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In the Deep Places: 13. First Steps
And then, when he had stood ready to defend his people’s honor, to force this stupid, block-headed border guard to recognize the folly of his prejudice, Legolas had intervened. Had actually stepped in front of him, as if he were not worthy of notice, or worse, as if he were a child to be protected. And now the entire Fellowship was blind and dependant upon the very Elves that had insulted and distrusted them from the beginning!
Gimli had been prepared to accept his own blindfolding, if only Legolas were to be so bound as well. But he had intended that Aragorn and Boromir, at least, go free to guard the Hobbits. He had offered the prince the chance to prove that he truly could put the interests of the Fellowship over his own pride. But Legolas had refused the chance, and now they must all needs be blind and helpless with only these hostile strangers as protection. It was folly, it was lunacy, and it was all because of that stupid, stubborn, conceited Elf!
Yet even as he thought this, his muscles locked and shaking in his anger, some seed of doubt lingered. Legolas had, after all, placed himself between Gimli and the guards’ arrows. It was a foolhardy move, and hardly needed, for Gimli had had the situation perfectly in control. The guard had been no threat to him. He was certain of it. Almost certain. And yet . . . and yet the gesture, foolish as it was, was in keeping with the self sacrifice that the Elf had shown in Moria. Against his will, Gimli remembered again Legolas’ determination to stay behind after Gandalf fell, rather than risk harm to the Fellowship.
Angrily he pushed these doubts aside. None of that changed the current situation, and it only showed that Legolas was as faithless and changeable as all Elves. For had he not conspired with the guard to blindfold Gimli from the beginning? And would he not have found amusement in the sight of Gimli blundering helpless and alone in the dark?
As if to prove this point the soft earth suddenly changed beneath Gimli’s feet, and he stumbled abruptly. He might have fallen, but a strong hand caught his arm. “Careful, Master Dwarf,” a musical voice said. “The path curves here to your left.”
Gimli grunted and jerked his arm away. The Elf, the rear-guard he assumed, for it had not been Haldir’s voice, fell back. Gimli pushed one heavy boot forward and cautiously felt the raised edge of the tree root that had tripped him. He followed the curve of the path slowly, listening to follow the tread of the Men in front of him. The Hobbits were nearly useless for that purpose, as their bare feet scarcely made any noise even where the dry leaves drifted over the path. And the Elves might not have been there at all, so silent did they walk. But Gimli was accustomed through long years of experience to triangulating sounds in the dark. There was not the flat echo from stone walls to assist him, but he could follow Aragorn and Boromir, if he concentrated. He could hear the crunch of Aragorn’s footsteps, the swish of Boromir’s heavy cloak. Unfortunately, however, these were uncertain guides as they came from well ahead of him, and were obscured by the myriad sounds of the forest.
Indeed, as he walked Gimli became increasingly aware of the complexity of sounds about him. The forest, so silent the night before, was now alive with birdsong, the rustle of leaves in the early morning breeze and the chatter of squirrels overhead. His other senses, too, were heightened as he adjusted to his blindness. He could feel the brush of the cool breeze on his face, could smell the faint spice of the leaves crushed under his boots, a scent like cinnamon and smoke.
Gimli hunched his shoulders and tramped on. It was not blindness per se that bothered him. He had grown to adulthood in a world of twilight: small, half-lit caverns and shadowed tunnels, for the Dwarves in exile were poor and had not the land or resources to construct the great halls of their ancestors. He had once been trapped in a cave-in when the support for a new mine’s lowest level had given way, and had waited alone and injured, in the absolute dark and thinning air for two days before his father’s team had been able to dig him out.
The dark did not trouble him. But this, this helplessness as he was led along like a child by these insufferable Elves, this infuriated him. And the sense that he could almost see, as he walked through dappled patterns of light and shade, was intensely frustrating. More than that, he felt again the strong sense of displacement, of disorientation, that had plagued him since first they entered the Elven wood.
There were things to do, safety measures to follow, when one was without light in the caves. Stay still. Don’t move, and if the cave is stable then make noise. Wait for the others to find you. And if one couldn’t wait, if one had to move, then find a good wall to follow. Don’t go blind in the dark, feel the way ahead, go slowly and use a locator cry to find open passages. But here there were no walls to follow, and no stone to give back an echo at all. His long years of experience were working against him, for every instinct developed in the mines was absolutely useless in this deceptively open forest.
The earth was soft underfoot and muffled his steps, and all around he felt the open air and heard birdsong and the sigh of wind in the branches far overhead, none of which was the least bit helpful in avoiding sudden obstacles or pitfalls. He did not trust their guides, for all of Haldir’s promises of a smooth path, and he felt as if the yielding earth might simply give way at any moment and plunge him into an abyss. He stalked with muscles knotted in anxiety, and his teeth clenched so tightly that his jaw ached.
And on top of all of that there was the inexplicable strangeness of these woods. Unable to see the sun, he swiftly lost all sense of time or direction. This was intensely unnerving, for he was long accustomed to finding his way in the trackless tunnels beneath the earth, and his innate time sense served him without reference to sun or stars. But now he felt oddly pulled astray, his perceptions skewed like a compass brought too close to a lodestone. And time ran strangely here, if indeed it ran at all.
Then, in the midst of his confusion and frustration, a new sound came. It was soft, so as to blend with the low sigh of the wind and the rustle of the leaves, but it was distinct and separate from those sounds. A continual melodic whisper, wordless and yet familiar, and Gimli turned toward it without thinking. It was a constant, a tangible thread that he could grasp, and it gave him direction. He followed it, clinging to the familiar voice as though to a lifeline. His sharp hearing found direction in the sound: a guide along the path through this confusing wood. It was only later, as his tension ebbed and his mind cleared, that he realized what the sound was. Legolas was singing.
The slow deep rhythm of the forest was like a soothing balm to Legolas. His initial flare of panic at the closing of the blindfold faded as they moved through the living wood. The trees were still strange to him, their pulse somehow distant as if drifting up from deep wells of memory, from a time removed from the world in which he walked. But there was comfort in their unchanging strength.
He was fascinated, wondering and drawn to the age deep song that brushed at the edge of his awareness, just beyond his understanding. He had not known that there could be a place like this, removed from strife and untouched by Shadow, where time itself was suspended in peace. And he thought that if he could just listen, could bring himself in resonance with this place, then he might truly hear Ilúvatar’s Song as it was meant to be, unsullied by grief or hate, as it had been at the beginnings of Creation.
His eyes were covered, but he did not need them now. Haldir walked in front of him, deliberately trying to make noise for the mortals to follow, and occasionally calling back word of changes in the path. Legolas scarcely heard him. He was listening to the golden wood, breathing in slow rhythm with the life all around him, attuning himself to it. And as he came to know this place his senses became more meaningful, so that the brush of a leaf falling to earth told him the level of the path, and the sweep of a rook’s wings overhead showed him the curve of its arc southwards through the forest.
But these things were mere physical realities, and he followed them unthinking, walking with sure grace through the wood. There was a deeper meaning to the gentle peace he felt, he knew it, but that truth yet eluded him. And as he sought the greater harmony he heard the thousand small sounds of the forest: the higher tone in the wind’s voice as it passed from the great mellyrn into the smaller trees, the low murmur of the river away to his right, the sluff and stamp of his companions’ movements behind him. And in that there was a note of discord.
He could feel Aragorn’s sure presence just behind, steady and confident in these woods that were not so strange to him. Beyond that there was the slower pace and heavy stride of Boromir: the Man walked with mingled determination and uneasiness. Then there came the light patter of the Hobbits, wondering and curious with the occasional muttered complaint of hunger. And finally there was Gimli.
The Dwarf growled continuously under his breath as he trudged behind, and though Legolas did not understand the words the meaning was clear enough. Gimli radiated tension, and Legolas could hear the continuous grinding of his teeth.
He wondered at that. The Dwarf had been clearly on edge and uncomfortable from the moment they had entered Lothlórien. For all his willingness to fight for her, Gimli had no love for the Elven forest. Legolas could understand that, for after all the people here had given him little in way of welcome. This was a place of memory, and the home of Amroth did not sanction strangers. But now the Company walked in peace, and the forest was calm. Even Boromir walked comfortably now. Why then was the Dwarf so ill at ease?
Unwillingly, Legolas found himself remembering his own discomfort as they had entered Moria. Before he had fully understood the depth of evil that awaited them, before he had felt the strength and malice of the Shadow, he had been disoriented and discomfited by the alien world of the mines. Was that what Gimli felt now? The Dwarf had no affinity for the forest. He seemed alienated, lost in a world that was as strange to him as Khazad-dûm had been to Legolas.
Legolas thought of the long hours spent on the knife-edge of panic, under the weight of stone in the pit of Moria. And he remembered the steady tread of the Dwarf, leading them on when even Mithrandir’s light had faltered to darkness. He thought of his own words to Haldir, I could not have survived . . . I owe him a debt that I cannot repay. And he thought of Gimli’s pain at the tomb of his kin, and his eagerness to fight even for this wood that did not welcome him.
And Legolas wished that there were some way to bring comfort to the Dwarf, to help him as he had helped the Fellowship in Moria. But surely the forest would do that? Surely even the Dwarf could not be untouched by its power.
As if in answer to this thought there came the distinct stumble of heavy boots from behind, and a Dwarvish oath. Legolas heard the words of their rear-guard as the Elf spoke to Gimli, evidently preventing a fall. The Dwarf had apparently walked straight into the raised edge of the path as it wound through the forest, a turn that Legolas had navigated without thinking as he listened to the slow rise and fall of the tree-song around them.
Then Legolas realized a concept so strange that he nearly stopped full in his tracks. The Dwarf could not hear the forest song. Perhaps none of the mortals could, at least not in the same way that the Elves did. He had long known that mortals’ perceptions were different from his own. But while the Men and Hobbits were at least able to find peace in Lothlórien, Gimli was too caught up in his own troubles: grief for his kin, most likely, and for Mithrandir, and now his stung pride at being made captive to the Elves. He could not hear Ilúvatar’s Song, not even in the stones of his people’s heritage. How much more was he lost here, where no Dwarf had trod in years uncounted?
But perhaps . . . perhaps there was a way that Legolas could help, after all. If the Dwarf could not hear the forest . . . could not Legolas hear it for him? And bring its song to the level that Gimli could appreciate, perhaps even use as a guide in his blindness, as Legolas had followed him in Moria. Experimentally, excited by his own idea, Legolas began to sing. He followed the tone of the forest’s slow deep melody, but raised his voice enough that the Dwarf was sure to hear it. And as he sang, bringing his voice and mind in resonance with the power of this wood, he felt the tension behind him ease. The muttered Dwarvish grumblings disappeared, and Gimli’s footsteps came more confidently along the path.
Legolas continued his song as they traveled through the day, carelessly as if in mere appreciation of the forest’s beauty, hidden from his companions’ scrutiny by the blindfolds. And he listened to the others as they walked in peace, even the Dwarf.
They traveled on through the day, with only two short breaks to rest the Hobbits’ legs. Legolas sang while they walked, but fell silent when they stopped. Gimli found himself, completely irrationally, missing the Elf’s song during these periods. He had not thought about it before in their journey: Legolas had sung frequently since they had set out from Rivendell, and Gimli had learned to tune the Elf out for the most part. He sang when the sun rose, and when it set, he sang when the stars came out and when a breeze blew and when Pippin burned the sausages. The only time he had not sung at all was when they journeyed through Moria. Gimli had come to accept the singing as another one of the Elf’s idiosyncrasies: mildly annoying, but not worthy of comment.
Yet now Legolas’ song served another purpose. It guided Gimli as they walked blind through the strange and deceptive wood, and it was comforting. It was familiar, the only familiar thing in this whole blasted forest. And even though he did not need the song when they sat and rested under the trees, he missed it. He would have torn his beard out by the roots before he admitted this to Legolas, but it was true nonetheless.
So it was that when they finally stopped to make camp for the night, Gimli found himself laying his sleeping roll near the Elf’s. It was purely pragmatic, for Legolas had continued humming softly as they made camp, and Gimli simply followed the sound. How else was he to know where to put his bedroll? The rest of the Fellowship was blind and could not help him, and he scarcely trusted Haldir not to direct him to sleep at the edge of a cliff.
But the Elf had made his bed near the base of a great mallorn tree, and Gimli soon felt out a sort of shelter for himself between the roots. Haldir had flatly refused to permit them to take off the blindfolds even at night, so they could not climb up to sleep in the tree branches. This was, Gimli thought, the only good thing about their entire maddening situation.
Legolas ceased humming soon after Gimli lay down, and for a time there was silence, broken only by the whispered conversation of the Hobbits and Boromir’s characteristic nocturnal muttering. But these sounds were muted, as if muffled by the still air, and they faded entirely as the Company fell into sleep.
Gimli lay awake, feeling the constriction of the blindfold at his temples and the bridge of his nose, and listening. The forest was so quiet. As they walked during the day, there were the sounds of birds, squirrels, the wind and his companions’ voices and footsteps. Once he found some orientation in Legolas’ song, he could almost pretend that it was a normal wood.
But now, as the winter night fell chill upon the land, it seemed unnaturally silent. No bird cried, no insect chirped: there was no stir of life at all. Gimli could hear the distant sigh of the night breeze; all else was still.
Then a terrible thought struck him, and he froze rigid in his bedroll. He could not hear any of the rest of the Fellowship. Not Boromir’s snores or Aragorn’s rasping breath, not Pippin’s usual turning in his sleep. He could not even hear Legolas, and he was certain that the Elf’s bed had been not three feet away. What if they were gone? What if they had been led away, kidnapped or swallowed by this forest?
He felt it with sudden certainty: the Elves had abandoned him. They had taken the Fellowship and left him to wander alone and blind in the alien wood. His heart clenched in a spasm of fear – what if he took the blindfold off, and the darkness remained? This was no forest: he was suspended in the abyss, trapped and helpless and isolated in the dark, and he sat up, reaching to tear the cloth from his eyes and confront the emptiness, to demand answer from the void itself, when strong fingers closed around his wrist and a soft voice said, “Be still Master Dwarf. You make enough noise to shake the leaves from the trees.”
Gimli started badly, so certain had he been that he was alone, and for a long moment he could not move but crouched rigid, his heart pounding in his ears. He bit his tongue to keep from crying out, or laughing aloud. Of course the Elf would be there. He should have known. Being lost and alone in the wood would not be punishment enough. The Valar were clearly trying to drive him mad.
The grip around his wrist loosened, and Legolas’ voice changed. Almost it sounded concerned. “Master Dwarf? Are you ill?”
Still struggling for control, Gimli shook his head. He was not ill. He might be losing his mind, but he was in perfect health.
“Master Dwarf?” The Elf definitely sounded concerned now. Gimli realized that he would have to speak, for it seemed that Legolas could not see his gesture. So he truly was blind as well. He had suspected otherwise, when Legolas had led so unerringly along the forest path, and now he felt a small trickle of shame at his own paranoia.
“I am . . .” he hesitated. It would be a lie to say that he was well. He was on edge, and nervous, and still some part of him still feared that they had been abandoned, him and the Elf, for he could hear no sound from their companions. “I do not like this wood. It’s too quiet.”
“Quiet?” Legolas released his wrist, and Gimli could hear the smile in his voice. “Is it? It does not seem so to me.”
Gimli snorted. “Next you’ll say that the trees are talking to you.”
Legolas’ voice was thoughtful. “No, Master Dwarf. They do not talk to me, yet. Their song is . . . different, deeper than any I have felt before. I do not think they take much notice of us.”
“Hmph.” Gimli did not know whether to be relieved at that, or insulted. “Just as well. But I dare say my axe could make them wake up a bit, if you fancied a chat.”
Legolas laughed softly. “Peace, Master Dwarf. The power of the Golden Wood is not to be trifled with, even by a warrior of your renown. And I fear I would not be fit company for conversation. I am very weary.”
Gimli was startled into speechlessness at this last confession: an understatement, to be sure, for the Elf’s exhaustion had been clear even back in Khazad-dûm. But he had never expected Legolas to actually admit to weakness. He had had some thought to address the grievances that still lay between them, and to make the Elf beg pardon for his arrogance, but now it simply seemed like too much trouble. He also was tired, and none of it seemed to matter much now.
“Sleep then,” he said with an effort at casualness. In truth, though he was loathe to admit it, he feared to lose the anchor of the Elf’s clear voice. It gave him direction in the desolate silence, and he could visualize Legolas sitting not far away, pack and weapons close at hand, doubtless as clean and meticulously ordered as ever. He was so perfect at times that Gimli wanted to smack him, but still there was something comforting in that. Even Legolas, unpredictable though he was, was constant in some things. Gimli might have wished for different company, Aragorn perhaps, or one of the Hobbits, but the Elf was better than nothing. Yet he would not make Legolas suffer further for his sake. “I don’t know why you didn’t sleep last night, when you had the chance.”
There was a pause, and Legolas released a long breath, almost a sigh. “It was foolishness, Master Dwarf. Arrogance and foolish pride, I am certain, and now I am fey and careless, so that I seek converse with a Dwarf. Imagine what my father would say!”
Gimli laughed aloud. “I expect that his reaction would be much the same as that of my father, if he knew that his son sat up through the night with an Elf. An Elvish princeling, I should say.”
Legolas groaned. “Please, Master Dwarf, do not bring that up again. Haldir has finally determined that I am capable of eating without assistance, and that I can walk without flower petals scattered at my feet. I beg you; do nothing to make him think otherwise.”
Gimli smirked. The note of desperation in Legolas’ voice seemed genuine, and promised some leverage over the Elf in future arguments. And yet it gave him pause as well. For all his preconceptions of Legolas as the Elven king’s son, it seemed that he genuinely did not desire special treatment. This did not fit well with the comfortable assumptions that Gimli had held about the Elf.
But there were more immediate concerns at hand, and the mention of the March-warden drew his attention. “Where is Haldir? I can’t hear him, or any of the others.”
Even as he said this some distant part of his mind marveled that he asked so casually for help from the Elf. But Legolas was right. His exhaustion, coupled with the blindfold and the strange sense of timelessness in this forest, made all of this seem slightly unreal. Legolas’ voice gave him direction, but still it seemed unconnected to the being he had fought and bickered with since they had left Rivendell. He felt free, as if nothing he said now had any real consequences for later. And besides, the Elf had admitted weakness first.
Legolas paused, and Gimli could almost see him turning his head, listening. Finally he spoke. “Haldir is on the other side of the clearing, perhaps twenty feet from us. He is keeping watch. The other guard is not here – he is patrolling in the canopy above. Aragorn is sleeping a few feet to my left, near the base of a beech tree, not a mallorn. The Hobbits are all together in the middle of the clearing. Boromir is not far beyond them.”
Gimli frowned. The Elf was far too certain in his answer. I knew it. He’s taken the blindfold off, or he never had it at all. Untrustworthy, deceitful, arrogant… “How do you know all that?” he demanded, unable to keep the suspicious note from his voice. “You can’t possibly tell all that from listening.”
Legolas’ response was sharp. “I can see nothing, Master Dwarf. I am blind, just as you are.” Unspoken was the implication, and I should not be so, were it not for you. “Haldir is an Elf, and this forest knows him. He is resonant with it. He has… energy. I can feel it, just as he can sense me. Pippin is restless in his sleep. I can hear him turning, and I heard Sam’s grunt when he kicked his shin. Frodo and Merry are quiet, but I hear them breathing, and they would not sleep far from the others. Boromir talks in his sleep. And I can smell the pipeweed smoke on Aragorn’s clothes.”
Gimli grunted. He was mollified, but still it seemed incredible. “And the other guard?”
“He is not in the clearing. I heard Haldir tell him to scout a perimeter, some time ago. He would not stay on the ground for that.”
“Hmph.” Gimli hesitated. The sense of unreality was still upon him, and his words did not matter, but still something within him resisted apologizing to the Elf.
Finally he cleared his throat and spoke, grateful that the blindfold hid his blush from the other. “I . . . I did not mean to doubt you, Master Elf. It is only that . . . I mean, I did not know . . . that is, I cannot hear any of it, what you describe. This forest is too strange for me. I will be glad when we are quit of it.”
“Will you?” At that moment Legolas sounded as distant and strange as the wood itself, and there was a queer note to his voice that made Gimli shiver. “I wonder.”
Then the mood seemed to pass, and he spoke lightly. “But it is not so odd that a Dwarf would not hear the forest as a Wood-elf might. I was surely as deaf in your people’s mines.”
Gimli sighed. He felt very old, and weary, unable to summon any defense against the blame that the Elf surely put upon him, him who should have heard, should have sensed what evil waited in Moria. The Fellowship had trusted him, Gandalf had trusted him, and he had failed them all.
“We were all of us deaf, I think. Blind and deaf, and Gandalf paid the price.” His stomach hurt with the old ache, as of a wound that would never heal. Balin, Oin, Gandalf . . . how many had been lost? How many had died, because of his people’s greed? Surely the Elves were right to scorn the Dwarves. Surely they deserved exile, if he were representative of their best. He had led Gandalf to his death.
But Legolas said firmly, “It was not of your making, son of Glóin. What price was paid was done so willingly. I know not what purpose it served, but it was Gandalf’s choice. It was his right.”
Gimli could not speak for a long moment, so great was the pain in his chest. Finally he whispered, “Would that he had listened to you. Would that we had never gone into Moria.”
Legolas gave a soft laugh that seemed almost a sob. “I could not take the choice from him, Master Dwarf. And would you then have deprived me of seeing your people’s marvel, your great city beneath the earth?”
I would, Gimli thought. I would have sent you on to carry the Ring-bearer over Caradhras alone, Elf, and I would have collapsed the pillars of Khazad-dûm myself, if it could have spared Gandalf his fate. But he swallowed hard and said only, “You’re talking even more foolishly than usual, Master Elf. Go to sleep before you lose what few wits you have.”
Legolas seemed to gain control again. His voice was calmer when he replied. “Ah, but if I lost my senses I would be perfect company for a Dwarf, would I not? And in any case, shall I find sleep now, blind and helpless on the ground when Orcs have penetrated even into Lothlórien?”
Gimli smiled faintly at this rejoinder, grateful for the change of subject. His guilt weighed heavily, but he was too tired to dwell further on it. His natural pragmatism came to the fore and he shrugged, though he knew that the Elf could not see it.
“Not much point in you staying awake then, if you’re really so blind and helpless as you say. Don’t see what good you’d do us like that. And,” he patted the soft earth experimentally, “this ground isn’t so bad for sleeping. There isn’t a single good rock in this whole blasted forest, near as I can tell. It’s not as if you slept any better up in that tree last night, anyway.”
“Hmm.” The Elf sounded thoughtful. “Perhaps you are right, Master Dwarf. At least you might find the ground more secure, deprived as you are of what few senses you have. But tell me this: have you ever tried to sleep with your eyes open?”
Gimli tensed, suspecting a trap, but unable to see what the Elf meant. “No . . .” he said cautiously.
“No.” Legolas sighed. “Nor have I ever tried to sleep with my eyes closed. But now it seems that I am forced to it.”
Gimli laughed. “I’ve never slept while blindfolded, Master Elf, but I’m tired enough to do it tonight. What about all that great Elven control over mind and body? H’m? Can’t you just will yourself to sleep or meditate or something?”
“I could find reverie while walking, or making music, or working with my bow . . .” Legolas’ voice trailed off. “Perhaps it is not my eyes that are needed. If I could find harmony with the forest, it would be enough.” There was a pause. Then the Elf spoke firmly, as if coming to a decision. “Haldir keeps watch, and I am blind. I will try this, Master Dwarf, but I fear that you may not like it.”
There was a shifting of Legolas’ tunic as the Elf lay down, and Gimli could picture him folding his hands upon his chest, his face turned toward the night sky, though he could not see it. Then the Elf began to sing under his breath.
It was so soft that Gimli could scarcely hear it, as he lay down upon his cloak, but it was there. Like the song that Legolas had made during their walk through the wood, it had no words, indeed it seemed to be hardly more than a whisper of music upon the air. The song was slow, and soft, and somehow deep, as if drawn from the depths of the forest around them.
Gimli felt grounded in the gentle melody, somehow secure in the knowledge that the Elf was there, that the Fellowship was there, and that the ground would not drop out from under him while he slept.
“Oh,” he murmured, as sleep rolled over him in a wave borne upon the whisper of Legolas’ voice, “no, if that’s all, I don’t mind…” and he thought he heard a faint laugh in response. But he was already dreaming.
Khazad: the Dwarves.
Next up: Chapter 14. In which Legolas has a much needed chat with our favorite Ranger, and Gimli gets some foreshadowing.
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