Delightful Dwarf Stories
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In the Deep Places: 8. Shadow and Flame
“Slam the doors and wedge them!” shouted Aragorn.
“No!” said Gandalf. “We cannot be locked in. Keep the east door ajar and keep your packs on. We may yet escape.”
Escape? Gimli could not believe the wizard was serious. Even if they could get out the eastern door, what then? Were they to be driven like cattle with the Enemy’s dogs at their heels?
Swiftly the Dwarf unslung his pack and stowed the Book of Mazarbul within it. He would die before he allowed the Enemy to further defile the memory of the Khazad.
Gandalf went to the door and cried challenge to the Orcs, but he was met with only harsh laughter like the sliding of stones on slate. Boromir at his side leaped back as several black arrows whined past his head and struck the stone door. “They have a cave troll,” he said, and Gimli could have laughed at the utter lack of surprise in his voice. Of course they had a cave troll. Why not? It seemed that all the fates were aligned against the Fellowship, and at this point Gimli would not have been surprised if the Orcs had produced a dragon.
The drumbeats were louder and faster now. They rolled up through Gimli’s boots and resonated in his bones. A horn cried again, and another, like screams in the deep. Gimli swung his pack on again and loosened the throwing axes in his belt.
Boromir and Legolas were wedging the great stone door closed with the abandoned weapon shards that littered the chamber floor. Aragorn threw an axe to Legolas from his position by the east door. “There is no sound outside here yet,” he said, peering cautiously through the arch. “The passage on this side plunges straight down a stair: it plainly does not lead back toward the hall. But it is no good flying blindly this way with the pursuit just behind. We cannot block the door. Its key is gone and the lock is broken, and it opens inwards. We must do something to delay the enemy first.” His voice deepened with a note of grim certainty. “We will make them fear the Chamber of Mazarbul!”
Gimli shot him a swift glance, and his chest swelled when he saw the light of battle in Aragorn’s eyes. He knew now why Elves and Men followed this Ranger. Here at least was a man worthy to defend Khazad-dûm.
The door was now wedged shut as best as they could manage and the others drew back as it shook beneath the Orcs’ blows. Gandalf herded the Hobbits behind him and drew Glamdring with a ring of steel. The great blade glowed in the dim light.
Gimli braced his back against Balin’s tomb and lifted his great axe in both hands. The smooth wood was solid and warm, the leather binding supple beneath his fingers, the weight a reassuring resistance against his tensed muscles. There was a final ringing cry of horns outside, and then the drums stopped. For an endless beat of time they stood, waiting in the silent keep. Gimli held his breath as his heart beat a bitter tattoo against his ribs. Then there came a slow creak as the door was forced back.
Aragorn, Legolas, and Boromir were ranged in front of Gimli. Boromir shifted his weight as though seeking balance, his great shield held before him and his broadsword easy in his hand. Aragorn had drawn his small bow and trained it on the slowly widening crack of the door. He shifted from side to side, seeking a clear target. Legolas stood absolutely still, his bow drawn and locked. He seemed utterly relaxed, his weapon held as if it were an extension of his body. There was no trace of the tense, increasingly paranoid creature Gimli had observed these past two days in the mines; or of the flighty Elf that had climbed the pillars of the Dwarrowdelf. Gimli had a sudden flash of memory: the light in Legolas’ eyes as he had fought in the lower hall. It was one of the endless contradictions of the race, Gimli supposed, that such an ethereal seeming creature could be so focused and so deadly in battle.
The door ground open a further few inches. Gimli wished that Boromir had not done quite such a good job wedging it closed. Durin’s beard, this was taking forever! There was a clatter of metal as the Hobbits drew their small blades. Boromir swung his sword in a circle, seeming as impatient as Gimli felt. Aragorn shifted his stance again. Legolas did not move.
Then the last splintered shards of wood gave way and the stone door was thrust back. A massive scaly arm was pushed through the opening, and a huge flat foot wedged in the crack. Boromir leaped forward with a cry and slashed the great arm, but his sword rang and clattered to the floor. There was a smoking reek as of hot metal, and Gimli saw that the blade was notched.
Before he could fully register what had happened there came another sharp cry and Frodo – Frodo of all people! – ran forward and stabbed at the giant foot. A deafening bellow shook the chamber and the foot and arm were jerked back.
The Company stood for a single heartbeat’s stunned silence and then the great door crashed fully open. Orcs swarmed into the chamber, and suddenly things were happening very fast. Frodo scrambled back from the onrushing force and Aragorn shot an Orc that thrust a wicked blade at the Ring-bearer. Boromir forced another back with his shield and then caught up his sword and ran the foul creature through. Legolas was shooting with utter calm and fatal accuracy, his hands moving faster than Gimli’s eyes could track. But the Orcs kept coming. Five fell in the time Gimli drew breath, but the sixth came from the side and under range, forcing the Elf to stow his bow and draw his knives.
And the Orcs were past the front guard and were at last – at last! – in range. Gimli swung his first strike low, catching one Orc in the knees, then flipped the blade over and smashed another between the eyes. The hot stench of black blood rushed over him, filling his lungs and coating the roof of his mouth with the bitter taste of iron. A red haze washed over his vision. Dimly he was aware of the shouts of the Company, the cries as Gandalf and the Hobbits joined the fray, but these sounds came as though from a great distance, remote and unimportant to the bloodlust thrumming in his veins.
He felt near drunk on blood and hate. The bones of his kin, his friends, crunched beneath his feet and nothing mattered but making these demons pay for what they had done. He swung his axe in a great arc and sliced easily through the necks of two Orcs, then caught the upper handle and jerked the weapon sharply to the side. The force of his arrested blow sent a tremor up his arm, but he scarcely noticed and the heavy wooden staff slammed into the neck of a third Orc, crushing its windpipe. He was braced and set, his feet barely needing to move as his weight shifted in balance to his weapon.
There was a tremendous crash of stone and a billow of dust, and the cave troll smashed into their midst. Gimli did not pause to think. He hurled a throwing axe into the great chest with a force that could split steel. The troll staggered, but kept coming.
It was huge, grey-green and scaly with small muddy eyes in a great flat face. It stank of sulfur and rotted flesh and it moved with the clumsy power of boulders rolling down into a pit. Blood oozed from a gash in the top of its left foot. The Orcs led it by a long chain around its neck.
It swung a massive club at Gimli, and he leaped back as the huge iron studded head came crashing down. Two arrows sang past Gimli’s ear and struck the troll’s shoulder, and the blow was deflected to smash the stone near his feet.
Gimli hardly registered the near miss. There was a roaring in his ears, and all that mattered was that here was another target for his fury. He hewed down an Orc that stood in his way and slashed his axe at the great legs. The heavy skin deflected his blade, but the sheer force of the blow bruised the flesh beneath, and he heard the troll bellow in pain.
Time blurred then. The troll was gone, out of his sight, and he slashed and cut down the lesser Orcs without thought or reason. Things seemed to be moving very slowly. Gimli swung his axe in a slow arc, his heart beating away the seconds in silence until at last he connected and sliced through the enemy’s flesh and there was a scream and a sudden rush of blood and noise, very close, and then silence again.
Once he looked up and the haze cleared briefly and he saw Legolas standing on top of the troll, his bow bent and aimed at the creature’s head. Can’t he ever just stay on the ground, he thought briefly, and then the battle closed in again.
And then it was over. Gimli caught his axe partway through a swing as he realized that his foes had vanished. He staggered slightly from the spent momentum and looked around. The Orcs were gone. The troll was dead, and the Fellowship stood about the body in silence. They had won.
An aching void seemed to open in Gimli’s heart, and he fell to his knees before Balin’s tomb. They had won, but the victory was as ash that crumbled in his hands. Balin was still dead. Oin was gone, his uncle, his cousins, his friends: all were dead. Khazad-dûm was laid waste and nothing would bring it back. Gimli could fight until his great axe splintered, his arms gave way, and his legs could no longer hold him, and it would make no difference. His kin were dead and their graves defiled, and no vengeance in the world would bring them back. This was the glory of the Dwarves, their last hope, and it was meaningless. The Enemy had won.
A pool of thick black blood was slowly creeping beneath his knees, but he paid it no mind. The others were moving, speaking, but their voices faded and were lost in the howling emptiness within him. His heart still beat, his lungs drew in air, but to what purpose? He lived still, when so many others more worthy than he had died defending their home. His life was a mockery of their sacrifice. Gimli bowed his head and closed his eyes as a great well of despair filled him.
The voices were growing louder, more insistent. There was a clatter of running feet and a soft cry, and then someone was speaking to him. “Master Dwarf.” His eyes were burning. “Master Dwarf, get up. We cannot stay here.” Gimli shook his head. Let them run, if they could. The Enemy would find them in the end, and he at least preferred to die here, with his kin.
A cool hand gripped his shoulder then, and a musical voice spoke soft and clear with an intensity that pierced through the darkness around him. “Gimli. Gimli look at me.” That voice had never spoken to him thus, had never spoken his name before. The shock of it made Gimli raise his head and look, and there were the clear eyes of Legolas looking back at him. The Elf was crouched beside him in the sticky pool of blood, one slim hand still on his arm. “Time grows short, Master Dwarf. We must go.”
Gimli shook his head again, but did not look away from Legolas’ gaze. His voice was thick with strain. “I failed them.”
Legolas’ fine brows drew together, as if in pain, but Gimli saw a light of understanding in his eyes. “It was no failure of yours, Gimli.” The Elf’s voice was a whisper laid with the steel of conviction. “They fought bravely. All of Arda will remember them, I promise.”
Gimli wanted to protest – how dare the Elf deny his failure, pretend to understand his pain? But at that moment a great crash sounded without the chamber, and the floor trembled beneath them. Gimli thought he smelled smoke. Legolas looked past him toward the door, and his eyes widened in fear.
“We have no further time for debate, Master Dwarf.” The Elf’s hand tightened like a band of steel about Gimli’s arm, and he was lifted to his feet by a strength he had not imagined. “The Ring-bearer needs you now.”
Frodo! A new wave of shame engulfed him. How could he have forgotten? Khazad-dûm was lost, but all of Middle-earth would follow if he failed Frodo now. The horror of it was enough to make Gimli try to find his feet, as Legolas dragged him to the eastern door, and by the time they reached the stairs he was moving under his own power.
The beat of the drums had been as a counterpoint to Legolas’ own pulse of emotions, pounding against the mix of euphoria and dread that thrummed within him. When they stopped he was left empty, all the brief joy from the light and the long terror of the Shadow drained away in the silence and he stood clear and cold with resolve.
All through the battle he was detached, moving and turning and attacking with automatic reflexes honed through centuries of training. But the Orcs, the troll, were not the true Enemy. He could feel that one coming, a slow, suffocating darkness that curled against his mind. It was so close now, so close.
He slashed an Orc across the throat and leaped back, turning and trying to catch Mithrandir’s eye through the fray. They must not stay here. It was a trap, and these petty creatures were nothing to concern them. He could not see the wizard, but there was Aragorn fighting alongside Boromir, and he started to make his way over to them. But then he saw something that made him stop for a moment and catch his breath.
Gimli was fighting. Not just fighting – the Dwarf was a barely controlled fury consumed with a fire that flickered deadly in his eyes. Legolas wondered that the Orcs did not collapse from the heat of his gaze alone. Gimli hardly seemed to move, his feet were braced and it seemed that no force in Arda could shift him. The Orcs rushed to him and broke like a wave dashed against a mountain. As Legolas watched a great Orc nearly as big as a Man swung its heavy blade against Gimli’s arm. The blow clanged and the sword shivered in two, shattered against the Dwarf’s chain mail. Gimli hardly seemed to notice. He turned almost casually, but the rage in his eyes belied the easy grace of his movement. He swung his heavy axe up in a swift arc that sliced easily through the Orc’s armor and continued, lifting the Orc off its feet and flinging it up into the air to finally crash down again several feet away. Gimli’s chest was heaving; his breath heavy even through the harsh cries of battle, but there was no sign of fatigue in his movements. It seemed that the need for vengeance alone was enough to sustain him.
A blur of movement caught Legolas’ eye then and he glanced to the side. Aragorn had moved away from Boromir and was backed against a side alcove, facing the cave troll. Even as Legolas caught sight of him the troll swung one huge arm and struck Aragorn full across the face, lifting the Man off his feet and slamming him into the stone wall. Estel! But before Legolas could cry the name the troll caught up a long spear and thrust it into Frodo.
The Ring-bearer did not scream. Only a small gasp of air escaped his lips, but that tiny sound cut through the noise of battle as a shivered knife and froze Legolas’ heart. There was a slight catch of breath at Legolas’ side and he saw Mithrandir at last. The wizard’s face was wrought with shock and horror. In that moment Legolas felt the Shadow fall over them all, and Something knew them in the depths, and burned with amusement. Time stretched in the silence, and Legolas heard clearly the distant clink as Sting fell from Frodo’s hand, the whisper of his clothes as the Hobbit slowly collapsed to the floor.
Sam screamed then, a harsh cry that broke through the ice and darkness. He was crying, forcing his way toward his master. The others were also shouting and screaming and there was an assault of noise and the clash of metal, and time rushed up again to an impossible speed. Merry and Pippin were somehow on top of the troll now, and Boromir was fighting with a fury to near match Gimli’s, and Mithrandir was burning in cold wrath terrible to behold.
But Aragorn did not move. The noise and fury rushed around Legolas and away, and his mind grieved for Frodo and the blow done to all their hopes, but his heart cried for Estel. Very far away he heard the whisper of his father’s voice, the weight of concern with which Thranduil had warned him against loving a mortal too much. He could not grieve – it was too sudden and too close for that. He had sworn to protect Frodo, and he had failed. He had given his friendship and his love to Aragorn, and Aragorn was gone. Aragorn was gone, and in the cold aftermath of shock he found discipline and clung to it.
He forced away the reproach of his father’s words, the rush of guilt for Frodo, the horror of Aragorn’s loss and the near crushing weight of Shadow. He walked forward, and the Orcs did not block him. Deliberately he drew a single arrow and nocked it and drew it back to anchor point. The troll was twisting about, trying to shake off the Hobbits that clung to its neck. Legolas could see its mouth move as it bellowed, see Merry’s face twist in a scream, but he heard nothing. He was encased in an icy silence, and his hands did not shake as he took aim. This was what he had been trained for, what he had been born for. He was the greatest archer Mirkwood had ever known, and he would not fail. Not this time.
Merry fell, flung off by one massive groping hand, and that left one less distraction. Pippin was still on the troll’s neck, and Legolas would have to be careful not to shoot through the troll’s skull and strike the Hobbit. He took note of this danger and adjusted his draw slightly to compensate, his mind noting the distance and angle with cool logic. The troll arched back and to the side, and Legolas tracked its movement. The bow strained against his hands, but his arms were steady and his muscles did not quiver. He would hold this draw for eternity, if necessary. He would not fail.
Then Pippin stabbed with his small sword and the troll threw its head back and bellowed in pain, and there was the target. The snap of the bowstring was such a small sound, small as a gasp of air, devastating as the crush of bone against rock. The troll groaned, one hand coming up to grope at its mouth in bewilderment. It staggered, swayed and fell, but Legolas did not feel the tremor as it collapsed to earth. He stood still, watching, ready to draw and fire again if the creature stirred, but it was dead.
He turned away then. The troll was dead and his duty to the Company was fulfilled, and he could go to Aragorn at last. But even as he turned the Man stirred, and his chest rose and fell in a ragged breath that sounded harsh and wonderful to Legolas’ ears. He froze, his heart thudding wildly, and Aragorn dragged himself up on his forearms. He was alive! Legolas could have run to him then, pulled him up and hugged him and thanked the Valar that this blessed, maddening Man had cheated death just once more. But Aragorn had drawn Frodo into his arms, and grief was plain in his eyes, and the Shadow was nearly upon them. Legolas drew a slow breath and held it, fighting down the swirl of joy and pain that rushed through him. He was shaking.
Mithrandir pushed past him then. Legolas’ senses came rushing back, and he smelled the hot iron of blood and felt the tremor of rock as something shuddered in the deep, and now the drums were sounding again, doom, doom through the dark halls. “Now!” shouted the wizard, and at his words the others turned and seemed to shake out of their shock. “Now is the last chance. Run for it!”
Aragorn stood, pulling up Frodo in his arms. He staggered slightly but kept moving. Sam was close by his side, tears tracking through the dirt on his face. The gardener was bleeding slightly from a gash on his scalp, but he kept one hand twined in Frodo’s cloak. He carried Sting in the other. Merry and Pippin were on their feet again. They seemed shaken but uninjured. Aragorn pushed them along in front of him toward the eastern door. Legolas started to follow, but then he heard Boromir speak behind him.
“What is he doing?” The Man’s voice was drawn and strained with impatience. “We don’t have time for this!”
Legolas turned back. Boromir had swung his shield up onto his back and was looking at Gimli, who was kneeling by Balin’s tomb with his head bowed. Boromir shouted to him, “Get up, Master Gimli! We leave now!” But the Dwarf did not stir. Boromir turned away and ran to the eastern door. He seized hold of it and began struggling to draw it closed. The Orcs in the chamber were dead, but Legolas could hear the scrabble of hard feet coming up the outer hallway.
He moved toward the Dwarf. Boromir was a Man, and a Man raised in Gondor at that. Legolas did not entirely understand mortal joy or grief, but from observing the Men of Laketown he thought that they differed from Elven emotions. Men could give themselves over to their feelings with an intensity that would be dangerous to an Elf, and yet they rarely did so. They seemed able to delay grief, or transform it into guilt or anger or some other emotion. But what little he had seen of the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain suggested that they were more pure in their emotions. Boromir did not seem to understand Gimli’s raw pain, or the grief he felt here, in the ruin of his ancestral home and the tomb of his family.
Legolas was a warrior, and with a warrior’s discipline he had focused on eliminating the immediate threat to his companions. But had Aragorn been dead he would not have been able to leave the body. He would have stayed at his friend’s side, and given himself up in battle as surely as if he died of grief. It was this love that Thranduil had cautioned against, and that same strength of love and loyalty was at the heart of Gimli’s pain. It was only the latest of a long series of bitter ironies that the one member of the Company best suited to understand the Dwarf now was an Elf.
Legolas stood just behind Gimli and to the side, wondering what he could say. He remembered the terrible strength and fury the Dwarf had shown in battle, and he marveled at the weight of pain that could so crush this great warrior. But the drums were rolling in the deep, and a strange pall seemed to be cast over the light that streamed down onto Balin’s tomb. Legolas could nearly hear the wisp and crackle of flame.
“Master Dwarf. Master Dwarf, get up.” Shadow was thick and dark over his vision, and Its icy touch stroked along his skin like fire. Legolas shot a swift glance at the broken door. “We must go.”
But Gimli only shook his head, and for all his tension and fear Legolas felt a pang of empathy for the Dwarf. He crouched down, balancing lightly on his toes in the growing pool of blood that soaked Gimli’s knees, and touched the Dwarf’s arm. “Gimli.” It was only as the word left his lips that he realized he had meant to say it. “Gimli, look at me.” The Dwarf lifted his head then, seeming as shocked as Legolas was to hear his name in the Elf’s voice. He met Legolas’ gaze, and the utter despair in his eyes sent a ripple of pain through the archer. No Elf had ever been forced to turn away from a Dwarf’s gaze, but Legolas could have done so then. He swallowed hard and struggled to make his voice light, to counter the grief and power of this moment. “Time grows short, Master Dwarf. We must go.”
Gimli shook his head again, just a slight jerk to the side, and his dark eyes burned with pain. His lips barely moved as he spoke, a whisper that carried a world of sorrow and guilt. “I failed them.”
Legolas’ fingers tightened on his arm in wordless sympathy, feeling the texture of oiled leather and steel and the rock hard muscles beneath. There were no words he could say, no way to counter that bitter pain. But great as Gimli’s loss was, it was in the past. It was consigned to memory and song now, and more urgent matters were at hand. He spoke briefly of duty and honor and memory, but he knew that they meant nothing to the Dwarf now. The loss was too great.
A Power seemed to curl up through the hall and around them in the small chamber, and Legolas felt it trace over the small hairs at the back of his neck. There was a crash and the floor shuddered. He looked through the outer door again, but could see nothing. An unnatural blackness was growing there, a physical presence far more than mere absence of light, and Legolas’ muscles sang with the need to run. He whispered to the Dwarf through lips cracked and dry with fear, and hauled Gimli to his feet. “The Ring-bearer,” he began, the Ring-bearer is dead, he meant to say, but could not bear to add to Gimli’s guilt now. “The Ring-bearer needs you now.”
That seemed to shock the Dwarf from his stupor, and he staggered as Legolas pulled him from the tomb. They ran through the eastern door and came to a halt on the landing with the others. Boromir had finally gotten the door moving and was pulling it shut. Legolas made certain that Gimli was stable on his feet and let go of him. The Dwarf seemed to have regained control.
Legolas stretched out one hand and touched Aragorn’s shoulder lightly, just to reassure himself that the Man was truly still alive. The Ranger glanced at him briefly and nodded, but then turned his attention back to the Hobbit cradled in his arms. Frodo’s face was white and pinched in the gloom. His dark hair trailed curls across his forehead, and his eyes were sealed shut. Aragorn drew one hand sadly across the small face.
Frodo gasped and opened his eyes, and Legolas’ heart stuttered in his chest. Aragorn nearly dropped the Hobbit in shock, but Frodo gasped, “I am all right. I can walk. Put me down!”
“I thought you were dead!” Aragorn said, and Legolas could have hit him. He should talk!
“Not yet!” cried Mithrandir. “But there is no time for wonder.” Boromir had pulled the heavy door closed and was leaning against it, staring at Frodo in shock. The wizard grasped his shoulder and pushed him away from the door. “Off you go, all of you, down the stairs! Wait a few minutes for me at the bottom, but if I do not come soon, go on! Go quickly and choose paths leading right and downwards.”
Aragorn set Frodo gently on his feet and fixed Mithrandir with a steely gaze. “We cannot leave you to hold the door alone!” At that moment the coiling Power seemed to tighten about them. Legolas gasped and nearly staggered under its weight. Mithrandir glanced at him, and Legolas saw a flash of sorrow in the Maia’s eyes. But when he spoke his voice was hard and fierce with resolve. “Do as I say! Swords are no more use here. Go!”
Legolas pulled Aragorn away, but the Ranger seemed to accept the wizard’s words and ran with him down the stairs. They were blind, stumbling in the dark with only the clatter of Boromir’s boots and Gimli’s muffled curses to guide them. Legolas could feel Aragorn at his side, hear the others as their footsteps and voices echoed in the narrow passage, but he could see nothing beyond the faint light immediately about his own body. There was a horrible presence around them, unfocused and yet maliciously aware. The darkness of the passage was a near tangible thing, thick and close as a net cast to block them.
Finally they reached the bottom and stumbled to a stop at the leveled foot of the stair. There was a soft shuffling as the Hobbits gathered together. Pippin gave a sharp cry, “Ow! You stepped on my foot!” and there was a muttered apology from Boromir. Then silence save for Sam’s soft voice, whispering a litany of reassurances to Frodo. Legolas doubted that Frodo was in any state to hear them, or that Sam himself was really aware of what he was saying.
Legolas focused on the spark of light at the top of the stair. He could see Mithrandir’s lined face clearly. The wizard stood at the unbarred door, his head bowed and his white eyebrows drawn together in concentration. His lips moved and Legolas caught the words of his shutting spell. Small currents of air twisted and flowed past him, and the very walls seemed to tremble. Aragorn whispered at his side, “We should not have left him.”
Legolas shook his head slightly, not taking his eyes off the wizard. “We could not help him.”
“Couldn’t we?” Aragorn’s voice was bitter. “What do you feel, Legolas? Is it truly worse than the Shadow of Dol Guldur? And your people have fought that for centuries.”
Legolas turned his head sharply toward the Ranger. Aragorn was nearly invisible in the darkness, but he was standing close enough that the planes of his face caught Legolas’ faint light. His eyes glittered in the dark. Legolas wondered what he sensed. Aragorn was mortal, but in him the blood of Númenor ran true. He had some foresight, and at times a near Elvish perception. But did he really think that the Shadow here was no worse than in Mirkwood? Perhaps, Legolas thought, the loss of Song truly has affected my mind. Perhaps the Ring plays upon my fears, and this Power is an illusion. But Mithrandir had sent them on, and Legolas remembered the look of pain and sorrow in his eyes. Perhaps Aragorn is overconfident.
“We fight the encroachment upon Lasgalen,” he said cautiously. “We do not seek the Shadow in its lair. And it is not my place or yours to judge Mithrandir. We must protect the Hobbits.”
Shadows shifted over Aragorn’s face as his jaw clenched. “I do not fear for us, or even for the Hobbits now. I felt before we ever came here, and I feel it now, that Moria is not the Fellowship’s bane. But I fear for Gandalf.”
Before Legolas could respond to that there was a rumble overhead, and the walls around them shuddered. The air suddenly seemed too thick and close to breathe. Legolas choked and caught Aragorn’s arm. A great Power seemed to roll down the steps toward them, curling about them and trailing icy fingers that burned across Legolas’ back and ribs and traced up toward his neck.
Then there was a great flash of white light above that struck back the darkness and the phantom fingers vanished. The Power was gone, and suddenly Legolas could breathe again. He drew in great draughts of air, his chest heaving, and blinked back the dark afterimages burned in his eyes. The drumbeats pounded wildly and there was a rumble and a crash, and the drums stopped.
The light was gone. There was a clatter of running feet and Mithrandir came flying down the stairs. He crashed headlong into Aragorn and his staff struck Legolas’ side as he fell to the ground. He was gasping for breath, and Legolas wished deeply that he could look at the wizard outside, in a forest. Mithrandir’s spirit seemed shaken, his tone discordant as Legolas had never heard it, but he dared not trust his senses here in this dead pit of stone.
But Mithrandir pushed aside their concern as he got to his feet, and drove them onward. He led the way, but his staff was dark now and he leaned heavily on Gimli. The Dwarf walked on in silence. He appeared to have pushed aside his personal grief to focus on the Company, and he led them seemingly without need of light. Legolas could only follow, listening intently to the footsteps of the Company to ensure that none were lost.
The Shadow was lessened now, but it was not gone. Yet Legolas could only feel it, heavy and hateful upon them. He could see nothing. They were in the absolute darkness now as they had not been in all their journey in the mines. Even when he and Gimli had scouted the lower passage there had been light from Gimli’s torch, and those of the Orcs. Now there was nothing. Legolas did not fear mere darkness, but he found it frustrating. On a clear day he could see ten leagues with utter clarity, and he was used to sensing any danger long before it threatened him. Now, deprived of light and trapped far from even the faint trace of Song in the great hall above, he felt blind and deaf. Not only that, Gimli’s comment during their scouting mission had reminded him that though he could not see the others, they could see him in the faint glow that surrounded him. So could anything else that lurked in the caverns. He was vulnerable, helpless to protect the Ring-bearer or his companions, and utterly dependent on the guidance of a Dwarf.
They went on and on, stumbling in the darkness and groping their way down stairs that dropped suddenly from under their feet. There was no sound of pursuit, but the air seemed to be growing hotter. Finally Mithrandir called a halt. “I am very weary,” he gasped. “I must rest here for a moment, even if all the Orcs ever spawned are after us.”
There was a shift of robes and clink of mail as Gimli helped him sit down. “What happened away up there at the door?” the Dwarf asked. “Did you meet the beater of the drums?”
“I do not know,” the wizard said. “But I found myself suddenly faced by something that I have not met before.” Legolas grasped his bow convulsively. There was very little that was beyond the Maia’s experience. Mithrandir went on, describing the shutting spell he had used and his final confrontation with the Power on the other side of the door. Legolas listened, but the words came echoing as if from far away. He remembered the breath of Shadow on his neck, the horrible burning touch that seemed so icy and so intimate, the bitter taste of death and the resonant Power. It is real. No invention of the Ring’s, no illusion of the dark. It is real and it is coming, and Aragorn was right. Mithrandir was right. Our fate is bound with it somehow, and we cannot escape.
The conversation had turned to Frodo now, and the others were marveling over his miraculous survival. Legolas forced himself to focus. Hopeless or not, they could not give up the quest. Gimli had overcome his loss and pain to help Frodo. Legolas could do no less. He was a warrior and a prince of the Sindar, and he had fought the Shadow all his life. He would not give in now.
Nonetheless, he was relieved when Mithrandir struggled to his feet and they continued on. He would give his life to protect the Ring-bearer, but he would rather run and fight than sit in the dark for the Shadow to find them. He hated waiting.
The floor was smooth now and seemed to slope away downwards. They went as swiftly as they could, though Legolas was careful to stay behind the soft patter of Hobbit feet and just ahead of Aragorn’s steady stride. He was peering into the dark, straining his eyes though he knew there was no light to be seen, until suddenly there was. He saw a faint red glow, flickering ahead of them, though in the darkness Legolas could not judge the distance to it. Aragorn had not said anything about it, and Legolas did not know if that was because the light was beyond his range of vision, or if it was because it was only another illusion.
But then Gimli spoke and confirmed the light, and before long the others could see it also. Legolas noted that the Dwarf had seen it before the other mortals – he had keen eyes in the dark.
Now he could see the others in the uncertain light, and the road stretching down before them. They came out through an archway into another great hall, even larger than the one they had spent the night in previously. The red light flickered and was reflected in the smooth black surfaces of a double line of massive columns that marched down its length. To their right a great fissure was opened across the width of the hall. Flames licked its edge and smoke reeked from the pit. The air was burning hot and dried the soft tissue of Legolas’ nose and throat as he breathed.
Suddenly the beat of drums came again, far closer and faster than before. Aragorn drew his sword and moved between Mithrandir and the pit. Shrieking cries and horn calls echoed in the hall, and the wizard shouted, “Now for the last race! If the sun is shining outside, we may still escape. After me!” He turned and ran, and Aragorn sheathed Andúril again and urged the Hobbits forward. They needed little encouragement. They flew along the great hall, their bare feet light on the stone as they followed the wizard. Gimli came after them, his heavy boots thumping solidly with every step. Boromir ran past him to keep pace with the Hobbits, but Aragorn stayed behind. Legolas held himself back to match step with the Man, his bow held tightly in his left hand and slicing through the air as he ran.
There was a shrieking cry behind them and the whistling of arrows. But Boromir laughed. “They did not expect this,” he said. “The fire has cut them off. We are on the wrong side!” Legolas glanced back. The black figures of the Orcs swarmed behind the pit of flames, but he could see the flash of their mail and the glint of sharp arrowheads as they strung their bows.
“Look ahead,” cried Mithrandir. “The bridge is near.”
It was. The floor simply dropped away before them and a slender bridge of stone sprang across a great chasm in a single arching span of fifty feet. Legolas looked at it doubtfully. He had never in his life troubled about heights, but he had never trusted artificial structures, either. He was sure-footed as all Elves and could easily run through the uppermost branches of the trees in Mirkwood forest, but he knew that the trees would not let him fall. He had no such assurance from this Dwarf bridge.
They had halted at the edge of the chasm when the Shadow entered the hall. Legolas felt it as a physical blow that struck with full weight of all the hate and malice he had sensed since entering Moria. His heart constricted in his chest and he gasped, the hot air searing his lungs. But he did not run.
He turned to face it and drew and set an arrow with hands that moved with the speed and surety of centuries of training. The end of the hall was shrouded in a physical blackness that was sweeping toward them. The Power was a weight that crushed down upon him, and the phantom fingers did not trail: they raked down his throat and burned freezing traces along his chest and abdomen. He shuddered but held his draw. The Shadow was far yet, but he had shot longer distances before.
But then the Shadow parted, as though black wings swept it back, and all the horror of all the ages that the Elves had fought was revealed. The demon was huge, wreathed in flame and shadow that curled about it and defeated Legolas’ eyes. It reeked of sulfur and its flaming whip and sword seared the air. Terror swept out from it as a wave that staggered him and his hands jerked and his bow shivered as a small fracture ran up its frame. The clatter as his arrow fell was lost in the screams of a thousand Elves that assaulted his mind, as if all pain of all the ages that Elves had fought the Enemy and lost and died in agony was captured and hoarded and fed upon by this creature of Morgoth, and Legolas opened his mouth and joined his voice to the cries of his kin, and the name of the thing came to him from the depths of time and legend, and its power shook him to his soul. “Ai! Ai!” he cried. “A Balrog! A Balrog is come!”
Very faintly there came a distant clatter as Gimli dropped his axe. “Durin’s Bane!” the Dwarf whispered, and Mithrandir sighed. “A Balrog.” The Maia’s voice was strained and heavy. “Now I understand. What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.”
Flames roared up as the demon leaped the pit. It was coming, and darkness ran ahead of it and flame streamed behind it, and Legolas was frozen before it. Some distant part of him screamed for action, to fight, to run, but he could not move. His mind was locked in shock and horror of recognition. He knew this creature. Knew it at a depth beyond legend or name, knew it in his bones and in his soul. It was a servant of the Shadow that had hunted Elves since their beginnings, the Shadow that had sought them ere Men or Dwarves drew breath, before the world saw light of sun or moon. It had known him in these mines, had touched his body and seared his soul, and it claimed him as its own.
Then there came a piercing blast, a cry that was of no Orc horn, and the spell was broken. The Balrog faltered, and Mithrandir called in a voice of renewed strength, “Over the bridge! Fly! This is a foe beyond any of you. I must hold the narrow way. Fly!”
Legolas blinked and wrenched himself away from the dark power. He staggered slightly and looked around. Boromir still held his horn to his lips, but the last echoes of the challenge were suddenly cut off, as if smothered in a dark wind. The Shadow advanced again.
Gimli pushed past Legolas and caught Frodo by the arm. Frodo was nearly jerked off his feet but caught himself and ran after the Dwarf onto the bridge. Sam followed his master without a backward glance, and Pippin pulled Merry after them. Aragorn and Boromir stood fast at Mithrandir’s side, but the wizard shoved them roughly toward the bridge and turned back to face the Balrog, his staff held before him and a fey light in his eyes. A white light seemed to flicker about him, and Legolas felt suddenly a terrible strength in him, a Power as dreadful as the demon’s, but pure and clear as Song.
And Legolas understood. He caught Aragorn’s arm and Boromir’s, and pulled the Men the rest of the way onto the bridge. Then they followed him, their heavy boots making the bridge shake behind Legolas’ own light steps. He cast a brief glance toward the great depths that yawned beneath him, and wished fleetingly for the familiar curve and spring of a living branch. Then they were over the bridge and on the solid rock beyond, and Aragorn grasped his shoulder as they wheeled around to look back across the chasm.
Mithrandir stood alone in the center of the bridge, facing the demon at the other end. The wizard leaned on the staff in his left hand, but his right held Glamdring up, cold and white, and his voice was resonant and strong.
“You cannot pass.” Silence fell over the great hall, and in that silence Legolas thought he heard the first faint notes of Song. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass!”
The Balrog stepped slowly forward onto the bridge, and the Shadow swept out as it unfurled its great wings. Legolas felt it as the trace of a knife brushed over his skin, and trails of fire ran down his nerves. Aragorn pushed forward, but Legolas caught the Man’s shoulders and pressed him back. “No! We cannot help him. It is his right.” Aragorn looked at him, and Legolas saw agony in his eyes. He tightened his grip, feeling rough wool and the smooth leather of Aragorn’s quiver strap beneath his fingers. His voice died to a sob. “It is his choice.”
The Balrog’s sword flashed down, and Glamdring came up in answer, and the demon’s weapon shattered in a flare of white fire. A wave of sheer Power slammed past them, and the walls shook. Mithrandir swayed but did not falter. “You cannot pass!”
The demon leaped full upon the bridge, and its whip hissed fire through the dark. Aragorn shoved Legolas back, and the Elf, still reeling from the shock of Power, let him go. “He cannot stand alone!” the Man cried, and the raw pain in his voice smote Legolas’ heart. Aragorn ran back to the bridge. “Elendil” he shouted, “I am with you, Gandalf!”
“Gondor!” cried Boromir, and ran after him.
But Mithrandir raised his staff and struck the bridge with a cry, and a sheet of white flame roared up at the Balrog’s feet. There was a loud echoing crack as the bridge split asunder. The stone gave way beneath the demon, and for an instant the Shadow stretched out and filled all the hall, and the horrible weight of malice drove Legolas to his knees.
Then it was gone, dragged down into the abyss as the Balrog fell. But the whip of fire snaked up suddenly and caught Mithrandir by the knees, and dragged him to the brink. For an instant the Maia clung to the edge, and in that moment Legolas heard the Song clear and sweet, and infinitely sad. The wizard gasped, “Fly, you fools!” and slipped over the edge, and was gone.
Next up: Chapter 9, the aftermath.
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