1. A Different Kind of Sacrifice
The Dwarf and the Elf turned to answer as Aragorn strode up behind them. Neither said a word, but the fair Elf lifted his brows in silent question. His expression was composed almost to the point of serenity, as if they were not surrounded by the dead of Men and Orcs and Elves, and his hands were not spotted with blood. Though the sun had shown herself a scarce hour before, carrion birds were already descending upon the aftermath Helm's Deep, and there were none who cared enough to attempt chasing them away from the corpses.
"Where do you go?" Aragorn asked. "We may not remain here long."
"We will remain long enough for Man and horse to rest, I think, and the king is wounded." The Elf's keen gaze moved over the field of battle, settling upon Theoden. Eomer had gone to his uncle's side and both men were dismounted. The king appeared to be greeting his kinsman, but Legolas could see that he surreptitiously leaned on the younger man. "I believe it is worse than he has let on." A moment later, his eyes were on Aragorn again. "How fare you, my friend?"
At the Elf's side stood Gimli, a much shorter, stockier being, with a long red beard, a helm, and an axe whose head was black with blood. The Dwarf's coal-dark eyes flicked over the battered human briefly. "Aye, I'm sure you do...at least until the ferocity of battle falls from you, your limbs go to lead, and you collapse wherever you happen to stand."
Legolas nodded. "Gimli is right. You should take what rest you can."
Green eyes regarded the elf skeptically. "And the two of you are so hardy that you have no need of sleep?"
The Elf and Dwarf exchanged tolerant, amused glances. For a brief, dizzying moment, Aragorn thought that he would hear Elrond's voice coming from an Elf many centuries his foster-father's junior, telling little Estel to listen to his mother and go off to bed. Of course, that would make Gimli the Lady Gilrean...
Aragorn shook his head. Perhaps he should not be objecting so much to rest.
"Neither of us," Gimli began, drawing Aragorn's attention once more, "have recently fallen from a cliff and down into rushing water, trapped under the weight of a huge, stinking beast..."
"...and then ridden long over perilous country without aid," continued Legolas.
"Nor have either of us leapt from a surround into the midst of Orcs."
Aragorn looked askance at the Dwarf, but his companion's momentum would not be halted by petty details.
"Or climbed a wet rope back up that same surround while carrying the weight of a fully armored and water-logged Dwarf." The Elf seemed utterly oblivious to the warning glare that Dwarf threw at him. "Beyond that, neither of us is a Man."
Gimli nodded once in agreement and set the butt of his axe-handle firmly against the damp ground, signaling the close of the discussion.
"If there is time, I will rest," sighed Aragorn, sensing his defeat. "Answer my question ere you go."
"We seek the caverns." There was a sudden grimness to the Elf's voice. "As many of the wounded as could be recovered were moved there. I wish to know how many Elves managed to survive the battle."
"I would know the fate of those that I accompanied to these walls as well."
Aragorn nodded. "I will find you later, then."
"Or else we will find you. I warn you, Aragorn, if you are not at rest when we do, we will have words, you and I."
Gimli snorted as their friend left. "When did you become his nursemaid?"
"He forgets what he is. Aragorn is a fine tracker and tireless in battle, but he is not an Elf. As his friend, it is my duty to see that he does not come to harm through that forgetfulness." Again, the Elf turned his eyes to the king and his nephew. Aragorn and Gandalf had joined them. "He must be truly weary if he did not mark our true motive in leaving his side."
"I have no idea what you might be implying, Elf." Gimli lead the way as the two of them heading back towards the caverns. Save for a suspicious glitter in his eyes, the Dwarf's demeanor was as gruff as ever. "My affection for the king's nephew cannot be measured."
The corners of the Elf's thin lips quirked upwards momentarily. Some lures could not be resisted. "Only because there is no measure small enough to do so." Gimli's soft chuckling rumbled between them as they walked. The two friends did not question Eomer's worth as a warrior, but it would take more time before they came close to any personal liking. For the moment, it was time they wished to invest elsewhere.
Arnamo; dead. Rómelen; dead. Thinaur, Sîrbrannon, even Haldir...all slain. Some had been from Lothlorien, others from Rivendell. It did not matter. New acquaintance or old, no one known to Legolas Thranduilion was left among the surviving Elves.
Legolas walked away from the wounded, his breath catching in his chest. He hid himself in the shadows of the cave and rested his forehead against the cool, damp stone of the wall for many minutes. His people did not easily weep, but Legolas was as close as he had been to it for many years. Gandalf's fall in Moria had stunned him past tears, to a grief beyond expression. These deaths had been easily foreseen, but he had hoped against them. Even now, Legolas refused to believe that hope was futile, but he had to admit that it was very painful to hold on to...and he suddenly felt very alone among Men.
'And this was but one battle, where we could defend ourselves from a position of power. Next we must take Isengard, and it is too much to hope that this was the whole of Saruman's forces...'
The sound nearly didn't filter through the dark cloud of grief and doubt surrounding the woodland prince, but it was so unexpected that his ears could not help but prick up at it.
'Laughter? Here? Now?'
Yes. From very far back in the caverns, all but lost beneath the sounds of suffering all around, floated peals of childish laughter. Then came the sound of something like heavy chain falling against stone.
Of all the emotions, curiosity was the one most likely to remain in the heart of an Elf, even if all others were given over to shadow. Legolas was disheartened, but not despairing, and his natural inquisitiveness prodded him forward. He picked out his path swiftly but cautiously, for there were wounded and dead lain about on the floor and Legolas did not trust the deep underground. It also remained in his mind that this might be some incomprehensible trick, so incongruous was laughter with these surroundings.
Finally, Legolas came to a small clutch of young ones ushered out of the way so that the injured could be seen to. Stretched out before them, flat on his back with his axe in one hand, lay Gimli son of Gloin.
"...and that is how you fell an orc." The Dwarf endeavored to sit up again, but his armor held him to the ground. The children giggled and managed to haul the Dwarf back onto his feet, though it seemed a near thing.
The slight smile that had formed Legolas' face faded as he watched the Dwarf move. Gimli was not using the full range of motion in his limbs, and Legolas was certain that he saw his friend wince as he shouldered his axe. The Elf stepped from behind the cluster of stalagmites that had hidden him from view.
"Gimli, there you are. I wondered." He cocked his head to one side inquisitively when his appearance set up a small titter among the children. The Dwarf grinned.
"Young ones, it is very bad manners to laugh at people for things that they cannot help. It is not the fault of Master Legolas that he is an Elf." The scolding only sparked another wave of smothered laughter, and Legolas decided not to even ask what Gimli had told these children of his people. "Well, Master Elf, you have found me."
"I would speak to you alone, if you can spare me the time."
Gimli nodded, bade the children good-bye, and accompanied Legolas as he walked away. Finding a place to speak in private was not a difficult task; even with the wounded, there were not nearly enough Elves and Rohirrim to fill the caverns.
It was Gimli who spoke first.
"Too many." Legolas heard the unfamiliar weight of weariness in his own voice. "I know none among those left. You?"
Gimli shook his head. "Dead, along with many of their sons."
Several heartbeats of silence passed in respect to the departed before Legolas halted and turned to his companion. "You are injured and you said nothing to me of it."
Gimli sighed, but did not deny anything. "I stayed silent because I knew you would worry and to no good effect."
"I did not know there was anything amiss with concern for injured friends." Legolas reached for Gimli's shoulder. "Let me see."
The Dwarf swatted the Elf's hands away like an offended cat. "I'll have your ears on my belt before I peel off my armor before an Elf!"
"Come, friend Gimli, do not be difficult," said Legolas, his even tone cloaking his frustration. He had seen too much death today to stand by and let a friend risk his well-being in any way. He went to one knee so that he might look the Dwarf in the eye. "Bare yourself to the waist only, here, where no other may see, and I will tend to your hurts. I shall give you no peace otherwise." Gimli's eyes were hard and he showed no signs of giving in to the Elf's wheedling. "I shall tell Aragorn if you do not humor me," the Elf went on, his threat serious despite his light tone. "If he feels you are too badly hurt, he may leave you behind when we set out for Isengard."
"A Dwarf rules his own mind."
Legolas folded his arms over his chest in imitation of his companion. "Perhaps, but can a Dwarf's legs keep pace with Rohirrim horses?"
The glare and growl that came Legolas' way was quite impressive and would have given a grown bear reason to think twice about further antagonizing the Dwarf, but the Elf was unmoved.
"If this ever gets to the ears of another Dwarf..." Gimli began, lifting his helm from his head.
"Then he shall not have heard it from me. You have my word on that." Legolas sprang to his feet. "I shall return."
As he went to beg bandages, cloth, and water, Legolas noted that the women of Rohan had not been idle below ground. They did not cower in fear, but moved swiftly from one prone figure to the next, setting bone and stanching blood. Near the entrance of the cavern lay three Uruk-hai, fallen forward, black blood pooling beneath their bodies. They had somehow found their way here, but had not found easy prey. The thought cheered the Elf somewhat as he made his way back to his friend.
Gimli had just shrugged off his chainmail when Legolas reappeared, and had only a padded shirt between his skin and the cool air. "Turn around," the Dwarf grumbled. Legolas sighed softly but obeyed, keeping his back to Gimli until he was bade turn again. Gimli stood with his arms crossed over his front and his back to Legolas, grumbling under his breath as his companion drew near.
The Elf whistled low and long as he crouched at Gimli's side, reaching out to gently run his fingers over the Dwarf's skin. "By the Valar..." The Dwarf's hide covered with bruises and bloody dents, the thick carpet of hair over his back and shoulders matted down with sweat and blood. Gimli had been struck hard enough in battle to drive the links of his mail shirt through padded leather and deep into the flesh beneath. "Dwarves must have bones of adamant," the Elf said quietly, dampening a cloth in the bowl of water he'd carried back with him. "These blows would have broken an Elf in two, and my people are not given to frailty."
Gimli only 'hurumphed' and stood steady as the Elf began to tend to him. Even an immortal knew that such wounds would fester if left untreated, but Legolas understood why Gimli had said nothing and forgave him his infuriating stoicism. It was not as if Gimli could have easily tended to these himself and it was not in the Dwarf's nature to complain.
"Friend Gimli, may I ask you something?" A grunt that might be taken as assent answered the soft question. "Something puzzles me. I have watched you since we set out from Imladris -- not always in affection, I grant you," he added, grinning when the Dwarf snorted at him. "I know you to be a formidable warrior. Yet since we left the Great River, I have more than once entertained the thought that I could lift up your beard and find Pippin masquerading as a Dwarf beneath."
"Hmph. So you think me a buffoon, do you, Master Elf?"
"Not in substance or you would not be alive now. But...in action, perhaps. I know it must be deliberate on your part, but I cannot fathom the why of it." The Elf grimaced and plucked hair matted with sweat and blood from a wound.
"Each of us has our own way of fighting the dark, lad. Why does the use of laughter flummox you so much?"
Legolas was quiet for several moments, continuing his work. A soft sigh finally heralded his answer. "Why do you bring laughter at the expense of your own dignity? You're not lacking in pride." A tiny smile curled one corner of the elf's lips. "It is a trait we share."
"And you cannot see sacrificing your pride so easily, is that it?" Gimli chuckled as the golden head just visible at the far right corner of his vision bobbed once. "Rest assured, Master Elf, that I'm quite aware of every action I take -- oh!"
"Forgive me." Legolas continued to knead his fingers around the edges of the wounds. "If these hurts are not cleaned and allowed to bleed, they will not heal."
Gimli craned his neck as the Elf shifted position, grimacing as Legolas removed a small, sharp knife from his boot. A passing curiosity caused him to wonder just how many weapons his tall companion in arms had stashed on his person. "It's to be digging, then?" It was less a question and more resignation.
"Not deeply, but yes." Legolas paused. "I am a warrior and rider, Gimli. I have not Aragorn's touch in matters of healing."
The Elf nodded and went to work, trimming hair away from the edges of the punctures. Though he had seen more grievous wounds, he had never seen any of this quality before. The flesh looked almost chewed and the foreign matter was driven so deep that he could only lever most bits out on a knife’s point. Gimli tensed and did not relax as the Elf resumed his unpleasant work, but he did not cry out either.
"You have not explained all to me," Legolas coaxed softly. He hoped that the distraction of conversation would make the pain seem lesser. His hands were not as skilled as Aragorn's, but they were quick, at least, and he hoped not to extend his friend's discomfort any longer than need be.
"What is there to explain?" the Dwarf replied shortly. "Who's going to fight better for you: a man who's still got the echo of a shared laugh in his heart, or someone who's been dwelling on his fear so long that his arms are all but frozen from the dread of it? It's far better than reminding them that they're all going to be greeting the next dawn with dead eyes, isn't it?" The Dwarf grumbled under his breath. "If I'd been paying more attention your state of mind, perhaps we could have averted that utter waste of energy."
Legolas was silent. He paused to scrape a clot of hair, blood, and cloth from the edge of his knife before going back to his task.
"I am aware of the benefits of laughter," said the Elf at length. "My confusion is still to why you play the fool to bring it."
"Ah, that. It's all the son of the same father, Elf. A body feels better when there's someone to feel superior to. It makes one feel more sure in their own ability." Gimli hissed between his teeth as the point of the knife point burrowed for a dark speck wedged beneath the skin. "Of course, no one has yet found the reason why you point-ears are so confoundedly dour all the time. You think you're superior to everything else under the sun."
"And it doesn't bother you at all? That you're encouraging others to look down on you in more than just the literal sense?" This earned Legolas another growl, but he continued in his work, unperturbed.
"And why should it? A hundred years hence, I'll still be mining and drinking in Erebor, but there will be no Man alive who remembers this day, or that a Dwarf tried to lift his spirits by going over on his back like a tipped turtle."
"There will be me," the Elf reminded him.
"Bah. Who would believe an Elf's word on such matters? Anyone with a grain of sense knows that any Elf will exaggerate maliciously against a Dwarf. Besides, you'll have sailed off with the rest of your kin by that time."
"Perhaps." For all his banter with the Dwarf, there were certain things that Legolas had little desire to discuss with anyone as of yet. He cleaned the little knife, put it back in its sheath, and massaged the edges of the wounds to encourage fresh bleeding. It was a slow seepage, but it would help. He washed the injuries again, then wrapped the Dwarf's torso in bandages. "There. Much improved, I think, though I still cannot believe you threw your weight down on those wounds."
"Ah, well. The answer to that is simple enough. I'd forgotten them."
Legolas stared incredulously. "Forgotten--? Gimli!"
The Dwarf shrugged. "I had other concerns."
"I do not know whether to laugh or strangle you with your own beard, Dwarf!"
"You may attempt either, just so long as you keep your mind out of that black pit it keeps trying to slip into. That bow of yours might be of some use later on." Gimli waved off his friend's offer of help and donned his armor once more. "I suppose you'll want to go make sure our Ranger is actually getting some rest now."
"The thought had crossed my mind."
"Very well." Gimli started for the cavern entrance, then turned on the Elf with a scowl. "Stop that."
The golden brows rose in confusion.
"I can feel your eyes boring into my back and it nettles me more than any battle wound. You've done your best. Be content with it. When we've got the energy to spare, then you may fret over your comrades if you wish. For now, focus on keeping your own head on your shoulders. I've no wish to see it go bouncing across the battlefield because you were worried more about a few of my bruises than your own neck."
"I have been fighting for the better part of an age," Legolas said dryly. "But I will take your advice to heart."
"Good." The Dwarf's lips curved into a smirk beneath his bushy whiskers. "As your friend, it is my duty to see that you do not come to harm through your ridiculous belief that all mortals need an Elf watching over our shoulders."
The Elf watched the Dwarf as they walked, an odd, amused smile on his face. Dwarves were certainly strange people, but he was becoming quite fond of at least one of them.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.