Escape from the Iron Mountain

by Varda

‘’Even after the destruction of the Ring many strange and evil creatures dwelt in the dark places of the world….’’

1: The Chronicle of Garlach

‘Where is that dratted Elf?’ thought Gimli, craning to look round the dim recesses of the great feast-hall deep within the Iron Mountain stronghold of Dún Duibhe.
‘He is gone at least an hour….’

Gimli was worried. Through all the dwarf-realms of Middle Earth he and his Elfish companion had travelled since the ending of the War of the Ring, and nowhere had the ancient animosity of the Dwarves towards the Fair Folk shown itself. Gimli had, if he was honest, been quite surprised and heartened to find deep in his dour and stubborn kinsmen gratitude for an Elf who had given friendship outside his kind, and had gone to war on behalf of every race…..

But not here. Sauron had cruelly oppressed the Iron Hills, and had slain its king, Dáin Ironfoot. Since then no word had come out from this dwarf-realm to Gondor…until Gimli and Legolas had journeyed hence. And ever since they arrived Gimli had detected, with a sixth sense he probably got from Legolas, mistrust, suspicion and some nameless fear…..

‘You are imagining it!’ Legolas had said with his usual light-heartedness, but Gimli knew that was only because the Elf did not want to hurt Gimli by taking offence. And this had been Legolas’s idea; the dwarves of the Iron Hills had indeed once marched against his father King Thranduil’s people in war, but that was long ago, and now Legolas wanted to make friends where once existed only hatred. There were older bonds of friendship, he had told Gimli, and the Elves even of Rivendell had relied on the smiths of the Iron Hills to make their weapons….so Gimli had relented, and in the late autumn of a golden summer they had crossed the bleak heather-clad uplands that lay beyond Eriador and approached the dim line of jagged peaks that marked the Iron Hills…

Almost at once the weather turned against them, and an early fall of snow driven by a bitter East wind tugged their cloaks as they drew up their horses, Legolas still on Arod, Gimli now preferring a sturdy hill pony which he had named Gearr. Above them the sheer granite sides of the mountain reared up, and a great iron-bound door remained firmly shut in their faces. A flurry of movement behind a grille above the port however betrayed the presence of watchers.
Legolas shrugged and laughed, but Gimli glowered.

‘It is Gimli son of Glóin, and his friend Legolas Prince of Mirkwood. Open the blasted door, you wretched clan of lead miners!’

‘Roaring fires, malt beer, red meat off the bone….’

Gimli remembered his promise to Legolas as they entered Moria. Instead they had got a Balrog and a fight for their lives. But since then they had been royally entertained by the Dwarves, in every part of Middle Earth. But not tonight. Gimli made a face as he chewed the tough stringy meat served to him and Legolas, and which the Elf would not eat. He took a draught from his cup, pewter not silver, despite the fabled wealth of the Iron Hills Dwarves. He made another face; thin beer…

‘I have got to get a breath of sweet air!’ Legolas had whispered to him before slipping out of the feast-hall. And even Gimli found this subterranean cavern oppressive; the walls were bare stone, with only some threadbare hangings against the cold and a few rusty arms from the time of Grór, the great king of the Iron Hills…

Gimli looked round; in a corner of the dim, chilly hall a half-starved young dwarf tortured a set of bagpipes. Gimli saw his poor playing was caused by shaking hands. He glanced round the table; at once all eyes were averted, as if avoiding him. At the head of the table sat the Lord of the Iron Hall, Glinne. His name meant silver-tongued but to his guests he had barely spoken, and that only to offer a surly welcome. He wore a fabulous gown of blue trimmed with silver thread and bound with a mithril belt, which gave him his name, Glinne Gorm. That, however, was the only wealth on display and Gimli could see some of the crystals embedded in the mithril were missing, and even links of the precious metal itself.

Gimli put down his pewter tankard with a bang; he was going to go and find Legolas. His unease had grown to a feeling that something had certainly befallen his friend to keep him so long….

It was discourteous to rise from table before the host Lord, but Gimli had lost patience with this Dwarf-king. He bowed and said;
‘My pardon, Lord Glinne. I am tired from long journeying and wish to find my companion. Allow me to retire…..’

Further to Gimli’s disgust and unease the Lord merely nodded and turned again to his tough meat. Muttering to himself Gimli pushed back his chair and stamped from the hall. As he passed the young piper he stopped.
‘What is your name, lad?’ he asked. The boy looked up, fear in his eyes, but he answered in a brave voice;
‘Garlach, my Lord Gimli….’

Gimli thought for a moment; the name meant orphan. The lad must have lost his family and been brought up in the King’s household as a musician. That made his half-starved look and thin patched woollen tunic even more disgraceful. Gimli put his hand to a well-filled purse hanging at his belt and dug around with a thick forefinger. He flicked aside lesser coins till he found a gold crown. He pulled it out and looked at it.

This was the first coinage of King Ellessar, and on one side was the tree and stars, on the other in profile the King and his Queen, Arwen. It was a work of art in itself, and no wonder, as the mint had been assisted by a certain dwarf….just then Gimli heard the voice of another queen, Galadriel, speaking to him long ago…

‘I tell you Gimli son of Glóin that your hands will flow with gold, but over you gold shall have no dominion….’

And so it was, for now Gimli handed to the poor young piper the gold crown and said; ‘Buy yourself a warm tunic, my lad. And new pipes…’

All around the courtiers stared in amazement. The servants stood along the walls, not moving. Gimli turned to Garlach and said;
‘It seems I have no-one to light my way to my chamber. Will you take a torch and lead me, my boy?’

There was only a moment’s hesitation, then the lad jumped up and running to an embrasure he snatched from its iron socket a flaming torch and ran back to walk ahead of Gimli out of the great cold feast-hall.

When they were out in the passage Gimli heaved a sigh of relief. The boy looked up at him and Gimli asked;
‘Does your lord always keep such a merry household?’
Garlach looked embarrassed and Gimli slapped him on the shoulder and said;
‘Don’t answer that, my lad, he is your king after all. But show me the way to my chamber and that of my friend's, for I can’t remember which turning it was in all these confounded tunnels…’

All Dwarf realms were dwarrows, tunnels delved into mountains, rising from mines in the lowest levels to great high-ceilinged halls in the upper caverns. Endless tunnels connected them, and Gimli followed the little piper as he led the way upwards to a long gallery off which opened chambers which in the heyday of the Iron Hills must have been guest quarters worthy of royalty.

But not now; when Gimli knocked and entered the room allotted to Legolas he found a great dusty chamber hung with mildewed and moth-eaten tapestries, barely warmed by a sparse fire of peat in the vast fireplace. One mullioned casement looked out onto an inner courtyard ghostly in the moonlight and on the great couch was thrown a black bearskin. But it smelt of damp and although Legolas’s grey elven cloak had been laid carefully across the chest at the foot of the bed, there was no sign of the Elf….Gimli turned to Garlach in desperation;
‘Lad, can you help me find my friend?’

Once again Gimli saw fear in the boy’s eyes. But then, as if taking some great decision, Garlach took a deep breath and said in a clear voice;
‘Yes, Lord Gimli, I will help you find your Elven friend. It would be best to start at the lower levels….’

Gimli followed Garlach and they entered a tunnel with rough-hewn walls and no windows. It led down, ever down. The flame of the torch wavered as they passed openings on either side, and gradually the distant sound of the feast-hall receded until all that could be heard was their own breathing. Gimli wanted more than anything to ask where they were going, but dared not frighten his wary young guide off. At last they came to an underground gallery. Gimli noticed the air had grown warm. Garlach waited till he came up to him then lifted the torch and said in a whisper;

‘This was where I last saw your Elf friend…..’

Gimli wanted to question the boy, but did not get a chance; on the ground at his feet he saw something gleaming, and taking the torch he bent down and exclaimed in horror; it was blood, a great pool of blood, freshly spilt. Someone had been attacked and slaughtered here. Suddenly fearful of enemies Gimli looked around, and wished with all his heart he and Legolas had not given up their weapons when they entered the Iron Mountain….but then Garlach pulled at his sleeve and pointed;

And Gimli looked down again and on the rough ground, among the broken tiles, he saw something golden gleaming in the torchlight. He gasped, and dropped to one knee. His fingers gently traced the bright line and picked up the glistening thread; it was a long strand of golden Elvish hair, dabbled with blood. It was a strand of Legolas’s hair….