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In the Deep Places: 5. Conversations, part I
A few feet before him, Legolas turned away and went to collect his arrows. As he stooped over the bodies, a lock of hair fell forward against his cheek again and he tucked it absently back into a restraining braid.
Gimli glanced around. Two of the Orcs’ torches were sputtering not far away, and he caught one up. Carefully he picked his way past the bodies and walked back along the central path to the boulders where he had left his own makeshift torch. The rags were charred and smoldering feebly. Gimli dislodged them by scraping the axe against a nearby rock. He had just stamped out the last of the rags and was inspecting the axe head when Legolas stepped into the glow of his torch.
“Ha, you see Master Elf?” Gimli said, holding up the axe. The head was blackened and sooty, but the weapon was essentially undamaged. “The finest tempered iron, still perfectly sharp. None can match Dwarven weapons for quality.”
Legolas glanced at the throwing axe as Gimli tucked it carefully into his belt. “Perhaps, Master Dwarf. However, my own weapons are also undamaged, and I believe that your large axe is notched. But you will have to clean both weapons before they are serviceable again.” He quickly unbuckled his quiver and pulled several rubbing cloths from its depths. He handed three to Gimli and kept one for himself. Gimli saw that he was holding six Elven arrows fletched with green and brown. He had left the black Orc arrows where they lay. Legolas quickly wiped the gore from his arrows and slipped them into his quiver. He had completed all of this and swung the quiver back into place before Gimli had quite made up his mind what to do with the cloths he had been given. He was reluctant to accept anything from the Elf, but Legolas did have a point. Finally it was the thought of what Glóin would say if his son neglected basic weapons care that made Gimli swallow his objections and begin rubbing one of the cloths over his large axe’s blade. It was notched, he noted ruefully, but it would serve.
Legolas glanced at the Dwarf as he fell into step beside him. The Elf had drawn one of his white knives and was cleaning it as he walked. “You should wash your face and hair as well, Master Dwarf. You stink of Orc blood.”
Gimli ground his teeth at the insult and glared at the Elf. In truth he was spattered liberally with black blood that clung to his face and clothes and matted his beard. Legolas, he noted with disgust, was as fresh as he had been before they entered Moria. Not a hair out of place, not a streak of dust or sweat or blood anywhere. It was unnatural, and annoying.
“We Dwarves are not so vain as Elves,” he said. “A little blood is nothing. It will not hinder me.”
“That may be. At least the smell does not seem to bother you. But when that blood dries it will be impossible to wash out. I can cut it out of your beard, if you like.” There was a faintly mischievous lilt to Legolas’ voice.
Gimli hunched his shoulders and wadded the cleaning cloths in his hand. Oh yes, he had no doubt that the Elf would take pleasure in mutilating his beard. It had been the target of several Elven pranks and insults already in their journey. But his pride stubbornly resisted taking Legolas’ advice. He might have cleaned the blood from his face and clothes on his own after he had finished with his weapons. But the Elf’s arrogant suggestion grated against him, and he would not give him the satisfaction of seeming to follow it.
Several minutes passed, during which Legolas walked quietly, unconcernedly inspecting the silver design of his knife blade, and Gimli grumbled under his breath. He could feel the gore stiffening on his cheeks, and his beard itched abominably. Finally Gimli gave in and, with a distinct growl of irritation, scrubbed a clean cloth over his face. Legolas sheathed his knife and drew the other in one smooth motion. Gimli half expected him to produce a comb next, but the archer only walked on in silence, carefully wiping blood from the joint of the handle and blade of his long knife.
Gimli had finally managed to clean most of the blood from his face and beard when Legolas stopped. The Elf stood in the corridor with his head cocked to one side, frowning slightly. At Gimli’s questioning look Legolas only shook his head and began walking again. But the playful light was gone from his eyes, and he watched the shadowed side-columns warily as they passed.
Gimli was relaxed, swinging his axe casually in his left hand as he walked. But Legolas grew more and more tense as they approached the junction of their passage with the staircase. He had sheathed his knife and drawn his bow. The pressing weight of stone and malice was growing stronger as they neared their starting point. The desolate silence, almost forgotten in the rush of battle, was overwhelming. The ache of it resonated in Legolas’ bones and roared in his ears. He found himself speaking just to fill that emptiness, his voice lost in the void around them.
“It must be cold in the mines.”
Gimli frowned at him. “What?”
“I have not paid attention. But you must feel the cold more than I.”
Gimli shook his head in confusion. “Are all Elves trained to talk nonsense, or were you just born this way?”
Legolas looked at him, one eyebrow raised. “You take such offense at the suggestion to trim your beard. I know that mortals are more susceptible to cold, but I had not realized you needed so much hair to keep warm.”
Gimli stared at him for a long moment, his mouth open. “You think . . . you think that Dwarf beards are . . . used for warmth?” He couldn’t help it. A deep laugh rumbled from the depths of his chest and he threw back his head and roared. The puzzled look on Legolas’ face only made him laugh harder. The rich sound echoed through the vast caverns until the pillars rang with mirth.
For an instant Legolas felt the weight of malice about them lift. The Dwarf’s laughter filled the silence and the tension that knotted the back of Legolas’ neck eased. Here at least was the sound of life, and Legolas had the sudden thought that Dwarves were a part of Ilúvatar’s will too. Strange that he had never considered that before. But it did nothing to lessen the confusion he felt. He waited until Gimli’s laughter had slackened to a few disconnected guffaws.
“It makes sense,” Legolas insisted when he could make himself heard. “The men of Dale do not wear such heavy beards, nor do Aragorn or Boromir. Dwarves must need them for protection from the cold of the mountain caves. Why else would you weigh yourselves down with the things?”
Gimli wiped away a few tears and brought his breathing under control. “Aragorn and Boromir couldn’t grow a proper beard if they tried. It is a gift to Mahal’s children. And this,” he stroked his thick red tresses, “is as fine a specimen as you are ever likely to see, Master Elf.”
Legolas looked at him doubtfully. “Still, it must serve some purpose. The Valar do not give gifts without reason.”
Gimli shrugged. “As for that, you’ll have to ask them when you see them, Master Elf. Maybe it did serve for additional warmth, once. But it is much more a sign of strength. A Dwarf cannot braid his beard until he has proven himself a warrior and craftsman. I thought it was the same for you.”
Legolas lifted a hand and fingered the small braid above his ear. He smiled slightly. “Yes, I suppose a warrior’s braids are a sign of accomplishment. A child does not wear them. But a child does not need to. An archer must keep his lock point clear.”
At Gimli’s confused expression Legolas drew an arrow and nocked it. Slowly he bent his bow, drawing the nock back to the corner of his mouth. “The draw must be smooth, the release perfect. Were my hair loose, it would get tangled in the bowstring. Besides,” he added as he lowered the bow, “a warrior cannot fight if his hair falls in his eyes.” He tilted his head. “Does not your fine beard interfere with your movements?”
Gimli snorted. In truth he had once singed his beard badly when he had bent too close to his father’s forge. But he was not about to admit that to the Elf. “It is no concern. A warrior’s rank is more important than such trifles.”
Legolas smiled. “As for that, we unbraid our hair when at peace. But I suppose that Dwarven vanity cannot be swayed by the practicality of the Elves.”
It was some time before Gimli could think of a response to that. They had reached the ascending staircase when he muttered, “Elven practicality. Hmph. Why don’t you cut off all that hair, if you’re so practical?” He glanced hopefully at Legolas to see if this retort had hit home, but the Elf was not listening.
He stood staring up the black stair, arrow nocked and bow half drawn. Every line of his body was drawn in ratcheted tension. He stood absolutely still for a moment, then whispered, so soft that Gimli could barely hear him, “It draws nearer. We have tarried too long.” With that he sheathed his arrow and ran, hardly seeming to touch the crumbling steps as he flew up them. Gimli was forced to follow as best as he could, and soon was too short of breath to voice the curses he longed to utter against Elves who made needlessly cryptic remarks.
Legolas ran. He flew up the twisted steps, the musty air gritty in his throat and his bow clenched tightly in his hand. With every step he felt the Presence grow stronger, a crushing weight of Shadow and hate that pressed against him.
He reached the top of the stair and nearly stumbled at the abrupt change of the stone beneath his feet. He froze, standing in the complete darkness and listening intently. He could feel the faint shift of air currents against his face as he stood in the archway before the three passages. There was the taste of iron like bitter shavings on his tongue. The resonant malice was stronger, bearing down upon him. He turned his head toward it and knew that he faced the central corridor, though he could see nothing.
There is nothing there, he told himself firmly. It is still far off. It may not come here at all. But the pounding of his heart betrayed this lie. Every instinct he possessed was screaming to run, to get away from this cage of stone and hate. As he stood, straining his eyes against the almost tangible dark, he expected every moment to feel the feather light brush of Shadow against his cheek. He dared not name the thing he felt in the depths, but in truth it mattered not. The Ring called, and he felt the inexorable response. It was coming. Phantom shadows brushed his mind. Flame licked his skin like the caress of a lover in the dark.
With every fiber of his being he longed to turn, to flee back to where the Fellowship waited. To find Mithrandir. He clung to the fraying tatters of his reason, slipping on the knife-edge of logic. The Dwarf. You must wait for the Dwarf. It was courage in its most primal form, the need to protect another. He clung to it. He could hear the clatter of Gimli’s heavy boots on the stairs. He forced himself to focus on the sound, to ignore the menacing Shadow, the death whisper in the dark.
He could have sobbed for relief when Gimli’s torch finally appeared, followed by Gimli. The light was nothing, mere absence of the physical dark, nothing to the Shadow. But Legolas could see again! He looked back at the central corridor, feeling that feather touch brush his neck. And of course, there was nothing there.
A deep voice wheezed behind him. “Crazy Elf. In the mines . . . you wait . . . for the torch to go first. Running off . . . in the dark . . . you could have been killed!”
Legolas turned resolutely away from the dark passage. Gimli was bent over his axe, panting heavily, his scavenged torch dipping dangerously close to the floor. It was all Legolas could do not to snatch the torch from him and sprint up the side corridor to where Mithrandir waited.
“Very well then, Master Dwarf,” he said, forcing his voice to be steady. “You will go first.” He gestured toward the smaller side corridor. He could have screamed when Gimli did nothing for a moment but stand there, his breath coming more slowly, his dark eyes narrowed suspiciously. Is this what our history leads us to, he thought wildly, slaves to mistrust when the very fires of Morgoth are upon us?
But Aragorn had said that even the Dwarf felt the Shadow. Legolas thought that unlikely, but he was desperate. He dared not speak of it openly, not even to Mithrandir, but surely there was some way of reasoning with the Dwarf.
“We must leave this place,” he said softly, stepping forward and looking directly into Gimli’s eyes. “Your people are gone. This is not their home, not any more. Something is coming, and we must find the others. Now.”
Gimli met his eyes squarely, and Legolas saw a flicker of pain in their depths. Then the Dwarf glanced past him, at the central corridor, and seemed to shiver slightly. He closed his eyes and nodded. Then he turned and, lifting his torch high, stumped down the side passage without a word.
Legolas followed, forcing his steps to match the Dwarf’s shorter stride. He could feel the Shadow as it brooded over them, and a spot between his shoulder blades itched as though expecting a touch from behind. He held himself to a walk, focusing his eyes on the Dwarf’s torch, his back and neck tensed against the threat.
Finally they reached the small room where the Fellowship waited. Gimli slipped inside without a backward glance, but Legolas stood for a long moment against the door, gazing into the dark. His hands ached from their tight grip on his bow, his mouth was dry and his heart pounded in his ears. They had distanced themselves from that evil, but it could not be avoided forever. The passage was silent, the air cold and dry in his lungs. The threat was growing like a black cancer in his mind. But it had not found them yet. Legolas forced his left hand to loosen from his bow, willed it to stop shaking. He turned away from the resonant Shadow and entered the chamber.
Gimli was speaking, his rough voice lowered in an approximation of a whisper. The Dwarf still seemed loud to Legolas’ ears, and he marveled that their companions slept on undisturbed. “The left hand passage leads to an Orc road. There must be a stronghold down there. We encountered one scouting party and dispatched it. It will be some time before any others come from that place.”
Mithrandir was nodding. “What of the other passages?”
Legolas moved forward to join them. “We had no time to investigate the upward passage. The central corridor is dark. We dare not take that road.” He met Mithrandir’s eyes, willing the wizard to understand what he could not say aloud. There was too much power in the words. Elves had been the first people to ever use spoken language. They had taught the power to others, Ents and even trees to a lesser extent. But they were the first, they were the Quendi. There was power in Elvish speech and song, and Legolas felt in his soul that naming the thing would make it more real, would draw it to them as surely as the Ring’s call. Mithrandir returned his gaze, and Legolas thought he caught a glint of understanding in his sharp eyes.
Then the wizard turned to the Dwarf at his side. “What say you, Gimli? Is the right hand corridor our only choice?” Legolas stiffened. Mithrandir had never before asked another to verify the Elf’s impressions.
Gimli glanced at Legolas, then back at Gandalf. The Dwarf shifted his weight uncomfortably. “The Elf has been even flightier than usual since we entered the mines. But the straight passage does seem to trouble him a great deal. And . . . there is a feel about it that I do not like. The air currents are wrong somehow.” He glanced again at Legolas, and then looked at the ground. “We can take the higher road.”
Mithrandir nodded. “Your counsel agrees with my own thought. We will take the upward passage.”
Legolas let out his breath in a swell of relief. They would climb up, away from Shadow, away from this tomb! He turned away, intending to wake Aragorn. But he had only taken a few steps toward the Ranger when Mithrandir called him back. The wizard’s voice was scarce above a whisper, but Legolas heard him clearly, and stopped. He looked back, questioning, to where Mithrandir sat with pipe in hand, Gimli still close by.
“We cannot leave just yet, Legolas. The Company has only rested a few hours, and we have far to travel. The Hobbits must gain strength ere we continue. And you and Gimli have yet to sleep at all.”
Legolas’ shoulders drew back as he inhaled slowly. “There will be time to rest after we leave the mines.”
Mithrandir’s eyes narrowed. “We may never escape the mines at all if we run ourselves to exhaustion.”
Legolas turned fully to face the wizard. “I would follow your counsel, Mithrandir, but we have no time. We must go now.”
Mithrandir’s voice was calm. “Must we, Legolas? Think. We are sheltered. We are as safe here as we will ever be in this place. We have had a hard journey, and it will get harder. The Company cannot go on without rest.”
Legolas’ jaw clenched. How could he speak so calmly of waiting, resting, delaying when the weight of Shadow grew stronger with every minute? How could he deny the evil in this tomb? The Elf breathed deeply for a moment and kept his voice under tight control when he finally spoke. No quaver betrayed the pounding of his heart. “There are greater things at stake than the night’s sleep of this Company. Think what we risk by waiting. Will you delay until –” His voice choked and he stopped, breathing hard.
Mithrandir stood and crossed over to the Elf. The craggy face was lined and hollowed in the dim light, the sharp eyes cast in shadow. His voice was very soft. “How far can you run, Legolas? Can you run fast enough, fight hard enough, to defeat that which you fear? Would you fear it if you could?” He stepped close, and Legolas could feel the warmth that radiated from him. “Trust me, Thranduilion. I will not lead us astray.”
Legolas gazed into the old face. How long had Mithrandir guided them? Not just the Fellowship, but all of them, Elves and Men and Hobbits and Dwarves. Elven memory did not fade with time. It seemed to Legolas, as he thought back, that Mithrandir had always been there. Never overbearing, never intruding, but always there if needed. His had been a quiet voice of wisdom and comfort, even to the youngest Elf-child of Thranduil’s kingdom. A mortal might have mistaken him for a Man, withered and bent with age as he appeared. But no Elf would ever have made that mistake. Mithrandir’s wisdom ran deeper than the ages. He did not merely resonate with Ilúvatar’s Song, he was Song. As he looked into the Maia’s eyes, for a moment it seemed that Legolas could hear it, clear and soft in the void.
“I do trust you, Mithrandir. Always have I done so.” His voice was a scarce breath in the stillness. In his agitation he slipped between Westron and Sindarin without noticing. “I would follow you, even were you to lead us on the straight road. But this . . . this is madness. You doubt my words, you seek a Dwarf’s counsel over mine . . .” chittering in the back of his mind, go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes . . . go not to the Elves for counsel . . . “I was chosen for this Fellowship for a reason. What I sense is real. It is coming. You know this.”
Mithrandir nodded. “I know. And I know that you are strong, and brave, and wise, Legolas. You will not be driven to folly, not by stone or by Shadow. I seek Gimli’s counsel because he is at home here, as we are not. There is great wisdom in the Dwarves, if you would see it. What will be, must be. Our Doom is laid before us, and it is folly to cheat fate.”
Legolas shook his head. “You speak of fate, but I cannot see it. Do you know what this Doom is, Mithrandir? Can you be so certain it is our path? I feel Shadow and malice and power, as I have never felt before. Something seeks us, I know this, but what is it? How can we face it?”
The wizard sighed. “I would comfort you if I could, Legolas. There are legends of course, but the not even the Wise can be certain of Durin’s Bane. But we must have faith. What darkness may come, it will be defeated.”
Legolas closed his eyes. He swayed slightly as a wave of fear and despair washed over him. His voice was gone, a mere breath in his throat, but he spoke as clearly as he could past the knot in his chest. “I am not Glorfindel, Mithrandir. I cannot . . .”
Gnarled hands grabbed his shoulders and the Istar pulled him into a rough hug. “I know. I know. You are Greenleaf, and that, my friend, is more than enough. I would have no other.”
Legolas leaned into the embrace for a moment, breathing the familiar scent of pipeweed and wood smoke and feeling the rough wool of the wizard’s cloak beneath his cheek. He was shaking. The Maia was as ancient and strong as the stars, and to his shame he found that he needed that strength. “You choose this path,” he whispered.
Mithrandir stepped back and looked at him for a long moment. “I do. We are bound to this fate, Legolas. It is my choice, and my right.”
Legolas drew a shuddering breath, and bowed his head.
Next up: Chapter 6. Our favorite Elf and Dwarf have a chat.
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