9. Into the Dark Unknown
In the deep places of the world! And thither we are going against my wish. Who will lead us now in this deadly dark?
Boromir—The Fellowship of the Ring (A Journey in the Dark)
There were times when Elfwine, crown-prince of Rohan, found his nine years of age to be a stifling hindrance. He would admit to his elders’ claims that he was young and inexperienced, but in his mind, that only meant he should have the first chance at opportunities that offered more experience. He was still a boy according to Rohirrim standards, but he considered himself just as mature and responsible as any adult. Well, perhaps not any adult, but he was certainly more mature and responsible than most nine-year-olds in the kingdom. But the king and queen rarely saw that. They were always telling him that he could not do certain things because he was too young. His father maintained that he should be at least fourteen before he was allowed to handle the wild mares they occasionally brought in from the plains. His mother had made him promise to wait at least another year before learning swordplay from the back of a horse, and she would undoubtedly extract from him the same promise next year, just as she had the year before. Yes, there were many times when Elfwine’s impressive nine years of life counted for next to nothing as far as privilege and responsibility were concerned.
But this was not one of those times.
Rather, this was one of those rare times when the privilege and responsibility he did have became a serious disadvantage. In fact, Elfwine was on the verge of using his age as an excuse to forsake his duties and seek out his father, a testament of just how frustrated he had become. Elfwine had inherited an awareness of words from his mother, and he knew very well that a statement made one day could easily turn on him the next day. If he pleaded that he was too young to remain here on the Pelennor, Lord Elfhelm was certain to remind everyone of that remark the next time Elfwine tried to do something that was normally handled by older boys. But at the moment, Elfwine did not care. He wanted to see his father, and he was quite ready to subjugate himself to decades of being considered "too young" if it would get him off this cursed field and up to the Houses of Healing!
As if sensing his tension, Shade snorted loudly beside him and danced away, shaking his head and flipping his mane back and forth. Immediately becoming still, Elfwine took several long, deep breaths and managed to gain a handle on his impatience. If he had to stay here and look after his father’s stallion, then he might as well do a good job of it. "Easy, my friend," he whispered to Shade, approaching the horse cautiously and laying a hand on the broad shoulder. Stroking gently, he kept his voice quiet and calm, hiding the restlessness he felt within himself. "Easy," he whispered again. "I am not upset with you."
The stallion tossed his head and stomped, but he seemed to relax a bit. Now that the two elven horses were over by the City-gate, Shade was significantly calmer than he had been earlier, but he was still skittish enough that Elfwine did not feel comfortable leaving him alone just yet. Besides, there was little else for him to do. Unless he wished to plead off his duties using youth as his excuse—which was becoming a more attractive solution by the minute—he was obliged to wait upon the Pelennor with the rest of Elfhelm’s company until Arhelm and his men arrived to relieve them. It wouldn’t be so bad if someone would at least send word of his father’s condition! But there was not, and Elfwine felt as though he was going to go mad with worry. It seemed as though hours had passed since Elfhelm had sent Thendril to make inquiries with the healers, and he had yet to return. And as the minutes ticked away and still no tidings came, Elfwine felt his tenuous grasp on patience slip further and further away.
To make matters worse, the tantalizing aroma of food was beginning to waft about the Pelennor, and Elfwine realized just how very hungry he was. His stomach rumbled, and he raged against the knowledge that when he was relieved from his duty, he would skip the noon meal and journey to the Houses of Healing, where he would be forced to make do with whatever the healers were having for lunch. That thought made him shiver. He had heard far too many tales of terror from both Eowyn and Merry about the quality of the food that those in the Houses were forced to endure, and he had no desire to brave such perils himself.
But perhaps I can use the food to my advantage, Elfwine mused as he absently rubbed Shade’s neck. If my father learns that I survived the healer’s food on his behalf, he may think me strong enough to let me assist him in breaking the wild mares. Intrigued by this idea, Elfwine began to envision a stoic bedside visit with the king during which he ate whatever nefarious concoction had been created for lunch, thus proving his fortitude and ability. Even if that did not work, he could always adopt the part of a martyr forced to dine on the evils of the healers and later user the situation to guilt his father into greater leniency.
At his side, Shade suddenly lifted his head and snorted, his ears pricking up and his expressive eyes turning to watch the City-gate. Drawn from his thoughts of great deeds in the face of hostile cuisine, Elfwine turned in search of whatever had caught the stallion’s interest and promptly loosed an exclamation of joy. Emerging from the mithril gates of Minas Tirith was a party of Rohirrim, and within that party he spied both Arhelm and Thendril. At last! He could turn his duties over to another, hear word of his father’s condition, and then depart to see his father for himself!
Studying Shade briefly and reading much of his temperament from his stance and his eyes, Elfwine decided that the stallion could probably be left on his own. So long as the elven horses remained far away from the breeding mares, there should be no problems. Giving his father’s horse a final pat, Elfwine turned away and hurried toward the gathering Rohirrim, leaping the paddock fence and only dimly registering Shade’s farewell whinny.
"There you are, my friend," Elfhelm called out in greeting when Elfwine neared the others. "Lord Arhelm has been telling us that he was in the Houses of Healing along with Thendril and that they both spoke with Lady Eowyn."
"And my father?" Elfwine questioned as he joined them. "Did you speak with my father as well?"
Arhelm traded an uncertain look with Thendril, causing a pang of fear to blossom in Elfwine’s heart. "No, I fear that we did not have opportunity to speak with him."
"But you saw him, surely," Elfwine pressed, ignoring the sinking sensation in his stomach. "How did he appear?"
"My lord prince, we were not allowed to even see the king," Arhelm answered grimly. "We were told that he was resting and could not be disturbed. But as Lord Elfhelm has stated, we did speak with Lady Eowyn. She came to…greet us when we were denied entry."
"She did not seem pleased with the gelding iron, my lord," Thendril added.
Elfhelm emitted a strange, choking cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh, and in other circumstances, Elfwine would have been interested in pursuing the matter. But his father was foremost in his mind, and his anxiety was growing. "Did Lady Eowyn tell you aught of the king’s condition?" he asked, trying to keep his voice steady.
"She said that the king was sleeping and that he would be well with rest and care," Arhelm answered.
Elfwine blinked. "She said nothing else?"
"She spoke of a head injury, my lord prince," Thendril said. "But the Lady Eowyn seemed confident that the king would recover."
"Yet you were not allowed to see him," Elfwine observed flatly.
Arhelm and Thendril both shifted uncomfortably. "I am sorry, but the healers were rather adamant on that count," Arhelm answered.
"It could simply be that they were protective of the king’s sleep," Elfhelm suggested, but his voice lacked conviction.
"Or it could be that they are hiding something," Elfwine muttered darkly. It was his experience that when evidence was kept from view, someone was harboring secrets. He had come up against this many times when his parents felt that he was too young to know something, and he suspected that healers—who seemed to consider themselves older than everyone around them regardless of their actual age—would employ a similar tactic.
"Then we must discover the truth of the matter for ourselves," Elfhelm said. "We will arrange things here with Arhelm’s company, and then we will depart for the Houses."
Elfwine felt his heart drop. It was, of course, necessary to tell Arhelm of the elven horses and advise him to keep a close watch upon Shade. Arhelm might have heard some of this from Thendril, but an official report from Elfhelm was still needed. And then they would need to inform the men of the change in command in addition to taking stock of how many of Arhelm’s men were here to relieve Elfhelm’s men, for not everyone had yet arrived. This was all fairly routine and would not require much time, but even so, Elfwine chafed at the delay. He wished to see his father now.
Perhaps sensing his anxiety, Elfhelm studied the prince for a while and then smiled slightly. "If you wish it, Elfwine, I shall handle the changing of the guard here," he said, his voice sympathetic. "You may go ahead of us to the Houses of Healing. Perhaps by the time I arrive you will have convinced the healers that we should be allowed to visit the king."
Relief and indignation warred within Elfwine. He was loathe to receive special treatment from others because of either his age or his position, but at the same time, Elfhelm was releasing him from his obligations and giving him leave to see his father. And would not Elfhelm do the same for any in his command under similar circumstances? Do not let your pride rule you in this instance, a voice at the back of Elfwine’s head chided him, and in response to this, he found himself nodding. "You are certain you do not need my aid?" he asked Elfhelm even as he prepared to hasten away.
"Shade seems calm, and all else can be handled easily enough," Elfhelm answered. "Go, my prince. Your father needs you."
"As you command, Lord Elfhelm," Elfwine said with a quick bow. And then he was off, trying to keep his pace somewhere between a run and a brisk walk. The healers might have been able to foil the efforts of Arhelm and Thendril, but they had not been tested against the crown-prince of Rohan. Elfwine had experience in getting information that he was not supposed to have, and if the venerable masters of the Houses of Healing thought to hide things from him, they would soon learn the error of their ways.
* * * *
While staggering down halls and up stairways with Imrahil’s hand upon his shoulder as a guide, Merry came to the conclusion that the world made much more sense from a drunken perspective.
The king’s palace was a good example of this. The day before, Merry had considered the many rooms and corridors to be bewildering and tiresome. It was almost as though the architects and builders had intended for visitors to become hopelessly lost and confused. But now Merry had a very different view of these same rooms and corridors. He had realized that they were more than trimmings and trappings. They were an adventure. An exciting journey. A maze of possibilities. It was a wondrous experience marred only by the burning hunger within his stomach, a hunger that would have been sated by now if Imrahil had not interfered.
Not that Merry blamed Imrahil. His mind was not working well enough to make connections that would assign fault or responsibility. It was true that the basement contained food. It was true that Merry had been in the basement at one point. And it was true that Merry was no longer in the basement because Imrahil was taking him elsewhere. But joining these facts was currently a task far beyond the inebriated hobbit, and so he trailed along passively behind Dol Amroth’s ruler, admiring the twisting hallways and wondering why he had never seen the adventurous aspects of the palace before. Perhaps when he returned to Buckland, he would suggest that Brandy Hall be redesigned in this fashion…
The ground beneath him suddenly became angry and rocked beneath his feet, upsetting his balance. Moments later, Merry blinked at the stone floor that slammed into his face and wondered what he had done to offend it. Somewhere in the rather nebulous region above his head, he heard Imrahil sigh wearily, and then he felt himself lifted back up.
"Come, Master Brandybuck. We are nearly there," the prince said, and Merry blearily realized that he was being addressed in a formal manner.
"At your service, my lord," the hobbit answered in what he intended to be a clear voice except that it sounded more like a drowning Ringwraith. Not that Merry had ever heard a drowning Ringwraith, but his imagination was currently very active. He could easily envision the cold, dead whispers of the Black Riders struggling to rise through several feet of water, eventually coming out as bubbling, garbled nonsense. Perhaps these winding halls had done something to his throat to make him sound like that. Perhaps his throat now wound around and around so that when he spoke, his words were jumbled from having to find their way to his mouth.
But this could be a problem. How was Merry to express his excitement over his new adventure to others if his words continued to sound lost and confused? Perhaps he should give them a way to escape his throat. He could try burning a doorway for them like he’d intended to do for himself while down in the storeroom. But there was no guarantee that his words would find the opening, and he might hurt himself in the process. Pippin would then have no one to look after him, and it was vitally important that Pippin have supervision.
Speaking of which, where was Pippin?
Imrahil had been pushing him down the hallway, but Merry now moved away from his grasp, stumbling as the traitorous ground decided to tremble and buck again. He would have to sit down later and sort out whatever he’d done to make the floor hate him so.
"Merry, we are nearly there. If you will just be patient, I—"
"Have t’ find Pippin," Merry mumbled. This time he sounded less like a drowning Ringwraith and more like a troll with a head cold. The thought made him giggle.
"Pippin is fine," Imrahil answered, his voice seeming to echo in Merry’s head. "I met him rushing out of the Citadel not long before I found you."
Merry frowned. He could only dimly recall what Pippin had been intending to do—even with the assistance of wine, he could make very little sense of the Took’s convoluted ideas—but he was fairly certain that leaving the Citadel had not been part of the plan. Well, unless Legolas and Gimli left the Citadel, in which case it would make sense for Pippin to leave as well. Except that Imrahil had just asked about the elf and dwarf, which probably meant Pippin hadn’t been with them. And that meant…what? Merry shook his head. This was far too complex for his mind at the moment. He could make simple deductions, but when he neared a conclusion, he couldn’t seem to trace his way back through the logic to make the final step. "I’m hungry," he complained after a moment, though what that had to do with anything was beyond Merry. Oh, wait. The storerooms. Why wasn’t he in the storerooms again? He’d just been there. Hadn’t he? Or had he been in the Shire?
"Come along," Imrahil said firmly, guiding the hobbit forward. "I promised you food and rest, but we cannot stop here."
"Why not?" Merry asked, confused as to why their current location would deny them the ability to stop. He also noted that his own voice echoing around his head. Perhaps his mind had become a cave…
"Because you need to be in your own room."
Merry seemed to recall Imrahil saying this before, but he no longer remembered the reasoning behind that assertion. "S’posed to find Pippin," he said. "Can’t leave him alone."
"When I locate your friend, I will send him to your rooms."
Merry had the strangest feeling that he was being patronized, and he suspected that Imrahil was the one doing it. Nothing else had said anything to him recently, though the floor still seemed to be agitated. It wouldn’t hold still. "Need to find Pippin now," Merry tried to explain despite a sudden assault of hiccups. "He’s looking for Legolas and Gimli. Maybe even Elladan and El’ohir. But if there’s food in the room, he doesn’t need t’ look!" He then concluded his logic with a rather loud hiccup.
"I will tell Pippin that when I find him. And I will do all within my power to see that he stays away from those he seeks."
"Need to find him now!" Merry insisted, and once again, he lurched away from Imrahil’s hold. As before, the ground attacked, sliding out from under his feet and sending him crashing into the wall. Perhaps something about Imrahil kept the floor happy. This didn’t happen as often when Imrahil was holding his shoulder. Rubbing his head, he pushed himself into what he felt to be a fairly upright position, his back braced against the wall, and discovered that Imrahil was kneeling before him.
"Merry, listen closely to me," the man said, and his voice seemed a bit too controlled. "You are in no condition to go looking for Pippin. I will find him for you and then he will see that you receive food and rest. But until that time, you must trust me and do as I say. Do you understand?"
Merry didn’t, but Imrahil looked so tired that the hobbit nodded anyway.
"Good," Imrahil sighed. "Now, let us get you back on your feet and—"
The addition of a new voice to his spinning world made Merry’s head pound, and he wondered why everyone was suddenly shouting.
"Merry, what happened? You’re covered in…in…what are you covered in? Prince Imrahil, what—"
"I am pleased to see you again, Master Peregrin, as I have somewhat to say to you. As for your kinsman, he seems to have overindulged in some very potent elven wine."
Merry blinked and tried to make his eyes focus on the newcomer before him. "Pippin?" he asked, not quite daring to believe his good fortune.
"You ninny, what were you doing with elven wine? You look as though you bathed in it!"
"Was only trying t’ start a fire," Merry muttered, somewhat annoyed at Pippin’s outraged tone.
"By swimming in wine?!"
"No. Used the wine on the door so I could light it."
Despite the haze of inebriation, Merry quickly realized that this had been the wrong thing to say. His cousin froze, his face paled, and a hard look crept into his eyes. "Didn’t we talk about fires earlier, Merry? Didn’t you learn anything from the Old Forest? I honestly don’t know what I’m to do with you. You should have known better! You could have been killed if Prince Imrahil hadn’t found you!"
Pippin’s concern was touching, but Merry was now tired of having his judgement challenged. "Would’ve worked," he snapped, folding his arms across his chest and sinking back against the wall.
"If I may interject, Master Peregrin, I do not believe you can reason with him at the present time. We should secure him in his rooms and then see to other business."
"You’re right," Pippin sighed, and he looked at Merry with what seemed to be a wistful expression. "It’s just that I didn’t expect him to go back to the cellars and try burning his way in. We’d already discussed that, and I thought we both agreed that it wasn’t feasible."
"It appears that your cousin reconsidered the matter. But come now. Perhaps you can help me get him on his feet and keep him there."
"No moving," Merry slurred firmly. He was feeling unusually petulant and had decided to vent his feelings on Imrahil and Pippin. After all, they were the ones making him do things without his consent.
"Merry, you can’t sit here in the hall all day."
"Why not?" he demanded. Imrahil had been unable to answer that question and Merry was interested to hear Pippin’s response.
"You’re right. He really can’t be reasoned with," Pippin murmured. His cousin backed away and scratched his head, glancing down the hallway. "Do you think you could continue to look after him, Prince Imrahil?"
"I have matters of my own to attend to, but I could be persuaded otherwise."
"Persuaded? What do you mean?"
"Ere we left the kitchens, Merry revealed that you were searching for Lord Legolas and Lord Gimli. I wondered if you might be able to tell me of their whereabouts."
"Oh." Pippin hesitated, and even Merry could tell that he paused for too long. "Well, I haven’t seen them. Not since breakfast, at any rate."
Breakfast! Merry remembered. That is when Arwen told me that Pippin and I could help ourselves to the kitchens! We have to punish her for that!
"When last we met, you were in a great hurry to leave the Citadel," Imrahil said. "You seemed to be pursuing something. Perhaps you received word of Legolas and Gimli? Or of Elladan and Elrohir, maybe?"
There was another long pause, and this pause extended to the entire palace, or so it seemed to Merry. Even the walls felt tense, as though they waited for a great announcement.
"I was trying to catch Elladan and Elrohir," Pippin finally revealed. "They had scaled the wall and were landing on the stable roof. Eldarion was with them, and I thought that if I could learn their plans, I could use the information to buy some help from Legolas and Gimli."
Imrahil now had a strange look upon his face. Merry was certain he’d seen that look before, but for the life of him, he could not remember where. He’d seen it recently, though at the moment, the elven wine coursing through his veins was making time a very relative thing. Bilbo’s birthday party and this morning’s breakfast felt as though they had both taken place yesterday evening.
"Elladan and Elrohir had Eldarion?" the prince of Dol Amroth said slowly. Merry smiled at the names, noting that they were all quite similar. Behind him, the wall seemed to thump in agreement.
"It doesn’t bode well, does it?" Pippin sighed. "And that’s not all. I overheard Elrohir and Elladan talking in the stables. Apparently their horses are missing, and Legolas’s horse as well. And though I didn’t see them, I did overhear Legolas and Gimli in the Queen’s Gardens earlier talking about something they’d done with the horses. They said something about Rhûn and Eomer’s mares. I didn’t hear much more, but it can’t be good." Pippin rubbed his temples and shook his head. "All I wanted was a nice meal! Was that too much to hope for?"
Now Merry remembered where he’d seen the look on Imrahil’s face. It was the same look that some of the elves had given him the first time the hobbits had visited the kitchens in Rivendell. Frodo had still been unconscious, fighting the Morgul wound, and Sam had refused to leave his side, so Merry and Pippin had been charged with obtaining food. They’d gone to the kitchens and made a few requests, after which one of the elves had said that they only needed to order enough food for a single meal, not enough food for several days. To this, Merry and Pippin had replied that they indeed ordering enough food for a single meal. In response to that, the elves had given the two hobbits a look of complete disbelief and utter shock. Imrahil now wore the same expression.
"Do you want some wine?" Merry offered as the wall behind him thumped again. After all, wine had done wonders for him. Maybe it would help his friends.
"Yes," Imrahil said wearily. "Yes, I would. Unfortunately, someone here should retain the ability to think clearly."
"I can do that," Pippin volunteered.
"So what’re we going to do now?" Merry asked, and a giant yawn split his face. That was odd. He didn’t feel tired. Or did he? It was becoming so difficult to tell. All the moments of his life were running together, and he couldn’t work whether he’d just stumbled off the Pelennor after the Witch-king’s death or whether he was sleeping on the talan in Lothlórien.
"You, Master Brandybuck, are going to sleep," Imrahil said, putting a hand beneath Merry’s arm and lifting. "Master Took and I are going to have a long discussion about the possible whereabouts of certain elves, half-elves, and dwarves."
"But I need to find Legolas and Gimli," Pippin protested.
"We both need to find Legolas and Gimli, and to that end, we shall work together. Now help me with your cousin."
Together, the two of them managed to pull Merry off the floor and away from the wall, which now seemed to be pounding in earnest. Merry wondered why no one else was paying attention to it. Perhaps something had happened to their hearing. They were doing quite a bit of shouting. If they would only lower their voices just a bit…
"Merry? Come on, Merry, you can walk. One foot in front of the other. Even that shouldn’t be too difficult for you."
Merry fixed a dark glare on Pippin. At least, he assumed it was a dark glare. The light seemed to be fading, and so it stood to reason that anything he did would become dark, just like this hallway.
It’s this silly floor again, Merry thought dismally as the ground spun away. It truly does not like me. The two of us must have a long talk soon.
The wall thumped once more, and that was the last thing Merry heard as the elven wine finally overwhelmed him and sent him into a deep and pleasant slumber.
* * * *
Gimli watched with a mixture of concern and confusion as Legolas ruthlessly pounded his shoulder against the wall of their dark corridor. Several minutes ago, the elf had stopped suddenly and informed Gimli that he heard voices on the other side of the wall. Gimli had started to ask why these particular voices were relevant, but he was immediately shushed. Quiet moments had passed during which the flickering torchlight revealed that Legolas had closed his eyes and pressed his ear to the stone wall, listening intently. Then, almost without warning, Legolas had started beating against the wall, muttering angrily under his breath. Once he paused and run his hands over its surface as though looking for something, but then he resumed hitting it.
"Legolas?" Gimli said hesitantly, uncertain of his companion’s sanity.
"Make it open," the elf said, his eyes hard and dark in the meager torchlight.
"Make what open?"
"The wall. Open it as you did in the nursery. We must get out of these passageways!"
Ah, he feels the closeness of the walls, Gimli realized, trying to decide how best to handle the situation. He’d actually been expecting Legolas to exhibit signs of claustrophobia long before now. Truth be told, he was starting to feel slightly claustrophobic himself, though he would sooner give up a mithril mine than admit that to Legolas. Even so, these corridors were extremely narrow. In several places, his broad shoulders had brushed against the walls on both sides. The elf was undoubtedly in a state of near panic, and it was up to Gimli to calm him before he could harm either himself or those around him, namely the dwarf. "Peace, Legolas. It will be well ere long. I want you to close your eyes and take deep breaths. We will find Eldarion soon and then—"
"Elladan and Elrohir have Eldarion."
Gimli blinked. "Pardon?"
The elf glared at him. "Elladan and Elrohir have Eldarion," he repeated.
Gimli opened and closed his mouth silently for a moment before again finding words. "How do you know this?"
"Pippin, Imrahil, and what sounded like Merry were speaking together on the other side of this wall. Pippin just told of watching Elladan and Elrohir escape the Citadel over outer wall near the stables. He says that they took Eldarion with them."
Gimli blinked again. "You…you are certain?"
Legolas narrowed his eyes. "Open this wall, Gimli."
The dwarf shook his head, reeling slightly. "How is it that they found him before we did? We looked everywhere!"
"I do not know, and at the moment, I do not care. I only wish to escape these dark corridors so that we might pursue our foes and retrieve Eldarion before Aragorn learns of what has transpired. Now if you would be so kind as to employ your dwarven touch to these soulless walls—"
"Legolas, not every wall in this palace was made to open," Gimli interrupted. "I doubt very much that there exists an opening here that will lead us into the corridor without, and even if it did exist, it would be difficult to find in this darkness."
A flash of something that might have been terror flitted through the elf’s eyes and then vanished. "You mean to say that we are trapped in here?"
"Certainly not!" Gimli snapped, puffing himself up indignantly. "I would not have led us in if I could not lead us out again."
"Then by all of Elbereth’s blessed stars, lead us out!"
Realizing that a combination of claustrophobia and frustration had given Legolas a short temper—which was saying much, considering that the elf had a relatively short temper to begin with—Gimli wisely decided to comply for the moment. Walking back toward the elf and squeezing around him with a slight grunt, he began to retrace his steps. "It would be best if we return to the nursery," he said, glancing over his shoulder as he went. "We might try to find another opening, but I already know where the switch is that will open the wall into the nursery."
"Then let us move quickly," Legolas muttered as he fell into place behind the dwarf. "I wish to spend no more time in these dark places."
"That is the problem with elves," Gimli sighed, testing his friend’s state of mind with a light jest. "They have very little sense of adventure."
"And the problem with dwarves is that they have very little common sense," the elf retorted sharply.
No longer unduly frightened, but angry still, Gimli decided. He feels as though things are slipping beyond his control and that unnerves him. He will last the journey to the nursery, but unless circumstances change, he may not last the day.
"Should we not turn up those stairs?"
Gimli stopped and looked back to see Legolas indicating an off-shooting corridor that led to spiral steps. The dwarf examined the walls, the width of the hall, and then shook his head. "You are slightly off in your reckoning," he said, trying to make his voice casual and unassuming. That last thing he needed was for Legolas to take offense. "We should follow this corridor around several turns before ascending into the upper levels."
"I thought we had traveled only a short distance before I heard the voices on the other side of the wall," Legolas said doubtfully.
"Distances are difficult to judge in the darkness," Gimli said with a shrug. "Come. Trust the instincts of a dwarf. My people have long wandered the stone beneath the earth. A man’s house shall not bewilder me."
The elf still looked skeptical but he nodded once, and Gimli took that as an indication to proceed. Which he would have done anyway, but it was nice to know that the elf would follow.
They started off again with Gimli setting a rather brisk pace. He told himself that it was to prevent disaster on the part of Elladan and Elrohir and alleviate Legolas’s fears, but in his heart, he knew that he also longed to reach more open spaces. The very idea was an affront to his dwarven pride, and he tried to ignore the sudden desire to see blue sky above him. Clearly he had been spending far too much time around elves. When they had finished with their business of mischief, perhaps he would seek out the hobbits and spend time with them. They did not have a dwarf’s love for caverns and deeps, but at least they were more sympathetic to his musings than the elf that trailed behind him.
The pair came upon an off-shooting corridor that dipped down slightly and Gimli turned into it, grimacing slightly when he was required to turn sideways in order to fit through. His torch bobbed before him, its light revealing just how confining the space was. He told himself firmly that this was as nothing when compared with some of the back hallways in the depths of Erebor, but it was still difficult and the nearly tangible tension on the part of his elven friend was not helping.
At length they came to a wider passageway, and Gimli turned left into it before making a right when they came to a crosscutting hall, winding his way confidently toward the stairs that would take them up to the nursery and telling himself over and over again that this was no worse than anything back home. "How do you fare, Legolas?" Gimli asked, thinking that talking might enable him to focus on something other than the dusty corridors.
"I will fare better when we are free of these confining walls," the elf said shortly.
Gimli sighed and decided to forego attempts at conversation. Legolas was probably too concerned about maintaining his stoic elven façade to keep a civil tongue in his head. The wrong words now would only upset Legolas further, and though the elf had done remarkably well in these secret passages, it was best not to push him. Further agitation could lead to an erosion of control, which would give his claustrophobic leanings a chance to move in. Then the dwarf would have a frantic elf on his hands, and that was to be avoided at all costs.
So they continued their journey in silence, passing stairways and weaving their way through the maze of passages that riddled the walls of the king’s palace. It was not exactly an awkward silence, but it was quite tense. It was something of a waiting silence, Gimli decided. As though something needed to happen, but until that time, it was best to keep quiet and still.
They turned down a new corridor, passed other staircases, and the silence seemed to become more pronounced. At this point, Gimli decided that Aragorn’s home was nothing like Erebor. When the dwarves created secret passages, they did so with skill and finesse. Not too much finesse, of course, because atmosphere had to be maintained, but these cramped corridors could not compare with the cunning of Erebor’s secret hallways. The passages of Erebor might be small and tight, but they still managed to convey the vastness of the mountain above them. They maintained the depth and power of the stones out of which they were carved. The rough stonework here in the Citadel was nothing more than that. It held no echoes of cavern depths or ageless earth. It was silent and stifling. The only sounds came from the sputtering flames of the torches and the tread of Gimli’s boots against the stone floor, thudding dully off the walls as…
Gimli abruptly stopped and frowned. Why could he only hear his own steps?
His frown deepening, he turned around to look for his companion. Legolas moved with complete stealth in forests and fields, but upon rock, he could not entirely hide the sound of his feet. Gimli should have been able to hear him. And as the dwarf turned toward his friend, he discovered why he no longer could.
Legolas had stopped a good twenty feet back.
Wondering if he would need to talk Legolas through his claustrophobia after all, Gimli sighed and started toward the elf. "Are you well?" he asked, his voice echoing through the hall.
"We have not been here before," Legolas murmured.
The dwarf blinked and looked around. "Yes, we have. We came down this way when you thought that Eldarion might be interested in a broader hallway."
"Nay, the ceiling was higher when I said that," Legolas argued with a shake of his head. "This hallway is new. We have not been here before. The dust is undisturbed."
"We haven’t disturbed much dust. I do not think that is a good sign of where we have or have not been."
"We have not been here," the elf insisted. "We should have turned at those last set of stairs."
"We have only descended spiral staircases," Gimli reminded him. "The stairs that we most recently passed were straight. We did not come down them."
"Nor did we come through here!"
With a grimace, Gimli looked around in the hopes of placating his friend. He studied the width of the corridor, the height of the ceiling, the dust upon the floor, the distance between adjoining halls, and the occasional wall sconce that sat upon the walls. And he came to a rather shocking realization: the elf was indeed correct. They had not passed through this hallway earlier.
Panic hit the dwarf hard. How had he missed the way back? He had been so confident of his path. So sure of his destination! How had he, a dwarf of the mountains, managed to lead them astray in a building of stone? He was certain he’d kept a good mental map of their travels in these back hallways. There had been many twists and turns, but Gimli was a dwarf! Twists and turns were easy for him!
"I think," he said at length, "that this might be a shorter route."
The elf stared at him askance. "You think?"
"I believe that I was trying to lead us back to Eldarion’s nursery using the quickest way available. I struck out as the crow flies rather than as the passageway turns. But," he continued before Legolas could interrupt, "I know the palace fairly well and I believe I can make an educated guess as to our current position."
"And that would be?" the elf challenged, a steeling glint creeping into his eyes.
Gimli hesitated. "We are…"
"We are just now beneath some of the upper corridors near the library."
The elf looked at Gimli for a rather long and uncomfortable moment, and then he spoke, his voice dangerously quiet. "It is as I said before. The dwarves lack much in the art of subtle deception. You have no more idea of our whereabouts than I do."
Gimli drew a tight rein on his temper. "You have a better guess?"
"I am wise enough to know that guessing will lead to further trouble," Legolas answered sharply.
Anger was beginning to rise in the back of Gimli’s mind, but knowing himself to be far more comfortable in these surroundings than the elf, he decided that it fell upon him to act as the rational one. "We have this far," he reasoned. "And I trust my instincts. I still believe I can get us to the nursery. Shall we continue?"
"No, we shall not continue. We should go back and attempt this again, but we should heed my council and climb the steps I saw in the beginning of our return journey."
It was not a bad suggestion, but Gimli did not know if he could get them back to their starting point. He hadn’t known exactly where they were when Legolas had stopped to listen, and they’d taken so many turns so quickly since then that he was doubtful of his ability to retrace their steps. "It would take too long," he said, deciding not to tell the elf about his self-doubts. "We are already this far. It cannot be much further. If we simply continue, then—"
"Then you will lead us further into passageways we have not walked," Legolas snapped. "You do not know where we are or where we are going, Gimli. But at least I remember where we have been."
Dwarven pride began to rankle, and Gimli felt his grip on his temper weakening. "You imply that I do not know where we have been?" he demanded, though he was forced to admit to himself that this was, in fact, the truth. And as it was the truth, it stung all the more.
"I am certain that you do not know where we have been, else we would not have come here!" Legolas answered.
"But I suppose that you could lead us back easily."
"At the moment, I have more confidence in my own abilities than I have in yours."
"An elf dares to challenge a dwarf within walls of stone?" Gimli’s blood was running hot now. He knew that the elf’s nervousness was making him deliberately provocative, but Gimli could endure only so much. "I have walked more caverns, explored more tunnels, and descended into more mountains than you can ever dream of."
"May the Valar take me if I ever I dream of anything so dismal," Legolas spat. "It was a mistake to come in here. A mistake made by you, I believe."
"You were under no obligation to follow me! You did that of your own volition. I gave you every opportunity to back away."
"And it is well that I did not, for it seems that my expertise is now needed to rescue you."
Gimli’s fury reached fever pitch. "Rescue me?! Watch your words carefully, Master Elf. I am in no need of rescuing. I am going to press forward and find the nursery just as I said I would. And if you doubt my abilities, you are welcome to find your own way."
"I will, then, for forging ahead will only result in greater delay," the elf shot back heatedly. "I would advise you to follow me, but I see that your dwarven pride prevents you from saving yourself."
"We will see who needs saving when I go out to find Eldarion and you become hopelessly lost in these tunnels!"
"A challenge, then," Legolas proposed, his eyes flashing angrily. "You go your way and I shall go mine. Whoever finds the nursery last is required to play squire to the other on the morrow."
"I expect my boots to be polished by breakfast," Gimli said tightly, folding his arms across his chest.
"And I expect my bath to be drawn by daybreak," the elf answered curtly.
"So long as the bath does not interfere with your attention to my boots, I will permit it."
Legolas’s cold smile sent chills down the dwarf’s back. "As any squire of mine should be presentable, I shall be sure to tell you whether or not you must put an extra shine on your boots before breakfast. And now I will depart, for I have not forgotten that we must see to Eldarion. I wish you good fortune, Gimli. You will certainly need it."
And with that, the elf turned and walked away, moving in a fashion that was vaguely reminiscent of a dwarven stomp. It was something he’d picked up from Gimli’s guards during his visits to Aglarond. They were frequently stomping about whenever the elf was around, and Legolas had slowly—almost unconsciously—integrated the stomp into his own behavior. Unfortunately, the renowned dwarven version of the stomp was famous primarily for its sound, and sound was something that Legolas lacked when he moved. Even when he tried, he could not generate much in the way of noise. It was simply not a part of his makeup. As a result, his involuntary dwarven stomp was more in his posture and his motion than in his noise. It was a curious thing to watch, actually, and sometimes the elf looked very much like an indignant kitten forced to tiptoe through a puddle of water. Gimli allowed himself to chuckle at the sight until the elf turned a corner and vanished from view, the light of his torch eventually receding altogether. Then Gimli turned and went his own way, still fuming over the audacity of the elf. Did Legolas seriously think that he could best a dwarf in these hidden passages? Gimli shook his head and moved on.
A few minutes later, the ramifications of what he’d just done came crashing down around him.
"Great Mahal," he murmured, stopping and looking back. His anger dissolved as swiftly as it had come, and he cringed to think of the hapless elf stumbling around in these dark, narrow corridors. Should he go after him? Legolas had been moving quickly, and he doubted that he could catch the elf. And if Legolas turned one way and Gimli turned another, they would both be even more lost than they already were.
"Legolas!" he called, hoping that the elf would hear him and return. But all he heard were the echoes of his own voice. "Durin’s beard, what has that elf done now?" he sighed with a shake of his head.
After a moment, he shook his head, turned back, and continued on his way. It would be fruitless to search for Legolas. He would have to trust that elven instincts proved partially useful here and that Legolas found his the way out. If not, then Gimli would see to Eldarion and enlist the assistance of those who knew the passages well. Faramir, for instance, though how he was going to explain what Legolas was doing in the passages in the first place was beyond the dwarf. Still, if he went to Faramir and only to Faramir, he could probably trust him to remain discreet. But until then, he would have to hope that Legolas could hold his sanity together long enough to be rescued.
And with that thought, Gimli hurried on, anxious to reach the nursery and put this entire ordeal behind him.