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Unto the ending of the world: 16. Catch
April 15 – 24, 3019
"What if we are needed here?" Legolas said. "Should we leave?"
"Should we leave?" Gimli repeated. "Yesterday, you could scarcely wait to hear what the scouts had to tell," he grumbled. "And now you say we should not rush onward, that we may be needed here. How long do you intend to wait?" Something beyond their part in Lothlórien's defence bothered Legolas, but it would not be easy to pry it from him, though Gimli had his suspicions. Even so, Legolas' reluctance to leave came close to souring Gimli's mood.
As Elladan and Elrohir joined them, Gimli had some hope again that Legolas might be persuaded once they added their efforts to talk sense into the Elf to his own. At first he only seemed to become more stubborn in the face of reason.
"You must go soon." Elrohir was the first to speak, giving Legolas a stern look. "Your path is safe at least as far as the Old Forest Road; there is no reason to wait."
Elladan immediately followed his brother's words with his own admonition. "We have no idea when the passes will be open. Do not wait on our behalf," he started, then held up his hand to forestall any protest. "The sooner you go, the sooner Erebor and Thranduil's realm will know the extent of our danger."
Legolas started to protest, but Elladan cut him short. "Your road is clear, and Lothlórien is not under attack. No better time will come."
Gimli met Legolas' glance. "Elladan is right, and you know it as well as I do."
To Gimli's surprise, Legolas gave in, though with a marked lack of enthusiasm. "Very well. If that is what you wish, we will return home."
For the rest of the day, Legolas kept silent, leaving Gimli to his own thoughts. It was hard to think of aught other than home; how long would it be before he saw Erebor again? It was many months since he had set out with his father to hear Elrond's counsel on the Enemy's demands of King Dáin. Who could have thought when they set out that they would see the Enemy with his Ring back in his possession and all lands in worse danger than they had been for an Age?
Finally, as it grew dark, Gimli had enough of Legolas' glowering silences and tense pacing. "Stop that," he snapped. "Whatever is on your mind, speak of it; do not let it fester."
"It is nothing," Legolas replied glumly.
"Nothing? Nothing has had you sulking the whole day?" Gimli responded.
Predictably, Legolas' first reaction was a sharp, "I do not sulk." He paced the three steps back and forth that there was room for on their flet a few more times before he sat down and sighed. "We should go home. I know that," he said at last. "But do you not see the catch I am in, Gimli? I was only sent to Rivendell to bring the news of Gollum's escape. I should have returned to my father's halls before winter, to take up my place in the defence of our realm again. I was sent to report failure, and I return bringing news of even worse disaster. And so I find myself both reluctant and eager to go home, and the closer we get to leaving, the more reluctance wins out."
Legolas stood up and went to the edge of the flet, looking into the night for a long time. Finally, he turned and sat down once more, looking even more troubled than before. "And in the south, as we came near Pelargir, I heard the crying of the gulls on the wind, and though I have not beheld the Sea, it calls to me. Yet the road I must take leads me ever further away from it."
Gimli had found the gulls' cries no more appealing than the sound of nails dragged across a writing slate; he was surprised that the mere suggestion of the Sea had so affected Legolas. Even so, his own mood was darker than he had thought and he spoke before he could stop himself. "The Sea? Should you not rather mourn the loss of our friends than wallow in regret over not seeing the Sea?"
As soon as he said it, Gimli wished he could unsay his words. "I am sorry. That was uncalled for," he added gruffly, then sighed as Legolas turned his back on him.
Decision taken, it still took a day to prepare – and for Legolas to accept Gimli's apology –, but at last the moment came that they were ready to leave Lothlórien. Celeborn and Galadriel, with Elladan and Elrohir in tow, came with them to the northern edge of the wood, where their horses were kept waiting for them. After the horse they had ridden from Gondor had nearly faltered in the final run to reach Lórien, Legolas had accepted the offer of a second horse, and Gimli agreed, though not with much enthusiasm. He hoped the Elves had found a suitable animal for him.
Standing at the edge of the forest with the Lord and Lady, Gimli could not help recalling the Fellowship's departure from Lórien, not all that long ago. All had been anxious about their road, but at least they still had some hope then, even if the first sign of the coming disaster could already be seen in Gandalf's seeming death in Moria.
Gimli shook his head. Boromir, Aragorn, Sam; all dead. It was bad enough leaving Merry and Pippin in the south, and even worse, Frodo might yet be alive – that they could do nothing for him still cut like a knife. A flash of anger went through him as he thought of Gandalf's departure from Minas Tirith. Had the wizard proposed that they attempt to rescue Frodo, even if such a venture was certain to be doomed, they would all have followed him without hesitation, but to abandon Aragorn without reason?
As for the future, Gimli needed no Elvish foresight to see it. Sauron would keep sending his armies against them until all lands were his and those who opposed him in the grave or driven to the edge of the Sea, to yield or die there.
"I cannot see what lies ahead for either of you," Galadriel addressed them, holding Gimli's gaze as if she had seen his thoughts, "But may such blessing as can still be found be on your roads."
Celeborn first spoke softly with Legolas, then turned to Gimli. "Master Dwarf, I can only say that I regret your leaving, as I never thought I would say to any of Dwarven kind. May your path speed you home, and may your home stand long against the Dark."
Gimli bowed at Celeborn's words, then clasped the Elflord's hand in a firm grip. To his credit, Celeborn did not flinch at the strength of Gimli's hand, but returned his grip without hesitation and with equal strength. As their eyes met, both smiled ruefully, acknowledging their position somewhere between truce and liking.
Then Gimli faced Galadriel. The Lady's beauty still pierced his heart, but it was now tinged with sorrow. "Lady," he started, hiding his grief at their parting in another deep bow. "Once, you praised my skill with words, yet now I find myself bereft of speech."
"Lock-bearer," she replied, with a brief, sad smile. "When before we parted, I refrained from foretelling, saying only that ahead of the Fellowship lay on the one hand darkness, and on the other naught but hope. We now stand fully in darkness, and if there is hope left, it is hidden so deep that I do not see it. I, too, am left only with silence. Perhaps we will yet meet again, but if so, I cannot see where or how. Fare thee well, Elf-friend."
Legolas did not watch their hosts disappear back into the forest, but Gimli stood there until long after they had gone, knowing this was likely the last time that he would see the Lady Galadriel. Finally, he turned away.
"Well, we had best go now," Gimli said gruffly and mounted his horse. It seemed calm enough, and was of a size that it was not too uncomfortable. Even so, he doubted he would be at ease on any animal other than the sturdy, placid ponies preferred by his own people. They rode in silence until they reached the river close to the end of the day.
"We must have turned too far east," said Gimli as he looked across the river. "That darkness over Mirkwood can only be the air of Dol Guldur."
Legolas disagreed. "No, unless my reckoning is off, we are where we should be, and we have come north as well as east. Did Lórien's scouts not say that the influence of Dol Guldur stretched much further than before?"
"Perhaps," Gimli conceded, shaking his head, "Though I think..."
"Whichever it is, I am certain we do not want to sleep under the shadow of Dol Guldur," Legolas cut him short. That was definitely true, and Gimli followed the Elf to a spot several miles from the river to make their camp.
In the morning, Legolas insisted again that they stay out of sight from the river. "I do not know how close a watch the Enemy keeps upon the riverbanks, but news has a way of travelling fast within Mirkwood, and I would rather not find a Nazgûl waiting for us at the Old Ford."
Despite that reminder of their danger, the next few days passed without incident. The lands through which they rode slowly sloped down, and mournful willows bordering reed-grown pools replaced the stands of taller trees there had been closer to Lórien.
"There should be a place slightly further west, some five miles beyond the Gladden Fields where the river can be forded easily with horses," Legolas said, "And after that, no more than three days until we reach the Forest Road, even if our path may be more dangerous from here on."
"The Gladden Fields?" Gimli asked. "Is that not where Isildur...?"
"Yes," Legolas answered.
"To think that the Ring lay there unfound for so many years," Gimli said, "And then for Gollum to chance upon it..."
"And it is a chance we are still paying for," Legolas interrupted him glumly.
That cut short their conversation, but later that night the Elf suddenly said, "I wonder what happened to Gollum."
"Gollum? Why?" responded Gimli.
"We know Sam's fate," Legolas replied, lowering his head, "And Frodo too, but from what the Gondorian captain, Boromir's brother, told me, his men had seen a third, whom he thought might have been travelling with them. By his description it can only have been Gollum."
"If that is the last he was seen, we are not likely to find out, and it hardly matters now," Gimli said with a shrug. He could not bring himself to be concerned about Gollum's fate. Yet Elves could be soft-hearted about the strangest things, and Legolas had been involved in guarding Gollum while he was held captive.
"No, but I have thought about him even so. I would not be surprised if he was drawn towards Mordor once Sauron held the Ring. Even if he has not been seized, I do not think he would last long," Legolas went on. "Though he is, or was, strong and tough beyond his size, it must have affected him when the Enemy reclaimed the Ring."
"Then what would befall Bilbo?" Gimli asked. "He also had the Ring for a long time."
Legolas shook his head. "I do not know. But your mention of him reminds me; I have given some thought to our road beyond the Old Ford. If we cannot take the Forest Road, there is the other path."
"Of course..." Gimli shook his head. He should have thought of that. How could he have forgotten about the path Thorin and his father and their party had used?
They soon left the Gladden behind, and on the afternoon of the fourth day after crossing the river, they reached the road that led from the Misty Mountains to the Old Ford. Legolas stopped his horse, allowing the animal to graze while he looked east, his expression dark.
"Let us hope the Beornings still hold the Ford," Legolas said after some time.
"They are bound to be. Had the Ford been lost, we would have been greeted by an Orc army marching west along the Road." Even so, Gimli hoped they would see some sign of the Beornings soon. While not always the most welcoming, the Men who held the Ford were at least honest, and a good source of news. And if Legolas and he could replenish their supplies, it would save them having to stop to hunt later on in their journey.
Legolas looked at the sky before replying. "We will not make it to the river before dark; if we rest here, we can go on in the morning."
"The Beornings at least keep this side of the river," Legolas said the next morning as they set off. "One is watching us, a few hundred yards along."
Gimli looked, but saw no one. However, the Elf was proven right when a man stepped into the road to hail them.
"What brings you here, strangers?" the man asked, eyeing them with suspicion. He bore only a sword, undrawn, and Gimli wondered how many archers were awaiting his signal to deal with intruders. "The Ford is closed to travellers. Only those who are known to us, may pass." Then, before either Gimli or Legolas could reply, he looked closer, and continued, "Prince Legolas? I am Grimgár, son of Holgár, cousin to our lord Grimbeorn, and I command this guard post. What brings you here? I had not heard that you were expected, though your visit is timely."
"I am returning home from travelling abroad," Legolas replied.
"Then luck is with you, for before last week you would have found the other bank of the river held by Orcs," said the Beorning.
"Orcs?" Gimli asked, alarmed, "But you hold the ford again now?"
"Before I answer that, I must know your name and purpose, Master Dwarf," Grimgár responded.
"Gimli son of Glóin of Erebor at your service," Gimli said quickly. "My destiny is the Lonely Mountain, but I will first accompany my friend here to his home."
Grimgár raised an eyebrow at a Dwarf naming an Elf 'friend,' but said nothing about it, merely replying, with a nod of his head, "At your service and your family's. Your father's name is known to us, and you are free to cross the Ford on your journey home. To answer your question, though the retaking was a hard battle, yes, we do hold the crossing."
"That is welcome news," Gimli replied, "But how do the Beornings fare otherwise?"
"Not too well." Grimgár looked troubled as he turned to Legolas again. "We sent messengers to your father's court, to ask for aid, but there has been no reply."
"Then give me the message that was sent, and I will attempt to deliver it for you," Legolas said.
"That would be most welcome," Grimgár said. "Come with me to our camp so that we may talk further." With both Legolas and Gimli accepting the invitation gladly, the Beorning turned to give a sharp whistle. Soon another man appeared, and their host spoke with him briefly before leading his two guests down a narrow path.
They soon reached a palisaded camp, and after placing their horses in an empty pen, Grimgár took them to a tent opposite the entrance of the palisade's circle.
"What news do you bring from the south?" Grimgár asked as they sat down on low chairs in front of the tent. "We know that Dol Guldur is stronger than it was even before the year the dragon was killed; some fear the Necromancer himself has returned there. Our kin in the southern forest are abandoning their villages, fleeing east or to our lands if they can."
Gimli grimaced at that, while Legolas briefly spoke of the fall of Minas Tirith. If the Woodmen, who had held out so long in the south of Mirkwood, were abandoning their homes, the hand of Dol Guldur must have grown heavy indeed. But how could it be otherwise? Sauron had not had his Ring for three thousand years. Only the Elves knew his true strength.
"And my father's realm?" Legolas said. "You already said there has been no reply to the messages you sent."
Grimgár shook his head. "The Elves still hold out, but we know little more than that."
"What news of Erebor and Dale?" Gimli asked.
"Alas, I do not know either," Grimgár said. "It is close to a month since we had messengers from the east; the last we heard was that some of the Woodmen had reached Dale only barely ahead of a besieging army out of Dol Guldur."
"The Road?" Gimli hoped there was still some way for them to go home.
The Beorning shook his head. "Only Orcs, and rumour of worse, move freely on it. You will not reach the other side of the Forest by that route."
"And if we go north?" Legolas now asked.
"The old Forest Path?" Grimgár asked in return, and continued at Legolas' nod. "Orcs from Gundabad are pressing south on both sides of Anduin, but not as many on the eastern side. There are some bands wandering about between Forest and River, but since you are only two... If you stay close to the Forest, you can slip through unseen to reach the Forest Gate." He paused, hesitating, then continued. "Perhaps you will not have a choice, and you do of course know the Forest better than I do, but I would warn you not to go in before then. Even the Orcs will not do so, though we drive them to the very edge; they stand and fight rather than run if we chase them down."
They thanked Grimgár for his advice, and after letting them add to their provisions from the camp's supplies, Grimgár briefly spoke with Legolas alone. He then led them back to the main road before disappearing again.
"Would that Radagast still dwelt at Rhosgobel," Legolas said as they rode towards the river.
Gimli shrugged. "Even if we were to find him, his concern is with beast and bird only."
"Yet he is a wizard," Legolas said, "And he might be able to tell us more about what we will face in Mirkwood."
"Perhaps," Gimli admitted grudgingly. Now that he thought about it, Radagast might even be able to shed some light on Gandalf's actions. He did not say it though, instead asking, "What about Grimgár's warning, that even Orcs will not now go in there?"
"What do you make of it?" Legolas asked in return.
"I know not," Gimli replied. "The Beornings are not known for idle fancies, but the Forest Path is our only way home, unless we go around Mirkwood, and that would take us months out of our way, and into lands with perils of their own."
"Indeed," Legolas replied, "If we go north, we will have a good chance to avoid the Orcs, and once we are on the Forest Path, it will not take long to reach my father's realm."
"If we can get through," Gimli said.
Legolas cast a quick glance east before he spoke. "As you said, all roads are uncertain, and we already know the more direct road east is impassable. And it is likely only the western edge of the forest that is dangerous. The closer we get to Elven lands, the safer it should be."
"North it is, then." Gimli sighed; he could only hope Legolas was right. "Unless you know of yet other paths...?"
"No." Legolas shook his head. "But lighten your mood; once we have crossed the Enchanted River, I can find my way home even if we have to leave the path and cut across the forest. Before that, any other route would be worse than the Forest Path." He fell silent, looking glum himself now.
"Not so gloomy," Gimli reminded him. "Two, three weeks at most and then we will be home."
"And another week for your riding," Legolas replied with a quick smile. "Come, or we will not make the Ford before nightfall."
"We will not do that even at the breakneck speed you seem to prefer," Gimli muttered, but he followed without further complaint.
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