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Silence: 1. Silence
Gimli son of Glóin often dreams of silence during this journey through foreign lands, during these short and fragile spells of rest that rarely are enough to soothe the strains of the road. He often dreams of home.
The silence under the earth is quite unlike even the stillest moment in the open air, where sounds never cease entirely. In the bowels of the mountains where Durin's folk live, echoes may magnify thousandfold: the endless song of water in pools and fountains, the persistent rattle of pickaxes as they bite ever deeper into the rock, the sharp clatter of metal being forged into graceful shapes. But the silence that sheathes them is always greater, for it is the quiet of the earth itself, older and vaster than anything born of living creatures. And in the nighttime, when sounds of labour and leisure die down, the silence also magnifies thousandfold. It turns thick and tangible, lingers like a hearty taste on one's tongue, allowing sleepers in their deep chambers to all but hear the surrounding layers of stone press tighter against each other.
It is inside these protective walls that Gimli feels most at home. Long has he laboured in the dusk of the mountain halls, uncovering beauty where Dwarves alone can see it, shaping blank stone into an image of the world outside. He knows that the brightest gems grow inside the deepest folds of earth, under heavy layers of silence, in the closed mouth of darkness where no words fit.
The absence of this silence leaves him feeling exposed and vulnerable, as if he were wearing fractured armour. Walking under open skies disquiets him, so he seeks comfort in the few familiar things he can trust to find on the way: marks on the landscape left by his kinsfolk, the sight of the glinting waters of Kheled-zâram that lingers behind his eyelids long after they have left it behind, and, whenever he may, in sleep.
That night at the eaves of the Fangorn forest, weariness rests on his shoulders. He is chilled to the bone and heavy of heart for the Halflings, but every step they have taken since their Fellowship broke burdens his limbs, and sleep wraps him like a thick blanket.
It is not a sound, but a silence that wakes him.
There is little light, yet enough for him to sense his surroundings. Dwarves, after all, are creatures of umbrage, and while their eyesight may not be as sharp as the Elves', they have some skill with finding their way in lightless places. Red clusters of embers are gleaming in the stone-grey remains of the dying fire, and the surrounding night is a dark cave with a cloud-crusted ceiling that hides the skies. The broad tree branching off above their humble camp is brooding and motionless, as if tuned to listen.
Legolas' blanket, spread on the ground nearby, is empty, and there is no one keeping watch.
Gimli needs not fumble to find his axe; it lies by his side, mere inches from where his head lay. The round, thick shape of the haft is familiar against his fingers, the weight reassuring in his hand. He thinks of his companions that are nowhere to be seen. He thinks of the old man who had shown himself mere hours earlier, and of the horses of Rohan they briefly mounted that are now gone. If it be the mighty white wizard who is preying in the night, one Dwarf alone will hardly be a match for such an enemy; but it is not the way of his kind to surrender without a fight. A chilly ache from running and lack of sleep settles in his muscles as he stands up, straightening his legs. The rings of his mail shirt tingle lightly against each other.
He hears the silence crack behind him like a breaking rock. A low sound trickles into the air. He cannot tell what it is – it could be a softly spoken word or a moan, even a muffled cry of pain. It comes from among the trees scattered on the slope running towards the forest, not far away.
Warily, Gimli begins to make his way towards the trees, cursing the weight of his Dwarf-steps on the dead twigs lying about in plenty.
He is no more than thirty steps away when boulders of clouds shift above, opening a rift of pale silver. In this light he espies movement through the bare, sharp-lined branches. He is close enough to see now, and what he sees he does not expect.
Aragorn is sitting with his back against the trunk of a tall tree, and Legolas is straddling his lap. Gimli's first thought is that Aragorn is hurt, but then he sees the Man's hands moving under Legolas' tunic, and Legolas' hand between Aragorn's legs, and he understands.
Like a shimmering vein of mithril revealing itself amongst coarse, shattered rocks of the deep mines, such is this revelation: a sudden vision of something that has always existed below the surface, but only now captures light and betrays its presence, a silence forthwith heavy with significance. Many a word and touch and glance shared by his companions now takes a new shape in his eyes; many a lull between them now glows like a chest full of jewels. Gimli does not know what has brought the Man and the Elf together this way, were it mere grief for loss of others, simple search for comfort on the brink of death, or something else; but their attachment has grown bright and strong, this he can see.
Such love between warriors is not unheard of, yet he is a stranger to it. All he knows of love is for a lady that he can only ever worship from afar, and that is all he wishes to know. But his heart is made of neither stone nor wood, and unforeseen grief brushes him; for he knows he is looking at a bond too unusual to be welcomed and cherished by the world, yet too strong to be entirely broken. Aragorn son of Arathorn is of great descent of Men, and Legolas Greenleaf is of the Elder Children of Ilúvatar: they are separated by a gulf as wide as death itself. Unions of Elves and Men are rare, even between a lord and a lady. Between two lords such a union can never be, and this will be their bitterest fight that leaves the deepest scars, should they survive other battles. Gimli knows there are stories that are carved in stone and spun into songs and remembered forever; and there are others that are buried under layers of silence and forgotten once those who lived them have left the circles of the world. The story of his companions is a story of silence, for it is known to stones and trees and sky alone, and has no place in songs. Stones will not tell, and trees will not tell, and sky will not tell.
Gimli does not know what gives him away. He is standing still as a pillar in hidden mountain halls; but perhaps Elves can feel the tiniest movements of the air, or somehow sense when they are being watched, for Legolas raises his head. He is like a stretch of starlight amongst the trees, his eyes wide, his pale skin caught in the web of shadows, and he beholds Gimli. Aragorn must have marked something shift on Legolas' face, because his head begins to turn, but the Elf presses his lips fully on Aragorn's before Gimli sees the Man's eyes. Their bodies fit together like two rings on a bright-forged chain: each arc, each mound matches, and they are lost to the world.
Gimli returns to the camp, but he does not sleep again.
Not much later his companions quietly make their way back, and when the first shreds of light appear on the horizon, Legolas rouses him for his watch.
As dawn comes cold and numb, they break their fast, and prepare to journey on. Aragorn and Legolas speak of the horses they had lost, and how quietly their watches wore away, and nothing between them is different from the day before.
"And what of you, Gimli?" Aragorn asks, turning to face the Dwarf. "Did anything happen while you were awake?"
Behind the Man Legolas is rolling up his blanket. Gimli catches a passing glimpse of his eyes, and even in the grey light of the morning the Elf shines with all joy and sorrow ever put in the songs of his kind. Gimli thinks of the songs that will never be spun and of the stories that can never be told.
"No," he says. "Nothing happened at all."
The brightest gems grow under heavy layers of unbroken silence, in the closed mouth of darkness where no words fit.
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A/N: Many thanks to Kenaz for the beta.
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