Unravelling the Tale: 12. To Govern and to Guard

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12. To Govern and to Guard

Gimli found the southern tip of the eyot at last. He had begun to feel as if he'd run the full length of the Anduin, though the night tarried and the moon had hardly begun its own trek across the sky. Still the footprints padded along in front of him, teasing his tired mind and coaxing him to follow wearily in their wake over the rocks and gorse. As doughty a dwarf as had ever walked the wealth of the world, the tumult of the past few days and the lack of meaningful sleep had sipped away at his strength; his endurance was flagging much sooner than he would have accepted but he refused to pay heed to his leaden legs. The chase was nearly up, he deemed, for good or ill, and he turned his attention from the meandering trail to look now ahead. He reined his dogged pace into a cautious approach and strove to arrange his faculties in anticipation of the enemy he expected to find waiting for him. When he caught up with Gollum, he thought he just might replace his well-worn boots with new ones fashioned from the creature's slithy little hide.

Gimli picked his way carefully around a bare, subtle outcropping as high and a half as his height and he stole forward along the bank, shifting his burly shoulders beneath his clinging shirt; he tried vainly to bring his heavy breathing to measure so that he could hear and not be heard.

Gollum would be quick and crafty, the dwarf wagered. By all accounts, the creature chose the nighttime to slink and sniff about. Its eyesight would be as sharp as a cat's and its ears twice as keen. Gimli had never seen Gollum, but the loathed descriptions he had been given left little to his imagination and he was rather anticipating a glimpse of it at last. He knew it had followed them since Moria; he could not help but overhear the hushed snatches of discussion between Legolas and Aragorn, and Frodo was ever looking uneasily over his shoulder as if he were afraid of his own shadow, which was exactly the case. Gimli had kept half an eye out for Gollum himself; he had thought casually that it would be a fine thing for the dwarf to catch their unwelcome tagalong ere the Ranger or elf could manage it, but nary a glimpse of glowing eyes nor slap of flapping feet had ever come to his attention before.

If the creature was aware of his approach, would it run or would it creep and crawl and wait to strike at him from the darkness? When cornered it might prove a dangerous thing indeed, but the strangling strength of those clinging fingers would have a time trying to wrap around the sturdy neck of a dwarf. It was likely the creature would bolt, rather, and there was no way to cut off its escape upon an open isle. Lest he could catch Gollum at complete unawares, slaying it or capturing it would be nigh to impossible. He would have to content himself with driving it off.

The creature hunted Legolas. It seemed absurd, but that was what it was doing, and Gimli could not fathom its purpose. Perhaps it was simple malicious mischief, seeking to pick off the lone wanderer from the circle which did protect the Ringbearer. T'was a risky undertaking; only desperation or madness would have compelled Gollum to leave the concealing water upon such an errand. The creature suffered its fair share of either, Gimli had to concede, and desperation and madness oft lent strength beyond natural bonds. That did not sit well with him and he fretted. Likely it was that Legolas would have the upper hand ere Gollum could so much as squeak if the thing was bold enough to draw too near, and yet he had to admit it was also feasible that the unpredictable creature which had so honed its skills at murdering and hiding might prove a match for an unwary wanderer in a place such as this.

Gimli shook off his uncertain fears; there had been no sound come to the dwarf's ears to yet suggest any such thing had happened, and there should have been some indication had a mortal encounter occured between Legolas and Gollum out here in all this darksome silence. That bit of reasoning gave to Gimli some little hope at least, if not much assurance.

The dwarf planted his feet painstakingly and continued forward, choosing firm ground lest the rattle of loosened stones give him away to any who lingered near. He crouched slowly and groped for a sizeable rock, not a little chagrined at having to resort to such a crude weapon but feeling better for having something in his hand should the need for it arise. He clutched the stone, absently hefting it and feeling the rough edges dig into his calloused palm. With the practiced solid grace of a dwarf on the prowl, he eased about the sloping ridge of the eyot's end and squinted out at the sight of the glinting water.

The branch of the river which sundered the small isle from the western shore was here swallowed up by the larger mass carrying on past the eastern bank, and the merging streams closed off the edgemost tip of the island to a sweeping sandy point. Gimli's heart gave a sickening lurch as his eyes came to rest upon a familiar form huddled low to the ground not far in from the water's margin.

He had found Legolas.

The dwarf hesitated; he exhaled slowly and the cool night air misted before his lips. He stood stark-silent for just a moment, absorbing the sight and scanning the shore for any signs of the wretch whose trail had led him here. Gollum's footprints continued on down the shoreline, arching directly towards Legolas, but Gimli could not see the creature, nor was there any movement discernible but for the wave upon wave of rippling moon- lit water and the shifting shine of his companion's hair in the breeze.

Countless theories leapt at him from all the corners of his mind as to why the elf should be slumped upon his knees in the sand as he was; none were pleasant and none were particularly worth dwelling upon. Gimli chewed at his lip with consternation and drew a sleeved arm across his forehead to mop the chill sweat from his brow ere it could sting his eyes. He shifted the rock in his grasp and wiped his hand upon his trousers and watched. Still nothing moved. There was no foe lurking in the shadows; the faint light of the slivered moon bathed the level shoreline enough to give the dwarf a clear view and there was naught to be seen but the elf and the water. Legolas stayed motionless and it seemed at least that he was not in immediate peril.

Or he was beyond peril.

The dwarf bit back a bitter oath and his hopes sank. Had he come too late? The apprehension became too much and with a resigned grunt, Gimli gripped the rock in his hand and stepped into the open. He clambered forward down towards Legolas, sliding through the loose shale and rapidly closing the space between them. He stalked over the sand with baleful determination and silently dared any creeping little night-time thing to cross his path.

The generous slush of gravel and water beneath his boots heralded the dwarf's approach, but Legolas did not look up; he remained kneeling there upon the ground with his head bowed and his hands twisted into a knot in his lap. Gimli faltered to a halt as he drew near and stopped still several paces away. His eyes swept solicitiously over him, seeking any indication that the elf had been hurt, but he could see no blood, no sign of a struggle. Traces of those elongated gripping feet were to be found all about on the wet ground, though the maker of the marks was not. Gimli stood and frowned uncertainly; he folded his arms tightly to hoarde what warmth was left in his body ere the wind could snatch it away and he considered the elf's state.

Legolas was not asleep, for his hands were clenched. When the elf allowed his mind to rest, whether he was lying upon the ground or walking open-eyed along the trail, his hands were slack, relaxed. Gimli had noted this long ago when he had thought it wise to be familiar to the ways of the elf if ever he had need to take him by surprise....

Gimli grimaced and abandoned that particular trail of thought as hastily as he would have abandoned a path leading down a dragon's den; he carefully slid the bit of knowledge back into the recesses of his memories to be locked away and left alone. By Durin's Light, the last thing he needed to do was begin cataloguing the elf's vulnerabilities. He shuddered. Very well, Legolas was not asleep; he was hurt or mired deep in thought. Or ignoring him.

*Deep in thought!* Gimli asserted vehemently. Not ignoring me, not plotting some dire revenge... he is buried deep in thought or lost in pain and is unaware of me, that is all... no more... and why do I hesitate to say something, say anything, after all this toil it has cost me to reach him, and I stand here breathing down his neck and chasing wild speculation.

The dwarf waved away his misgivings and the sibilant whispers and decided it would be wise to speak to the elf ere he fluttered off into complete derangement and began talking to himself aloud.

"Legolas? It is but Gimli, Legolas." The dwarf cursed under his breath. The elf would have to be deaf as a post and as clever as one to not know it was him, but it was all he could think to say. Gimli kept his voice guarded and allowed it to betray neither his weariness nor the worry which brought the elf's name to his lips. He could not quite bring himself to completely lower his guard and so he settled for a show of cautious concern, hoping the elf would respond.

He did. Legolas drew a long, quiet breath and lifted his head. He looked up at the dwarf with eyes that shone wide and staring in the darkness, chasms of emotion which invited the dwarf to fall into them and drown in the misery which filled their depths. Legolas blinked and adjusted, and the emotion was gone, closed back up ere Gimli could begin to try to surmise what it was he had seen there. Legolas offered to him instead a faint, despondent smile.

"Was there any doubt in my mind? Such a dwarvish racket you make as shall give us away to all and sundry between here and Anorien," Legolas quipped gently. "If our hope does lie in secrecy, I shall have to teach you to walk as an elf."

The remark was half-hearted and tossed off his tongue out of habit, Gimli knew, but he responded in like, falling willingly into the easy comfortable rhythm of give and take with Legolas that was familiar to them both.

"Mmmm... aye," he rumbled. "I have a few choice comments to make about the footsteps of the elves this night, my friend, but they are numerous and I've spent too long thinking them up to waste them so readily. I shall keep them to myself for now and plague you with them later." He smiled then, but knew it appeared as stiff upon his face as it felt. The stiltedness of his own deep voice grated upon him and he scoffed at his unease. "What has happened?" the dwarf asked.

Legolas looked positively dishevelled. Strands of damp hair clung to his face and trailed down his neck and shoulders like rivulettes of pitch; his pale skin was streaked with grit and sand and he was dripping wet. The elf's cheeks were bloodless and his clothing was in disarray and caked with mud. His appearance was akin to that of a shipwrecked mariner washed against the beach in the wake of some terrible storm. Gimli thought, and the elf seemed tired and wilted. The common liveliness of his eyes was dulled and dim. It took Gimli aback; this frailty was something he had never expected to see, had never expected to be allowed to see, and he found it unnerved him more than had the anticipation of danger waiting in dark places.

Legolas mimed the dwarf's somewhat uneasy scrutiny, his eyes roving over Gimli with diffident concern, and Gimli knew he likely looked no better than did the elf. He lifted his chin in response and calmly locked his eyes with his companion's. All pretense aside, he thought. We have hid ourselves within our armor long enough and it can protect us no more. Let us see how we shall do without it. His knees did not wish to bend, but he marshalled his will regardless and drew close enough to crouch upon a level with the elf.

Legolas proved less resolute and drew back from him; the wind kicked up and lashed their faces and the elf lowered his head, turning himself away from the touch of the sharp air and the earnest eyes of the dwarf.

"I think I should rather you remain at a distance, my friend," Legolas said.

Gimli took immediate offense. His eyes flashed with indignation and he made to reply, but the elf interrupted him ere he could with an anguished shake of his head.

"Nay, Gimli, you misunderstand me," Legolas said. "I bear no ill will towards you, truly I do not. I would undo aught I have wrought this night and stave back the fey madness which took my mind and guided my deeds, but even now I cannot trust myself to amend matters and not aggravate them."

Gimli looked at Legolas appraisingly. "I see," he rumbled, and he tucked his thumb into his belt. "Therein lies the danger of leaving an elf alone with his thoughts for too long. By now you have condemned yourself beyond hope and have spent your time inventing pretty words to do your misery justice. Do I not deem rightly? And I guess by now you've blown up this minor obstacle into a mountainous calamity to better fit the confines of that vast and immortal mind of yours. I am glad for my own limited imagination. It must be exhausting to be an elf."

Gimli meant his words to be facetious, but regretted them immediately. The slight tap of his sarcasm splintered the veneer of composure the elf had contrived, and between the cracks the dwarf saw the utter exhaustion from which his companion was indeed suffering, body and soul. The elf swallowed hard and kept his eyes averted as if accepting a punishment he deserved. Legolas looked about as unelvish as Gimli could ever remember seeing him. No clever retort was forthcoming, no playful banter; without meaning to, Gimli had struck the elf's heart whilst aiming for his pride.

"And it was you who did fear to aggravate and not amend," the dwarf said brusquely. "Forgive my idle tongue." He tried not to look so closely, but there was no help for it; he caught sight of the deepening dark bruise and bloody gash with which he had marked the elf's flesh.

And to his disgust, a sudden unwelcome surge of hot elation welled up within him. Satisfaction. He tasted the taint of savage delight and licked it from his lips. It was a thrill of warm blood and the rush of superiority over a fallen foe. It was a feeling the seasoned dwarf knew well, but this was something darker even than a warrior's temperament, something which disgusted him. It was hideous lust, gratification in suffering, pleasure laid in cruelty such as nearly drew an indulgent purr from deep within his throat; he choked it back as best he could, bringing his gorge to rise. He berated himself and cast his eyes immediately from the elf to the ground, flushing red with anger and self-reproach.

Legolas was watching him and his fair face was dark. He closed his eyes. "If it was your purpose to seek me here and find satisfaction in seeing an elf brought low, your desire has been fulfilled," he spat bitterly. "Drink in the sight and then let me be."

The heat that did sear through the dwarf's veins evaporated as the sudden quenching of tempered iron. Gimli stiffened and a tremor swept through him; his own fatigue and frustration rendered him mute. All the worry, the determination, the strength he had built up from fragile stores which had carried him thus far now crumbled away at sound of the elf's caustic words, leaving him empty and quaking and unable to move his limbs or his lips.

"Such was not my intention, Legolas," he managed to say at last with some effort. "I find no satisfaction in seeing you in pain."

"I am in no pain," Legolas said.

"Then fortunate you are, son of Thranduil, for you are the only one this evening who is not," Gimli snapped. "Perhaps you enjoy these solitary little excursions in the middle of the night. I find the warmth of a campfire and close comrades preferable to desolate meditation, but elves are strange folk and if this is what suits you, perhaps I should leave you to it!"

Gimli's ears roared and he swallowed hard, trying to clear them. Like fuel flung upon a fire, each word fed a rising fury which would undo both of them. He cast a hand irritably about his head to sweep the shapeless shadow that fanned the flames from his mind ere it could hover nearer and he cursed his own feeble will.

His movement caught Legolas's attention and the elf gave to him an odd look, but Gimli heeded it not. The dwarf rose belatedly to his feet and took a few steps away. He was suddenly very much aware of the weight of the stone he still clutched tightly in his hand as he loomed over the elf. He turned and hurled it far out into the river. The roaring subsided and the blackness fled for the moment; Gimli sighed and forced himself to relax.

"Do not patronize me, Gimli," the elf said.

"Do not lie to me and tell me you are all right," Gimli growled back at him sternly. "Not when I find you here collapsed upon your knees looking as if you have been picked up by your heels and dragged the length and breadth of this place ere being tossed into the river."

Legolas hesitated. "Nor shall such flattery prevail you, my dear dwarf," he said.

Gimli responded with a wry smile. He folded his arms once more and stared intently down at his feet and at nothing in particular.

Legolas looked sadly up at him and asked, "How do the others fare?"

"They sleep," Gimli said. "Frodo keeps watch."

"I meant not to be so long away from you."

"It appears you were distracted." Gimli motioned nigh to the strange tracks which dappled the swaths of smooth sand about them.

"Aye," the elf replied, but offered no more than that.

Gimli remained quiet for a time, his dark eyes brooding beneath his heavy brow, then he reached into his shirt and drew something forth. He tossed it to the elf. "What do you make of that?"

"It is your pipe," Legolas observed laconically, though he examined the broken edges with some interest.

"I lost my pipe in Moria," Gimli said.

Legolas raised an eyebrow and studied again the object in his hand. "Then I should say this bears an almost remarkable likeness to your pipe."

"It *is* my pipe."

Legolas pursed his lips, then handed it back. "Never again shall I think to disparage the might of a dwarf," he said. "Hard enough have I been struck before to quit my senses, but never hard enough to render even those near to me senseless."

Gimli's chest constricted. "A serious enough matter you might make of it to avoid such jesting," he said shortly and tucked his pipe away.

"Such a serious matter I do make of it that I must jest, or break," Legolas said in a low voice. "Peace, Gimli. With ease do I fall into worn ways with you though I know that naught can be as it was. Will you tell me how you came by your pipe?"

"I found it upon the riverbank," Gimli said. "It seems your splay-toed friend is gifted also with nimble fingers."

"Ah," Legolas breathed in understanding. "'What has it got in its pocketses?'"

"Indeed, " Gimli muttered. "I would have been content never to have found out, but such was not my luck. What I should like to know is what took place between the two of you. I have spent the last hour imagining the terrible things I might find when I caught you up, only to discover the thief fled and you unharmed."

"You are disappointed?"

"That is not what I meant and I do not appreciate the implication," Gimli said coldly. "Will you not speak of it?"

"He was here. He is gone." the elf said.

"So much have I gathered, and the creature left without much hinderance, it seems. Whatever did you want to go and let it escape for?"

Legolas stiffened resentfully. "My reasons were my own and I did naught to endanger the Company, though by your manner you do believe it to be so."

Gimli bit his tongue, but found it was too difficult to not strike back when struck first. "Perhaps I do. Perhaps you might deign to give me a clearer answer and thus ease my mind!"

Legolas stood up rather suddenly. He flung his wet cloak over his shoulder with a sodden snap and regarded the dwarf with an imperious glare which belied his haggard appearance. "I doubt very much that anything I might say should even penetrate your mind." The elf slashed his hand through the air with a sharp, negating motion. "I did not ask you to seek for me!"

Gimli bristled. "Nay, you did depart in a fit of self-pity and like a fool, I followed after you to seek peace of mind. Thus is my reward for trying to reason with an elf!"

"A fool you are," Legolas cried, and he seemed to grow taller as his passion climbed. Anger whipped the depths of his green eyes into twin maelstroms of emotion and a glint of silimant light shone within them. "A fool you are, and no companion of mine. I want you nowhere near to me. Get you gone!" the elf ordered.

"I will not!" Gimli clenched his hands into fists and stood his ground belligerently. "I shall not be ordered about by a....." He swallowed the hollow rage which threatened to become real and thanked the Valar for the absence of his axe. "I will not leave," he finished simply. He folded his arms once more to indicate his determination, and to quell the itch which tingled like needles and pins at his fingertips to have at the elf, axe or no axe.

"You will not..." the elf echoed contemptuously. "What is this, Gloin's son? A show of pride? Would you keep up this semblance of friendship and convince even yourself that the ugliness which seethes from your soul this night is a creation of the Ring? It is not. Hard feelings have been there ever between us." Even as the elf said the words, the storm subsided in his eyes and the fey white light in them vanished only to be replaced by a hopeless calm. "Perhaps it shall ever be so. The Ring is an instrument of evil and has not the ability to create what does not exist. It mocks but it cannot make, Gimli.

Gimli felt as if he were near to flying to pieces with frustration, but he looked at Legolas steadily for a long time and his voice was firm when he finally replied. "The Ring makes use of us and twists our excusable faults into inexcusable sins, son of Thranduil. It cannot create but it does feed and distort the tiniest fragments of selfishness and hatred it finds in all our hearts and would turn us to mere beasts at the mercy of our whims and basest natures."

"Are we not?" The elf turned his head and fixed his gaze upon the dwarf. His eyes lingered not upon Gimli's face but upon a point below his folded arms. The dwarf glanced down and noticed the splotching red stain which showed at his ribcage; the dwarf's wound had been aggravated by his exertions and the blood had seeped through the bandaging and the light cloth of his shirt. Gimli grunted with annoyance and cast his cloak forward to hide the tell-tale spot.

"We are not," the dwarf said. "I should not be out here otherwise. Nor should you be, if it was e'en so. You irritate me to distraction at times, my friend... most times, truth be told, but I bear no deep, unfulfilled desire to end that incorrigible eternal life of yours. Do you harbor that much resentment for me?"

The plain hurt in Gimli's voice trussed the heart of the elf and jerked it from his breast; Legolas hung suspended in speechless grief for a shattered second ere he was able to say, "Nay, I do not, Gimli."

"Then come, Legolas. Fight it," the dwarf bade him. "I do not have the strength left to fight it for both of us. A task we did undertake to set aside our differences and now unfairly are we set at unnatural odds. Yet the Ring would use our strife to hinder Frodo's steps, and lest you plan upon leaving the Ringbearer to defend himself, I see no other way for us but to resolve this somehow."

Legolas rubbed the back of his hand across his face and blinked away the sand that dusted his lashes. He drew in a soft sigh and it was his turn to flush with shame. "You speak wisely, Gimli," he said. "My words are but empty maunderings and not at all what I intended. Forgive me, Gimli, but I do feel it still." And he fell quiet once more, his eyes distant.

"Oi!" Gimli exclaimed. "Legolas, stop withdrawing like that. Silence seems to breed contempt between us. Speak if you are troubled."

"I know not what to say," Legolas protested.

"It matters not; speak nevertheless. I should rather hear you speak your own mind than I would listen to the whispered lies of the Ring in my head."

"When I open my mouth I find that the lies of the Ring are what comes forth, Gimli. I should say I am not myself, but no longer can I tell!"

Gimli made to offer a reply, but Legolas turned his back on him and walked away. Gimli started at the sudden end to their conversation and became indignant. "Where are you going?" he demanded, and moved to follow.

Legolas gave no answer, but strode obliviously across the shore and right off into the river.

"Legolas?" The dwarf hitched his cloak about his shoulders and stomped after him, plunging undeterred into the water as well. "Where are you off to, fool of an elf! Turn and speak to me. You cannot leave?"

Surely he was not leaving. The dwarf felt anger rise within him, but the crisp, running water leached it away. "I will not let you leave!" he blustered, but Legolas heeded him not.

"Legolas, by Aule, I will...."

Legolas stopped abruptly ere Gimli could conjure a suitable threat. The elf's grey cloak billowed in the water that eddied about his thighs. Gimli thrust his way to his companion's side, now thrashing up to his waist in the freezing current. The cold sank into his bones; his legs became instantly numb and his voice was sucked from his chest by the shock.

Gimli gritted his teeth and looked Legolas up and down, glowering at the unaffected elf.

"Well?" he gasped finally, realizing that Legolas intended to go no further and meant to remain where he was regardless of the dwarf's uncomfortably tingling extremities. "Why are you standing in the water?" The elf did not answer him, which prompted him to ask again, louder.

"It helps me to think," the elf said, and his voice was almost serene.

Gimli made an indelicate sound and looked out over the stream into the darkness. He nodded sullenly. Then he barked, "Fine! You need all the help you can find." He folded his arms, feeling wet and ridiculous, two conditions he detested. He swung his head to glare up at the tall elf accusingly. "Why am *I* standing in the water?"

"Never have I claimed the ability to fathom your mind, dwarf." Legolas considered him with a lingering side-long look. Gimli caught the definite hint of a smile upon the elf's lips. "I should venture to guess it is an effort to be rid of that scent. It was not so much the noise of your graceless feet which gave you away to me yonder as it was the rather pungent smell of rotting fish which preceded you. I fear to ask what is was you were up to ere you found me."

Gimli cleared his throat and drew himself up haughtily. "As you seemed to prefer Gollum's company to mine this evening, I made an effort to imitate the creature's charms," he said. "Am I to take from your remarks that I have been less than successful?"

Legolas chuckled at that, a mellow sound which was genuinely yielded. "As far as company goes, Gollum was not so disgruntled as some I could name," he replied.

"Gollum does not have to put up with you," the dwarf grumbled. "Dead fish are not so vexing and never argue."

"You have spent time discoursing with dead fish then, have you?"

"Frequently, whenever the opportunity to do so arises," Gimli replied. Oddly, as he stood there freezing to death the dwarf felt the tension between them slacken. It was hardly perceptible, but suddenly he was more aware of aught around him and inside of him. Legolas, too, seemed to revive a little and his eyes were not so bleak. Gimli took the opportunity and ventured, "A bargain I shall make with you, elf. I will spare you the tedious details of my night to this point if you will share yours with me. I would know what the creature was doing here, Legolas."

"Trumping my riddle," the elf said softly. His drawn face eased a little and his shoulders relaxed.

Gimli sighed. "You are in a most interesting humor. Waspish replies and enigmatic hints you offer me in place of straightforward answers; almost as futile it is to try to hold a conversation with you as it once was with Gandalf. Are all elves and wizards as captivated by their own mystique or was I simply unfortunate enough to fall in with two of the worst on this damnable quest?"

"If you must know, these vast and immortal thoughts of mine are preoccupied by a longing for dry clothing and the warmth of a fire, as well as a certain curiosity as to how long a stubborn dwarf might stand here by my side ere he shivered himself to pieces."

A withering stare from the sodden dwarf drew another laugh from the elf, and he hastened to add, "I am sorry, Gimli. I know not what Gollum meant by seeking me. I suspect many things, but all is not yet clear to my mind. I am uneasy, for I fear the Enemy has not been idle during our time in Lorien. What I gleaned from Gollum did much to unsettle me and I had intended to return to camp with all haste. There is a more immediate peril which shall make itself known ere long, I think, and it will not do for any of us to be caught at unawares when it comes."

Gimli let forth a tired breath. "I will not be the one to bring this Company to ruin."

"I would not have this Company brought to ruin at all," Legolas said, "though it seems we court defeat for all our good intentions. We might hold the darkness at bay for a time, but we cannot hope to withstand it. Our presence shall grow to be a burden upon the Ringbearer moreso than it shall benefit him, I fear. He knows this. So much do we expect from Frodo Baggins when we can do so little for him."

Gimli looked sharply at the elf. "You do not suggest that we should abandon him?"

"Nay. Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens," the elf said with a smile. "That none of us could do, Gimli son of Gloin, though I fear we shall lose him or be lost to him, verily, even those he does hold closest to his heart. It is but a matter of time. That much is clear to me now."

"Surely not all of us," Gimli muttered. The image came to him of Frodo and his faithful Sam turned against one another as he had Legolas had been turned and his mind recoiled from such a thought. He shared a troubled look with the elf. "Let it not be so. Let the halflings be made of sterner stuff than mere elves and dwarves."

"Elbereth, I could not bear it otherwise. It is my hope," Legolas said. He placed a hand upon the dwarf's shoulder. "Enough. Come, my friend. We carry on past good measure and you are turning a most unseemly blue."

The elf guided him to shore and Gimli allowed himself to be led, but his face was still grim. "Naught has changed, Legolas. If we draw near Frodo, we are in danger and we bring danger to him in turn until we can rid ourselves of the influence of that cursed bit of gold." Gimli stroked his beard. "Too remote is my wish as of yet to personally reduce the Dark Lord to smoking ash with my axe," he grinned fiercely. "I fear I shall have to settle for a less dramatic show of resistance for now." His dark eyes snapped with defiance. "If Frodo is doomed to walk alone, we must do at least what we may to smooth the path before him while we are able."

"So long as we do not smooth his path by slathering it with our own shed blood," Legolas said. He became thoughtful. "It seems the Ring's instinct is to divide and conquer. We shall cling more tightly to one another. If our reason cannot to be trusted, than we shall trust one another beyond all reason and listen to its lies no longer! If it becomes too much for us to bear, we shall have Aragorn or the hobbits dash cold water at us until it looses its hold." The elf's laughing eyes grew solemn, "Do you trust me, Gimli?"

Gimli regarded Legolas. He nodded firmly. "Aye, moreso than I trust myself these days."

"Good. My life is in your hands and yours is in mine. Thereby might we prove some use to Frodo rather than a hindrance."

"An easier thing to put into words than to put to action, I should think," Gimli said.

"As most things are," the elf replied. "So far we have seen naught but feckless flight and light skirmishes with plodding orcs. I should welcome the challenge, I think." Legolas's smile was hesitant, but brave and brilliant as starshine when it came.

Gimli snorted. "Light skirmishes.... Leave us not carry this to imprudent extremes, my enthusiastic elf. It does not bode well with me to make light of the power of the Ring. Such folly is what led to that," the dwarf crooked a finger at Legolas's injured face, "and this," he pressed a hand to his own wound. "We may have a better understanding of the danger, but a danger it remains for us. This is probably a most ridiculous plan conjured by two who should benefit from sleep than plotting, but where you will go, I will follow."

Legolas bowed solemnly, then proffered his hand. Gimli clasped it. "So be it."

"Aye. Now we had best be getting back ere the next watch awakens. After the trouble I took in wresting the first watch from Boromir, he will have my head if he awakens to find that I have left Frodo standing guard in my stead."

They had gone but a little ways when Legolas gave a small cry and suddenly flew around. Gimli frowned after him and wondered if the elf intended some daft foray back into the water, but Legolas loped back to where he had been sitting and scooped something up from the sand. He returned with a sheepish smile upon his face and Sam's cooking-pot tucked under his arm.

"More is the woe I should bring upon myself," the elf said, "had I left this behind and incurred the wrath of Samwise Gamgee."

-----------------------

Frodo stared at the licking flames of the campfire and mused over the shadowy patterns they wove. Sibilant smoke wafted upwards and mingled with the air, twining and winding higher ere it was snatched and pulled apart by the breeze. It was the Company's wont to let the fire die rather than feed it upon the first watch of the eve except in their travels in climes which were too cold to allow for it. Chill it was here along the banks of the Anduin, but Frodo huddled cozily within the blanket he had cast about his shoulders and he was quite warm. He kept the fire burning because he was waiting, and the dancing flames were better company than the uncertain darkness that lurked beyond.

The fire popped and crackled as it nibbled at some particularly stubborn knot of wood, jolting Frodo from his drowsy thoughts. He roused himself and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, then rose from his seat to quietly fetch his waterskin and rid the tickling smoke from his throat. He crouched near their baggage and drank deeply, slaking his thirst. He sat for a moment digging his toes into the sand and listening to the soft sounds of the slumbering Fellowship, then drew another deep draught and let the water trickle over his tongue. When he had emptied the water, he plunked the empty bottle on top of the bundles of supplies and shifted to rise.

He had listened for the sound of the wayward companions returning for such a long time now that it took him several moments to realize he was hearing just that. He looked up past the red flames of the campfire to see the silhouette of two unmistakable figures approaching out of the darkness, and a smile broke over the hobbit's face. He stood and tiptoed softly towards them, blinking rapidly to chase away the phantoms of the firelight which blurred his vision.

Gimli strode ahead of the two and he met the hobbit with a tight smile and a swift embrace. The dwarf stepped back and gave a deep bow.

"At your service, Master Baggins," he growled close to Frodo's ear, then he clapped the halfing upon the back with a strength that nearly bowled Frodo over and moved past him towards the fire. Frodo's smile broadened, though he cringed a little at dwarf's decidedly wet state.

He turned then to look up at Legolas. Frodo hesitated uncertainly and wasn't quite sure what to do, but the elf drew near and knelt before him ere he could make up his mind. This time Legolas reached out and took the hobbit's smaller hands in his own. His eyes were steady and strong and Frodo felt his heart lift at the sight of the conviction within them.

"I ask once more to serve you, Frodo, if you will have me," the elf said.

The hobbit shook his head and ventured meekly, "U-gerino buiach, Legolas, nedio ha galu le esta meldiren a boren."

Legolas laughed lightly. "You bear the accent of an elf of Imladris, with a hint of a halfling of the Shire. It delights me so." He placed Frodo's hands upon his heart. "Onen le cuen, elvellon. Si anira anno le bronwe ufiriel-nin," he replied.

Frodo took him and raised him up and led him back to the fire. Legolas too was soaked quite through, Frodo noted. Whatever the elf and dwarf had been up to this night, it was doubtlessly a tale worthy of hearing and Frodo made a promise to himself to ask when an opportunity arose. For now, he was simply thankful they had returned.

Gimli donned drier garments and came to settle upon his bedroll near to Frodo, who was nestled with Sam in theirs. Frodo lay quietly with his back to Sam's, resting his head upon his elbow, and he watched the dwarf. Gimli was well-pleased and his brown eyes softly reflected the light of the fire's bright embers as he sat soaking up the warmth. The dwarf seemed strong again and Frodo felt a sense of safety being near him. He had missed that most terribly.

The dwarf looked across the fire at Aragorn, who breathed softly, curled upon his side. "Our Ranger sleeps soundly tonight," Gimli murmured. "I have seen him crack an eye at the skitter of a field mouse showing more than a passing interest in our food stores, yet tonight I believe an army of orcs could march through and steal his blankets from under him and he should not stir a hair. He has not moved since our return. Should we wake him?"

"Nay, I should say not. He is weary," Legolas answered him with a quiet voice. He drew near, comfortably clad in clean clothing and looking much more himself. He settled down to sit behind them and said, "He takes more than his share of responsibility in an effort to prove himself a leader. He shall be a good king, though his role chafes him as of yet and he is less able to accept praise for aught he has accomplished than he is to blame himself when best laid plans go awry and those in his charge chance to fall by the wayside."

Gimli snorted. "Tripped, stumbled, and fell head over heels off the wayside to land unflatteringly at the bottom, in our case," he muttered, and he winked at Frodo.

The dwarf's words were enhanced by the late hour and vaulted stillness and they nudged Frodo's tired mind past its limit. He snickered. He stifled the noise, but only snuffed louder. It was all too far removed from the gravity of that awful day and from the certainty of worse days to come. He found himself trying to quell quiet sobs of helpless merriment ere long, overwhelmed by the profound absurdity he made of it all. Gimli regarded him with kind amusement and traded looks with Legolas, and the dwarf chuckled himself, which did not help. Frodo choked and laughed until his eyes streamed and the stitch in his side made it difficult to draw breath. He felt Sam stir beside him in his dreams in protest and Gimli cleared his throat, and Legolas's voice coaxed them both to be silent ere their restlessness got out of hand.

"Hush! Hush, my fine pair of bruilhunaiw, or you shall wake the others," the elf said. "Lie back and sleep," he bade them. "I will keep watch."

At this, Gimli shifted uncomfortably and his face grew grim. Frodo quieted and lay very still, feeling suddenly very hot and resisting the urge to throw off his coverlets, though only a moment ago he had sought their warmth. He hoped the sound of his beating heart was not as loud as it did throb in his ears.

But Legolas seemed to sense the change in Gimli also, and as if responding to some unspoken plea, the elf unfolded his legs and leaned near the dwarf.

"By your leave only, Gimli," he said. "Would it please you better to keep watch with me until Boromir does wake?"

Frodo watched as Gimli looked up at the elf, his jaw tight, and then shook his head. "Nay. Of course not," he said firmly. The dwarf closed his eyes and made a swift motion with his hand about his face as if he were beset by insects. Frodo could see none flying about the air; if aught was to be said about the spell which hung over this barren land, the moths and midges and strident crickets which were the constant companions of those who would sleep under the stars were also scarce. Frodo turned his eyes back to the dwarf curiously, but Gimli laid himself down and drew his thick covers over himself and settled back.

"I should not refuse an offer of sleep when it is freely given," he said. "Take the watch. Just be sure to get some rest yourself this night. If I have a surly elf to deal with come the morning, I shall trade you off for Merry and Peregrin and let Boromir suffer your company."

Frodo sensed something more between them that what was said, but when the elf noticed the hobbit's questioning eyes upon him, he merely nodded reassuringly and motioned for Frodo to lie back.

Ere Frodo allowed his eyes to close, he saw Legolas glance over at Aragorn, and saw the Ranger shift ever so slightly beneath his blankets; the elf narrowed his eyes knowingly and smiled.

Legolas leaned back with a soft song on his lips and thus lulled his companions into deep dreams as he watched over them. Ever did his gaze stray to the skies, however, and he was disquieted to feel the air change about them as the wind ceased and then shifted from the east.



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Translations (Loosely):

U-gerino buiach, Legolas, nedio ha galu le esta meldiren a boren. (I would not have you serve me, Legolas, but would count it a blessing to call you a friend and ally.)

Onen le cuen, elvellon. Si anira anno le bronwe ufiriel-nin: (I gave to you my bow, elvellon. I would give to you now my undying faith.)

bruilhunaiw: Ah, fun with phonics. My own made-up word compounded of other Sindarin words to form the pl. noun (jaybirds.) Have fun breaking it down, if you like.

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(ME: Hey hey! Fanfic is back up and functioning. Until I try to post this latest chapter, when the site shall promptly crash again, no doubt.... technology hates me. Even when I have nothing to do with the business end of it. Sorry to have had to wait so long to post this chapter. But look, I included a "well" in the dialogue just for Miss Cam! She has such a melodic scream..... More soon!)

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.

Story Information

Author: Nimue

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Work in Progress

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 09/14/04

Original Post: 07/13/02

Go to Unravelling the Tale overview

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