Gollum watched the Company with frustration from the low place where the reeds grew tall.
He watched. And he waited, and he cursed the bright light of the Yellow Face in the blue sky, for it lied. It warmed the land and promised life and gave no hint of the chill threat that blew with the East wind. Death was winging through the air, far away but far too near, like a hawk preying hares, seeking their warm, beating flesh, driven by a hunger that was crueler and a heart that was colder.
And there they basked in the open sunlight without a care.
He watched them and sniffed. He fidgeted and fretted impatiently, kneading the mud beneath him with his fingers and toes for several long, absent moments before he took notice of the promising stickiness of it. He dipped up handfuls of the wet, black earth and began to slap it over himself until it coated his limbs and dripped from his hair. He blinked clinging clumps of it from his eyes and rubbed the dirt over his thin arms. It felt cool upon his skin and it hid him. It was good, very good.
"Sméagol knows how to hide, preciouss, yesss," he muttered. "Sméagol is clever! He knows. Foolishhh! Foolish and silly they are. The day is high! They wastes time in talkingss and eatingss and sleeps when they must make haste. Must run or hide, or they will perishhh. They do not see? They do not listen, precious. We tell him, poor Sméagol does. O yes-s-s-s-s… we tells terrible Elf, Elf-trickster! and still they stayss where they will be found, where the Yellow Face shows them up." He shook his matted hair and struck the ground, spattering the oozing water. "Foolishh," he hissed through his pointed teeth.
He did not know why he had sought out the Elf. He had not intended to. He had thought only to follow him, to make certain the Elf was not being tricksy, deceiving. He had meant to sneak up on the Elf to be sure that Elf was not sneaking up on him, but instead he had found the silly, shining creature standing in the water staring up at the stars, singing those words.
Sméagol glowered. Foolish. He told the Elf, warned him. He had risked much to do so, and he might even have made him see, guess, understand the danger, if he'd only had the time, if it had not been for....
The Dwarf's voice rolled through the air out across the water, shouting a word, a name. Gollum didn’t know and didn’t care. He heeded naught but the loudness of it. He cringed and craned his long, thin neck to peer through the waving reeds. They were lounging upon the shore, the Dwarf and a hobbit. Not the hobbit, he noted with disappointment, but the sober, silent hobbit who belonged to the Baggins. He watched them and swallowed the wicked urge to let out a curdling howl that would send them both scrambling. He chortled at the thought, but he dared not do it. He felt agitation welling up inside him until he thought he should burst with it. Other times, other places where he had willed them to be less vigilant, to ignore the scuff of an errant flapping foot or the prickle of their senses as they felt him gazing at them, they had inevitably come searching for him and given chase. Now, when they should have been most on edge, when he might have welcomed their unease -- if it could but prompt them to move on! -- they seemed oblivious to all but their small doings up there on the little island and lingered longest where it was most unwise to do so.
Gollum crouched there and he watched their activities with glum disinterest. He curled up his toes and rocked back and forth on his heels, humming a low, tuneless song.
The dark presence leapt on his unguarded mind with startling swiftness. It penetrated him, hurting him, and he gasped and swallowed hard, pawing at his neck and throat as if he could feel a hand squeezing there, a rope drawing tight. The Black Hand grasped for him and the iron claws tore the thoughts from him ere he could attempt to ward it away. He could never hide from it, not since they had caught him and broken him. It was old, familiar pain to him now, for it came to him often, but it still terrified him, still overwhelmed him. He choked, gave a muffled screech and clamped his thin arms about his head. "We don't have it!" he yelped. He fell flat to the ground and whimpered into his hands as he covered his mouth and his face.
He listened for a long, painful moment. Then his words changed from faint, fitful pleas to a fawning whine. He answered the Voice haltingly.
"I haven't found it," he sobbed wearily. "It isn't there, gollum! Ach! Sss -- no! It isn't here and it isn't there, and I won't search for it. I won't and I can't. Can't! Can't. They're awake, always awake and waiting to catch me, us. Always awake, always watching," he groaned.
The claws pierced through him, ripping at his soul, mocking him, twisting him until he was a limp, flopping thing pawing at his face, digging at his own flesh with ragged nails. He wept, wept silently so as not to give himself away to those who were near, those who did not understand the danger, those to whom he could not speak and those of whom he would not speak, not to Him, not lest He find them and take it! He wept with quiet, racking sobs. He did not want Him to have it. Sauron’s miserable spy cowered there, shivering silently in the mud. The sound of long, rushing water was pulled from his thoughts and the Black Mind perceived the scent of the boggy reeds that surrounded him.
The Dark One sought the Precious, and yet without the Precious, His Sight could not reach this far yet, across the running water. Gollum let forth a brief, mad, mocking burst of laughter, but it was small satisfaction he felt. He mourned greatly for the hint of their river journey that was taken from him. There were other servants to fear. It would hone the search for them. Hawks to hares. They would find them. Find it.
And when it was returned to Him, He would eat the World.
Gollum babbled softly to himself; the hunger he felt in that brief touch of the Mind overwhelmed him. His own consuming hunger was but a trifle in comparison to His and he trembled, shook, moaned where he crouched, pulled unmercifully in all directions by conflicting desires.
If he had it, he could hide it! It would be his and no one could take it from him, and he would have the strength to keep the Precious from Him forever. But there was no way to get it, not with them guarding it, and there was no help for it. If harm fell upon the hobbit and the others, if he led His servants to it, it might be lost beyond retrieval and taken to Mordor. That wouldn’t do at all. Not at all.
Gollum lifted his head and his eyes were bright and vicious. "Not for you," he growled desperately. He ignored the pain and held out a bit of stubbornness. "It is far, far away and not here. Go away! They are lost. It is lost. I am lost. Go to sleep."
Gollum thought he heard dark laughter. The Hand withdrew, satisfied by what little it had gleaned. There was time after all, time to spare, time to kill, and He was patient.
The wind from the East told of black things rising. Gollum felt the crushing pressure lift a little from him and he found his senses. For several long moments he did not move. He blinked and slowly lifted his head to look up, expecting to see something terrible hovering there. But the blue sky was clear and the air was light and the Sun still made bright, empty promises.
Gollum swallowed. His heartbeat slowed and he took gulping breaths. The mud which covered him had all but hardened into a tenuous grey shell over his glistening black skin. It made him feel more secure, hidden, safe, though it was somewhat difficult to blink his eyes and flex his stiffening fingers. He looked quite like a part of the mudge of the shallows off the River, so much so that a hapless frog took him for such and hopped across his foot. Food had been scarce of late; living things had fled or hidden or were unwholesome in these lands. He snatched it up lightning-quick and squeezed it until it died and he laid it down next to him, licking his thin lips in anticipation of the tender, dangly legs of it.
"Foolisshh..." he sighed, and he took up once more his irascible observation of the others upon the other shore, watching them squander time they did not have. He squinted and sought the hobbit, who remained always away by the fire, surrounded by the others as they came and went. Gollum made small gestures with his hands, as if he might impel them to move, to push onward, but it did no good; they did not heed his silent coaxing.
So there was little he could do but settle in and sit and sulk and listen to them and follow them when he dared to do so. He hated them. He flopped to his belly to the mire and picked at the dried mud upon his knuckles.
"Chessstnuts..." he declared after a bit of sullen contemplation. He made a face, causing the mud to crease and crack about his mouth and eyes. He studied his dirty fingernails indifferently and chewed at them and spat. He sniffed with disdain, then scooped up the frog and held it in front of his nose. "Loves to fall but cannot climbss...." he explained loftily to his catch. "It's water, it is, precious."
Water. The sound of running water filling the air and filling his ears and filling his mind. The sound of the River taken from his thoughts and imperfectly pinpointing their route to the cruel Eye that sought them.
Gollum shook his head. He pulled the frog apart with slow relish and he ate it.
It was early evening when finally the Fellowship set off, well-rested and restless to move on. They left the eyot behind. Some were eager to be off and finish this leg of their journey; some had little desire to stay in that place which had proved to be a small testing ground of their sore hearts. All of them felt time coaxing them insistently onward after their late start and they dipped their oars deeply into the water, pouring their strength into the effort. They rounded the curve of the River to speed South once more, the sleek, swift boats eating up the distance that stretched before them.
There was light chatter and gentle speech between them as they moved, and they spoke of such things as home and family. It was the sort of evening that nurtured these thoughts; the world seemed not so large to those who were cupped beneath its dome of winking, pale stars. The same glittering lights shone down upon the Shire as well as Gondor and the Lonely Mountain, the Greenwood and Rivendell. Their first journey by night awoke in them nervous energy and their enthusiasm swelled as they got underway. They dredged up favorite stories and songs, and endured the game that arose between Merry and Gimli to best one another at bawdy tavern rhymes. (The hobbit proved the victor as a result of Gimli's sound reluctance, given the circumstances, to make use of verses that unflatteringly referred to Elves. Such a constraint rather limited a Dwarf's selection.) They called out to one another, summoning the voices of their companions and answering them in like as folk will do when plunged into uncertain darkness, wishing for company, seeking reassurance that they were not alone.
And so on throughout the dwindling light of the eve until nightfall they embraced the opportunity to speak, those who wished to be heard, and to listen, those who wished to merely belong. Their voices and laughter carried on for some time, becoming softer and more intimate in degrees as the light vanished and shades of twilight grew deeper, until gradually they fell to whiling the time in quiet conversation between those who were closest and shared a boat.
Frodo had been unusually talkative this night, lending his voice often to the banter of the group, even singing a few songs himself. When the Company withdrew, Frodo teased Aragorn into a lengthy discussion upon herb lore, a topic which almost immediately sent Sam spiraling into weary disinterest. It lifted his spirits to see Frodo acting so much more like his old self, but gardener though he was, Sam held a fancy for trees and flowers that caught the eye or leafy vegetables; he was no healer. He listened for a while to them talk about such things as kingsfoil and juniper and pretended to be enthralled until Aragorn launched into a rather explicit discourse upon the merits and effects of aloe-bitters. At this point, Sam firmly blocked up his ears and listened no more.
Despite the fact that he had slept away most of the morning, the darkness suggested sleep to Sam and he was hoodwinked by it like a canary with its cage covered. His eyelids began to droop and his head to nod as the voices of Aragorn and Frodo droned on. An hour passed and true night settled in. He twitched and turned for the umpteenth time in an effort to get comfortable in the uncomfortable boat, and after one last squirm, he found himself looking back over the head of his master and staring at the patterns of the moonlight shimmering upon the water. He stared out at the darkness.
He was quite disconcerted to find that the darkness was staring back at him.
A sudden, slight movement in the water behind the boats caught his sight, a break in the even ripples of the River: At first he but stared at it listlessly, then he sat up and rubbed his face. It looked to be a log floating along in the half-light behind Gimli's boat. Except the log was slowly catching up.
Peculiar, he thought sleepily. They were all floating on the stream together, after all. He ignored it for a moment, but when he turned back, it had gotten closer still.
Then he saw the eyes: two pale sort of points, shiny-like, on a hump at the near end of the log. And the log had paddle-feet, like a swan's almost, only they seemed bigger, and kept dipping in and out of the water. Mesmerized, Sam could only gape for the longest time as he struggled quite literally to make heads or tails of it.
Gimli's back was turned to it and the Dwarf made no sign to suggest he knew it was there, whatever it was. Sam watched it coming along fast now and getting close behind the Dwarf and he sat up straighter, meaning to give a shout to warn him.
But when he looked again, it wasn't there.
Whether those two lamps had spotted Sam moving and staring or whether he came to his senses, he didn't know, but it was gone. He thought he caught a glimpse, with the tail of his eye, as the saying went, of something dark shooting under the shadow of the bank. He could see no more eyes, however.
He was on the verge of interrupting Aragorn and Frodo, but the certainty of what he saw faded with the racing of his heart. What could he have said that would not have made them think he was touched in the head? If any of the others noticed the mysterious log he would have joined the hue and cry, but it seemed no one had.
He rubbed his face and he thought about it for a bit, and came to the conclusion that it was but a trick of the shadows playing upon his overactive imagination. He said to himself scornfully, "Dreaming again, Sam Gamgee," and after a few troubled moments of staring without luck into the water, he shrugged it off and decided to forget about it.
But even as he drowsed once more and closed his eyelids, he could see the lingering afterimage of two pale points of light staring back at him. The recollection of the something-in-the-water came back to him only later when he had rested a little and his mind was not so fuzzy, and when the notion of a log with eyes came to make sudden, chilling sense.
Legolas held true to his word and placed his trust in Gimli. He gave his strength to the oar in his hand until their boat had taken them far down the River's path where the way was smooth and straight and the current seemed willing to do most of the work in pulling them along. Then did he lay aside his grey paddle at Gimli's bidding and change places with him, allowing the Dwarf to guide them.
Gimli watched Legolas carefully as the Elf crept to the forefront of their vessel and curled himself up quietly, nestled amongst their blankets and belongings, his cloak drawn about his shoulders, his head upon one arm. Gimli kept a stern eye upon the Elf to make certain he was actually resting and not merely feigning rest to escape an argument. But gradually the slender hand that lay by his cheek relaxed, his breathing deepened, and the blackness of his pupils absorbed the pale color of his open eyes. The Elf did not twitch even the slightest bit when the Dwarf messily crushed the life out of a spider that was attempting to scale the gunwale. Nor did he make any remark a short time later when Gimli nearly lost his oar to a playful eddy of dark water and was forced to make a quick, desperate grab in order to save the paddle and his pride. Gimli grudgingly accepted that Legolas was asleep.
The Dwarf dabbled at the steady, flowing River, sparing just enough concentration for the task, keeping their boat near the others but far enough behind to afford the Elf a little peace. The voices of the younger Halflings in the boat far ahead still drifted back in snatches here and there upon the light breeze, but they were faint and hardly to be heard. It was a quiet night; nevertheless, Gimli watched over Legolas protectively, seeking some reassurance from the smooth, serene face that the Elf's rest was undisturbed and that he did not suffer in sleep the same turmoil that had affected him earlier on.
Protectively. That was interesting. Gimli drew himself up as he came aware all at once to the feeling. He identified it and then chided himself for it.
Protectively indeed. As if he were the Elf's keeper.
And yet, was that not what they had agreed upon? Their lives in one another's hands. Gimli thought about it and decided it was quite an understandable response, after all. This protectiveness he was feeling might be distasteful, but it was justified and not to be wondered at; his interest in the Elf's well-being was an interest in his own. In battle, a warrior's survival oft depended upon the strength of those who fought beside him. If Legolas found not the respite he needed, the Valar knew what danger the archer would bring down upon the heads of his comrades. An Elf was inherently unpredictable as it was.
He knew not why it consistently fell upon his shoulders to mind the Elf upon this journey of theirs, but he supposed he was best suited for the task, resistant as he was to the Elf's wiles and ways. Aye. It was not for the sake of Legolas that he watched over him, but for the sake of them all. Gimli straightened his shoulders a little defensively, as if expecting someone to argue with his reasoning, though he there by himself in the boat.
Thus did the Dwarf appease his sensibilities, and Gimli praised himself for having resolved the matter in so uncomplicated a fashion. Not much lately had proved so blessedly straightforward and almost it was a comfort to set his mind to this task. He had a sworn duty to look out for the Elf and he would do so. This was something upon which he could concentrate, something to ward off errant thought. He settled back and watched the gentle rise and fall of Legolas's sleeping form.
An hour passed. Between the stiff yawns and the splash of his oar, Gimli became acutely aware of other tiny sounds, of the water rippling and the boat creaking, of the wind in the air, of the Elf's breathing, and of the faint voices of their companions up ahead.
In that all-but-silent darkness, Gimli's caught the hint of persuasive poison seeping through his tired mind once more.
It issued forth as if it were primed by the Dwarf's solitary concentration upon his prone companion. It was hardly more than a trifle of suggestion, winding its way through his head, intimating dark deeds that could be done by a vengeful Dwarf while the Elf was oblivious and unaware. The whisper of it was quiet, less insistent, and feeble. It mingled not long with his thoughts ere he was able to recognize it and sieve it out. It was not as strong as it had been. Nay, certainly it was not, as easy as it was to discern and dismiss it. If it had any purpose before, it truly only played with his mind now, as indolently as a child with an old toy that no longer held much interest for it.
Gimli was indignant; he felt somewhat insulted by the Ring's indifference, though immediately he was ashamed of thinking so, even in passing. It could overwhelm him as it had done before if it had the inclination; of this he had no doubt, and thankful he should be that it had all but withdrawn from his mind. He was thankful for that, very much so.
But to Gimli came the words of Legolas that morn which he had deflected, words that had pricked at his fears more than he had let on, and now they rankled his thoughts. He could not dismiss them so easily. What if their peace of mind was being paid for dearly by another member of their party, one who proved to be an easier mark for the Ring's influence? He cursed the Elf and his imagination. He looked up uneasily at the boat which led the way some distance ahead. The Dwarf could make out the outline of Boromir's broad, hunched figure and he felt a stab of guilt. Gimli bit at his lip uneasily, hoping he was not sitting by listening to a haunting drip of dark influence even as Boromir was drowning in it.
Boromir was alone. It seemed to Gimli that Boromir had always stood alone. He arrived without escort in Imladris despite the perilous road he had taken. He had deliberately seated himself apart from the others when they united in debate at the beck of Elrond. Ever had there been that sense of distance about Boromir, even as he traveled with their tight-knit Company; he chose his words sparingly, spoke of naught that was not of utmost importance to him. Always was Boromir willing to lend a hand, though never was he willing to accept one. That was his way.
Gimli stared intensely at Boromir in the darkness as if he could bore straight through the Man and see the inner-workings of his mind. Did he indeed keep council with himself now as was his wont, or had another voice insinuated itself into the silent spaces of his reticent thoughts? Gimli wondered fearfully if the Elf had been right, if Boromir heard the whispers that much more strongly now that it had withdrawn from them, if indeed he and Legolas had only succeeded in routing the Enemy in Boromir's direction.
That did not sit well with the Dwarf at all. Had it been a band of marauding Orcs, he would have stood his ground to allow his comrades a stronger fighting chance; one did not deflect danger from himself if it meant putting another in harm's way.
Boromir was a stalwart companion, arrogant at times but reasonably so; he was a son of noble birth and nobler spirit, one of the few who courted pride graciously. Gimli liked him. He would have made a fine Dwarf. A fearsome fighter he was in battle and direct in his manner. Some would say he was brash, but never did he boast more than he was capable of giving. He was implacable, yet compassionate, and he watched over the little ones of their Company with a generous heart. Gimli could still picture clearly in his mind the sight of Boromir plunging through the white snows of Caradhras with Pippin perched high upon his shoulders. He was one of their Fellowship, for all his singular habits, and if he had grown strange of late, they knew from whence his strangeness did spring. The Ring.
“He is your ally. He is your friend."
Such words had Boromir spoken to him when the Dwarf had knelt in the sand in shame, bleeding within and without after his confrontation with Legolas.
Nay, it was not right that he should have to stand alone! Gimli decided. At this moment, if Boromir had asked, he would have gone with him to Minas Tirith. The question of their path beyond the River's end had lurked in each of the companions' minds these long, last few days, but had Boromir sounded his horn and bade them follow right then and there, Gimli's loyal heart would have leapt to answer his call.
But even as feelings of remorse and conviction stirred within him, Gimli looked at Boromir in the dark, so far removed, and he knew that the fealty of the remaining companions would not be enough for the Man. Gondor had its soldiers. Boromir's desire was not to bring a rag-tag group of wanderers to the White City to add to its defenses. His desire was to bring Frodo there.
To bring with him the salvation his people needed by way of a Halfling with a ring. To prove himself worthy of a king's -- a father's -- pride.
Boromir was the eldest son, Gimli knew. He had been raised to be a leader of Men, taught that his place was to be the first in danger, the first to conquer, and the first in fame. Boromir believed that the fate of his people rested upon his shoulders.
One could not get much more alone than that.
The more Gimli pondered the matter, the stronger was his dread, and he felt it in his stomach like a lead-weight. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and frowned. It was Frodo who needed them. It was Frodo who mattered. It was the Halfling with the too-old eyes and the weary heart plodding into steady shadow who needed them to carry him, and Gimli shuddered with horror at the notion of sweeping the little Ring-bearer unwillingly into war.
It was wrong. The Dwarf could not let him be used so. If Frodo did not choose Minas Tirith, Gimli would go with him the other way, even if it meant abandoning Boromir's cause. Even if it meant standing against Boromir. Perhaps it was the silence, perhaps it was the mood of the darkness about him, but to Gimli came the ominous realization that Boromir would not be so easily denied.
Gimli grieved then, and he prayed that Gondor's champion could be as strong as he believed he was. Stronger, at least, than Glóin's son felt at this moment. Gimli wished he could plunge his hands into the water of the River and hold it back, to slow its hasty course that drew them forward and to put off the day of reckoning that the Fellowship would soon have to face.
Gimli blinked and opened his eyes and he felt suddenly a very great need for company. He yearned to speak with someone. Aulë help him... he yearned to speak with Legolas. He looked to see if the Elf had stirred, if he had noticed the subtle fiddling of the Ring at his mind as well or if he had felt the turbulent thoughts of his companion.
It seemed he had not. The heart of Legolas was running under the stars of a summer night in some northern glade amid the beech-woods. The Dwarf leaned forward to seek for some sign of awareness upon his face, but there was none. For once, it appeared as if Legolas had actually listened to him. Perhaps he had heeded the Dwarf's promise to tie his new handsome wooden bow into a handsome knot if he did not go to sleep. Gimli smiled. He would have to remember that threat.
The Dwarf leaned forward, and he found himself peering down curiously at the Elf's dark eyes as if he could scry their depths. He had not the gift of the Lady of the Wood, however, and look though he might, he could see naught there but eerie, profound absence as Legolas walked far away from the confines of his body through the forests which housed his heart.
It was a way to pass a little time and distract himself from his cold toes. Gimli sat and studied the Elf in repose. He was amused by the sight of him. He wondered if his own eyes would look like that if it were possible for someone to peel back his eyelids to see them while he slept, as he dreamed those sorts of deep dreams that could never be remembered upon awakening, but melted away at the touch of morning's light. What was Elvish sleep like? He wondered if they ever experienced nightmares, or if they mastered their dreams as they liked to think they mastered all else around them. How nice it would be to close your eyes to a dream of your choosing, not haunted by the failures and fears that belonged to the waking world. Gimli wondered if Elves were swept away as mortals were upon unfathomable wings of dreams, or if they merely hung their minds up weightless on a thread of continuous thought, as if in a drawn-out daydream.
And most of all, he wondered how it was that Elves could sleep on like that without their eyes shriveling up and falling out of their sockets.
His own eyes promptly began to water as he considered it; he blinked them rapidly and abruptly drew back, envisioning Legolas waking to find him staring down at him with tears trickling down his face into his beard. He would have to drown himself or the Elf or both of them upon that occurrence. He snorted with ill-humour and drew his sleeve across his face, then gripped the smooth grey staff of the oar and concentrated on giving the water a few strong swipes to clear his head. He shivered at the coolness of the chill night breeze blowing over the water and he huddled deeper into his cloak.
Gimli moved to ease a cramping muscle in his left thigh and swore softly as his boot struck a solid bundle lying near his feet with a dull, metallic clunk. He nudged it out of the way. He had not donned his mail shirt ere they had begun their stretch of the journey that night, but packed it away carefully and stashed it there with him. He had shrugged it on momentarily that morning and found to his extreme vexation that the weight of it irritated his wound most painfully no matter how he padded or bound it. The Elf's white blade had parted through his flesh like a fine edge of broken glass. It bled profusely. Gimli had excused himself from his usual regiment of dressing in his protective layers by professing to his companions a sudden unease at being in a boat whilst being so encumbered. He was quite certain Legolas, at least, had not been fooled, but Gimli would never have admitted to the real reason, and the Elf had not pressed him upon the matter. The Dwarf had reluctantly secured his armour on the floor of the boat along with his axe ere they had disembarked, letting them lie dormant next to Legolas's bow and quiver of arrows till they should once again find themselves in need of the likes of arms and steel.
That will be all too soon
, he deemed with a sigh. He scratched absently at the itching bandaging at his chest. His hand came to rest upon something nestled beneath his shirt. His expression grew lighter and he drew that something out with extreme care. He held it close, drawing off his leather gloves with his teeth in order to hold it securely in his bare hands, and he gladly abandoned his cares to reflect upon this dear possession.
Those golden strands he kept tucked away within an empty tinderbox to shield it from the filth and soil of his travels, encased near his heart. Perhaps it was not the most proper setting for such a treasure, but it served to keep it safe. He did not open the lid, for he could see clearly what was inside of it, could see it in his mind's eye as it had looked to him when she had pressed it into his calloused palm with her small, warm, white hand. He held the box with reverence and a faint smile graced his lips at the memory.
Someday he would return to his home and craft such a housing for the delicate wisps of hair that all eyes should marvel at it, and share in some measure of the joy that had infused his spirit upon receiving this show of her favour. Wrought of pure gold it should be, he mused, worked into wondrous shape as befitted his memory of Lórien. Even as he fingered gold in his mind and imagined the making of it, however, he frowned with disappointment. The Lady's gift should put even the purest of gold to shame by comparison.
Gold would not do. That was a rare admission for a Dwarf to make, but it was true in this case. It seemed to him suddenly a base and common metal unfit for such a task. Perhaps imperishable crystal, as clear as the light and the air! With the proper skill and time spent it could be a thing of such beauty that it would surpass all other treasures. The Arkenstone of Thrain would be but a bauble....
Glittering crystal facets and glorious Elf Queens vanished all at once from his thoughts as his ears caught a faint plashing noise from behind him. He might have thought nothing of it, had it not been accompanied by the rise of the hairs upon his neck that told him he was being watched. He reminded himself uneasily that theirs was the last boat; it was only with great effort that he stopped himself from whipping his head around to have a look.
He listened hard. He could have been mistaken. It could have been the noise of an animal or a leaping fish, or merely the type of queer sound one could expect to hear by a River at night, but Gimli did not think so. There were no animals here.
"What is it?" Legolas murmured. The Elf stirred and lifted his head and his eyes met the Dwarf's in the darkness.
"We have company," Gimli said, his voice low.
Legolas blinked with surprise and became hotly aware; he slid back carefully and sat up to rest against the boat's narrow pointed prow. He looked past the Dwarf, his shining eyes as sharp as knives, piercing the night, seeking their mark.
Gimli remained motionless, clutching his paddle with numb hands, his gloves lying in his lap beneath the tinderbox. He knew what followed them. He did not try to look back himself but instead watched for the reaction upon the Elf's face.
In the space of a few heartbeats, Legolas's eyes found their target and they widened with wonder, gleaming so brightly that Gimli almost thought he could see the creature reflected there.
"It is him," Legolas breathed softly.
"Delightful," Gimli grunted. His shoulders relaxed a little. "And what, pray tell me, are we to do about it sitting here in this boat? I have naught to spare to throw at it. I could smack it with my oar."
"He is not yet so near as that," Legolas whispered. "He is floating a goodly way back, half-submerged, pushing through the water like a salamander."
"Do we alert the others?" Gimli asked, his lips barely moving. He yearned to glance behind him and catch a glimpse of the creature, though it was unlikely he should see much of him if Gollum was in the black water and keeping his distance.
"It should do no good, I think. They could do no more about it than we can. He would vanish ere we could raise the alarm."
"I do not like to encourage its notion that it can follow us whither it will without consequence," Gimli hissed. "It means dark mischief and more besides. Had I the means, I would kill the thing now and spare us the trouble later."
"Hush, Gimli, please," Legolas bade him. "Speak softly if you must speak at all." A line of irritation creased his brow, though his peerless sight did not stray for an instant from the creature. "Do not frighten him away."
Gimli cast the Elf a sour look. "Aye, the last thing I should want to do is frighten it away," he said. "What would you have us do, Master Elf? Throw food to it, coax it along behind us until we stop to rest? Ask Aragorn if we might keep it as a pet to fawn about and lick our boots and cut our throats in our sleep?" The Dwarf's whisper rose to a loud murmur. "Aragorn has leashed and led it before and I doubt he should be so eager to try it again."
"He is not an animal," Legolas snapped. This time he spared Gimli a glance, but it was a disapproving one and bore with it a strong conviction that the Dwarf hesitated for a moment to challenge.
"Nay, not an animal," agreed Gimli. "No animal could fill me with the loathing I have for this creature. An animal has reason and is not so wakeful to destroy, lest it be threatened or hungry!"
"He hungers most desperately, most deeply," said Legolas. "He belongs to the Ring and is drawn to it."
Gimli's jaw tightened. He stared at the Elf, then he leaned forward to scoop up a generous amount of gravel and slushed sand from the floor of the boat that they had brought in with their feet. Gimli straightened and with a quick movement, he cast the dirt far out over his shoulder. It struck the water with a noise that could hardly be heard, but it did the trick. He saw the Elf's eyes flicker and follow the creature's movement as it fled.
Regret came across Legolas's face and he looked irritably at the Dwarf. "He is gone," he said stiffly. "Beneath the surface of the water and to the darkness of the shore. Why did you do that?"
"I have no doubt it will return. Be not disappointed," Gimli snorted. "Next time I shall be better armed and have something more than a handful of sand waiting for it."
"He should not be so hard to kill," the Elf replied angrily. "No thought need even to be spared for it, no more than a Dwarf might give ere he crushed a spider!"
Gimli narrowed his eyes accusingly. "Nay, no more than that, nor any more thought than a Dwarf might give ere he thrashed the deception out of a certain Wood-elf! You promised you would sleep!"
"I was asleep! I was not senseless," said Legolas.
"Then I shall not excuse your folly as being a result of exhaustion," Gimli retorted. "Give me no such sentimental clap-trap about all life having value, Legolas. I have watched you fell more foes with your arrows than I should care to count. If you stopped to grieve over every life you took, we should still be lingering in the Chamber of Mazurbul waiting upon you to finish up. Almost you are as lethal in battle as I am," the Dwarf admitted reluctantly.
Legolas ignored the compliment. He grew quite serious. "I do regret every life which has been lost in this struggle," said the Elf. "The grief of my people for the Orcs runs deeply. Folly you may deem it, but I do still hope that every arrow I loose grants not merely death, but perhaps release as well."
Gimli glowered at him. "Were you a Dwarf, I should call your bluff and call you a maudlin Elf. As you are a maudlin Elf, I suppose I haven't much hope that such a chastisement will do much good. Gollum is the Ring's slave. I care not what spurs him to seek the thing, only that he does seek it and would murder to get it. The seeds of his evil intentions are of little interest to me, and it matters to me not whether he finds 'release' or dark death at my hands. To pity him is impractical, and mercy he deserves not."
"You have not seen him."
"I think it were better you never had!"
"Perhaps," Legolas ceded. "Shall I then walk forth with my eyes shut? I would be blissfully ignorant, at least until I strayed off into shadow in my blindness."
Gimli decided he liked the Elf better when he was asleep after all. He pressed his fingers to his temple and his voice rose with conviction. "I speak not of blindness, Legolas, but of resolution!"
The Elf was startled a little by the Dwarf's fervent tone. He looked at him searchingly. "You are troubled by more than you let on," he said. "What grieves you?"
Gimli did not immediately reply. His expression was pained. He shifted away. He reached out to drag his fingers through the surface of the icy water and ran them through his hair. He made a prolonged act of tucking the tinderbox under his shirt once more and drawing his gloves back onto his hands. He looked up to find that the Elf's inquisitive eyes were still upon him, waiting for an answer.
Gimli cleared his throat. "If we allow pity and uncertainty to stay our hands when dealing with such an enemy as Gollum, what shall we do when we must confront a friend?" he asked.
"Ah," Legolas breathed in understanding. "Boromir. Do you think it shall come to that?"
"I made light of it with Sam standing nigh, but yes, I do think it will come to that," Gimli answered glumly. "He fights his own battle, but I do not think he will prove the victor. Our journey draws near an end of sorts, Legolas, once we run out of river. I have given it thought and I cannot imagine it ending well."
Legolas bit at his lip, then gave a light, humourless laugh. "Now which of us is embracing doom and defeat?"
"I am not embracing such things, Elf," Gimli said. "They have wrapped their arms about me and are trying to drag me down. I am but seeking a way to escape them."
Legolas was silent for a bit, and then he asked, "Where would you go, Gimli? Would you choose Minas Tirith and come to the aid of its people, or would you walk into Mordor and the threat that lies there?"
The name of the Black Land was not a pleasant sound to hear uttered from an Elf's lips and it made Gimli shiver. This was a question which the two companions had thought to ask one another often, but neither of them had yet done so.
Gimli sighed. "I would have chosen Gondor, but I will not abandon Frodo. Our duty is to him, and though Gandalf is gone, Frodo must still go on to fulfill his task. I think his road will lead him into shadow and not into war. It would be a mistake to take the Ring to Gondor."
Legolas nodded. "Whether or not Frodo knows it yet himself, I believe you are right."
The Dwarf closed his eyes, and he spoke of the fear he could no longer bear to keep to himself. "Legolas... Boromir will not go with him into Mordor, nor do I think he will let him go if Frodo makes that choice."
"I know," replied Legolas.
"The damned Ring spurs his ambition and could drive him to deeds I do not like to think upon. You hesitate to condemn Gollum, then how can I look to you for aid if Boromir falls prey to the same evil? He is as much a victim, and more, he is our friend. What if he succumbs, Legolas?" the Dwarf demanded. "I do not know that I could slay him if I had to. I know I could not." His voice sank. "It is not your weakness but mine I do fear," he admitted. He laughed then, but it was a hopeless sound and filled with shame. "One moment I am agony over a friend against whom I have raised a wrongful hand, and the next I am grinding my teeth at the thought of striking another down."
Legolas saw then the awful burden the Dwarf had taken upon himself. He saw the slump of his shoulders and the care upon his face and the Dwarf seemed to age even as he watched. Gimli was miserable, and his eyes were as dark as the night which surrounded them. Legolas regretted sleeping and leaving him alone to brood as he had. The Elf looked at him with concern.
It was a terrible vow, but Legolas's voice was calm and certain when he made it.
"Then he will meet his death and, Elbereth willing, find release at my hands, and not yours, Gimli,” he said quietly. “I will not hesitate. This deed shall not fall to you, come what may. I make you that promise.”
The Elf's words were not what Gimli had expected at all, and yet as Legolas spoke them, it seemed to the Dwarf as if a weight had been lifted from his chest and he could breath again. He looked up and regarded him gravely, and with a little shock.
"You fret and fuss over the feelings of a foul creature such as Gollum and yet such a vow you make without so much as a second thought?" Gimli asked hoarsely.
"Think you I am so heartless?" the Elf murmured. He smiled sadly. "Do you believe you are the only one who has mulled this over in your mind, my dear Dwarf? I have given it thought ere now, Gimli, and a second thought, and another, and more than I should like to count. I would never speak of it to any but you, though Aragorn does bear a knife unclasped at his belt even as he sleeps. The trust of this Company is sundered, Gimli, because there is an enemy among us, and it is not the wretched little creature who creeps along behind us."
"It will take Boromir...." said Gimli.
"Aye, it may. But we will not let it take him far," declared Legolas. He smiled. "Come! Up with your beard, Glóin's son! Ease your mind. Take your own sage advice. It is Boromir's battle and there is hope. We are not yet at the end of our journey and there is no use in mourning things which have not happened, and may never come to pass." The Elf cast a meaningful look over his shoulder. "It seems we have fallen behind!" he observed with dismay. "I have it in me to paddle for a while now, if you need to coddle your strength."
It was well that they were out of earshot of the others still, for Gimli's next words were not of the sort meant for polite company -- nor impolite company, nor anyone else, for that matter, other than the capricious Elf who sat laughing before him. The Dwarf did not lay down his oar, but stomped upon Legolas’s, pinning it to the floor to prevent the Elf from picking it up. With a mighty thrust of his arms, he pushed their boat forward.
"We shall tell Aragorn of Gollum when we stop," the Dwarf grunted between strokes. "He would wish to know."
"He knows already that Sméagol is nigh to stepping in our tracks ere our feet have left them. I told him of my encounter with the creature. I told him of Sméagol’s riddle. He thought it unnecessary to alarm the others without need," Legolas replied.
"I think it quite necessary," Gimli frowned, "but I will not go against Aragorn's bidding."
"It seems you are worrying enough for all of us," Legolas said. "What, then, could lighten a Dwarf's heart? Strong ale? A ready pipe? A mountain of gold? I fear that I must admit to an appalling lack of foresight; I did think to bring none of these things along with me." Legolas leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head, casting his eyes skyward in contemplation. "If I could only but recall the verses of Master Meriadoc's last lyric endeavor this eve," he said with a quirk of an eyebrow, "I could perhaps cheer you then with a song. Ah!"
With no further warning, Legolas trilled:
A fine, toothsome lass,
She becomes bold and crass,
With a drop in her eye to save her.
To kiss her is peril,
'Til we roll out the barrel,
Then in love my dear love is much braver....
Gimli ceased to paddle. His eyes went wide and he interrupted Legolas ere he could continue.
"Ai! Enough! Stop
!" he begged. "It was terrible poetry as Merry gave it, and it is worse when sung by you
!" He grimaced. "I should be very content to leave off further mention of hobbit maids and their virtues for the remainder of this night, thank you. The imagining of it is quite enough to defeat what little sanity I have left."
The Elf and Dwarf looked at one another solemnly. Then wicked grins covered their faces and they burst into gleeful laughter.
Aragorn's low whistle echoed back over the water from quite a distance ahead, where the rest of the boats had slowed to wait for them. Legolas whistled in reply, once he had managed to draw breath enough to do so. Gimli shook his head and wiped the tears of mirth from his eyes with the tip of his beard; he dutifully bent his back to the oar once more to drive them faster forward and catch them up.
"Far too long have we been upon this river, Elf!" declared Gimli in a loud voice as he brought their boat sliding back into place behind the others. "Let us persuade Aragorn to find us a good skirmish, a friendly war, a nice bit of combat and mayhem to entertain us! Surely he owes us that much!"
Aragorn sat half-turned looking back at them. "That may be, Master Gimli," he called, "though I fear any Orcs we meet shall be too feeble with age to provide any challenge, if a certain Elf and Dwarf continue to tarry!"
"Grant me some leisure, Aragorn," Legolas implored. "I must conserve my strength ere I am forced once again to rush about saving Gimli in battle. Alas! A Dwarf's axe is as unwieldy as his wit."
Unfortunately, Legolas’s lament proved partially true; Gimli’s wit chose that moment to fail him. The Elf's words set Gimli to spluttering most ineffectually and cursing as only a Dwarf can curse all the rest of the night. So affronted was he that he never managed to best Legolas, but neither did his mind sink back to that dark place of dread it had found. Had he been not so preoccupied trying to handily offend the Elf, he might have thanked him for that.
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.