It takes the Companions a while to recover from their encounter with the dread beast. Feredir and Salabon surmise that it must indeed be the terrible Scorba, one of the mightiest of the Red Fire-Drakes, and equal almost to Smaug the Golden himself. Futility engulfs them, and nothing do they want more than to let go, to give up.
But in the Huntsman stirs the sense of duty of his forbears. He resolves to follow through, even if it means his own end. He has come this far, and he has a responsibility to try. Knowing that his companions will follow him even in death, he quietly motions Herbs to walk with him aways from the group.
“I trust you to carry on without me,” Feredir entrusts his friend. “You must make certain nothing befalls our hapless companions. They must not act like fools and irresponsibly follow me. This I must do alone, the catalyst of these events, and I can not and will not ask any to walk this path with me. Do you understand me?”
Salabon carefully weighs the words of his best friend, and feels a sadness well up within him. But he nods gravely, and confirms. “Aye, for love, I will, at that.”
They exchange sober, curt nods, and return to the rest.
“Friends, we need to consider our approach most carefully,” proclaims Feredir. “Herbs, will you not draw us a likeness of this area, and explore the surroundings from our considerations?”
“Aye,” agrees Salabon, nodding. “Gather round, mates, and we’ll regard what we’ve seen from all and every angle.” And with that, Feredir silently falls back, steels himself, and slips away towards the dread citadel…
Zarak-Dûm’s constructions seems to have shared the general arrangement as that of the nameless abode of Colargon, and it appears to Feredir that they must have been erected, or rather carved out, at around the same time, presumably by many of the same masons and engineers. As such, its halls and tunnels are so similar that he is able to maneuver his way along with relative ease, due to his familiarity with the designs. He moves silently, slowly, taking his time and measuring his breaths.
Nothing. The subterranean citadel is silent, as the grave it truly is. He occasionally dares let lose a flicker of light, from the talisman he once feared, retrieved from Ost-in-Edhil, which now seems like centuries ago, but truly was only in the previous year. A rustling noise makes him seek refuge in a sheltered alcove, and his light is quenched, sending him spiralling once more into pure, utter blackness. Nothing. It must have been a small piece of rock, crumbled after millennia, and let loose by his presence stirring the stale air.
He wonders if Dwarven design is similar across Middle-Earth, and struggles to recall how Bilbo Baggins described the secret tunnels in Lonely Mountain. In his mind, he conjures up Bilbo’s depiction of that distant monument, arguably twice the size of this fortress, but vaguely similar. He lets loose the briefest of gasps, and quickly sends forth a minuscule ray of light, enough to illuminate a series of barely visible runes etched into the wall by which he crouches. He touches them, and with the faintest murmur of rumbling rock, the wall yawns open enough for Feredir to slip through, spiriting him further into the abyssal darkness of the Dragon’s lair.
He makes his way through the secret tunnels, the darkness oppressive, the only sounds those of his own feet, or the rare, subtle rustle of debris stirred by his passing. Finally the tunnels open up, and before him an antechamber gives way to a hall larger than any room Feredir has ever seen. Across the vaulted ceiling stretch walkways and galleries, criss-crossing upwards and demonstrating the near impossible height of the chamber. He is filled with terrible dread, but no signs does he detect of the presence of the dragon. He does, however, sense a familiar stench: Aurochs! Standing perfectly still, he believes can hearken the sounds and clamour of aurochs, far, far into the great hall. The dragon keeps beasts? Then he must have tenders… His line of thought is broken by a din coming from behind him, in the tunnel. He draws his sword, but there is no sign of any enemies; the blade does not glow. He rushes into the tunnel, and discovers his friends: They have all followed… He sternly and soundlessly reprimands them for making such a racket, and reluctantly accepts their presence.
Together, they make their way up, up along the galleries and walkways, until they reach a majestic highway cutting across the hall, an immense bridge large enough to support three carriages side by side. They follow it, and beyond find a sort of animal shelter, complete with stalls and plenty of hay. Feredir was right, the dragon is keeping a stock. Then they are suddenly accosted by a withered old man. Feredir apprehends him, and is shocked to realise that the spellbound old fool is dressed in Dùnadan garb: He is one of the Rangers of the North! Feredir appeals to his inner self, declaring himself his brother, and manages to shake him out of the trance that the dragon had placed him in, and the sobbing, broken old man tells the tale…
Scorba the Wyrm is cursed with sustained slumber thanks to a powerful talisman hidden in the hoard. Unfortunately, the talisman must be activated, and everyone within three hundred feet of the talisman is doomed to join the slumber – including the one who triggers the curse. Thus, one of the Rangers have taken it in turn to sacrifice themselves to a generational sleep, and another has been on hand to take over once the curse’s cycle comes to an end. He is distraught to learn the year, however: He has only been asleep for forty years, so the curse is lessening in potency. He had expected to remain torpid for at least seventy.
The Company has no time to come up with a sofisticated plan, however, as the terrible pandemonium heralding Scorba’s return sends ice cold spikes of fear through their souls. With no time to lose, Feredir commands his Companions to take care of the old Ranger, and carry him and themselves to safety: This is Feredir’s Quest, and his responsibility. He will fly to the treasure chamber and recover the talisman, himself being the one to activate the curse. Dread strikes, however, as they realise that Jack Fleetfoot has already done just this, the troubled Hobbit seeing this one, last act of bravery enough of a sacrifice to redeeem himself from the greed and lust for power that has plagued him.
There is no time to stop him – the dragon is here. It bellows terrifyingly, demanding to know the intruders. He can smell the death-stench of Colargon, but not the Companions’ true scents, and is confused and terribly angry. Feredir and Eadyth exchange a glance: This is a contingency they have secretly prepared for.
Having made it almost across the bridge, Salabon, Feredir and the old Ranger secret themselves, while Eadyth confronts the beast. She flatters it, claiming to have travelled all across the world to come here and behold Scorba’s magnificence, and to serve it. The ruse works long enough for her to lure Scorba far enough out onto the bridge to be affected by the talisman, in Jack’s hands far below them. Then, Feredir suddenly walks straight onto the bridge – hidden from the dragon’s eyes by the enchanted armour he wears. He starts taunting the dragon, claiming to be the wraith of Colargon, back to wreak his vengeance upon him. At first Scorba is only affronted, but that affront, coupled with his confusion, turns to anger, and secondly to fear. The beast starts thrashing about, but Feredir is safe, being able to see the dragon’s attacks, while the dragon cannot see him. When finally they have the dragon in position, they break, and scream to Jack to cast the curse, just as the dragon takes flight and is about to incinerate them, a gruesome death by fire. As it crashes down onto the bridge, the Companions barely manage to escape the range of the curse, and the entire citadel trembles around them, dust and stone raining from above.
It is over.
Scorba sleeps once more.
But so does Jack Fleetfoot.
Silently, the Companions cast one final, lingering look at the dust-filled cavern, glittering reflections from the lit braziers upon the immense treasure sparkling like stars to their eyes. Then, as one, they turn and walk out the way they entered.
“Wait!” Eadyth stops them. She bends down, and picks up seven golden coins, having scattered from the treasure affixed to the dragon’s scales all the way to the gallery they are about to exit. She hands one to each of them, and saves one for Bragol, and one for Jack. “That halfling was in a way larger than any of us,” she says. “In forty years, should any of us still live, he will need our aide once more. I propose a pact, that we keep these coins, and one day return to finish what we started; better prepared and better equipped. Forty years to devise a way to slay that monster, and to save our Companion.” Needless to say, they all agree.
That is the last thing they say to each other until they return to Rivendell to stand before its lord and master.
It is the autumn of 3017 in the Third Age of Middle-Earth.
Four years have passed since the Companions of Feredir left Jack Fleetfoot, the Hero of Caravan Hill, in a deep sleep on top of the greatest hoard of treasure in Eriador. Very few know the tale of what befell them in the bowels of Zarak-Dûm, that foul and fallen Dwarven stronghold of old, now the tentative prison of Scorba the Wyrm, last of the Great Fire Drakes. It is Jack’s sacrifice that holds the beast prisoner, and should anyone attempt to enter the stronghold, they, too, will fall into the torpor induced by a powerful amulet clutched to Jack’s bosom. But fear of anyone feeling the temptation of that mighty hoard, or worse, word of the Great Dragon’s fate reach the ear of the Enemy, has made the secret a much-guarded one among the Rangers of the North and the Elves of Rivendell. As such, and because of the ever-present concern for agents of the Enemy among their own ranks – stronger now, since the fall of Treadfall – very little pomp and circumstance is made of the fact that the Quest was successful: Not only did the Huntsman indeed return with the fabled blade Aeglin, a long-lost relic of the Dúnedain of old, forged in Gondolin and present at the fall of that majestic citadel, but three dragons have been felled or immobilised as course of the Quest and by the Companions’ hands. Very few even suspected the presence of dragons so far South and West, and it has certainly caused increased prudence amongst the already vigilant Rangers and Elves.
Yet the Companions’ actions are not without rewards:
Feredir’s is granted privilege to be guardian of Aeglin. He is also awarded the duties as Chief Ranger of the Evendim Hills and the borderlands, his birth lands.
Eadyth is given an edict from Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, attesting actions of true valour, courage and honour, enough to satisfy the Horse Lords and restore her family name. The edict is, of course, made out to her brother, Edmund.
Salabon is named a true Dúnedain for his efforts, and his lineage will subsequently be counted among the clans of the Rangers of the North.
Beoraborn is given free passage in all the lands falling under Rivendell’s aegis, and the Bejibar is named a Friend of the Elves.
Jack Fleetfoot is mourned by the Elves. Though because of the circumstances, he will not be immortalised in song. The lamentations of his passing are silent, but not insignificant.
And thus, the Quest for Aeglin is over, and the Company disbands. Feredir travels West to assume his duties, while Salabon goes South, to reconvene with Bragol, their designs their own, but with mutterings of travelling East, into Gondor. Eadyth joins him on the way to Ost-in-Edhil, to bring her family’s restoration back to Edoras, and Beoraborn walks for a while with a Wandering Company of Elves.
Four years later.
Feredir has learned well to know the lands of Emyn Uial and beyond, the borderlands along the Blue Mountains, and the disputed lands to the North, where he and his new companions wage a precarious skirmish war with agents of the Enemy. They have hitherto been unsuccessful in learning the nature of the Enemy’s objectives, but their struggle lingers on.
Oft-times Feredir wonders what befell his friends, and his moods will go dark. Often he will not speak for days. Only Beoraborn understands, but his presence is irregular, his wanderlust taking him long distances away from the Ranger and his new companions. This is one of those moments, and the weathered Outrider falls into a brooding state as he is helping himself to the company’s lunch of cooked coney.
Four years Feredir and his band have been ranging the lands north of the Ered Luin, four years have passed since he last saw his brother Salabon and the others.
Just as he and his companions are about to set of for Lindon, a bird descends upon Feredirs bedroll. A hawk. It is weary, it must have flown very far, Feredir surmises, for the fowl is scrawny for the coming winter, and its plumage disheveled. He is not surprised when the bird speaks him, his inborn ability to speak with birds and beasts making him understand the hawk’s address, but something in the message is unanticipated. “Are you the Huntsman?” the bird demands, and the pitch and tone is not common to the hawks of the Ered Luin. It has flown far, indeed. “Aye, I am he,” he replies.
“Then I have a message for you,” continues the bird. “From the female they call the Magpie. Mother of He Who Gathers Pigeons. Mate of the Half Elven.”
Feredir raises his eyebrows. His companions have left their own meals uneaten, and are now watching the correspondence, unable to comprehend the meaning that passes between man and bird.
“What is this message?”
“Keeper of Pigeons have been taken and Hlaf Elven has disappeared . You must come to the nest of the White tree. Fast.”