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A Minstrel's Tale

The trouble was that it had seemed such a good idea at the time, a rare chance to earn some much needed silver.

It was a well known fact that the life of a minstrel or the life of a scholar was a life dedicated to poverty. To be a minstrel and a scholar was, Gwynith had come grudgingly to admit, one in which such luxuries as clothing, cleaning and food came as welcome relief.

The hooded figure had been standing, loitering almost, outside the Prancing Pony, studying the passing traffic with a practiced eye, searching the various faces within the crowd for a likely candidate, perhaps for someone desperate enough to stop and consider his offer.

Gwynith had certainly caught his attention. Though, truth to tell, Naerandir's promise of payment were she to venture into the Great Barrow had taken little thought on her part, hunger adding an insistent and growing necessity. The added hint of treasure had just helped her to decide.

At the agreed time Gwynith had made her way to the barrow entrance, a journey which proved a dangerous labour in itself. The warm, sunny weather of the last few days had turned cool and a stiff breeze had picked up, blowing down from Forodwaith far to the north. As yet Autumn still held Eriador in its golden embrace but snow threatened and those wise in lore reconised the signs of a bad winter to come. There was a smell of moisture on the air while dark clouds brooded on the horizon with a threat of storm.

The Barrow Downs of Bree long had held an evil reputation in the surrounding villages, but lately rumour and whispering of a growing malevolence had become a favoured topic in the many inns and taverns where such things could safely be discussed in the warmth, and to Gwynith's mind, it was a reputation well deserved. Up here on the high, treeless moorland though, far from the nearest tavern, the wind picked up a cold bite and blew unhindered through sedge, grass and clothing with equal ease, rippling the oily water that collected in stagnant pools and rattling the tall rushes. Even the plaintive song of a distant curlew lost its appeal, it seemed more a cry of foreboding across the bleak landscape. To add to the threatening weather, the rolling moors were also the hunting grounds for packs of vicious, half starved barghest, unfeasibly large barrow rats and slithering snakelike creatures of angry disposition, all fixed in their intent on reducing Gwynith to a pile of gnawed bones and rags.

As well as the various wildlife, scattered barrows gave the landscape a mournful appearance, henge topped mounds of sullen envy, seeming to view the minstrels intrusion in silent watchfulness. The scholar in Gwynith yearned to go rummaging through the tumbled, time worn stones in search of antiquities. The more cautious minstrel decided on prudence over knowledge.

Five others were already waiting at the entrance to Othrongroth, five others desperate enough to take Naerandir's coin or foolhardy enough to believe his promise of fame and fortune. Up the slope two figures seemed intent upon the barrow entrance, to engrossed in their studies to mind Gwynith's arrival, while closer a dwarven guardian squatted over a small campfire, stirring the dying embers with a stick. Gwynith could tell that he was a guardian because his whole frame seemed encased in mail link and plate, so much so that only his long platted beard sprouted like some dirty ginger growth from beneath the helm. Beside him sat another of his kind, not so heavily armoured this one, a naked swordblade lying across his lap and scraping a whetstone carefully down the edge, he paused long enough to give Gwynith a curt nod of acknowledgment before continuing with his sharpening.

Behind the dwarves, perched upon one of the standing stones, a large black bird scraped its beak back and forth upon the rough sandstone and cawed loudly, it's presence adding a note of foreboding to the atmosphere.

"Forgive our fellow adventurers silence. Like most of their kind, they horde their words like they horde their coin, begrudging to spend either."
These words were spoken by a small man, childlike in size and yet stocky and formed well enough for any adult. A ruddy, intelligent face and twinkling eyes were topped by a curly dark mat of course hair, as were his bare feet. Here then stood a Holbytlan, a creature of whom, until recently, Gwynith had firmly believed to be but a fancy of childhood tales. Many Holbytlan lived and worked in the town of Bree, more in the surrounding farmlands, but still Gwynith could not put aside the wonder of seeing living stories come to life.

At the hobbits words the Guardian looked up from the fire and growled, "And how would you like my iron boot up your arse, hobbit"? in a voice so deep and gravelled that it fair rattled the teeth loose in Gwynith's head.
Far from being the least subdued by this remark the hobbit mearly laughed out loud and winked at Gwynith as if to share the jest with the minstrel. He gave a deep flourishing bow, sweeping his cap off his head so low that the feather in the brim brushed the grass. "Then allow me to introduce myself and the rest of our valiant band of adventurers and heroes. I am Willmond Appledore at your service. Hunter, farmer and woodsmen of some renown in these parts if I may make so bold. Yon walking pile of scrap metal at the fire is our guardian, master Gamlin Strongarm, and by his side is a kinsman of his, Golg. The man studying the barrow entrance is Dill, a friend of mine these many past months and yet still his surname eludes me and I doubt that the name Dill is his real name either. A terrible torture indeed for a hobbit."

The small, wirey figure of a man, dressed in dark clothing that had seen better days, was standing at the stone plugged doorway with a thin steel rule in his hand, sliding it carefully around the door edges where the slab rested in the stone frame. At the hunters words he turned and gave her a quick glance with eyes that seemed unnaturally bright and sharp, before returning once more to his inspection. Gwynith had the uneasy feeling that her exact worth in coin and character had been weighed and measured in that fleeting look.

Finally satisfied, Dill stepped away from Othrongroths entrance, "And if anyone is interested," he said sliding the rule deftly into a pocket inside his jacket, "I can't find anything that looks like trap or trickery within the stone. Can't guarantee it either though," he smiled at the two dwarves, "but then, I'm not going to be the first to enter."

"Dill here is a burglar by trade", continued Willmond, "though don't let that put you off. He assures me his days as brigand and footpad are long over, and he now peddles his dubious arts in pursuit of less unsavoury activities."

"And thus you see the destitute state I'm reduced too" said Dill with a wry grimace. "Forced by unhappy circumstance into grave robbing."

"The sixth member of our merry band calls himself Loremaster Devendi," continued the hobbit, "all the way from the city of Minas Tirith if you would believe," and then in a whispered aside, "though I doubt that very much. If he's from the far south then I'm a Took."

Devendii favoured Gwynith a hesitant smile and a slight bow, his thin, pale face radiating equal measures of nervous fear and eager anticipation at the coming test. Devendii's features all seemed lifeless and drawn. Pale, almost grey eyes stared unblinking from a waxy skinned face, his nose thin and sharp, his lips thin and colourless. The Loremaster's robes had once been of a high quality, the wool dyed a deep red with gold thread stitched into the edging, his cloak, thick and warming, hanging from his shoulders on a silver chain and clasp in the shape of a bird in flight. But all now had a shabby air of overuse and poor repair, the colour of the robes stained, the cloak marked and smeared down one side. Almost the Loremaster seemed a ghostly apparition made substantial and almost Gwynith had taken an instant dislike to the man.

Brushing aside long, lank hair, as pale and lifeless as his sun starved skin, Devendi gave a sharp rising whistle and the raven flapped with ungainly strokes onto his shoulder from where it perched and fixed the company a baleful gaze. It was then Gwynith realised just where the smearing staining of the loremaster's cloak originated from.

Golg stopped sharpening his sword and while running his thumb carefully down its keen edge said, "Hobbit, you talk so much that you make my ears bleed. Do all of your kind prattle on so?"

Apparently satisfied at his handiwork Golg returned the sword to its scabbard and stood. He grimaced at Gwynith. "The book reader, the thief and the hunter I can understand, but why in the name of the Aulë did Naerandir send us some young minstrel lass. A sharp blade at my back would be of some use. A jaunty song seems a little pointless. A fine thing to listen to over a mug of ale in the local tavern, but bugger all use where we are bound."

Gwynith bridled at the dwarves words and strode over to where he stood, staring down at him she slapped at the sword hanging from her belt to emphasise her point.

"I am Gwynith, daughter of Annulph, Rohan born and as such skilled in the use of sword and bow since I could lift them. Do you doubt my ability master dwarf'?

Not the least fazed by her anger, Golg replied, "Lass, I doubt not the depth of your belief nor the strength of your resolve, it's the strength of your swordarm that troubles me."

Before she could reply however, again Gamlin's deep voice cut into the conversation. "The minstrel can come if she wants. If nothing else she's another body to attract attention. If anything's trying to bite her in the arse, it's not trying to bite mine."

Golg gave a sharp, barking laugh at this and even Gwynith had to smile though inwardly she railed at being seen as little better than distracting bait.

The glowing embers of the campfire were dimming fast, what little heat they produced now lost in the cold breeze. Gamlin tossed the stick aside and stood up with a rattle and clank of metal and a small patter of rust. Even standing the dwarf barely came shoulder height to Gwynith but seemed to stretch impossibly sideways. The old term 'built like a brick privy' came to her mind and never had she met someone so deserving the title.

"If this thing is to be done," continued Golg, "then let's get on with it. The sooner in then the sooner out and I'm tired of all this chatter. We're just talking to put off the inevitable. Let's have at the door and be out of this damn wind at least."

While Dill and Willmond lit a couple of torches in the dimming embers, the two dwarves strode up to the door, preparing themselves for the strain of moving the slab but which in fact rolled aside with surprising ease to reveal a dark and ominous entrance. Grey cobwebs flapped and fluttered in the breeze while black and bloated spiders the size of a gold piece scuttled from the sudden light into the surrounding rocks.

With a grimace of distaste, Gamlin burned the cobwebs back and without hesitation stepped inside, closely followed by Golg. Neither seemed the least troubled at entering the passage underground, such things people oft remarked, 'as natural as piss and wind to their kind'. With only a moments hesitation the others followed.

Once inside, the yellow torchflame revealed a chamber of surprising width and depth, the walls and nooks dust and debris filled with rusting swords and armour. Pottery shards, crumbling stone tablets, the remnants of once fine cloth, all lay carelessly scattered around the dirt floor, the debris grey with dusty spiderweb. The walls were lined with stone, skillfully worked in places and still sound, in other sections crudely placed and crumbling with soft earth spilling onto the hard packed floor in untidy dark piles. To the left and right, partially hidden behind pillars of stone, cloth bound remains stood in alcoves while between them, seated upon a simple throne, an armour clad skeleton grinned a cheerless welcome to the party.

Far from improving matters the flickering torchlight seemed only to add to the dread atmosphere, casting deep shadows in the alcoves, dark openings promising hidden dangers just beyond sight. Gwynith sniffed carefully, afraid of what rottenness may greet her but the air seemed only dry and dusty, with but a faint smell of spices mingled with distant and ancient decay to tickle the nose.

Bronze brazers stood at various points around the room, still partly oil-filled each burst into sooty light at the touch of Willmond's torch and the increased brightness helped reveal a stone lintelled doorway at the far end of the tomb that had thus far gone unnoticed in the shadows. Out from this far door blew a chill draught, guttering the torchflames and sending the shadows dancing in the vaulted ceiling. More ominous, also from the doorway came the faint sound of rustling and the skittering scratch of claw upon stone. An evil and unsettling sound that prickled the hairs on the back of Gwyniths neck.

Instantly all there were on their guard. Willmond reached behind to his quiver and quickly put an arrow to his bow, watching the far, dark filled door intently. "That's spiders ahead or I'm no woodsman."
"Aye, and big buggers too, by the sound of them," agreed Golg drawing his sword, the flamelight flashing across the polished steel.

"Well this is a cheery place and no mistakes," remarked Dill aloud. He seemed almost pleased at the prospect. "How about a tune now minstrel, to lighten our mood and send us on our way. Do you know of any good songs for dark, spider infested tombs"?

"Less talk, more fighting," growled Gamlin. The guardian strapping his shield onto his arm and his other hand gripping the largest axe Gwynith had ever seen, turned to his kinsman and gave a grin. It was the first time that Gwynith could ever remember seeing a dwarf happy. She shook her head, wondering at the strangeness of the dwarven kind. Unmoved by the beauty of a forest glade or the warmth of a summers day but show them a dark, dank hole in the ground and they came to life.

With a cry of "Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!" and without waiting for either light nor help, the two dwarf warriors rushed headlong forwards into the waiting passageway and were gone. For a second to stunned to do any more then watch, the two men and the hobbit also followed, drawn forwards by the dwarves reckless disregard for the waiting danger, the hobbits shout of "For the Shire" echoing in the tomb.

With a resigned sigh, and careful to keep the dwarves between whatever lay ahead and herself, Gwynith followed.

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