7. A Pull of the Strings
I hear these words over and over in my mind and I cannot not deny them now any more than I could when first Glorfindel uttered them.
It will destroy them all. They would give their noble lives for me, for this quest, without hesitation. It will not be enough. In the end, they shall give their inestimable souls.
It is my doom. I will not let it be theirs. I could not bear it. May they have the strength and the will to hold on just a little longer. It is all I can ask of them.
The Great River grew shallower and wide as they journeyed south and the day began to wane. Its current was slow and lazy and the Fellowship pushed along at a steady rate; cloaked in their elven garments within the grey canoes, they passed along the shore as silent and pale as shades in the twilight. Aragorn called a halt when the sun touched the horizon. They might have continued on with what little light was left to them, but exhausted and disheartened, the travellers could bring themselves to go no further that night and embraced Aragorn's suggestion that they find a place to rest. They chose a small eyot near to the western bank and moored their boats upon the edges of the sandy stretch of land.
Frodo and Sam crawled from their cramped seats and stood at the foot of the water, straining their backs with soft moans and stretching their arms into the air. Aragorn followed suit and winced as he unfolded his long legs and stood straight after so long a duration. The others disembarked and loud was the crunch of sand and gravel beneath their leaden feet as they shuffled up the shore. The round red sun dipped lower now and stained the clouds a deep crimson over the horizon, coaxing that very little bit of hope in the Companions that whatever else tomorrow should hold for them, they should at least be blessed with good weather.
The eyot was hardly an island at all; it was a part of the western bank carved from the larger mass by a slender stream which strayed from the river's main flow. The break of sand and shale snaked along the western edge of the water and disappeared around a bend. A rough and exposed campsite it was, though the outcroppings of layered rock and tangled brush would conceal them at least from any prying eyes to the east. It was the best they would do this night and they accepted it gratefully.
Pippin cast his bedroll to the ground and flopped down next to it. A yawn climbed from the tips of his toes to his top of his head and cracked his jaw wide open. His face contorted into a hideous expression and Merry jumped as he turned suddenly to speak to him.
"Lawks, Pippin! You frightened me out of a year's growth. Are you trying to swallow your head?"
Pippin stifled the next yawn and blinked blearily at Merry. "I feel as if I haven't had a good night's sleep in weeks."
Merry nodded. "Being out upon a river does that. All this water and wind and fresh air," he gestured around them with a vague wave of his hand.
Pippin groaned, "Whatever it is, I believe I could forego dinner and drop off where I'm sitting."
"A powerful weariness it must be indeed," Gimli rumbled as he strode heavily towards them, "for a hobbit to suggest missing a meal! Should we bury you right here in the sand, Master Peregrin?" The dwarf's dark eyes twinkled with merriment and he deposited Pippin's pack at his feet.
"I shouldn't mind," Pippin murmured. He turned over to lie upon his stomach buried his head in the crook of his arm. "Wake me late in the morning, Merry, I think I might just let sleep take me here and now."
"You might, but you shan't!" Sam exclaimed and he nudged the young hobbit sharply with his foot. "You've planted yourself right where I'm fixin' to make our fire. If you sleep there, we'll be trippin' all over you."
"I doubt I should even notice," Pippin declared, his voice muffled in his sleeve. Merry sighed with resignation and rolled Pippin off to the side and out of the way, the promise of supper outweighing his own exhaustion. Sam adopted his most efficient expression and set about digging a pit for the fire.
"Sand in my eyes, sand in my boots, sand gritting between my teeth... my skin shall be rubbed raw from all of the sand that has sifted into my clothing." Boromir eased himself stiffly down upon a large flat rock near the hobbits and shook a sizable quantity from his hair for emphasis. "I should change into clean garb, but no doubt the sand has crept into my baggage and invaded it as well."
Merry raised his eyebrows and even Pippin lifted his head a little at this. It was the most Boromir had spoken for quite some time and they considered this comparable flood of words from the man of Gondor to be a good sign. Aragorn apparently took it to be so. The Ranger looked up with mild surprise as he slogged from the water's edge bearing a few necessities and an armful of driftwood. He sat with a rush of expelled breath next to Boromir.
"Impossible," Aragorn said lightly. "You cannot claim such discomfort, as I can tell you most assuredly that every grain of sand from the mouth of the Anduin to Pelargir is clinging to my own person."
Legolas strode towards them, his feet making no noise upon the broken shale and gravelled ground. The elf's collar was loose and he swept back freshly damp hair from his face. He tied it behind his head and regarded his wilted companions. "Hardships we may bear upon this journey, but one thing we certainly do not lack in this place is water, my friends. If the sand offends, banish it to the river!"
"I haven't the energy," Pippin muttered.
"I could bring the river to you, if you desire?" Legolas sang out, and Pippin gave a cry and scrambled to a defensive position at the elf's suddenly mischievous tone, anticipating a dousing. Legolas's silvery laughter pealed through the evening air.
The day seemed nothing more than an evil dream to them now, vanishing from their minds even as the sun's rays vanished over the distant hills. They willed it to be so. They strove to fill the silent moments with speech, to fill their speech with harmless pleasantries, to give no quarter to the doubts and fears which lurked beneath it all.
Sam soon had a small, servicable blaze crackling before them and they lingered near the warmth of the crackling flames and shared hushed conversation as the light of the sky disappeared and the stars came out.
Frodo lay next to Pippin and gazed upwards and placed his hands behind his head. "They seem brighter tonight somehow," Frodo observed.
"The Crown of Durin is very bright," Gimli agreed, and he pointed towards the seven stars glittering down at them. "A portent of good days to come," the dwarf declared in his deep, rich voice. He had shrugged off his mail and now lounged comfortably nearby in a light shirt despite the cool breeze off the water, and brushed through the tangles of his long beard with deft fingers.
Frodo took in a draught of night air and gazed into the darkness. He listened to the talk about the fire and the rustle and bustle of the Company as they settled for the night, and he longed for this peace to last. Good days to come. He would hold the stars to their promise.
Sam sat tending his fire until the flames met his satisfaction, then he cleared his throat emphatically. "If I might persuade you all to move out from underfoot?"
Boromir and Aragorn allowed themselves to be shooed away by the hobbit and trudged off to find more wood, speaking as they went with quiet, easy voices.
Legolas tarried still near the fire's light like a moth hovering about a candle. He paced lightly from side to side, carving designs in the sand with the tip of his foot and humming softly to himself. Frodo laughed aloud when Sam finally lost patience and put the idle elf to work, drawing a bundle of weathered carrots from his stores and placing them in Legolas's hands with orders to chop them into manageable bits.
The elven prince accepted the carrots and Sam's directions with a smile, and he winked at Frodo as he passed by to fetch his knife from his belongings.
Sam was in his element. The elves of Lorien had sent them off well-stocked and Sam meant to make full use of the supplies tonight. Spirits are brightest where food is best. He pushed from him the helplessness he had felt in the face of the antagonism that day and set to work. His companions were in sore need of a decent meal, and this at least Sam could provide.
He pondered the foodstuffs he had to work with and hesitated. Sam's general disinterest in maps resulted in a poor sense of judgement when it came to distances, and he was unsure about the necessity of rationing at this point. Rationing was a notion quite abhorrent to a hobbit and Sam still struggled to wrap his mind around it. Even had his judgement been good it would not have mattered, for he still had no clear idea yet where it was they were bound or where they should chance to find their meals along the way.
He had a notion he should be somewhat conservative, but the swift, stolen bites they had grown accustomed to eating just would not do tonight. Sam threw caution to the wind and rummaged through his stock in search of more vegetables and meat and flat bread for the makings of a hearty stew to fill their stomachs and renew their strength.
Sam held out his cooking pot. "If someone could find their way to fetching me some water, I'll see about fixin' something hot. I think we could use it."
"Indeed, Sam," Aragorn said as he drew near with more wood. "A hot meal and a night's rest, and perhaps we may hold up better tomorrow." He moved towards the hobbit and reached for the cooking pot, but Legolas was quicker.
Legolas wiped slivers of orange pulp from his blade and tucked it under his arm, then deposited the diced carrots into the hobbit's lap and took the kettle from him. "I will go," he said. Aragorn nodded at him thankfully and settled to the ground, his legs stretched out before him. Legolas stepped over him lightly and made for the river.
"You call the Crown of Durin a PLOUGH?" Gimli sputtered loudly from across the camp.
Merry nodded apologetically. "I'm afraid so. See there? That swoop of stars make up the handle, and those four there are...."
Gimli held up a hand. "Let me not picture it, if you please, Meriadoc." The dwarf looked at the hobbit with consternation, then tentatively pointed back into the night sky. "Dare I even ask what you call the Smith's Forge?"
Pippin snorted with amusement and Merry coughed as he replied, "That would be... the Butterfly?"
Gimli made a noise like a strangling dog and cast a look of supreme disgust at the hobbits. Merry regarded him with a wide, guileless expression and the dwarf rose with an oath. He stalked to the fire and glared at Aragorn, who wisely chose to stay silent, though his grey eyes betrayed his amusement. Boromir's shoulders shook with suppressed mirth.
"Butterfly...." the dwarf muttered loudly as he plunked himself down with exaggerated defeat next to Boromir. He listened to burst of laughter that erupted amongst the halflings and the dwarf fought the smile which tugged at the corners of his mouth.
His fondness for them all filled his heart and he felt truly well for the first time in days.
Gimli sat back and gazed once more at the sky. The dwarf sighed lustily. He wondered if the stars shone as brightly this night in Erebor, and an unexpected pang of longing for his kinsmen took him.
The third and last messenger from Mordor would have come to his people by now, no doubt with war in his wake. As he travelled with the Fellowship, it was easy to fall into his role as protector of the Ringbearer and to forget that life in the world beyond their small circle continued on, and that battles were being waged and forces massing who were heedless of their efforts, of the quest they had undertaken. Was the Lonely Mountain now beset by enemies from the South while he traipsed through fen and field, forest and hill, so far from home? Who knew what he would find if ever he returned.
How long had it been since he last heard a dwarven voice? Since Rivendell, and that seemed a lifetime ago.
"You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy it will be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot forsee what each may meet upon the road."
The memory of the words of the Lord of Imladris came to him suddenly, though he had paid them little mind when first they had been spoken and had not thought of them since, until now.
No oath. No bond to hold him here. An ache rose within him and he looked to the north.
And then he looked to Sam, and to Merry and Pippin upon the other side of the fire, and Frodo with them, and listened to their bright chatter, their merry voices and he was drawn back to the reality which was here before him.
No oath he had spoken, it was true. But a bond there was and he would not forsake it. He could never forsake them.
Gimli felt steely resolve plant itself in his heart and drive the doubt from his mind and he sent a silent prayer from his lips to the shining bits of light of Durin's Crown in the sky above him.
A dark shape passed before him, blocking his view of the stars, and his thoughts were scattered like sparks from a stirred fire. He looked up to see the elf move by.
Gimli watched him with detached concentration.
"Your water, Master Samwise," Legolas bowed gracefully and gave over the cooking-pot. He heeled and turned to walk back.
It was a small movement which might have gone unnoticed if Gimli hadn't been watching for it, hadn't been waiting for it to happen. Legolas looked down to avoid stepping upon a trailing fold of Aragorn's cloak and as his eyes swept up from the ground before him, they met Gimli's.
The elf's lips parted as if he would speak, then he merely shook his head and continued by.
The dwarf lowered his head slightly and stared at Legolas with a fixed expression as he walked away from him.
"If you have something to say, then have the courage to say it, elf."
For a moment he was uncertain if the words were in his mind or if he had actually given them voice, but that was answered swiftly enough when Legolas rounded upon him with a venomous glare. Gimli sat very still and Legolas did not move, and Gimli wondered if the elf might ignore him and leave, but he stayed where he was and looked at the dwarf with expectation.
Then Gimli was on his feet and standing in front of the elf quite ere he knew exactly how he had gotten to be there.
The dwarf sensed the others around them, glimpsed them at the edges of his sight, their circle of faces caught unaware and only beginning to register alarm. In the firelight, they were strangers' faces, strong, haunting, unfamiliar and they meant nothing to him. Gimli looked at the elf impassionately and saw the glow of the flames reflected in his companion's flat eyes.
"Well?" he asked, and his voice was lost to him; it was unable to penetrate the roar which filled his ears.
"It seems to me a futile effort to waste my words upon such as you." The elf's words sounded hollow and forced.
"Such as I?" Gimli said thickly.
Legolas's face twisted with utter disdain and he took a step forward... and then faltered, the hatred in his eyes turning to confusion. He blinked and lifted a slender hand to his heart. Then the anger flickered across his face and he motioned dismissively, deigning not to reply, and he turned his back upon the dwarf.
Gimli felt rage such as he had never felt lick fiery hot at his senses. He could not breath, could not speak. He loathed the arrogant, miserable creature before him and hated him for rejecting him like that. He surged foward and reached for the elf and grasped his shoulder to spin him around. Someone cried out behind them, but the others did not exist; The elf and dwarf were alone, hearing nothing, seeing nothing but one another.
Legolas's eyes flashed dangerously and he jerked away from the dwarf's hands. "Touch me not!"
"Do it," Gimli growled, his nerves strung ugly and raw. Legolas did not move. Gimli looked to the forgotten white knife clenched in Legolas's hand and the elf followed his glance. "You wish it. Do it!"
The air seemed to fold in upon itself and shadows altogether darker than the night swirled about them, slow, so slowly, and yet it all happened in an instant.
Aragorn leapt to his feet. Frodo untangled himself from his cloak and rose to his knees with a shout upon his lips. Sam looked on with horror at Legolas and Gimli standing toe to toe, and he turned too quickly and stumbled as he tried to rise; he upended his cooking-pot with a clatter and the water splashed and seeped into the ground. Boromir sprang up and hurled himself over the fire, but the few seconds of disbelief had delayed their efforts and they could not react swiftly enough.
Gimli drew off and backhanded Legolas with all his might. The merciless blow snapped the elf's head sideways and crushed him to his knees in a spray of sand and gravel.
(ME: A comment or two! I do not know what the dwarvish equivalent of the butterfly constellation Wilwaren, but I am certain that the dwarves would make from it as a less whimsical pattern, so I made one up for them. Artistic license and all that! : ) Most hobbits would likely refer to the Crown of Durin constellation as the Scythe, not the Plough, but you know those Brandybucks... they aren't like most hobbits, and they like to be different. Carrots? Well, if Peter Jackson can have tomatoes, which they most certainly did NOT have in Middle-earth, I can have carrots. I figure if our dear elf has the skill to ginsu an army of orcs, he should do fairly well with a pile of fresh produce. ; ) A Fellowship cannot live by lembas alone! ; )
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