23. Where Many Paths and Errands Meet
Aulit stopped and lowered his desert scarves as he reached the hall used for the Gathering. It was half an hour past sunset, and after the passage of another half-hour, the delegates would be arriving for the second night of negotiations. With any luck, this night would be a calmer night than the previous one, but of course, that was never a guarantee, particularly in Haradhur. With a sigh, Aulit shook his head and motioned his guards to disperse throughout the hall. By now, the temperatures had cooled sufficiently that it was safe to enter.
With its domed ceiling of glass, the Gathering hall caught and held the heat of the sun during its hottest moments of the day, making the inside burn as an oven. It was a safety precaution that all tribes had agreed upon when construction of the hall first began, and it ensured that no poison or other tool of assassination could be positioned inside the hall during the heat of the day. Neither could assassins find places to hide themselves before the tribes began to converge, for the building’s soaring temperatures would not permit it.
In order to cool the hall before the Gathering, the officiating tribe would send men to the hall at sunset and they would throw open all the doors, allowing the chill of the night air to have access. Then they would stand guard, making certain that no one entered prematurely. It was a tradition that dated back to the first Gathering held in Haradhur, and it was one that had served the Haradrim well over the years. In a world of uncertainty and almost constant political unrest, it was a great comfort to know there was at least one place that was safe from the artifices of rebels and assassins during the day.
Speaking quietly with one of the door guards, Aulit received a report that all was well and that none had tried to gain entrance during the time that the doors had been flung open to cool the hall. This report was more of a formality than anything else was, because the inner halls were still quite warm, and Aulit seriously doubted that anyone would have the desire to enter. The heat was such that it could now be endured, but it was still unpleasant and there were easier ways to lay traps than by bearing the day’s collected warmth.
Loosening his robes as he entered the outer hall after his guards, Aulit made his way to the inner hall, intending to see that there were sufficient seats. He would not put it past the Lotessa tribe to have made off with a few chairs just before sunrise in the hopes that a lack of seats might humiliate the Khurintu tribe, which was notorious for arriving late to the Gathering every night after the first night. If this had happened, more chairs would have to be procured quickly, for Aulit intended to see that this night at least began without complications.
The lingering heat caught Aulit full in the face as he entered, and he closed his eyes and turned his head slightly as he tried to adjust to the shift in temperature. Once he became acclimated, he opened his eyes again, turned to the center of the room, and instantly abandoned all hope of seeing that this night got off to a smooth start.
Standing behind Aulit’s seat at the table was the Destroyer.
Reacting purely on instinct, Aulit froze. As leader of the Gartabo tribe, Aulit possessed a keen mind that was skilled in evaluating trade, ordering management, and making decisions under pressure. He was a highly practical man who put little stock in rumors and legends of the ancestors, which was something rather unusual in Harad. In fact, Aulit had viewed the entire appearance by the Destroyer as something of a curiosity but not a significant threat so long as the panic of the masses could be controlled. After all, the Destroyer was really little more than an ancient myth fleshed into life by the agents of Sauron.
But all of Aulit’s finely honed mental faculties and reasoning fled at the sight of Harad’s most feared religious icon standing before him where no man should have been able to enter. And for one of the first times in Aulit’s life, he did not know what to do.
"Cast them out."
Aulit started, not certain that he had heard correctly. It was a rare thing when the Destroyer chose to speak, and only a few of the legends surrounding the Iluh’s herald indicated that he spoke. But it appeared that the Destroyer had elected to utter words again, and eventually finding his own tongue, Aulit hastily begged for clarification.
"Who? Whom shall I cast out, honored servant of the Iluh?" His voice was shrill and had any others heard him at that moment, they might have mistaken his identity. Never before had the leader of Gartabo sounded so helpless or so vulnerable. He was literally shaking with terror, and his fear was increasing exponentially with each passing second.
"The abominations. They must not be allowed here."
Abominations? Aulit’s mind started racing as quickly as one of Portu’s prize stud horses, but he couldn’t quite seem to grasp what the Destroyer was talking about. Unless… "The elf and dwarf?" he questioned, trying to sound as humble and submissive as possible. "They are to be cast out? Shall we eliminate them?"
"The Iluh shall see to them," the Destroyer hissed. "From this desert, salvation shall spring as water from a well, and power once lost shall return. But heed not my words and thou shall be swept from the earth by plague and by fire."
"Nay, great one, I hear your words and obey," Aulit said hastily, prostrating himself upon the ground.
"See that it is so, then, and perhaps thou shalt earn a place of honor in the realm of the Iluh," the Destroyer murmured, his voice growing distant. "Go now, and do their will."
"Yes, great one. But what of Gondor and Rohan? What if…" Aulit raised his head abruptly and trailed off, falling silent as he glanced about the room. Save for himself, the inner hall was now empty.
The Destroyer was gone.
* * * *
"I will be glad to return to Aglarond when this is finished," Gimli sighed, watching the side streets and alleyways as he walked. "To my mind, the largest problem facing Harad, and also ourselves, is the weather. I fear the heat has driven these people mad. What they need is a large underground network of caves."
Walking beside the dwarf, Aragorn shook his head while Legolas laughed quietly. "If given a choice, my friend, I would rather live here than in your caves," the elf declared.
"I fear that I must agree with Gimli," Eomer said. "Not man nor dwarf nor even elf was intended to live in this weather, and I would cheerfully join Gimli in the Glittering Caves if given the choice."
Flanked by Imhran and Arhelm, Aragorn, Eomer, Legolas, and Gimli were making their way toward the domed hall for the second night of the Gathering. And if nothing else, this should prove to be a very interesting night, Aragorn decided. The tension in the air was so thick it was palpable. The fact that the banter between Legolas and Gimli was still going strong despite the atmosphere was testament to how severe the situation was becoming. Aragorn had learned that when either of them was uncertain or anxious about something, elf and dwarf would fall back upon teasing one another, using it as an outlet for nervous energy. It bothered Aragorn that Eomer was joining with them in this, not because it reflected on Eomer’s own mood but because Aragorn longed to do the same and was very close to giving in to the temptation. Is the unease that bad tonight? He wondered. Catching a few dark looks from venders and merchants who seemed to shy away from their company, Aragorn decided that yes, the situation was indeed that bad.
"The heat has clearly affected you both," Legolas was saying as Aragorn again picked up the flow of the conversation. "Though it is doubtful if Gimli was ever truly sane."
"I fear it is your mind that has been touched by this heat," Gimli retorted. "Of course, elves are strange creatures anyway."
"In what way?" Legolas demanded.
"Explain the preoccupation with trees and stars. Neither serves a useful purpose unless it be for firewood, yet you revere them as though they were the end all of your existence. Dwarves, on the other hand, turn their mind to things of a more practical value."
"Hence your kind’s love of gold, which is useful only for ornamentation," Legolas noted.
"Elves use it often enough in that," Gimli reminded him.
"Peace, both of you," Eomer laughed. "With regard to elves and dwarves, in my mind, the two of you are the strangest yet."
"And what cause have you to claim that you are normal?" Gimli demanded.
"But I am not normal," Eomer answered. "I am the King Eomer of Rohan and heir to the revered Eorl of old. My differences are cause for renown. Your differences, I fear, are reflections on your personalities."
"Nay, you are not the only member of a royal family, oh great king," Legolas said with a teasing smile. "For I, too, am heir to elf lords long departed and the son of he who rules Greenwood the Great. Alas, I fear now it is only Gimli who can have no excuse for his peculiarities."
"You forget that I am known as elf-friend among my kind," Gimli smirked. "If I am strange, it is your fault for making me so."
"I know of no elf-friend who refers to elves as strange creatures," Legolas said.
"Then you do not know many elf-friends," Gimli told him. "Or mayhap that royal blood in your veins has rendered you deaf to the complaints against your kind by those who suffer to be called your friends."
"Suffer? Master Dwarf, there are many who yearn to be called our friends, for in that there is great renown. It is beyond my comprehension why any should refer to your stunted frame as an elf-friend."
"How can it be, oh great Prince of Mirkwood, that your mind is so limited by such a meager comprehension?" Gimli asked. "When considering a strong, mighty dwarf such as myself, it is no wonder that the elves have begged me to accept the title elf-friend and so bring the elves renown for claiming such a friendship."
Exchanging a hopeless look with Eomer, Aragorn idly wondered whether or not Gimli and Legolas ever had any normal conversations. Even when the situation was not a stressful one, some of their speech reminded him of the time after they’d just met and occasionally had to be physically restrained from attacking one another. Of course, there was the major difference that Gimli had gradually learned the fine art of arguing with Legolas, and their verbal matches were more or less even now. Still, a casual listener might make the mistake of assuming the two were bitter enemies when just the opposite was the case. In his long life, Aragorn had never seen two such devoted friends. Nor had he seen two friends so vastly different from one another.
But as Aragorn continued to listen absently, he began to detect a note of earnestness in their voices. Both elf and dwarf were highly uneasy, and their banter was covering an unusual amount of anxiety in both of them. Something was building, and they could sense it. But it seemed neither one knew exactly what was bothering them. And I would say the same for myself, Aragorn decided. I can also sense that something looms upon the horizon, yet I know not how to describe it. Still, this banter must cease soon, for we are beginning to draw attention. Worried or not, we have an appearance to maintain.
"Then that is a wonder of this age," Gimli was saying as Aragorn turned his full attention back to their discussion. "Had my advice been sought, I would have recommended a sturdy dwarven maid."
"And such a recommendation would have been the subject of much laughter, for how can one compare a dwarf to Queen Evenstar."
Realizing that his marriage to Arwen was now up for debate, Aragorn decided that now would be the perfect time to redirect the conversation. "I have heard there will be entertainment tomorrow night during the negotiations. If the Haradrim keep with tradition, it should be a wondrous event."
Legolas and Gimli eyed one another and then nodded, a silent vow to continue the argument later. Aragorn pretended not to notice. "Would you tell us of this entertainment?" Legolas requested. "A diversion in these mindless talks will be eagerly welcomed."
"Can it be that the great elven prince has no stomach for diplomacy?" Gimli gasped with mock amazement. Legolas glared at him and jerked his head toward Aragorn, reminding the dwarf of their unspoken agreement to delay the argument. Aragorn ignored it, but he did wonder if sometimes Legolas and Gimli thought him blind to their body language.
"There will be much dancing and music, as well as singing and food," Aragorn explained. "I would caution you all concerning the food, though, for it is a favorite tool of assassins. However, the rest is harmless enough so long as one maintains one’s guard."
"I knew not that the Haradrim were so elvish," Gimli muttered. "Music and song. It seems the dwarves will have to spread their influence further if we wish to counter such nonsense."
Legolas sighed audibly, Eomer shook his head with patient amusement, and Aragorn rolled his eyes. "I think you will find this particular music and song to be unlike anything you have ever seen or heard before," Aragorn said. "Elven it is most certainly not. In fact…" Aragorn stopped and trailed off, eyes focusing on the street before him. "Legolas…"
"Budari and Arabano," the elf confirmed, his eyes narrowing. "They look as though something has gone amiss."
"We have not even begun the proceedings this night," Gimli muttered, tightening his hold on his axe.
"Welcome to Haradhur," Aragorn sighed, stepping forward and composing his face. "Does not the Gathering begin soon?" he asked when Budari and Arabano drew near. "You are moving the wrong direction."
"Honored ones, we must speak," Budari said, his eyes focusing first on Aragorn and Eomer but then straying to Legolas and Gimli. "Gartabo’s watchmen around the hall have orders to seize the Legolas and Gimli on sight and take them outside the city to be held until a sign from the Iluh releases them or kills them."
Aragorn blinked and Eomer murmured something beneath his breath that would probably not have been said in the presence of ladies. "I trust that Aulit has good reason for ordering his guards to take the seconds of Gondor and Rohan," the king of Gondor said, keeping his voice low.
Budari glanced over at Arabano, who reluctantly took the cue and began to explain. "Our information is not the best, but rumor has it that when Aulit entered the inner hall earlier this evening he found the Destroyer waiting for him."
"Impossible," Aragorn hissed. "The hall is too hot for anyone to enter during the day."
"Or so we thought," Budari said quietly. "But however it was accomplished, apparently the Destroyer warned that the elf and the dwarf must not take part in the Gathering."
"They have been branded as tainted, and all who deal with them are tainted as well," Arabano added.
"What of Gondor and Rohan, then?" Eomer spoke up. "And how does this affect our recent alliance?"
"Once given, the word of Lotessa is stone," Budari said. "Our alliance stands as long as I live. And since I live still, we have come to aid you. Legolas and Gimli must not attend the Gathering tonight, for they shall be taken outright. In the event of a struggle, they may even be killed. Perhaps we may unravel this tangled web of deceit so that they may take part tomorrow night, but for now, it would be best if they left Haradhur entirely."
"We are prepared to offer you our men as guards for those whom you choose to stand in their place," Arabano said. "You will not want for protection, honored ones, but we must move quickly."
Aragorn glanced over his shoulder at Legolas and Gimli, both of whom were completely silent and both of whom looked far too casual considering their lives had just been threatened. "What say you?" the king of Gondor asked.
Elf and dwarf exchanged glances and somehow discussed the matter through a series of minute facial expressions that Aragorn didn’t attempt to translate. He could usually get most of their silent communication, but tonight his head was already grappling with too many other things. At length, Legolas and Gimli turned back to Aragorn and Eomer, the decision made. "If it is your wish, we shall depart," Legolas answered. "However, we would not be confined to camp. Have you another mission we might fulfill?"
"The elf is bland company," Gimli explained, neatly ducking a half-hearted swipe on the part of Mirkwood’s prince. "And we would leave the city as is counseled."
"Those who are patrolling the desert are probably on the western side," Eomer mused. "You could join them if you so wish. The eyes of an elf would probably be of much use to them. Perhaps you shall even discover the whereabouts of Asbad."
"Faensul shall be glad of the opportunity to stretch his legs," Legolas agreed with a nod. "He was restless earlier this evening."
"Then if you are going to depart, you must do so in haste before the Khurintu tribe realizes what has happened," Budari cautioned. "For undoubtedly it is their hand at work in this."
"Do the two of you think you are capable of returning to camp without causing too much of a stir?" Aragorn asked with a pointed gaze at elf and dwarf. Both looked offended and Gimli drew himself up straight.
"We shall leave Haradhur with the speed and silence of a hunting Warg," he promised. "None shall even know that we are gone."
"I pray you are right," Aragorn sighed. "Let us depart, then, for if we linger it will seem suspicious."
"Beware," Budari added as a warning. "We here in the city may deal with the brunt of spies and deceivers, but the desert beyond Haradhur can be just as perilous."
* * * *
Lingering just outside the Gathering’s domed hall, a shadow watched and waited. Most of the delegates had already entered, but there were a few key players who had yet to show themselves. And Dashnir was quite content to sit outside and wait until he was certain that these key players would be in attendance. So much now depended on so many little things. In a way, it was now a fool’s game that he and Asbad now played. One step too far to the left or the right might well be the undoing of years of plans and preparations. But such was the way of all good schemes, or so Dashnir had learned. The greater the risk, the greater the reward, and those who could successfully orchestrate such risks became the leaders and the rulers.
So far, all was working according to design this night. The spies had reported in just before sunset with the news that Portu’s raiders had done their job and that the rumors of the Destroyer could be heard in all of Haradhur. Elf and dwarf now signified death and destruction in the minds of many Haradrim. Asbad had successfully slipped into the hall before Aulit arrived, thanks in part to a Gartabo guard at the west entrance who had long accepted money and goods from Khurintu. He was now marked for death later in the night, and the secret of the Destroyer’s true identity would soon be a secret known only to Khurintu and Lotessa. Beyond that, the men were all in position, and it was down to the last tidbits of preparations and the last moments of waiting.
But these last moments were perhaps the most dangerous and the most difficult. Members of the Soltari tribe were an unpredictable lot and Fastahn more so than most. If he failed to tell Lotessa of Aulit’s intentions and elf and dwarf arrived at the Gathering only to have Gartabo’s men attack them, all was lost. King Elessar and King Eomer would protest, a great argument would ensue possibly climaxing in bloodshed, and Khurintu would never enter the picture. All would be for naught. Of course, there were contingencies set up should this happen, but the situation would become extremely complex and the chance for victory would dim considerably.
But Dashnir was now reasonably sure that this would not happen. Neither the Lotessa tribe nor the delegation from Gondor and Rohan had arrived at the Gathering yet, which probably meant that they were together. And if Budari and Arabano had taken the trouble to search out Elessar and Eomer and risk making their alliance with them known, then undoubtedly Fastahn had fulfilled his role.
Dashnir shook his head and smiled slightly. Fastahn was a fool in so many ways. He had no suspicions that his "agent" in the Khurintu tribe gave him only information that was carefully selected and doctored ere it ever reached his ears. Nor did Fastahn suspect that he was monitored closely after receiving his information to ensure that he did what he was expected to do with his "secrets." Such a predictable fool, Dashnir sighed. A danger, to be certain, but a predictable danger. In truth, he is among the least of my concerns.
Having reassured himself that elf and dwarf were alerted to their danger and that the contingency planning was unnecessary, Dashnir was now concerned about the possibility that elf and dwarf would go ahead and face Aulit’s guards rather than choosing discretion. For the entire journey into the desert, Dashnir had attempted to solve this mystery by learning the minds and hearts of his adversaries, yet in the end, he had been forced to admit failure. It was not total failure by any means, for he strongly suspected that discretion would be the choice of Gondor and Rohan in this instance, but that was still only a guess and in no way did it approach certainty. But there was nothing to be done for that now—as Asbad was fond of pointing out—and so Dashnir tried to put such thoughts to the back of his mind, focusing again on the streets.
A few minutes later, his wait was rewarded. Hushed voices caught his ear, and peering through the shadows, Dashnir’s heart skipped a beat. They were coming. Moreover, he could see no sign of either the elf or the dwarf. Hope and adrenaline began to race through his veins as the figures drew closer, and it was only with great difficulty that Dashnir managed to still his breathing and slide even further back into the shadows so as not to be seen. They had done it! Khurintu had done it! The rest was academic, for victory was at hand. So close was it, in fact, that it could be tasted.
With euphoria rushing through his mind, Dashnir watched as King Elessar and King Eomer walked into the hall bereft of their seconds. They were as other men now, with no control over unnatural beings such as elves and dwarves. They could be challenged without the fear of destruction looming over Harad, and they could be kept within the hall while the rest of the Khurintu tribe did its work.
It was no easy task for Dashnir to still his voice and quiet the cries of victory that demanded release, but somehow, he managed it. With a smile that might have made Sauron shiver, Khurintu’s second waited until the entire group had disappeared into the hall, and then he stepped out of the darkness. His job was now a simple one, and it was one he could do in his sleep. He had, in fact, done something similar to it many times before when he couldn’t sleep. It would be a joy and a pleasure to do it now with a purpose to back it. Straightening his robes and assuming an expression of affronted dignity, Dashnir made his way to the hall and stepped inside.
The game was afoot.
* * * *
"And so it is just the two of us," Gimli murmured as they wove through the walls and structures that comprised Haradhur.
"May the Valar have mercy upon me," Legolas sighed to the stars above.
"If you despise my company so much, you are more than welcome to leave," Gimli said, relaxing his guard slightly since the elf did not seem to be overly concerned for their safety. "But it will be your loss, for at this time there is no better company to be had than the company of a dwarf."
"If that is indeed the case, I shudder to think of what Middle Earth will come to," Legolas answered. "Its ultimate fate will be evil beyond all measure if things do not change."
Gimli scowled. "Do you wish to know what I believe, Legolas?"
"I believe you envy my natural ability. I believe you are jealous."
Caught off guard by this remark, the elf snorted despite himself and started to laugh. "Jealous? My friend, it is as I said before—the day’s heat has made you mad. But indulge me, if you will. Of what am I jealous?"
"To begin with, a strong, compact body," Gimli said, trying to ignore the fact that Legolas was now doubling over with laughter. "One might also add an intelligent mind to that list as well as incomparable skill with the axe." The laughter grew and Gimli wondered whether or not he was actually advancing his cause through this tactic. "Eloquent speech, swift reflexes, keen senses…" He trailed off as he watched Legolas clutch helplessly at his stomach. "Composure, too," the dwarf finally added. "I believe that you could do with that as well."
Legolas howled at this, laughing so hard that it brought tears to his eyes, and in light of all they’d been through, Gimli decided that the elf probably needed a good laugh. And so he sighed and tried to wait patiently for the elf to calm himself.
"Are you finished?" the dwarf asked pointedly after a minute or so. "We should reach camp, collect Faensul, and be off. The mood of this city is not a good one, and I have no wish to be caught in whatever political storm breaks tonight."
"Ai, my apologies," Legolas breathed, still holding his stomach but managing to regain his perfect posture. "I know not quite what came over me."
"No one ever does," Gimli muttered. "Think you that you can control your emotions until we are free of this city?"
The elf nodded rather breathlessly and began walking once again. "It is good that none are currently about or they might have wondered at our actions."
"Our actions?" Gimli shook his head. "I had been taught that elven memory is long, but apparently it is also selective. I was doing nothing that warranted attention. Any foolishness that may have taken place was solely your own doing."
"Ah, but how can I help myself when I walk in the presence of such comedy?"
The dwarf decided to let that comment slide for now, though the elf would certainly pay for it later. Gimli had found the fabled scorpion within one of the buildings that surrounded their camp, and he intended to put it to good use come morning. "So tell me, Legolas. What do you think of the Destroyer and the fact that we are now both heralds of destruction?"
"I think they judged correctly in your case," the elf retorted.
Gimli sighed and sent a long-suffering look up at Legolas. "I did not ask in jest."
Legolas’s mood altered almost immediately, and he nodded. "I know, and for my answer I apologize. But my own feelings are uncertain, and I am reluctant to speak of them. It is strange, actually. I feel…it is as though…" The elf trailed off, his eyes distant and troubled.
"What?" Gimli pressed. "What do you feel?"
"In truth, I cannot say," Legolas answered quietly. "I have a…a vague sense of foreboding. Yet it is a strange foreboding, and very unlike the general sense of unease I have had for most of this journey. This new feeling whispers of a coming darkness that be neither avoided nor averted. We are powerless before it."
The dwarf frowned. "That is strange indeed. Perhaps there is some merit to the tradition of the Destroyer, even though the Destroyer is merely a man in this instance. What do you make of your feeling, Legolas?"
"I know not what to make of it, my friend. But I do know that I have felt like this once before."
The elf grimaced and hesitated a moment before answering. "During the Council of Elrond, do you recall hearing that Aragorn gave Sméagol into the keeping of the Mirkwood elves?" At Gimli’s nod, Legolas continued. "It was the night before Sméagol escaped. The night before the orcs attacked. I could not sleep that night, and darkness seemed to cloud my thoughts like a thick blanket made for a heavy winter. All the next day, the feeling grew that something was amiss. I could not label what, nor can I now. But it is the same. Something is brewing, Gimli, and it is not something that is easily stopped."
They had now reached Gondor’s campsite and were making their way toward the tents that housed both the men and the horses. And as Gimli pondered the elf’s words, he noticed the extreme silence that had fallen over their encampment. Which is only normal, considering there is likely to be no one here save a few guards walking about the perimeter, the dwarf told himself. But still…it was very quiet.
Gimli shook himself back to reality and wondered what had just been said. "Pardon?"
"I asked for your thoughts on the matter," Legolas said, moving to the main tent and pulling the flaps aside so that they might enter. "A moment, if you will. I wish to take my whetstone with us."
"By all means, proceed." The dwarf stepped into the tent after the elf, and as Legolas began searching through his pack, Gimli considered what he thought about the elf’s words. "Your senses are keen, my friend," he said at length, pausing to light a small lantern when it seemed that Legolas was having trouble finding his whetstone. "And I will admit to being strangely anxious myself this night, yet I wonder how an evil can be inevitable. The future is an untried road, and upon its pages, many lines can be written. But until tomorrow becomes today, it is still an unknown land."
"I agree with you, Gimli, yet my instincts say otherwise," Legolas murmured. "I know not how to interpret this." A pensive silence fell, each lost in his own thoughts, until Legolas spoke up rather abruptly with underlying tension lacing his voice. "In many ways, this is like Amon Hen."
Gimli blinked. Amon Hen? Perhaps I was right about the heat. He has gone mad. He turned to give the elf his patented stare of incredulity, but he froze at what he saw. Legolas was no longer shifting through his pack but instead watching one of the entrances to the tent closely, his bow in hand and an arrow already set to the string. Now recognizing the reference to Amon Hen, Gimli seized his axe and moved behind the elf, facing the other entrance to the tent. "Yes, I suppose it is like Amon Hen," Gimli responded, trying to keep his voice light and conversational. "Many of our actions then may apply to our actions now."
"But there are some differences. For example, I see only two main options."
"You speak truly," Gimli said, keeping his eyes fixed on the tent flaps before him and trusting Legolas to guard his back against the only other way in. His hands gripped the haft of his axe even tighter as he caught the sounds the elf had heard earlier. Hushed whispers outside in the shadows, muffled by the tent’s heavy material, became audible to even the dwarf’s ears. A shiver of anticipation raced up his spine at the same time that a cold dread settled over his heart.
Behind Gimli, Legolas suddenly shifted slightly. "Perhaps I was wrong," the elf said, his voice a little too casual. "Perhaps this is more like Moria. You remember when I identified at least nine different causes to the problems that we faced there? And even they were not enough for a sufficient explanation."
Gimli froze at his friend’s words. Shortly after the War of the Ring, he and Legolas had aided Aragorn and Eomer in clearing much of the Ephel Duath around Ithilien of Orcs. It was during this time that elf and dwarf had developed a language of codes that could be used when listening ears might be lurking about. Using this language, Legolas had just informed Gimli that he could hear at least nine different enemies—possibly more—moving outside the tent. The dwarf tried to silence his breathing and so that he might also hear the different voices and so count the forces that drew near, but his ears were not acute enough. "Think you that we should treat this situation as we treated Moria?" Gimli eventually asked, hating the idea of running even if they were facing the possibility of far superior numbers.
"The elves keep their grudges long, but even we have been known to forgive and forget. Sometimes we do so quite suddenly."
He wants to leave immediately? Gimli frowned, wondering if his dwarven pride would allow such a thing and eventually deciding that it wouldn’t. "Elves may forgive, but dwarves are creatures of the earth and we stand fast in its strength," he said at length. "In any case, I am unconvinced that this is a situation similar to Moria." And with that, Gimli moved forward, giving himself room to swing. The voices had drawn very close and then abruptly stopped. It wouldn’t be long now.
"Then I fear it will become like Moria ere long, and we may greatly rue the strength of the earth and the grudges of the elves," Legolas sighed, shifting all his weight to the balls of his feet. "A plague upon the stiff necks of dwarves."
"And a plague upon the stiff necks of elves," Gimli returned with a grim smile.
No sooner had Gimli spoken these words than the tent flap before him was ripped open. Eight men came barreling toward the dwarf, and the familiar adrenaline rush of battle took hold of Gimli, granting him a strength known only to the dwarves. He felt Legolas moving behind him and realized that men had also entered from the other side of the tent. They were alone and surrounded, but at the moment, that fact did not faze the dwarf. He was Gimli, son of Glóin, Lord of the Glittering Caves, renowned warrior, hero, elf-friend, and member of the Fellowship of the Ring. Beyond that, he was thoroughly enjoying himself.
The dwarven battle cry rang loud within the tent, and with a speed seemingly at odds with his short, stocky frame, Gimli leaped forward and put his axe to work. The men had clearly been briefed as to the ways of their opponents for they bore metal shields and carried them high to deflect arrows. With a slight shake of his head and the rather belated thought that perhaps Legolas had been right to classify this as a Moria battle, Gimli attacked.
Axe met shield and a man cried out as his arm broke under the force of the blow. Without pause, Gimli swept on to the next man, knocking shields and bodies aside as he wove a path through his enemies. He heard two arrows ricochet off metal and knew that Legolas would be hard-pressed to hold the men on his side of the tent at bay. Deciding to backtrack, Gimli knocked down one more shield and swung back toward the elf.
Ducking under a swinging club, Legolas leaped away from the men he had been fighting, rolled to the center of the tent, and came up on one knee with bow ready. Three quick arrows flew over Gimli’s head, and the dwarf reflexively ducked when he felt one of them whistle next to his ear. Looking back, he watched in satisfaction as the first two bolts found their mark, but the third was deflected when a shield was hastily jerked back up. But the preoccupation with the arrows was enough for Gimli to come in from the side and bring his axe down with such force that he drove it through both shield and man.
"Back!" Legolas yelled, bringing out his knife and spinning as the men streamed into the tent and attempted to get behind him. Hearkening to his shout, Gimli sidestepped one blow and hit the ground rolling, coming up next to the elf.
A quick count on the part of the dwarf revealed that eleven men now surrounded them. Not bad, Gimli reflected, watching his opponents carefully during the lull that had fallen upon the battle. Certainly not nine as Legolas thought, but not bad. We have faced worse and lived to tell of it. "The Morannon," he hissed to Legolas. The elf shifted slightly behind him and the dwarf knew the plan had been considered and accepted. Now they only waited for the men to make the first move. It was during this time that Gimli abruptly noticed the curious dearth of knives and swords on the part of the Haradrim. There a few scattered here and there, but the men carried primarily clubs and staves. Murder is not their intention, Gimli realized. But if they do not seek to kill us, then what do they—
The sudden command broke through the dwarf’s thoughts as well as answering his questions, and Gimli glanced over his shoulder to see who might be speaking. He found himself looking at a tall man with eyes as black as coal. The loose robes of the desert concealed his form, but he held himself with the air of one in whom there is much strength. Nor is his strength untested, Gimli thought to himself, watching this man take a step forward and assume a battle stance that would befit a large warrior. The man was not unlike in appearance to Dashnir, and as Gimli began to consider this, he began to receive the same feeling of ominous nobility that Dashnir could convey. This was a powerful man, and shadows seemed to gather beneath the folds of his robes. Asbad, his mind whispered, and judging from the way that Legolas was watching this man, Gimli guessed that his instincts were correct.
"You cannot win," the man continued once he was certain he had the attention of both elf and dwarf. "Save yourself the dishonor of defeat."
"And opt for the dishonor of capitulation?" Gimli asked with an incredulous laugh. He shook his head, chuckling slightly at the thought. Despite the situation’s obvious danger, the idea was quite humorous and Gimli decided that this particular Haradrim was not terribly familiar with the ways of elves and dwarves. Never mind that he was accounted the most powerful man in Harad, Asbad still had much to learn of his opponents. "I have a better suggestion," Gimli continued, his voice conversational but threaded with an undercurrent of warning. "You cast aside your weapons, and we will let you surrender to us."
The dwarf’s words were followed by a rather profound silence, and then Asbad moved forward slightly. "I will not ask again," he warned.
"That is well, for then we will not have to answer again," Gimli retorted, shifting his weight and bending his knees. Beside him, he felt Legolas tense. Their instincts did not fail them. The moment Gimli finished speaking, Asbad cried aloud in the tongue of the Haradrim and the attack was on again.
Waiting until the last possible moment, when the raised clubs were almost upon them, Legolas and Gimli suddenly sprang apart. Their enemies crashed between them, cutting them off from one another, but dwarf and elf were not bothered by this for they knew exactly what they were doing.
On one side of the men, Gimli battled his way forward until the tent wall was before him. Once there, he turned abruptly and began fighting to get back into the center, his swinging axe clearing a wide path through the men he faced. Sensing motion from the rear, the dwarf brought his axe haft up to serve as a shield for his head and leaped forward into his next opponent’s blow, feeling the air part as a club was brought down just behind him. Knocking the end of the axe’s handle into the face of the enemy before him, he then shoved the axe blade backward over his head and smiled grimly as he felt a solid hit. Next, he was ducking beneath another strike and swinging at enemies from the side.
While dealing with his own opponents, Gimli periodically caught glimpses of Legolas on the other side of the tent, and he smiled as he watched the elf. The dwarf would never admit it to anyone, but his friend was something of a wonder to behold during a battle. Legolas moved so fluidly that he seemed to fight in slow motion, yet whenever a man moved to strike him, the elf was never there to be struck. However, there were too many men for them to fight completely without mishap, and after blocking a heavy staff and stumbling slightly from the impact, Legolas’s bow was torn from his grasp. Gimli winced when this slight distraction gave one man enough time to land a heavy club on the elf’s lower back, but the elf had lived too long to be incapacitated so easily. Immediately bringing out his hunting knife, Legolas rolled with the hit and swept his knife up at the same time. Gimli grinned as the tip of Legolas’s blade slashing deeply into his attacker’s arm, driving the man back and giving the elf enough time to readjust his defenses.
Working steadily in this manner, it wasn’t long before elf and dwarf were back to back once more in the center of the tent, and now only six battered men stood to face them. Three more men lay dead or dying, and two others were severely wounded.
"You fight well." It was Asbad again, and much to Gimli’s surprise, a tone of grudging admiration colored his voice. Khurintu’s tribal leader inclined his head in a small show of respect for the two friends, but his eyes were cold and it was clear that the attack was far from over. "In another time, you might have earned the honor of my people," Asbad continued. "But you come too late to our land and we must still consider betrayals of old. I cannot allow you to win." He whistled softly, the tent flaps parted again, and more men began to stream in.
"Moria," Legolas hissed, retreating until his back came into contact with Gimli’s head. "I would not relive Gandalf’s fall."
"Not yet," the dwarf argued. The fury of battle was upon him and, though he knew in his heart that Legolas was probably right, he could not turn tail and run until it was absolutely clear that there was no other choice. "Mirkwood Wargs."
Legolas let out a frustrated sigh, but in that sigh Gimli could hear reluctant acquiescence. It surprised the dwarf greatly, for Legolas had sounded insistent. But Gimli then remembered the elf’s earlier words of inevitable evil and wondered if perhaps Legolas thought their plight hopeless.
"On my signal," the elf whispered, interrupting Gimli’s thoughts, and the dwarf nodded, readying himself for the furious battle that was about to take place. He still held true to the notion that nothing was inevitable, and he intended to prove the elf wrong. A moment passed, the men around them tensed as though to attack, and then Legolas moved.
Gimli sprang forward and the elf backpedaled rapidly after him, following the dwarf by sound and defending his back while Gimli fought furiously to reach a tent corner where they could both turn and fight together. For a while it seemed to be working, and Gimli was becoming elated with the prospect that his plan was successful. But even as talented as both warriors were, the press of men became too great for them. Reacting out of instinct, Gimli jumped forward under a blow that fell between the himself and the elf. The swing’s follow up was so swift that Legolas was driven from Gimli’s side and forced to move back toward the center of the tent as men swarmed around him.
Cut off from the elf and now unable to prevent his enemies from getting behind him, Gimli threw himself against the nearest man and sent him barreling into his comrades. Using the confusion this provided, the dwarf blocked left with his axe, dodged a blow from the right, and broke away from the main grouping of men, ensuring himself a bit more breathing room. His axe seemed to be everywhere and none could penetrate the dwarf’s guard, so fast were his reflexes. But he knew well that he could not keep this up for long.
Gimli caught a brief glimpse of Legolas, who had now been driven to the center of the tent and was currently engaged in a frantic fight within a pressing circle of men. Realizing that the elf would be unable to hold his own against such odds, Gimli adjusted the direction of his attacks and redoubled his efforts. Up, around, and forward swung the axe, and the dwarf’s hands were little more than a blur as he fought in a deadly dance, desperate to reach Legolas before aught could happen to the elf.
Just a minute longer, my friend, he mentally yelled at Legolas. Just a minute longer and I shall be at your back again. But try as he might, Gimli could not seem to break through the men and Legolas was making no progress in any direction despite his frantic attempts to get at least a tent wall behind him. With a wordless cry, Gimli began extending his axe swings well beyond what prudence would dictate in a last, desperate effort to reach his friend.
His distraction proved to be his undoing. Out of the corner of his eye, Gimli caught the dull light of the lantern gleam off its sharp edge, and in a frozen moment of time, the dwarf realized that he had only seconds to act if he wished to save his life. Turning a club on the blade of his axe and forcing one man back with the haft, Gimli attempted a dodge in the form of a frantic sideways leap, but his balance had been off and he was only partially successfully. The knife missed his chest and hit his thigh instead, sinking to the hilt as it buried itself in the main part of the muscle. Light flashed wildly in the dwarf’s vision and despite all his pride and all his strength, Gimli roared in pain.
Hearing the dwarf’s sudden yell, Legolas was almost taken out himself as he froze in sheer surprise. Never before had he heard such a sound from any dwarf, and as such it took a moment for him to recognize it for what it was it. By the time his startled mind began to think again, the fight had swept him even further from Gimli and he hurriedly sought to reverse the press, searching desperately through the swarming men for any sign of his comrade. He didn’t know exactly what had happened, but he did know that the dwarf was now wounded. And judging from the fact that he had cried out, Gimli was wounded badly. He would be unable to keep up his defenses, and their only hope for mutual survival lay in standing together. With a cry of rage, Legolas intensified his attacks and fought valiantly to reach the dwarf’s side, hoping against hope that he could do so in time.
But the elf was too late. Gimli did not recover fast enough from the knife lodged in his leg, and even as he straightened painfully to raise his axe in defense against the next strike, a club from behind came smashing toward the dwarf. By now, Legolas had spotted his friend and was close enough to see the blow that cannoned down upon the Gimli’s unprotected head and to see also that Gimli was unaware of the danger. Legolas started to shout a warning, but a swinging staff caught him in the stomach and robbed him of breath. His warning cry came out as no more than a whisper that was swiftly overwhelmed by the clash of steel and the jeers of the Haradrim. Gimli remained oblivious to his peril, the club descended with strength enough to have been wielded by a troll, and Gimli fell to the floor without a sound.
In the course of his long years, Legolas had seen lesser strikes kill on impact. Fear flooded the elf as a river overflowing its banks, and before he even fully realized what had happened, he had fought, stabbed, and shoved his way to Gimli’s side. While fending off the remainder of the men, he stole quick glances at the dwarf’s still form. He soon wished he had not looked, for from where he stood, Legolas could not see a rise or fall of the chest. All color had drained from Gimli’s face, and his body lay as still as stone. Complete panic and overpowering grief rushed through Legolas, and as he took in the sight of his motionless friend, something deep inside the elf snapped.
Legolas would never clearly remember what happened next. It seemed his vision filled with a red haze and the world turned into a sea of blood. Tears of mourning streamed down his cheeks, and his throat constricted with convulsive sobs. The elf threw himself into battle with an anger and a passion he had never before known. Blows rained down upon him, yet they slowed him not. He shook them off, heedless of their crippling affects as his mind filled with one life-shattering thought—Gimli was gone. And with this realization, Legolas ceased to care whether or not he himself lived. If he died, so be it. At least he would take the dwarf’s killers with him.
And with all other thoughts fleeing his mind, the elf spun, leaped, ducked, attacked, parried, and fought on instinct and anger alone, all rational thought having died with the dwarf. Never before and never again would he fight so recklessly or so successfully. Men fell before his blade as autumn leaves caught in a gale. Legolas was conscious of nothing but the swell of battle and the smell of blood. Everything he was and everything he had ever learned coalesced into a fury so tangible and so violent that a few of the men turned aside rather than facing the madness in his eyes.
But such a defense could not last, even for an elf. Numbers were against him as they had been against Gimli, and rage had robbed the elf of any semblance of caution. He over-extended his guard one too many times, and the blunt edge of a knife caught him on the side of the head. With a surprised grunt, Legolas swayed, staggered, and toppled over. The last thing he saw was a furious, blood-splattered man looming over him. Darkness swam before his eyes, the world was abruptly veiled in shadow, and then he knew no more.
Barak khazud!—Axes of the dwarves! (Dwarven battle cry)
Author’s Notes: Many of you will have recognized the title of this chapter already, but for those not in the know, it’s part of the song "The Road Goes Ever On and On." For a reference, it’s in The Fellowship of the Ring on page 58 and also on page 102 of the Ballantine 50th edition version.
Apologies to Mari if I’ve thrown off the "world view" again, but this story just wouldn’t wait. Hopefully you’ll get back on track soon. ;)
For Littlefish, my major is International Law and Diplomacy with an emphasis in the Middle East. For the diplomacy part, I’ve taken numerous courses on politics, so it might as well be my major. ;)
Thanks go out to all the reviewers, but I’d like to throw out special appreciation to both RainyDayz and Insane Muse, who have been reviewing multiple chapters and giving me amazing words of encouragement. Thank you very much. And to everyone else who has reviewed, THANK YOU! You keep me excited about writing, and I’m ecstatic that the stories are being so well received.
Arabano—Second-in-command of Lotessa (OC)
Aragorn—King of Gondor
Arhelm—Captain of Rohan’s guard (OC)
Arnor—Aragorn’s horse (OC)
Asbad—Tribal head of Khurintu (OC)
Aulit—Tribal head of Gartabo (OC)
Budari—Tribal head of Lotessa (OC)
Dashnir—Second-in-command of the Khurintu tribe (OC)
Eomer—King of Rohan
Faensul—Legolas’s horse (OC)
Fastahn—Member of Soltari’s advisory council (OC)
Gimli—Lord of the Glittering Caves of Aglarond
Imhran—Captain of Gondor’s guard (OC)
Imrahil—Prince of Dol Amroth and Captain of the Swan Knights
Joranen—Tribal head of Warra (OC)
Legolas—Lord of Southern Ithilien and Prince of Mirkwood
Mohart—Second-in-command of the Gartabo tribe (OC)
Radarad—Tribal head of Portu (OC)
Shade—Eomer’s horse (OC)
Gartabo—Centrally located agricultural tribe
Khurintu—Northern based warrior tribe
Lotessa—Southern based warrior tribe
Portu—Widespread raiding tribe
Soltari—Centrally located agricultural tribe
Warra—Northern based warrior tribe
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.