19. Slow to Evil
Even more pleasing to their senses, however, was the tantalizing smell of food that accompanied his song. Sam held the last watch in the fading hours of the afternoon, and the hobbit and the Elf had conspired to supper over a small, guarded cook-fire. Out of prudent necessity, it was hardly more than a flicker of flame; Sam hunkered over the hot coals like a miser over gold, pan in hand.
“Fish!” declared Merry enthusiastically, stretching and breathing deeply. “Ah, blessed Samwise.”
“Legolas did the catching,” said Sam. “I’m just after heating them up a bit. We thought if we started at it early enough, we could have a decent meal and not lose the time.”
Legolas placed the last trout next to the hobbit, gutted and cleaned. “Even the waybread of the Elves, for all its virtue, becomes dull without respite,” he said. He laid aside his unstrung bow which seemed to double very well as a fishing pole in a pinch.
They feasted as if famished. Even Aragorn settled long enough to eat his fill, and Sam gave him a little hot water to brew tea. But for all their urgings, Legolas would take no share of the food he had brought them. The Elf declined with a light shake of his head, uninterested, and made his way instead down to the River to bathe. He came back to them, sleek and full of secrets. He paced about, waiting upon them to finish.
“Eat, Elf,” said Gimli with his mouth full. “At least sit down and give us peace to do so.”
Legolas smiled. He walked up behind the Dwarf and nudged him sharply in the back with his foot. Ere Gimli could swallow and retort, the Elf bent close to Gimli and put a finger to his lips. “Listen,” he said.
“Listen to what?” asked Gimli, but the Elf walked away. Gimli scowled and looked to Aragorn. “What is he talking about?” But Aragorn was not listening; he seemed lost in thought, picking at fish-bones, his tea untouched at his elbow. Gimli’s scowl deepened.
”The frogs!” cried Frodo after a moment. He looked triumphantly at Legolas. “I can hear frogs!”
Legolas laughed with delight. Gimli lifted his head and listened with interest to the faint croaking chorus which had escaped his notice. It was a common evening sound, but one they had not heard for several long days.
Something caught Legolas’s eye; he slipped carefully between Aragorn and Sam and approached Boromir slowly, stealthily. Boromir looked up from his meal with a wary expression. Legolas crouched before him, his eyes intent. Then with a quick movement, the Elf snatched at the air just above Boromir, making him jump. Legolas swept over to Gimli in triumph and held forth his cupped hands. The Dwarf gave him a distasteful look and set aside his dish of food ere he reached out to touch the Elf’s wrist. Legolas spread his slender fingers and a moth flew up between the two of them, trailing fine, feathery dust. They looked up to see the moth join a small host of others flitting over their heads in the almost twilight.
“We are leaving behind the barrenness of the Brown Lands,” said Aragorn. He reached for his cold tea. “Life is returning around us.”
“Aye,” breathed Legolas. He closed his eyes and smiled with deep contentment. “I can feel it.”
They could not help but be heartened by that and they finished their meal in good spirits. The trilling of the night birds joined the chorus of frogs and the air soon hummed with insects as their fire became a point of attractive light in the encroaching darkness. This was not such a joy for some; the rich, rare taste of Dwarf blood, freely accessible with Gimli still dressed in shirtsleeves, proved irresistible to the mosquitoes. Aragorn had no need to prod the Fellowship on their way again, for Gimli was soon scratching at his arms and neck and barking impatiently at them to get going while there was still something left of him.
Legolas gave little heed to the Dwarf’s threats, though he bore the brunt of them; the mosquitoes added insult to injury and completely shunned the Elf’s own fair skin. Legolas became restless as the Sun sank low. He came to Aragorn as Gimli was putting an end to the fire that was a beacon to his tiny assailants. The Elf murmured something softly to the Ranger. Aragorn gave him a curious look, but nodded. Legolas left his bow but took his knife, and then turned and climbed up the bank and disappeared.
Gimli left off smothering the last of the flames and he stared after the Elf. “What is it now?” he asked. “Where is he going?”
“He did not say.” Aragorn fastened his cloak about his shoulders and knelt to help Frodo right their boat. Boromir and Merry were seeing to theirs as Pippin and Sam took care of the dishes. “He promised he would return to us ere we were ready to leave.”
Gimli was not satisfied with that. He slapped at his neck and scratched, deciding whether or not to stalk off after the Elf and drag him back.
Aragorn looked up and noted the Dwarf’s concern. “He has a mother,” said the Ranger with a faint smile, giving Gimli back his words from yestereve. “I do not think he needs a hand to hold.”
Gimli threw him a hard glance.
Aragorn’s smile vanished. Immediately he regretted his impulsive words, fearing he had broken more of the tender ties that remained between himself and the Dwarf. “I am sorry, Gimli,” he apologized. “I did not mean for that to sound so disparaging. I had no right to speak to you thus.”
Gimli took his eyes reluctantly away from the direction Legolas had gone. He regarded Aragorn, crouched upon the ground with Frodo beside their boat. The Dwarf sighed a little, then folded his arms peremptorily across his chest. “Are you certain of that?”
Aragorn looked up at him cautiously. “Am I certain of what?”
Gimli’s brown eyes softened and betrayed him. “Are you certain Legolas has a mother?” he rumbled. “I cannot imagine anyone taking such a fancy to Thranduil.”
Frodo gave up a small laugh beside them. Aragorn looked wryly at Gimli. “Aye, I am quite certain of it,” he said. “Well and worthy a lady.”
Gimli grunted. “Well… of course Aragorn must not take sides with any of us,” he said, addressing Frodo. “Believe what you will, but I tell you Legolas is not what he pretends to be, Master Baggins! He is not a bothersome Elf, though he plays the part well. He is a Dwarf-bane, conjured up by Mirkwood’s king. I have long suspected that Legolas was sent along on this quest for the sole sake of irking me to death. And if he is not back here before long, we are going on without him.” He struck a mosquito on his forearm. “Fetch his belongings. There is no sense in leaving behind perfectly good supplies.”
Frodo laughed and got to his feet. “No sense in it at all!” he agreed.
“See that you bring me his bow as well,” Gimli said after him. “Kindling might become scarce.”
Aragorn lent his strength to Gimli and they turned the baggage boat right side up and moved it towards the water. Pippin came to help Frodo and the two hobbits set about gathering Legolas’s few things together for him, as well as Gimli’s. The Ranger and the Dwarf were left together alone for a moment.
Gimli brushed the sand from his hands and made an uncomfortable noise in his throat. “Aye,” he said, “minding after that bothersome Elf has made me irritable, Aragorn, but I hope you will not hold that against him.” This apology would have served, but Gimli offered a more direct one. “Forgive me for last morning,” he said. “Respect must be paid for in kind and I squandered what I had from you. I should have held my tongue and my temper. I have been more of a hindrance than a help to you.”
Aragorn shook his head. The darkness beneath his eyes became suddenly more pronounced, as if a hand had passed over his face and drained away a week’s worth of sleep. He spoke carefully, mindful of their companions nearby. “If you would help me, Gimli, I would ask this of you: be blunt with me, as is your wont. Never fear to speak your mind to me, my friend, whether I would heed what you have to say or no. I could use a voice of reason.”
Gimli looked at him curiously. “I am at your service, Aragorn, of course, though it seems to me between the two of us, reason runs deeper in you. Shall I be forced to admit that Dwarves often claim to be wiser than they really are?”
“I do not seek wisdom, Gimli, though you have more than your share. I seek stout courage and common sense. Gandalf sought the same from you in Moria while he felt his way through the darkness.”
Gimli furrowed his brow. “You are worried for us,” he suggested, stroking his beard. “That is understandable. Our path is uncertain and we are none of us brimming over with --”
“It is more,” Aragorn interrupted quietly. “It is in my mind as well. I am aware of its presence and it grows stronger.”
A helpless fear gripped the Dwarf’s heart as he comprehended. “No,” he said, almost to himself. And then he fixed his face in stony denial. “You cannot be touched by it.”
“I wish it were so.”
“Do not say it! You are mistaken. You cannot allow it to --” Gimli’s words fell away as Frodo returned to them and handed the Dwarf his pack. Gimli was silent, but he was unable to draw his eyes away from Aragorn.
“Will we be leaving soon?” asked Frodo, standing awkwardly between them.
Aragorn mastered himself and nodded, but Frodo noticed that something was wrong. The hobbit looked nervously from one to the other, marking their troubled faces. “Strider, I should like to know if we are in danger here.”
“We have been in danger for so long, Master Baggins, you should be accustomed to it,” said Gimli, but he did not smile.
“Nay, Frodo,” Aragorn lied to him. “Our danger is constant but not immediate. It is the end of our journey which has begun to weigh on my mind. Do not let it weigh upon yours.” He laid a hand upon the hobbit’s head, and then embraced him. “We shall leave as soon as Legolas returns.”
Gimli looked on and was sick to his soul. There was determined compassion in Aragorn’s expression as he touched Frodo. There was stark loathing there as well for the gilded evil which hung from the Halfling’s neck. Gimli turned away. He swallowed his pity for Aragorn, for them all.
Who will lead us now in this deadly dark?
“I will. And Gimli shall walk with me.”
The Dwarf summoned up the old wizard’s voice, but the resolution it had carried was dead. “The darkness defeats us, Gandalf, and you are gone,” whispered Gimli. “The first of us fallen, but not the last.” He drew a hand across his eyes, fighting despair.
The Dwarf hefted his pack, meaning to heave it into the boat. But then he noticed something odd. He lifted the pack in his hands for a closer look and he frowned.
The metal clasp which had fastened the straps together was gone. Not broken off or torn away, just gone. The loose ends were cinched together instead by several tight knots of distinct yellow thread. Gimli plucked at the strands, perplexed.
And then Pippin laid Legolas’s bow and quiver against the boat next to him. Gimli’s eyes narrowed as he shifted them from his vandalized pack to the archer’s arrows. “Motherless Dwarf-bane!” he cursed, his despair curdling to frustration. Almost he believed his own spun tales about the Elf. “Just to irk me!” He took no care to be gentle as he hurled Legolas’s things into their boat.
Legolas made a particular attempt to be conspicuous. He moved with casual haste, as if he were merely out for a quick evening stroll, unassuming, unaware. Insects whisked and buzzed through the air around him and small things rustled, some preparing to sleep, some waking for nocturnal pursuits. The Elf flicked his eyes in the direction of every movement. His sharp ears picked up the noises and sorted them, seeking the sound of a creature out of place. There were none. But he finally sensed what neither eyes nor ears could tell him. He felt watched as he walked, and he knew. It was growing darker and he had little time to spare, but he went on, seeking proof.
Legolas slid down a slight embankment and stepped over the old wood and moss-covered stones which lay about half-buried in the sand. When the Anduin was high, the long depression was filled with stagnant water drawn off from the River’s main course. Just now the ground was mostly wet clay and cracked mud. There were dry patches and clumps of grass, and Legolas leapt lightly from spot to place to get across. He felt the eyes still watching him as he came back to check upon his offering left there earlier that day.
Legolas had been awake when Sam rose to take the last watch upon the shank of the afternoon. Sam wore a long face as he stared at the River, anticipating the night’s journey. The Elf sat with him for a time, trying to assuage the hobbit’s worries about another possible storm-tossed boat trip, but to no avail. When all else failed to cheer him, Legolas resorted to the suggestion of food and left to see what he could find.
What he found was a land which was fertile, if not quite thriving. There were animals about and birds in the brush, fresh nests and a foxhole, and dragonflies skimming over the grasses. Living things fed and burrowed and trilled and scurried here and there all around him. After days in the Brown Lands, this seemed a surfeit of life to Legolas and it went to his head like wine. His elation bore him a goodly distance from the River and he wandered further than he intended ere he remembered his errand and turned downstream to try his luck at fishing.
It was upon his way back to his companions with his catch along a more direct route that he discovered the clay bed at the base of the shallow ravine.
Legolas had sensed the creature there as soon as his feet touched the cracked ground; he felt the hunter’s instinct surge from his toes to the tips of his ears, but he did not react, did not pursue Sméagol or stop to show any interest at all in the place. He hastened instead back to camp with his catch.
As Sam occupied himself with making a fire, Legolas tied the fish and settled them in the shallows of the cold water to keep. He filched two of the largest (depriving Pippin and Merry of thirds at supper), then crept back amongst the sleeping companions and appropriated something else, taking care not to wake the Dwarf, and carried it all back downstream.
Legolas took pains to make certain his gift did not look like a trap. He deliberately pressed his footprints into the ground all about the place and left the two large trout there for Sméagol as obviously as he could, staking them out temptingly. Other animals could have found them and taken them, but other animals would not have shown much interest in the last thing the Elf left there.
Legolas propped a bleached log of wood upright in the mud and drew out the silver clasp he had stolen from Gimli. It was an artful bit of metal despite its practical nature, wrought in a jagged, abstract shape of the Lonely Mountain. Legolas breathed upon it, polished it with his sleeve, and then fastened it to the log with a length of the strong yellow thread he commonly used for fletching. The silver swung there against the wood like a pendulum, shining bright and irresistibly peculiar.
Legolas had stood back then and looked it all over with satisfaction. He hoped Gimli would forgive the theft. Sméagol might be hungry enough to accept food touched by an Elf, but Legolas doubted he would carry off any object that belonged to him and reeked so of elvish taint. If Gimli’s pipe was proof, reasoned Legolas, Sméagol had no such aversion toward Dwarves.
His reasoning was sound. Legolas returned to find the log propped where he had left it, the thread still attached. The treasure had been taken along with the fish. The knot had not been broken, but untied by clever fingers that wanted the silver and not the string. The satisfaction that shone full-force from the Elf’s eyes seemed bright enough to scatter the settling gloom of evening. Sméagol had taken it, albeit with due suspicion; the little creature had not eluded capture for so long without some measure of wily intelligence. Legolas knelt and read the soft ground. He saw by the tracks that Sméagol had circled the offering ere he approached it, repeatedly drawing close to it and then jumping away. Sticks and stones lay strewn about where Sméagol had thrown them, as if attempting to spring an imagined snare.
Legolas wound the bit of yellow string around his fingers and he laughed. Sméagol was accounted for. He was still here. The raise of the fine hairs on his neck and arms told the Elf that he was very near, in fact, and still watching. Legolas rose to his feet.
“Black wings!” the Elf cried, spreading his arms. “I repay to you a debt, Master Sméagol! I know now what hunts us, and I hope that it still hunts blindly. Stay to this side of the River!” The last was as much a threat as it was a caution. “Good night!” cried Legolas, and he dashed away upstream to those who waited for him.
Gimli did not kill the Elf when he returned, although the temptation was great even without the Ring’s prompting him to do it. As twilight settled and time was upon them to leave, Legolas came bounding from the brush and down the embankment to the boats and stopped before Gimli with a foolish, exuberant look upon his face. But when he met with the Dwarf’s flint-hard expression, his face fell.
“What is wrong?” asked Legolas, abashed, his eyes searching.
Gimli opened his mouth to tell him, but the others were nearby and listening as well, and his anger dissipated from him now that the Elf was there standing before him looking so worried. “Nothing,” he sighed heavily. “We have been waiting on you.”
“Not long, surely,” said Legolas. He wondered if his small theft had upset the Dwarf so, but Gimli did not ask about the stolen clasp. The Dwarf was regarding the Elf with wistful disapproval, as one might a child making merry at a funeral. Ere Legolas could speak on it, Gimli’s eyes slid past him and the Elf turned to Aragorn.
The Ranger’s long stride brought him nigh, the sand grinding beneath the heels of his boots. He bore the same look as Gimli. “We are ready if you are,” said the Ranger to the Elf. “Is everything well?”
It did not seem so now to Legolas, and he deferred to their subdued manner. He stood before Aragorn and told him succinctly of his errand, holding the bright piece of string in his hand as testimony. The others drew nigh and listened as well to the Elf’s words, and reacted in various ways to the news that Gollum was still lurking nearby.
“Better to know he’s about, I suppose, scheming on his own, rather than out stirring up trouble to meet us,” was Sam’s reply.
“Gollum has been following us?” was Pippin’s, and he stared around as if expecting the creature to step forward and acknowledge himself. Sam poked him.
“So that is the reason you’ve all been anxious these past days!” exclaimed Merry. “Why did you not say something?”
Frodo looked warily at Aragorn. “Gollum has been following us since Moria,” he said. “Why should his presence worry us now? Has he tried anything?”
“The creature has not had the opportunity,” Boromir interjected, “and will not, if we keep moving and do not tarry to play these games with it!”
“Not a game,” said Legolas, but only Gimli heard him. “A test….”
“I had hoped to lose him,” said Aragorn. “Apart from murder by night on his own account, he could put any enemy that is about on our track. If we can catch him, we might make some use of him.”
“Of what use could Gollum be?” asked Boromir. “We should receive lies and deceit and worse, were we to capture it and try to drag it along with us. He has grown bolder! Legolas has been hunting the creature and has lured it close enough to see it and even to speak to it. It would be wise of us to rid ourselves of its menace now, while we have the opportunity.”
Pippin shifted uncomfortably, “You have been that close to him, Legolas? Why didn’t you kill it? Surely you could have?”
“I chose not to,” said Legolas quietly.
“Perhaps the choice is not yours to make,” said Boromir. He shifted his eyes meaningfully from Legolas to Frodo.
Frodo lifted his head, suddenly aware that he had become the center of their attention. “I do not understand,” he said.
“Legolas could slay it for you, if you asked it of him, Frodo.” Boromir cast a look at the Elf that was almost apologetic. “Allow Legolas to kill the creature.”
Frodo was taken aback. He stared at Boromir, aghast. His attention was riveted to the Man, else he should have seen the spasm of alarm which crossed over Aragorn’s face. Had he been as close as Gimli to the Elf, he would have felt Legolas catch his breath as well.
“Now that isn’t fair!” Sam burst out angrily. “Hasn’t he enough on his shoulders without burdening him with this? Why don’t you kill the wretched thing if you must, and have done with it! Why all this fuss?”
Legolas gave the barest nod. “I should have spoken of it to you, Frodo,” he admitted. “What Boromir says to you is true. I have become more familiar with the creature. I have been that close, and know that I could get near to him again.” He nodded again. “Near enough. What would you have me do?”
Frodo felt their eyes upon him and he flushed, feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. He shook his head dismissively, but then stopped to reconsider. He brought to mind the half-heard sound of padding feet in the echoing depths of Moria. He remembered the glimpses of pale, bulbous eyes staring back at him from the darkness. He imagined strangling fingers groping for his throat as he slept. He was tired of the fear, of having to look over his shoulder at every turn. He thought of the dull and ever-constant feeling of creeping danger waiting for him to let down his guard, to close his eyes for just a moment, to give up what belonged to him.
It was his. It came to him.
The Ring was his by right, to keep and protect it as he had promised, and he would do so. Gollum was a foul threat! A desperate jealousy rose in Frodo’s heart. The indecision which had played upon his features stilled to sullen hatred, and he brought up his hand to clasp the chain about his neck.
Sam grew agitated as Frodo’s face contorted. “Here now—“ he began, but Aragorn stepped behind Sam and placed a hand upon his shoulder, stopping his words. Sam stared at his master anxiously.
Gimli watched Legolas with as much concern. Legolas kept silent, head bowed, waiting impassively for Frodo to speak. But as Frodo touched the Ring, Gimli thought he saw the tall Elf sway just a little where he stood.
Frodo brought his hand down to his side, clenched tightly into a fist. “No!” he said.
Boromir looked at him in surprise and then frowned with disapproval. “The creature is dangerous, Frodo!” he persisted. “Gollum is capable of murder, of betrayal!”
Frodo’s blue eyes darkened with struggling conviction. “Nevertheless,” he said, “I would ask you not to slay him, any of you, lest there is no other choice.” Frodo looked at Boromir, and then at each of their faces. “We have a choice now, and I forbid you to do it.” He gazed at Legolas. “Not unless you have to,” he said and the Elf nodded gratefully.
“So be it!” said Boromir. “But it is only your safety I am thinking of, Frodo, and the safety of your companions.”
“It was Bilbo’s mercy that saved him from the Ring’s corruption,” Frodo told him. “I would give my life to see it destroyed, but I will not kill to keep it! I will belong to it when that happens.” Frodo cast his hood over his face and strode off, one hand upon the hilt of Sting.
Aragorn released Sam and let him go to his master. Aragorn stared thoughtfully after Frodo, a mixture of surprise and admiration on his face. “That is that,” he said. He drew a deep breath and let it out, and then nodded at the rest of them. “The Ring-bearer has made his decision, gentlemen. I suggest we take advantage of the dark hours and be off.”
Gimli came to Legolas and stood before him. He took his arm and turned over his hand, pulling the string from his fingers. He dangled it before the Elf’s nose accusingly. Legolas’s eyes followed the string down into the Dwarf’s dark gaze.
“Tender fools,” Gimli scolded him in a low voice. “Pointed ears and hearts as soft as your minds! Elves and Hobbits are degenerated from some same long forgotten ancestor. What would you have done if Frodo had decided otherwise?”
“He did not.”
“But if he had? Would you have slain the creature at his command?”
“It would not have mattered,” said Legolas quietly. “If it had been in Frodo to will murder, the Ring would have been in the hands of the Enemy already, for all our toil and sacrifice.”
Gimli blinked, and his face darkened as he considered the direness of the words. “Murder? You make too much of it,” he said, but he did not sound so certain. The Dwarf hesitated and then shook his head. “But it is as you say! Such a thing is not in him. Is that not why Frodo was chosen, after all?”
“It is,” said Legolas with a pained expression, “but still I was afraid! Will you be so offhanded?”
Gimli sighed. “Ah, Legolas.” He looked down and then pinched the length of yellow string between his thumbs and fingers and held it aloft. “A bridge of rope spanning the Silverlode,” he said. “The edge of the Lady’s knife. The uncertainty that I will live to see another day, or the day after that. I keep my eyes ahead of me and do not dwell upon the precariousness of the path I tread. If I stopped to consider it, I would not have the courage to go forward.” With a sharp tug, Gimli broke the string in two. He laid the pieces in Legolas’s palm and closed his fingers gently over them. “I fear you are beginning to understand mortality, friend Elf.”
Legolas followed Gimli quietly to the shore. The others had set off already down the River’s path and had a lead upon them now. The Sun was low beyond the horizon. The Elf dragged their boat out to the current and helped the Dwarf in. Legolas chased deep thoughts as they paddled and he did not speak for a very long while.
“I won, you know,” he said at last.
“I beg your pardon?” said Gimli.
“I won.” The Elf’s voice was as mild as the night air, the taunt rather meek. “You wagered what was left of your pride that Sméagol was gone and working some mischief upon the eastern shore,” he reminded the Dwarf.
Gimli dipped and swept his oar, keeping a steady rhythm. “Were those my words? I suppose I might have said something of the kind.”
“Well?” said Legolas, a little bolder. “How then shall you pay me what you owe?”
Gimli stopped his paddling and shifted around. A knavish smile took over the Elf’s face as the Dwarf narrowed his eyes at him. “I was wrong and you were right,” said Gimli. “I believe my admitting that pays off the bet, if indeed I owe you anything, my fine thief! Must I now sleep with my own eyes open to safeguard my things? That clasp was a family treasure! It belonged to a fourth cousin I never cared for!” The Dwarf felt a good deal better for the laughter that brought from the Elf. “Make it up to me then!” demanded Gimli. “The hours shall go faster for some talk. Give me a story.”
“What would you hear?” asked Legolas.
Gimli paused to think on it. “I believe I should like one about the rookish son of a golden Elf-king. It is time you told me of your family. Aragorn has been spreading preposterous lies about you.”
“Has he now!” laughed the Elf.
And so Legolas regaled the Dwarf with intricate Elven lineages and Gimli recalled the names of his forefathers to him; grand accounts of ancestral deeds wound down eventually to childhood remembrances, and they shared it all with one another until they ran out of night and breath.
As you might imagine, the separate lives of these two extraordinary companions would have been quite enough to fill several tomes, (even without the modest embellishments each made to impress the other.) But time is as swift as a flowing river and what would become of the Elf and Dwarf is of more importance than who they were ere shadow and war brought them together. More important, at least, to this tale.
The bright dawn of the eighth day belied the dark treachery that came by nightfall.
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.