Autumn 2950, Third Age. From the journal of the hobbit Falco, after several torn pages followed by the inscription “What happens in Gundabad stays in Gundabad”
It was a time for celebration and merriment, as the veterans of the Five Armies (the three on the winning side at least), sat down after the melee to soothe their bruises with some strong ale, and rather excellent pipe weed. I was doing a brisk business on the sidelines.
For once however, the Dwarf Khorum didn’t seem interested in either drink or food, a much different glint in his eye as the stewards brought up a heavy chest. I had a full purse myself from my various trade endeavors, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a twinge of envy as the Dwarf stepped up to claim his prize for winning the Great Melee. Both of us were so intent on the image of glittering gold coins in our mind that it took a moment to register when the lid popped open and a knot of writhing snakes emerged instead!
It was Bifur who was fastest to react, leaping to knock the steward out of the way and slam the lid on the chest. There was treachery afoot it and seemed the snakes were just the venomous cherry on top of a larger poisonous cake, for as if on cue the assembled guests at the feast started retching, moaning and clutching their throats in agony! I’m no great healer but I’ve spent a fair bit of time with Dog, who was – and I recognized the symptoms of Hemlock poisoning – not too often fatal, but those affected would be incapacitated for two weeks, or more if they weren’t treated with the proper herbs.
We questioned the steward and it turned out that the supervisor Lockstone had excused himself under pretext of unpacking things, while I went out to rouse a healer, the rest of the group tracked him down to the docks, and caught a glimpse of a boat leaving down the river. We quickly gave chase, with Galman at the helm, without lights of our own but trusting in our in his knowledge of his native lands and waterways.
Our captain was a skillful one indeed for we quickly caught up with the fleeing boat and sided up alongside. Three guards on board started aiming arrows at us the but the rapids made it hard to aim, and soon we were boarding their ship – that is to say, Khorum and Bifur were boarding and I was miscalculating the motion of the ship and just barely catching myself on the outside of their boat’s railing.
Implacable as ever, Khorum shrugged off a strike from a guard and quickly proceeded to aerate the man’s head. But the other guard pounced upon Khorum from behind and I had to throw myself forward to intercept the blow. After that, between two angry Dwarfs and Hunter’s bow, the fight was over in seconds, leaving Lockstone alone with his stolen chest.
The man’s eyes were feral, and there was some spidery countenance about him as he draped himself over his stolen riches. He tensed to spring off the boat but an angry warning from Bifur made him shrink back. Then the moonlight hit him from the right angle, and we recognized him as another shadowy figure, one we’d seen long before, at the Dwimmerhorn, conversing with that undead spirit that’s been pulling the strings from the shadows. Birgol, I think the scoundrel’s name was. If we caught him alive maybe we could unravel some of the mysteries shrouding the Enemy’s plans, as well as figure out what kind of threat exactly the Dale was under – but Khorum didn’t see it that way: The Dwarf had been stolen from and intended to get his due, and that thief’s head was now part of it!
With a roar of vengeance, Khorum swung his mattock at the thief, a tremendous blow! But fast on his feet again, his brother Bifur interposed himself and took the hit instead – the swing so powerful it catapulted him straight over the edge and into the water! I grabbed some rope and dove after the poor dwarf, to try and stop this from becoming a fratricide, while on the boat the scuffle degenerated into fisticuffs between the angry Dwarf and the thief, and not a terribly effectual one on either side.
Fortunately, Galman had the presence to steer us towards dry land, and once we had regained our footing I was able to rope in Lockstone and put an end to the struggle. Once he had access to his chest of gold, Khorum quickly lost interest in anything else. Questioning the scoundrel confirmed our fears: An army was marching from Dol Guldur onto the Dale, led by some figure called the Gibbet King. We quickly made our way back to town to report to King Bard.
When we arrived in town, Chaos gripped the streets, seeping from conflicting rumors about the poisoning and an oncoming army. Bard’s hall was quiet, and the Bowman King was grim – somehow of all the assembled heroes, only him, King Dain and our own group seemed to have avoided the poison. Our warning of an oncoming army did little to cheer him up, but he took out some maps and we set to study the situation.
If an army was marching from Dol Guldur, they’d either need to cross King Thranduil’s forest to the Southwest, or cross the Running River to our South. There were few fords through the river, and unpredictable at that but two hundred miles downriver, lay Stonecutter’s Bridge, of ancient construction and the only reliable passage for a large force. The Dale needed time, for its heroes to recover and for help to be dispatched from the Lonely Mountain, and from the Iron Hills further out. If a small force could somehow deny this bridge to the oncoming army or even just delay them for a time, this could make all the difference.
We were maybe not the great heroes the Dale needed in this desperate hour, but we were the only ones it had so we quickly set off aboard another boat. Before leaving the Dale however, I prepared a letter and package to be sent back to the Inn if I didn’t return.
Again trusting our Captain to guide us down the rapids, we made good time to Stonecutter’s Bridge, and reached the village just six days. As we approached the clump of stone houses, we were stricken with how similar it looked to a Beorning village we’d been though four years before. The dwarves and I shared a look – no words were needed – we didn’t know yet the people of this village, but we were determined that they wouldn’t share the same fate as the folks of Stony Ford, not while we still drew breath.
We made ourselves known to the village head a near-blind old man. He was no friend of King Bard, but we managed to convince him of the danger and he agreed to send his womenfolk and children upriver, while he and fifteen of his men stayed behind. Then Hunter and I snuck south of the river to scout, while Bifur took charge of organizing the city’s defenses – and covertly, of undermining the bridge’s central pillar as well.
Hunter and I quickly ran into the army’s own scouts – warg riders – just half a day out, although they didn’t engage us. To make our situation worse, we also found a very crossable ford just thirty miles downriver – probably not the army’s first choice, but if we just collapsed the bridge straight away it wouldn’t take them very long to circle around – we had to bait them in, then delay them as much as we could to buy time for the Dale. Worse, we’d soon have to worry about some of their faster troops circling around and attacking from the back while we were trying to hold the bridge. Still, we tried to make the best preparations possible in what little time we had.
The next morning, a group of goblins and wargs was massing on the other side of the river. A larger Orc advanced across the bridge, demanding we yield to his army. We asked him, none too politely, to come forward an pay the toll, but instead he raised his arm to order his minions to advance – then there was a thunk! and the Orc toppled forward – Hunter’s arrow had gone straight through his shield, upraised arm, and finally his face.
“You shall not pass!” muttered the tight-lipped ranger. But undeterred or perhaps not realizing yet what had happened, the goblin horde rushed forward. The Battle of the Bridge had begun.