortably, but could not bring himself to agree with his cousin or to oppose him in public. The idea of going on in this storm worried him. Heri was the most seasoned traveler of them all, and he had been absolutely right about the Ford of Bruinen. If he said the pass never closed this early in the year, then why take the risk? As the silence lengthened, Thráin's disappointment grew almost tangible, but still Balin could not bring himself to agree.
Thráin snapped, "Very well, then. If none of you has the nerve or the will to go on while we still can, we will camp here for the night." He turned away in disgust as the others began to make camp.
Dwalin looked as relieved as Thráin did disillusioned, and that went some way towards consoling Balin. Close kin forges stronger loyalty; climbing in this weather was needlessly dangerous and his brother had to come first. Dwalin tossed him the other end of canvas they were trying to make into a windbreak and said, "You heard Heri. We'll be on our way again tomorrow."
Balin nodded as he hunted for a good spot to drive in the peg. "The first snow of the season never lasts long."
In the end, it was three days before the wind finally dropped to a breeze and the snow ended. The camp now sat at the bottom of a soggy hollow melted out of the waist deep snow. Heri had had the foresight to make a platform of stones to lay the fire on so that it was not drowned by the melted snow that pooled at the bottom, otherwise, they would have gone the last two days with no fire at all.
Móin, who was the tallest among them, forced his way through the drifts on the upward path. He returned shortly to report that the snow was even deeper further on, too deep to wade through and too fluffy to bear his weight even when he tried lying down and rolling. "There is no going forward," he said with complete certainty, "and going back will be trial enough."
The heat of Thráin's anger and frustration should by rights have melted them a path straight through to Rhovanion, but the snow was impervious. Balin envied it.
"Who has a suggestion?" Thráin asked, looking pointedly at Heri. Heri pretended not to have heard him.
"We could try another pass," suggested Nur cautiously, after the silence grew unbearable.
"The East Road pass is closest, but it has more orcs than travelers these days," said Móin, "not to mention that if the High Pass has this much snow, it won't be clear there either, as near as it is."
Thráin snorted. "The Redhorn Gate is certainly clear now, but it may not be by the time we could reach it."
"No!" said Heri, nearly shouting. He stopped and took a deep breath, looking uncomfortable with everyone's eyes on him. That in itself was enough to alarm Balin, since Heri never minded being the center of attention before.
"What do you have against Redhorn?" asked Thráin. "It could have us on the right side of the mountains yet this year. I have heard the rumors, but I will not rule it out based on nothing but campfire tales."
Heri prodded at the fire and muttered, "Something up there still hasn't settled after Azanulbizar, and it doesn't like Dwarves."
Thráin waited for him to go on, but Heri said no more. Finally, Thráin burst out, "What was it? Why should we avoid the pass?"
"If I knew what it was, I would tell you! The Redhorn Gate has always had a bad name, but it's worse since Azanulbizar. Nobody ever saw what did it, but something was after us the whole way. It cut climbing ropes—cut, not frayed; I know the difference. Boulders were pried loose and pushed down on us. We could see the tool marks, but they were very strange. One of the pack ponies was slaughtered when it stood no further from me than Vestri there, and I saw it go down but I saw nothing attacking it. We lost four good dwarves to that pass. Even if it's open, I will not cross under Redhorn again."
The others shifted and looked around, but not even Thráin had anything to say to that.
"We could go even further south," Frer said after a few minutes, "but there are no other passes between Caradhras and the Gap of Rohan."
"Why not use the Gap of Rohan then? We would be doubling back an awfully long way, but at least we would be on the other side of the Misty Mountains," said Hanar.
Heri stared at him. "We can't cross Rohan."
"Why not?" asked Dwalin hesitantly. "I thought they were among the Free Peoples. Have they fallen?"
Thráin shook his head and glowered. "They are enemies of our enemies, but they are no friends to us. For one thing, they have been at war with Dunland off and on for as long as Rohan has existed. They do not look kindly on anyone arriving out of Dunland, even if it should be obvious that we are not Dunlendings. Besides that, they are from the same people as Fram. We will not be allowed to pass unhindered through Rohan."
Anar and Hanar sat just beyond Heri, and Balin noticed Hanar frown and open his mouth to ask something before Anar poked him in the side. They must not have heard about Fram before. Maybe he could tell them the story later when they didn't have an audience.
Finally Thráin snorted and said, "I take it that no one has any better suggestion than to go back to Bree and wait for the spring thaw." He looked around the group, but none of them would meet his eyes. "I thought not. Very well then, strike camp. We will go back and try again in the spring."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.