36. Shadow of a Short Thing
"Do you smell smoke?"
"No," Morion said. He sniffed the air, frowned. "Yes."
Khamul sighed. "I wonder where it's coming from. We're going to turn one of these damn corners and run straight into it, I'll bet."
They had followed the road up into the Misty Mountains and were lost in the tangle of boulders and uncertain footing. The horses seemed to have an idea of where they were going though, so Khamul and Morion let them continue as they willed.
"They're probably leading us into a troll's lair," Khamul said. She frowned. "There are trolls around here, aren't there?"
"Yes, there are. Quite a lot, actually, although they're mostly west of Rivendell."
"I don't want to run into anymore of those," Khamul said. "I only narrowly escaped being eaten last time. Only because more easily killable food was around."
Morion looked up at the sky. Thin wisps of smoke drifted through the air. "There, it's not far away," he said. "I think we're nearing the end of the pass as well."
"What's burning?" Khamul asked.
"Trees, I think. I'm not sure though."
"Why? Was there a forest fire?"
"I don't know."
After an abrupt bend in the road, Khamul and Morion rode out into a green, hilly land. Not far away there was a small forest, in which several trees smoldered. There was a pack of goblins nearby, along with very large wargs, several of which looked badly burned.
"Wargs and goblins," Khamul said. "I wonder what they were chasing."
"Whatever it was, it got away," Morion said. "Or else they're cooking it for breakfast."
"I'll guess the latter. Hey! You lot!"
The goblins had been hurrying forward with weapons drawn, eager for fresh meat. But when they realized what the new found guests were, they started to retreat.
"What happened here?" Khamul snapped, riding up to the largest goblin.
"They ran up the trees," the huge goblin growled. "Killed the Great Goblin, sneaked out the door, ran up the trees."
"Dwarves. And a short thing. And it was a man with a big gray beard who killed the Goblin."
"Dwarves, a short thing, and a Man," Khamul said. "How many?"
The goblin frowned and began to count on its fingers. "Too many for fingers," it said at last. "Thirteen dwarves, one short thing. And the gray-beard."
"Fifteen total," Khamul said. "Very interesting. I wonder what they were doing in the Misty Mountains."
"We took them. Going to eat. The short thing looked tasty. Very fat. But it ran away before the others. Never saw it leave," the goblin said, frowning. "But something open door and run out. We see shadow of short thing, but nothing else."
Khamul frowned and a trickle of dread ran down her spine. "Just the shadow?" she asked. "Nothing else? Just this thing's shadow?"
The goblin nodded.
"Do you know what it's talking about?" Morion asked.
"I'm not sure," Khamul said. "We should find this short thing. For educational purposes if nothing else."
"Educational purposes," Morion snorted. "What does it have that you want?"
"Nothing," Khamul said. "Nothing at all." I wonder what would, will, happen if I get the Ring? Maybe I could challenge Sauron, throw him down. I'd like to be a Dark Lord.
"How did they escape?" Morion asked.
"Eagles," the goblin said sulkily. "Big eagles swoop down and take them away. Don't know where they going."
"One say somethink 'bout dragon!" another goblin squeaked. "Goin' to kill da dragon!"
"Erebor," Morion said. "Thirteen dwarves against a dragon? They'd have to be mad!"
"They've got a short thing with them though," Khamul said.
"That was sarcasm, wasn't it? Please tell me you're being sarcastic. Otherwise you'll have gone mad."
"Maybe they're mad," Khamul said. "Thirteen dwarves, a short thing, and a Man. Wait. A man with a gray beard? What else was there about him?" she asked the goblin. "Did he have a staff?"
The goblin nodded. "Wooden staff. Had a sword, too. Big nasty sword. Sword of elf-king."
Gandalf. And he had a magic sword now. Just great. "Why does Gandalf want a bunch of dwarves and a short thing to commit suicide?" Khamul asked.
"Gandalf? The Istari?" Morion asked. "That's him?"
"Yeah… I don't understand what he's doing here though."
"We should find him. No, not him. We should look for the dwarves and thing."
"Just what I was thinking," Khamul said. It's obvious that Gandalf would want Smaug dead, she thought, but his way of going about it? It seems more than a little crazy.
They followed the forest road, occasionally meeting up with roving bands of goblins or wargs, but they began to thin out as they approached Mirkwood.
"You'd think it'd be the opposite," Khamul commented. "Mirkwood's under Sauron's control. You'd think this place'd be swarming with goblins."
"It's swarming with something," Morion muttered, watching a cloud of bees buzz through the sky.
"I think there's a house over…oh."
Khamul pointed at a large pike near the road. On it was the severed head of a goblin.
"I think I see why they don't come around here," Morion said. "I suppose a great goblin hunter must live over there." He nodded toward a large house, just barely visible through the tress.
"Do you smell something?" Khamul asked.
"No, something…metallic. Like heated metal."
Morion glanced up at the sky. It was a warm, sunny day. He glanced at the goblin's head. "I suppose it's the goblin's blood," he said.
"Yeah," Khamul said. "I suppose you're right." She gave the house a long look as they continued down the road. The smell reminded her of something…of that wretched Halfling with the Ring. Had it been the Halfling or the Ring that had given off that smell reminiscent of Mt. Doom? She was probably imagining things. Knowing that the Ring was once again on the move had given her a bad case of nerves.
"Shall we enter Mirkwood?" Morion asked as they rode up to the dark forest some days later. The day was warm and bright, but the forest emanated cold and darkness.
"Let's see if we'll run into these famous spiders," Khamul said. "Shall we swing by Dol Guldor on the way out? See if Sauron's home?"
"I think we should follow Gandalf and his band," Morion said.
"Get into the trees!" Khamul snapped suddenly, jumping off her horse.
"What? What is it?"
Morion followed Khamul's example and dragged his horse into Mirkwood. The brush had grown up so tall and thick that they had no trouble hiding themselves and their horses.
"What was that about?" Morion muttered.
"Look," Khamul hissed.
A rider came barreling down the plain. A gray cloak flapped about him. A long gray beard waved in the wind.
"Gandalf," Morion whispered.
"What's he doing running away from his little dwarves?" Khamul muttered. She grinned. "Whatever it is, he's the most dangerous one of them."
"Are you sure about that?"
"They're dwarves. What possible threat could they be? And now that they're without their protector, we should be able to take them easily."
Morion's eyes narrowed. "What do you want from the dwarves?"
"Nothing. I just want to see what they're up to. Specifically, why they think they can defeat Smaug when a mountain full of dwarves didn't do a damn thing."
"I'm sure they have a good reason."
"We should figure it out."
"All right," Morion said. "We don't really have anything better to do."