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During a journey in the dark...: 1. January 12, 3019 (Afternoon)
Gimli grimaced and glanced toward the sky, watching as the wheeling black dots—dots that were now overhead rather than below the level of the Fellowship—worked their way into the north. This was not the same group of crebain that Aragorn had pointed out while they were still upon the mountain slopes but rather the fourth group to have been seen since then. The enemy knows we are here, whoever that enemy may be, the dwarf sighed. They know not our exact position, but they know we are here. And the moment they have us cornered, they shall strike.
Unfortunately, the prospect of being cornered was currently all too real. The Fellowship had moved with as much haste as their tired bodies allowed, but they were only now into the jumbled foothills lining the base of Caradhras. It had taken far too long to get off the mountain, and they were essentially pinned with the Redhorn at their backs. If they were attacked now, they had nowhere to go save back into the snowfields. And the hobbits would be unable to endure that.
An irritating little voice somewhere deep in Gimli’s mind put forth the idea that the elf might be able to escape should such a thing happen. After all, he had fared well enough upon the mountain. But this thought was quickly banished. The dwarf knew well that he himself could not go back up the mountain, and Valar forbid that Legolas should prove himself better than Gimli at anything. Perhaps his eyes could see farthest. Perhaps he didn’t sink into the snow as other members of the Fellowship did. Perhaps the cold wasn’t as bothersome to him. Perhaps he was rather impressive with the bow. And perhaps his songs were rather…haunting. But none of this gave the elf any type of advantage when compared with a sturdy descendent of Durin.
By Mahal, exactly whom are you trying to convince with this argument? Gimli demanded of himself. With a shake of his head, he tried to steer his thoughts onto other paths. There were far more pressing concerns than envy for Legolas’s abilities, namely the spies that circled overhead and the choosing of an alternative route now that the Redhorn Gate was closed to them.
As this last thought crossed his mind, Gimli glanced over to Gandalf and Aragorn. He had not missed their private talks, and he had not missed the growing air of unease between the two. He had sensed reluctance from the wizard when it was revealed that they were to attempt the pass over Caradhras, and he had noted Aragorn’s intense relief over this choice. Putting two and two together, Gimli had done some thinking of his own and come to the conclusion that there had been an argument over where to lead the Fellowship. Aragorn had won the first round, but there was clearly a second option. And it was a second option that did not thrill the Ranger.
But what is the nature of this alternative that it should so dismay Aragorn? Gimli wondered, keeping his eyes fixed upon Gandalf and the Ranger as the Fellowship wearily trudged through the foothills, occasionally stopping beneath thick brush if regiments of crebain ventured too near. Aragorn clearly favored Caradhras, yet he knew exactly what dangers the weather might pose. And he convinced Gandalf that such dangers were worth the risk. What does this say for the other road? What dangers does it hold? Our first day in Hollin…I overheard Aragorn speaking to Legolas about dark ways. But what does this mean? What paths yet remain to us? Gimli grimaced and called to mind the mental map he had been making of the area, comparing it to the maps he had studied of the Misty Mountains while yet in Rivendell. There are three known passes, he remembered. The High Pass, the Redhorn Gate, and the Gap of Rohan. Of these, we are going the wrong direction to attempt the High Pass. Moreover, it is beset with Wargs and Orcs. I know that well as my own company used that road to reach Rivendell in the first place. The Redhorn Gate is no longer an option, which leaves the Gap of Rohan. But Gandalf and Aragorn would not take the Ring so near Saruman. And to avoid the passes entirely would take far too long, as that would involve walking down the line of the coasts. What, then, can they be thinking? Where…Khazad-dûm?
Gimli stopped cold in his tracks, forgetting that Sam and Bill were immediately behind him. With a startled cry, the hobbit crashed into the dwarf, causing them both to stagger, which in turn prompted Bill to snort and sidestep into Boromir, who tumbled forward and slammed into Aragorn. Aragorn had enough presence of mind to leap forward and slightly to the side with the hit, thereby missing Gandalf but clipping Legolas, who had moved up from his previous position as rearguard in order to get a better view of the birds. With a surprising amount of grace, the elf transferred his sudden momentum into a spin that turned him completely around twice but did not cause him to fall. Show off, Gimli thought caustically.
"That was…interesting," Pippin offered from the safety of the back of the company where he stood with a bemused Merry and Frodo.
"I trust there was a reason for that?" Legolas asked, his voice sharp as he turned flashing eyes upon Aragorn.
"I was struck from behind," Aragorn answered, glancing over at Boromir.
"Why must I shoulder the blame for our beast of burden and his strange fits?" Boromir demanded.
"It weren’t Bill’s fault, Mr. Boromir," Sam spoke up, his chest puffing out slightly as he prepared to defend the pony’s honor. "He was only reacting to my running into Mr. Gimli here."
"And why did you run into Gimli?" Gandalf asked, his eyes suggesting that he found the entire situation rather amusing. There was a hint of a smile curving the wizard’s cheeks, and Gimli noted that he was keeping his face carefully hidden from the wrathful eyes of Aragorn, Legolas, and Boromir.
"He stopped," Sam said simply, turning to Gimli.
Unfortunately, Gimli now realized that he could not place the fault with another, as his companions had. And with every eye in the Fellowship fastened upon the dwarf, he found himself painfully short of an explanation. He wasn’t about to broach the topic of Khazad-dûm, a name that conjured only ill thoughts among races other than dwarves. Mahal only knew what that would do to the tired, terse, and weary company. "I fear my mind was wandering," Gimli said at length. "My apologies, Samwise."
A quiet elven murmur snapped his attention back to the front of the line, and he glowered at Legolas, wondering what had been said. Judging from Aragorn’s dark expression, it was not something pleasant. Gimli debated calling the elf out on his words, but after a moment’s thought, the dwarf decided against such an action. He was tired, the hobbits were tired, the men were tired, the wizard was tired, and if Legolas insisted on antagonizing everyone within the Fellowship, he could do so alone. Gimli wasn’t about to start this again with tempers as short as they were.
"Now then, if we have settled this to everyone’s satisfaction, let us move on," Gandalf said, glancing at the sky. "I see no enemies overhead at the moment, and we would be well-advised to move quickly while we are able."
There were a few weary grumbles from the back of the line where the hobbits walked, but no one contested Gandalf’s words. Before long, they had set out again with the wizard in the lead, guiding them through areas where the brush was dense so that they might have an opportunity to take cover should the crebain press too close. It made for slow going, however, and the exhausted Fellowship tired quickly as they scrambled around boulders and forced their way through underbrush. Even Gimli was finding it difficult to place one foot in front of the other, but he barely noticed this for he was consumed by other thoughts.
Khazad-dûm! Moria! With a slight shake of his head, Gimli turned his eyes back toward the mountains. It had been almost thirty years since Balin led a group of dwarves to the mithril mines with the intention of reclaiming the ancient halls. It had been twenty-five years since the dwarves of Erebor received any word of this group. When the time between messages stretched too long, Dáin had dispatched parties to Khazad-dûm to learn why no news had been sent. But most of these groups never returned. Those that did return were those that had been waylaid along the way and forced back. None had ever reached Khazad-dûm itself. Or if they had, none had lived to tell of it. And after several years of this, Dáin had given up. He could not afford to lose any more dwarves, for evil had begun to stir on his own borders.
Gimli remembered the day of this decision very well. Glóin had pleaded with Dáin to allow just one more party to return to Khazad-dûm, saying that he would lead it himself. The thought that his brother Óin might have perished was almost too much for Gimli’s father. But Dáin would not permit it. Glóin was needed at the Lonely Mountain, for he was skilled in negotiating with the men of Lake-town and Dale. Gimli had offered to go in his father’s stead, feeling a familial obligation for his uncle, but Glóin had flatly refused, saying that he had already lost a brother to the shadows of Khazad-dûm. He would not lose a son.
Yet now it seemed that Gimli might enter Khazad-dûm after all. In spite of himself, the dwarf could not quite keep back a smile. Glóin had been against Gimli’s decision to join the Fellowship. Had he known that the road might lead through Khazad-dûm, he would have strung Gimli up by his beard for even considering the idea of accompanying the Ring-bearer. Still, Gimli had come expect such things from his father. Glóin had lost too much during his life to leave anything to chance, and when it came to his only son, he was unusually protective. Naturally, this only encouraged a streak of rebellion in Gimli, and against his father’s wishes, he had traveled the northern regions of Middle-earth extensively, often accompanying caravans that traveled between the Iron Hills and the Blue Mountains. But as adventurous as Gimli was, Moria struck a dark cord in his heart.
Whispers of Durin’s Bane floated through Gimli’s memories, and he shuddered. As a child, every dwarf learned of Durin’s Bane and the ruin that had come to Khazad-dûm. Somewhere in the telling, the identity of Durin’s Bane had been forgotten—if it had even been known to begin with—but the name never failed to send shivers down the spine of any dwarf. It was said that Durin’s Bane was a creature so terrible that it had single-handedly brought about the downfall of the ancient dwarven stronghold. It seemed impossible that this creature had survived for over a thousand years, but having heard no word from Balin and his group for almost twenty-five years…
And yet, what if the roads were merely bad? What if Orcs in the mountains had blocked the paths to Khazad-dûm? What if Óin was still alive and wondering why no word had come to them from Erebor? It was too optimistic a thought to be seriously entertained, yet Gimli’s usually rational mind was somehow drawn to it. A burning desire rose up in his heart to see the mansions of his fathers and search for his missing kin. So many things had gone wrong in the past few years. So many hardships had come, and the threat of war had fallen over Erebor and Dale. All lands east of the Misty Mountains had become dangerous and shadowed, harboring creatures that haunted the night and darkened the day. Was it too much to ask that something good be left in Arda? Or was that, too, a dream of the past? Was hope naught but a vain fantasy that only fools entertained?
Legolas’s sudden warning cry managed to jerk Gimli away from his musings, and he hastily reorganized his thoughts. The Fellowship was currently in the center of a large clearing, and they immediately began moving for the trees lining the sides of the meadow. This would be the fifth group of crows to veer toward them since coming down off of Caradhras, and Gimli grimaced at the implications. They were being tracked and the hunters were drawing uncomfortably close.
"Sam! Get that pony out of the open!"
Aragorn’s harsh order snapped Gimli’s attention back toward the clearing, and he froze at what he saw. Bill, apparently tired of periodically galloping into the undergrowth, was refusing to move, firmly resisting Sam’s tugs on his halter as well as the hobbit’s coaxing words. With a quiet oath, Aragorn hastened back to help while Pippin, Merry, and Frodo waited anxiously beside Gandalf, who was watching the Ring-bearer closely should Frodo also decide to lend a hand. Gimli moved to join them in the event that Gandalf might need aid in restraining the hobbits, and together they watched anxiously as Aragorn reached Sam’s side. Gimli saw the Ranger take the pony’s halter and give it a firm pull, all the while whispering words to the stubborn animal. Sam stroked the pony’s neck, adding his own encouragement, but Bill flattened his ears against his head and snorted, stomping one foot defiantly. His attitude was clear to all: he was not going to move.
"Varda’s stars, I wish I could say this surprises me," Boromir grumbled from somewhere behind Gimli, and then he was also hurrying toward the pony. Legolas dropped out of the trees directly in front of Gandalf and joined the man, watching the sky closely as he ran.
"Legolas, how far away are the crows?" Gandalf hissed.
"I cannot see them, only hear them," came the answer. "But they are flying low and closing fast. They will be upon us in moments!"
"Bill’s just too tired, Mr. Gandalf," Sam called, his face one of desperation. "He’s gone through too much already."
By now, Legolas and Boromir had reached the group, and the elf had taken Aragorn’s place at Bill’s head, speaking quietly but urgently to the horse. To the elf’s credit, Bill did appear to be calming under Legolas’s soothing touch, but it was taking too long. Gimli shook his head darkly and turned his eyes to the sky. They did not have time to wait for an elf to finish comforting a finicky pony. They needed a more immediate solution.
Fortunately, Boromir seemed to be of a similar mind. The ring of steel heralded the appearance of his sword as it left his scabbard, and before anyone could even begin to question what he was doing, he brought the flat of the blade down hard across Bill’s hindquarters.
The results were instantaneous.
Bill reared and neighed shrilly, jerking the halter from Legolas’s grasp as he did so, and then he thundered forward. Completely taken by surprise, Legolas was knocked to the ground and only Aragorn’s quick reflexes saved Sam as he caught the hobbit by his pack and yanked him out of the way. Nonplussed, Boromir stared at his companions for a moment before shaking his head and taking control of the situation.
"To the trees!" he ordered, his voice a harsh whisper that carried across the clearing. And suiting words to deeds, he began to run.
Both Aragorn and Legolas looked as though they had choice words for Boromir, but with time almost up, neither gave voice to their thoughts. Legolas rolled to his feet and began to sprint for the safety of the surrounding woods with Aragorn but a step or two behind, keeping pace with Sam. Then Bill crashed into the trees almost on top of Gimli, and the dwarf barely had enough presence of mind to seize his halter and pull him to a stop lest he keep going and they lose him.
"Haste!" Gandalf hissed, his eyes narrowed as they scanned the skies.
Having overtaken Boromir, Legolas reached the trees first and vaulted into the branches, quickly disappearing from sight. Boromir followed soon after and stopped beside Gimli, looking back anxiously as Aragorn and Sam hurried toward cover. A frenzy of elvish suddenly drifted down from the treetops, and Aragorn stiffened before seizing Sam and then making a leaping dive for safety. And as they dove, the first of the crebain swept into view.
Gimli’s breath hitched in his throat, and fear crept into his heart. Beside him, Bill shifted nervously, and the dwarf absently gave the pony a soothing pat, never taking his eyes away from the swarm of black birds that filled the sky. They should have been fairly safe, for the trees were thick and the undergrowth dense. Unless the birds knew exactly where to look, they would never be able to see the Fellowship.
But it seemed as though the crows had already seen Aragorn and Sam.
Usually when the flocks of crebain flew by, they did so in almost complete silence. There would be an occasional caw from the leaders as they directed their squadrons, but aside from that and the sound of wings, the birds made no noise. Yet now they were calling excitedly to one another, and even the pattern of their flight was radically different. They spiraled upward directly over the Fellowship, with smaller groups sweeping low now and again while the main column climbed higher and higher. For almost an entire minute they maintained this strange behavior, and then they formed into a single group high overhead. For a second, they paused, almost stopping altogether. Then as one, they turned and flew north, swiftly vanishing from sight.
The land was left in eerie silence.
For a long moment, none of the Fellowship dared to move, seemingly frozen in place by what had happened. After a time, Legolas dropped out of the trees and slowly walked back into the clearing, searching the skies with elven sight. This seemed to be the signal to come out, and one by one, the Fellowship emerged from the trees, clustering together and exchanging grim looks. Sam came over and took Bill from Gimli, but the dwarf barely noticed the hobbit, for he was consumed by dark thoughts. The search was over. The Enemy now knew exactly where the Fellowship was.
The rest of the group appeared to feel likewise. Frodo’s eyes were wide, and one hand was clenched tightly against his breast. Sam was pressed against Bill’s side as though seeking support from the pony. Merry and Pippin had drawn together and were watching the skies suspiciously as if expecting an attack from some unknown assailant. Aragorn’s right hand had come to rest on Andúril’s hilt while his left was positioned near a small belt knife. Boromir was murmuring something beneath his breath and had moved to the center of the clearing so that he might get a better view of the skies. Legolas had his eyes closed and his head cocked to one side while he clasped his bow loosely in one hand. And Gandalf was clutching his staff tightly, his bristling brows together and his lips pursed in thought.
For a moment, they stood thus, unable to speak or act. Boromir ceased his muttering, and with this came a complete cessation of sound. Even the slight wind that had blown for much of the afternoon died away, and the sun no longer shone as brightly over the empty land. Shadows crept over the mountains, and the towering peak of Caradhras seemed to mock them as it loomed high overhead. Doomed, it whispered, its silent voice filled with gleeful malice. Doomed…
It was Gandalf who finally roused the Fellowship, the rustling of his robes sounding uncomfortably loud in the still air. "Come," he said quietly, his dark eyes narrowed into slits as they swept over the countryside. "We have a few hours of daylight left to us. Let us make use of them."
When the shadows of evening grew long upon the ground, the Fellowship stopped for rest at the base of a hill beside a copse of trees where they could take shelter from spying eyes. They were a silent and solemn group, Gandalf’s words having been the last words spoken since the crebain had left them. The areas through which they journeyed seemed to mimic their mood, for they had neither seen nor heard another living creature after the crows had vanished into the north. It was as though the land itself held its breath, and all of Arda felt as though it was waiting for something, though what that something was, none could say.
Keeping his eyes trained upon the empty skies to the north, Legolas lightly fingered his strung bow and tried to draw strength from the power and tension trapped within the wood. The sense of watchful wariness in the air troubled him greatly. Too much it resembled the feel of the stifling forests in Mirkwood’s southern regions where the shadow of Dol Guldur held dominion over all. The agents of Sauron were closing upon the Fellowship quickly. Legolas knew the signs well, having fought a hopeless war against the Enemy’s creatures for centuries. They had been found, and now the true hunters would be unleashed. It was only a matter of time.
Something moved at his side, and Legolas turned sharply, tensing, but he relaxed when he saw Aragorn’s grim face. A sparkle of amusement flickered briefly in Aragorn’s eyes, but then it died, replaced by fear and concern. Under other circumstances, the Ranger might have offered a jest or comment about approaching the elf unawares, but he said nothing now. His attention was focused on other things.
"We were seen," Legolas said shortly, turning away from Aragorn and once again looking to the north.
The entire company seemed to stiffen and draw away. Legolas’s words were the first words that any of them had spoken in hours, and they were the words that none had seemed able to say. But the truth had to be faced, along with truth’s grim consequences. The Enemy now knew where they were. There was no escaping this fact.
"We do not know that for certain," Aragorn answered quietly. "Perhaps we reached cover in time. The crebain were moving quickly. Perhaps they did not see us."
I stand corrected. It seems that there is a way of escaping reality, Legolas thought, somewhat taken aback by the unfounded optimism. I would not expect this of you, Aragorn. Even for you, this is far too hopeful. What do you fear?
"If you believe we went unseen, then you are a fool," Boromir broke in tersely. Aragorn stiffened at this, but the son of Gondor did not seem to notice and continued. "Did you note the birds’ behavior? They found their quarry and then they left to report it. We have been marked."
Eyes flashing, Aragorn started to respond, but Gandalf chose that moment to enter the conversation, his voice low but commanding. "Peace, all of you. Boromir and Legolas are correct. We were seen. You know this, Aragorn, and you know what it means. We must vanish from sight. We must use darkness to our advantage and disappear for a time."
"Nothing is certain, Gandalf," Aragorn answered coolly. "And who knows but what the darkness will bring greater danger."
"The likelihood of being caught upon the slopes is too great to remain here. Surely your Ranger’s training tells you that much."
"Indeed," Aragorn said, his eyes flashing. "And it also tells me about taking on unnecessary danger."
Gandalf said nothing in response and favored Aragorn with a vicious glare, which was skillfully returned by the Ranger, who had learned the art of glaring from Elrond. Caught between the two, Legolas suddenly felt as though he was standing in front of a row of targets on an archery range. The elf wondered if there was a discreet method of slipping away and taking the rest of the Fellowship with him while Aragorn and Gandalf discussed whatever it was that had come between them.
He was on the verge of taking them all up into the copse of trees—with the exception of the dwarf who could probably fend for himself on the ground—when Gandalf suddenly stepped back, releasing the Ranger from his gaze. "Sam, why don’t you see about making us something to eat," the wizard said quietly. "I do not believe I need to warn you against the use of a fire. In the meantime, I shall pass around the flask of miruvor. I believe we could all use some. The day has been long."
The night was also long, Legolas thought grimly, his eyes flickering briefly over the hobbits. Frodo, Merry, and Pippin had stepped up to aid Sam in dinner preparations—or breakfast-supper preparations, depending upon who was asked—but it was clear that they all wished to simply sit down and rest. They were exhausted, and their eyes spoke of great weariness. Whatever vanishing trick Gandalf intends, it will have to wait until morning. They do not look as though they could move another step.
Legolas turned toward Aragorn, who was holding out the flask of miruvor. With a grateful smile and a nod, Legolas took the flask and drank sparingly, relishing the feel of the sweet cordial as it trickled down his throat. Energy and strength seemed to return to him, and he felt the peace of Rivendell seep into his heart. Renewed in body and mind, he turned and handed the flask to Boromir, who took a quick sip before passing it to Gimli. The dwarf received it with some reluctance, but he did drink and then moved to see if the hobbits wanted any.
"Surprised that he is still on his feet? Or surprised that he accepts an elvish drink?"
Legolas scowled and sent Aragorn a dark glare. "My thoughts are my own."
"Has he not earned your respect? He has been through much."
"As have the hobbits," Legolas answered. "But they would not be my first choice of defense were we to come across a host of Orcs."
"He is willing to overlook the quarrel between your races in order to partake of a sustaining drink," Aragorn pointed out.
"He would be foolish to refuse such help."
Aragorn sighed. "There is great worth in the race of dwarves. Can you not open your eyes and see it?"
"My eyes are open, and I see much. But worth in the race of dwarves?" Legolas shook his head. "They are good for metal and mining. They are not trustworthy companions. The sight of gold and the tempt of wealth turns them against any who might stand in their way."
"The same could be said of elves and certain jewels," Aragorn murmured.
Legolas stiffened, his eyes filling with rage at the thought that the Ranger had dared to mention the kinslaying. "If I understand you correctly, then you tread very dangerous ground, heir of Isildur."
"Perhaps, but so do we all," Aragorn said evenly. "There are faults in every race, Legolas, but if we are to face our common foe, it would behoove us to do so together. United. Especially when we tread dangerous ground."
His gray eyes darkening to the color of storm clouds, Legolas began to reply, but a small figure suddenly appeared between the Ranger and the elf, stopping any further discussion. "Here is some of that dried fruit we’ve been saving," Pippin announced, holing up his hands. "And there are some nuts mixed in with it as well as some dried meat. It’s not much, but—"
"It is more than adequate," Aragorn interrupted, sending the elf one last measuring look before seeming to dismiss the matter and turning his focus upon the hobbit instead. "You have my thanks."
"Oh, you’re welcome, of course," Pippin answered. He stopped, his brow furrowing in thought. "This is more than adequate? How much would be adequate, Strider? Because if you weren’t planning on finishing it, I know of somewhere it could go."
"Of that I have no doubt," the Ranger said with a quiet laugh, taking the mixture from Pippin. "Nevertheless, I think that Legolas and I will manage."
"If you’re certain…" Pippin said, pausing in the event that either one might change his mind.
"We are," Legolas sighed, not having the heart for such games and jests. Setting his bow beside him, he took his rations from Aragorn and stepped away, resuming his watch. So far, nothing had threatened them, but then, the crebain had only found them a few hours ago. It would take time for anything to move quickly in this wilderness. But with their location narrowed down and the hobbits dragging their weary feet, once their enemies did arrive, they would find them quickly.
Time dragged by and the Fellowship fell into an uneasy silence as they ate their servings of breakfast-supper. Nothing stirred in the world around them, and it was as though they were alone in the wilderness. Finishing his meal, Legolas brushed his hands off on his tunic and shouldered his bow, eyeing the land. He wanted to scout the area, but they were now in a rocky region with very little in the way of cover. It would be difficult to move and remain unnoticed. He would have to dart from one section of trees to another, and such movements could easily be seen from afar.
"A moment, Legolas," Gandalf called quietly. The elf paused and turned around, his eyes questioning. "A moment," the wizard continued. "There are things we must discuss."
Out of the corner of his eye, Legolas saw Aragorn stiffen, and he wondered what this might mean. Were they about to continue the argument that had previously been restricted to Gandalf and the Ranger? It would make sense, as they were now at something of a crossroads and the argument seemed to be about which path the Fellowship would choose.
"Well, let us hear it," Gimli grumbled, his eyes watching the wizard closely as though he knew or guessed something. "Unless I miss my guess, information has been kept from many of us. I think it best if that information was now shared."
"Indeed, Master Dwarf, there are many things that have been kept from you for your own safety and for your own good," Gandalf replied, his tone somewhat sharp. "But as for these matters…" He trailed off and frowned, his face growing solemn. "We cannot, of course, go on again tonight. The attack on the Redhorn Gate has tired us out, and we must rest here for a while."
"And then where are we to go?" Frodo asked, voicing the question that had immediately sprung to Legolas’s mind.
Gandalf seemed to hesitate, as though considering how to word what needed to be said. "We still have our journey and our errand before us," he said at length. "We have no choice but to go on, or to return to Rivendell."
Legolas’s eyes narrowed and he studied the wizard closely. He recognized this tactic, for it was a favorite of his father’s. Gandalf was deliberately setting the choices up so that the Fellowship was forced to agree with whatever it was that the wizard had in mind. Going back was not an option. The hobbits were looking rather hopeful at the prospect, but Legolas knew well that time was running out for all of Middle-earth. If they went back now, they would never get another chance.
"I wish I was back there," Frodo said slowly, his eyes downcast. "But how can I return without shame—unless there is indeed no other way, and we are already defeated?"
"You are right, Frodo," Gandalf agreed, his voice grave. "To go back is to admit defeat, and face worse defeat to come. If we go back now, then the Ring must remain there: we shall not be able to set out again. Then sooner or later Rivendell will be besieged, and after a brief and bitter time it will be destroyed. The Ringwraiths are deadly enemies, but they are only shadows yet of the power and terror they would possess if the Ruling Ring was on their master’s hand again."
Frodo sighed. "Then we must go on, if there is a way."
And since he has committed the Ring-bearer, he has committed all of us, Legolas thought with a slight grimace. My father would be proud. It was skillfully done. But why did Gandalf see the need to maneuver us so? What is it that he and Aragorn both fear?
"There is a way that we may attempt," the wizard said quietly. "I thought from the beginning, when I first considered this journey, that we should try it. But it is not a pleasant way, and I have not spoken of it to the Company before. Aragorn was against it, until the pass over the mountains had at least been tried."
"If it is a worse road than the Redhorn Gate, then it must be evil indeed," Merry said, his brow furrowed and his eyes concerned. "But you had better tell us about it, and let us know the worst at once."
Now we come to it, Legolas realized. Now the time for secrets has passed and we will hear the name of this darker road. Steeling himself, he folded his arms across his chest and waited for the revelation. But he was completely unprepared for what the wizard said.
Looking into the faces of each one of the Fellowship, Gandalf grasped his staff and rose to his full height. "The road that I speak of leads to the Mines of Moria."
Legolas felt as though an Orc had just punched him in the stomach while wearing a metal glove. His heart sank somewhere into the pit of his stomach and his eyes grew wide. Moria? It could not be! Surely they were not so desperate as to walk into such a place. Legolas had not yet been conceived when the realm of the dwarves fell, but he had heard the stories. While growing up, his brothers had taken turns frightening him at night by regaling him with the horrific rumors of what had happened, spinning tales of an unspeakable slaughter and a creature of darkness that had haunted his dreams for years until Thranduil discovered what was happening and put a stop to the stories. But even afterwards, Legolas could never quite shake his fear of dark places, and even the more confining areas of his father’s halls had managed to induce claustrophobic reactions. Now to be faced with his childhood fear…
"The road may lead to Moria," Aragorn said quietly, breaking the silence that had fallen upon them, "but how can we hope that it will lead through Moria?"
"It is a name of ill omen," Boromir warned, his voice dark. "Nor do I see the need to go there. If we cannot cross the mountains, let us journey southwards until we come to the Gap of Rohan where men are friendly to my people, taking the road that I followed on my way hither." He now looked around as he spoke, almost as though he was beseeching the rest of the Fellowship for aid. "Or we might pass by and cross the Isen into Langstrand and Lebennin," he continued, "and so come to Gondor from regions nigh to the sea."
"Things have changed since you came north, Boromir," Gandalf answered, his voice cool. "Did you not hear what I told you of Saruman? With him I may have business of my own ere all is over. But the Ring must not come near Isengard, if that can by any means be prevented. The Gap of Rohan is closed to us while we go with the Bearer. As for the longer road: we cannot afford the time. We might spend a year in such a journey, and we should pass through many lands that are empty and harbourless. Yet they would not be safe. The watchful eyes both of Saruman and of the Enemy are on them. When you came north, Boromir, you were in the Enemy’s eyes only one stray wanderer from the South and a matter of small concern to him: his mind was busy with the pursuit of the Ring. But you return now as a member of the Ring’s Company, and you are in peril as long as you remain with us. The danger will increase with every league that we go on south under the naked sky. Since our attempt on the mountain-pass, our plight has become more desperate, I fear." The wizard shook his head, glanced to the north, and then turned piercing eyes upon Aragorn. "I see now little hope if do not soon vanish from sight for a while and cover our trail. Therefore I advise that we should go neither over the mountains nor round them, but under them. That is a road at any rate that the Enemy will least expect us to take."
"We do not know what he expects!" Boromir exclaimed. "He may watch all roads, likely and unlikely. In that case to enter Moria would be to walk into a trap, hardly better than knocking at the gates of the Dark Tower itself! The name of Moria is black."
"You speak of what you do not know when you liken Moria to the stronghold of Sauron," Gandalf warned, and his eyes were hard. "I alone of you have ever been in the dungeons of the Dark Lord, and only in his lesser and older dwelling in Dol Guldur. Those who pass the gates of Barad-dûr do not return." He was silent for a moment, a shadow passing across his face, but then he seemed to shake himself and continued. "I would not lead you into Moria if there were no hope of coming out again. If there are Orcs there, it may prove ill for us, that is true. But most of the Orcs of the Misty Mountains were scattered or destroyed in the Battle of Five Armies. The Eagles report that Orcs are gathering again from afar, but there is a hope that Moria is still free." Gandalf now turned his eyes upon Gimli, and Legolas frowned to see that the dwarf’s face had a touch of excitement in it. "There is even a chance that dwarves are there, and that in some deep hall of his fathers, Balin, son of Fundin, may be found," Gandalf said quietly before turning back to the group. "However it may prove, one must tread the path that need chooses."
Legolas was now feeling slightly ill, a feeling that he did not appreciate in the least. It all made a kind of horrible sense, yet that did not meant it was any easier to accept. What Gandalf said was true. The Orcs were primarily confined to the High Pass and other northern regions. There were no reports of the creatures roaming so far south. It was also possible that dwarves might be found within Moria—though this was not much of an improvement over Orcs in Legolas’s mind. And yet…Moria! The Black Pit. Dread seized the elf and he shivered slightly. He’d been present and attentive at the Council of Elrond. He’d listened to Glóin’s report. There had been no word of dwarves in Moria for nearly twenty-five years. What hope was there that they still survived? And if they had indeed perished, was it not likely that the thing responsible for their demise still walked their hallowed halls?
"I will tread the path with you, Gandalf," Gimli announced, shattering Legolas’s thoughts. "I will go and look on the halls of Durin, whatever may wait there—if you can find the doors that are shut."
"Good, Gimli. You encourage me," Gandalf said, something of a smile stealing over his face. "We will seek the hidden doors together. And we will come through. In the ruins of the dwarves, a dwarf’s head will be less easy to bewilder than elves or men or hobbits. Yet it will not be the first time that I have been to Moria. I sought there long for Thrain, son of Thror, after he was lost. I passed through, and I came out again alive."
"I, too, one passed the Dimrill Gate," Aragorn said darkly, his eyes shadowed as though trapped by some foul memory. "But though I came out again, the memory is very evil. I do not wish to enter Moria a second time."
"And I don’t wish to enter it even once," Pippin piped up.
"Nor me," Sam added.
"Of course not!" Gandalf said, his voice now tinged with a touch of exasperation. "Who would? But the question is, who will follow me if I lead you there?"
"I will!" Gimli promised, and Legolas wondered if now might not be a good time to loose an arrow in the general direction of a certain dwarf.
"I will," Aragorn said slowly, his voice heavy. "You followed my lead to disaster in the snow and have said no word of blame. I will follow your lead now—if this last warning does not move you." He drew himself up and faced the wizard directly, his eyes flashing. "It is not the Ring, nor of us others that I am thinking now, but of you, Gandalf. And I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!"
A shiver seemed to go through the Fellowship, and Legolas’s fists clenched and unclenched at his sides. The sound of conviction in Aragorn’s voice frightened him as very few things could, and a shadow of foreboding came upon him. Legolas was not an elf gifted with foresight, but from time to time, he would occasionally feel a hint or a glimmer of things to come. The impressions from these rare instances were never explicit or detailed, but they sometimes aided him in staying alert when otherwise he might have been more careless. Legolas was receiving one of these feelings now, and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Aragorn was right. Whatever the Ranger had seen with his foresight, it was deadly. And Gandalf bore the brunt of the danger.
"I will not go," Boromir declared, his eyes flashing. "Not unless the vote of the whole company is against me. What do Legolas and the little folk say?" The man glanced at the elf and then looked to the hobbits, his gaze focusing upon Merry and Frodo, who had yet to speak. "The Ringbearer’s voice surely should be heard!"
Legolas sighed as the eyes of the Fellowship drifted between himself and the hobbits. "I do not wish to go to Moria," he murmured, sending Gandalf an apologetic look. It was perhaps the first time in his life that he had denied the wizard’s counsel.
"I do not wish to go," Frodo spoke up, "but neither do I wish to refuse the advice of Gandalf." Legolas cringed slightly at this but said nothing as the hobbit continued. "I beg that there should be no vote until we have slept on it. Gandalf will get votes easier in the light of the morning than in this cold gloom. How the wind howls!"
Silence fell at Frodo’s words, and Legolas sighed quietly. He did not wish to go to Moria, yet what choice did they have? It had already been decided that the Ring could not return to Rivendell. All other options had been eliminated. The only choice left to them was to attempt the road through Moria. Yet Boromir was right when he compared Moria with a trap. Once they entered, there would be no turning back. And if they could not reach the other side, they would be caught. That prospect by itself frightened Legolas almost as much as the stories of Moria had. He did not like to be caged, and the very thought of becoming trapped beneath the mountains was sending his mind into a panic.
In an attempt to calm himself, he focused his senses on the surrounding world, looking for the soothing whisper of the wind in the treetops. He did indeed hear the wind, for it was beginning to pick up as evening drew nigh, but it was not whispering. Rather, it was moaning, and Frodo’s description of a howling wind was becoming quite accurate as it started to wind its way through rocks and canyons. In fact, it sounded suspiciously like…
Legolas froze, his eyes going wide. It could not be possible, and yet there was no other explanation. Whirling about, he turned to Aragorn and saw the growing look of fear upon the man’s face. "How the wind howls!" the Ranger swore. "It is howling with wolf-voices. The Wargs have come west of the mountains!"
And everything fell into place. The two Wargs they had first encountered had been scouts. Forerunners for the main pack. When they had failed to report back, other spies were sent. There was that area of darkness they had journeyed into in order to avoid the swamp. They had been watched. Legolas had felt it. But the main body of Wargs had been too far away to respond to evil’s cries, and so the crebain had been sent. And now that the Wargs were almost upon them, they could pursue the Fellowship on their own, following the trail by scent.
"Need we wait until morning then?" Gandalf demanded as the Fellowship grouped together, watching the shadows closely as the sun sank below the horizon. "It is as I said. The hunt is up! Even if we live to see the dawn, who now will wish to journey south by night with the wild wolves on his trail?"
"How far away is Moria?" Boromir asked, his voice filled with reluctance.
"There was a door southwest of Caradhras, some fifteen miles as the crow flies and maybe twenty as the wolf runs."
"Then let us start as soon as it is light tomorrow, if we can," Boromir said. "The wolf that one hears is worse than the Orc that one fears."
"True, but where the Warg howls, there also the Orc prowls," Aragorn answered grimly as he loosened Andúril in its sheath.
Legolas blinked and shot a bemused glance at Aragorn and Boromir. He had thought that Mirkwood was the only realm desperate enough to create children’s rhymes that offered advice for confronting the enemy. Apparently, the situation in Gondor was just as dire, and it seemed that Rivendell had also been affected by the growing darkness of the Misty Mountains.
"How far away are they?" Gandalf asked, his eyes falling upon both Legolas and Aragorn.
"Even had we the strength to move, we could not hope to outrun them," Legolas answered, closing his eyes and listening to the howls. "They have caught our scent, and already they sing of our destruction. They will be here ere midnight."
"It is not a large pack," Aragorn added, his brow furrowed in concentration. "But neither is it a small one. We will be hard-pressed to hold them at bay." He listened a moment more and then grimaced before turning toward Gandalf, his face grim. "They are also hungry."
"And so their attack shall be all the more terrible," the wizard murmured with a sigh. He looked around and then glanced up at the hill beside them. "We shall take shelter there," he decided, nodding toward a clump of trees at the top of the hill. "I see a ring of stones that might provide us with defense. And we shall light a fire, as well. Secrecy seems a moot point at the moment."
Moving quickly, they gathered their baggage together and hastened up the hill. The song of the wolves was now clear to every member of the Fellowship, and Legolas soon had to take Bill from Sam, for the pony was becoming skittish.
"I wish I had taken Elrond’s advice," Pippin murmured as he marched next to the elf. "I am no good after all. There is not enough of the breed of Bandobras the Bullroarer in me. These howls freeze my blood. I don’t ever remember feeling so wretched."
"My heart’s right down in my toes, Mr. Pippin," Sam answered. "But we aren’t eaten yet, and there are some stout folk here with us. Whatever may be in store for old Gandalf, I’ll wager it isn’t a wolf’s belly."
I pray you are correct, Samwise, Legolas thought, gazing out across the darkening land. It may well take the powers of a wizard to see us through this night. One bow, one axe, three swords, and four hobbit knives cannot hope to deter the wrath of a Warg pack. And as he concluded this grim thought, the sun plunged completely below the horizon, and the eerie call of the wolves sounded loud from the north as the wind began to fly in earnest.
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