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In the Deep Places: 9. After
Frodo’s scream pierced the horrified silence and broke them from their shock. Gimli wrenched his gaze from the black chasm that yawned before them and looked around. With Gandalf’s fall the hall had plunged back into darkness. The far end was lit in red flame, against which the black shadows of Orcs flickered and danced. Arrows screamed past them and Boromir pulled Frodo away, shielding the Ring-bearer behind him.
Gimli could hear the Hobbit’s ragged breathing: tearing gasps that shook his small frame as he struggled against Boromir’s grip. Behind him Pippin was making a high keening sound in the back of his throat. With an effort Gimli pulled away from the gaping pit and joined Boromir in pushing the Hobbits back, keeping his own body between them and the rain of arrows.
He backed Merry against the wall next to Sam and twisted around to look over his shoulder at the hall. Where was Aragorn? They had to get the Hobbits out of here. He saw Legolas first, still kneeling at the edge of the chasm, glowing clear and distinct against the shadows. His head was bowed and his eyes were closed. Golden hair fell in a curtain past his face. Gimli ground his teeth. What is he doing? He might as well be holding a target for the Orcs!
He was about to shout a warning when the Elf suddenly pushed to his feet and leaped up and to the side in a movement too swift to track. His hair fanned as an arrow shot past, directly where he had been an instant earlier.
Legolas turned to look at them, and his eyes were dark with confusion and pain that struck Gimli to the core. Then the Elf glanced back toward the Orcs and deliberately moved away from where Gimli and Boromir sheltered the Hobbits. He darted across the open space and slipped behind a cluster of narrow pillars, blocking himself from view of the Orcs.
“Aragorn!” Boromir was still struggling with Frodo, and had now pulled the Ring-bearer completely off the ground. It took Gimli a moment longer to see the Ranger. Aragorn stood at the base of the ruined bridge, Andúril still naked in his hand.
He turned slowly at Boromir’s cry, as if swimming up from a dream. He looked at them without recognition, and Gimli saw utter despair in his eyes. But he seemed to draw himself together, and swallowed hard.
“Come,” he said. “I will lead you now.” As he said this a weight seemed to settle on him, and his shoulders bent, and his face seemed old and haggard. But he drew a deep breath and the muscles along his jaw tensed. After a final look into the pit he broke away and ran for the stair. Boromir pushed the Hobbits after him. Gimli had started after them when he realized that Legolas had not stirred from behind the pillars.
“Elf!” he shouted. “Move!”
Legolas did not look at him. He was staring out at the Orcs, and when he spoke his voice was so soft that Gimli could hardly hear it. “If I follow, they’ll see me. They’ll track us. Get the others to safety first.”
“No! We all go together!”
Legolas still wasn’t looking at him. He shook his head and started to say something more, but Gimli had had enough. It required only a slight detour to shift course to Legolas’ shelter and slam one broad shoulder into the Elf’s side.
Had Legolas been a Man he certainly would have been knocked down and possibly injured, for though it was a glancing blow Gimli hit hard and without warning. But as it was, the Elf instinctively moved an instant before Gimli connected, leaping back and twisting with the Dwarf’s momentum to land on his feet a good two meters away.
He stared at the Dwarf in shock, one hand pressed to his ribs, breathing hard. “Move!” Gimli shouted again. Legolas looked as if he wanted to protest, but they were already clear of the pillars and exposed to the Orc arrows. So with a final disbelieving look the Elf turned and sprinted for the stairs, with Gimli coming hard at his heels.
They ran up the narrow steps and down a long dark passage. Gimli’s heavy boots rang on the stone floor and the echoes joined with the pounding footsteps of the Men ahead of him. The Dwarf could see Legolas running just ahead of him, but nothing else. There was no time to feel his way. Gimli watched the Elf’s feet and followed along the smoothest part of the passage that he could find.
But as they ran he soon found that he could see the rubble at the sides of the corridor: there was light ahead. Looking up he could make out Boromir’s heavy cloak ahead of Legolas, and there was a glimpse of Sam’s overly large pack, swinging from side to side as the Hobbit ran.
Then there came a cry from up ahead and a dozen black shapes blocked the light as Orcs flooded in from a side passage. They shrieked and gibbered in the Black Speech, and their drawn swords clashed against their jagged shields.
Aragorn did not even slow down. With a single swipe Andúril cleaved through the Orc chieftain’s neck. The Hobbits slipped past on light feet and Boromir shifted his hold on Frodo as he used his shield to force his way through the throng. Legolas did not bother to draw his knives. He slammed the base of one hand into an Orc’s face, then pivoted and kicked another in the chest. Then he was past and running into the light. Gimli knocked two Orcs down and ran over the top of them, taking small satisfaction in the crunch of bone under his hobnailed boots.
The remaining Orcs scattered, and Gimli burst through the narrow opening and into the clear sunshine beyond. He followed the others down the stony slope of Dimrill Dale, well out of bowshot of the Orcs.
He was panting by the time they finally came to a halt. His lungs, weakened by years of breathing stone dust, labored as he gasped in the clear, cold air. It was painfully bright; for though the shadow of the Misty Mountains lay over them the sun was high, and white clouds scudded across a cerulean sky.
Gimli blinked his stinging eyes and looked around. Merry and Pippin had collapsed together at the base of a great rock. Pippin was sobbing in high, terrified gasps. Merry had his arms around him. The older Hobbit’s face was blank with shock, and he held Pippin as if clutching a lifeline.
Boromir had finally set Frodo down and the Ring-bearer wandered away from the Company, his head bowed and his back to them. Sam followed him a short ways and then simply fell down onto the rock, his hands over his face. Aragorn stood a short distance away, his arms at his sides. Andúril hung loosely from his hand, the tip resting on the stony ground. Legolas stood apart, straight and still as a young tree in winter’s frost.
Gimli caught his breath and swallowed hard. “We must go back,” he said. No one answered him. “The Elf can stay and guard the Hobbits. Aragorn, Boromir, we must go back.”
Boromir stood a little ways up the slope, between him and the cave entrance. Now the Man raised his head, and his face was lined and weary. “What would you have us do, Master Dwarf?”
Gimli lifted his hands. “We have to look for him. We cannot leave him to the Orcs.”
Boromir gave a small, ragged gasp, like a half-strangled bark of laughter. “He is gone, Gimli. The fall . . . and that . . . that thing that took him . . .” the Man passed a hand over his eyes and was still for a moment. “We cannot go back, three against five hundred, to look for him.”
Gimli stared at him a moment in disbelief, then rising anger. “Coward.” He turned his back on Boromir and looked at the others. “We must go back!” He was breathing hard now, and his hands clenched into fists. “He is a wizard! He would not fall so easily!” He stared around. No one looked at him. “Fine,” he spat. “I’ll go by myself.”
He strode purposefully up the slope, small pebbles turning under his boots as he climbed. But Boromir moved quickly to intercept him, and caught him with one arm across his chest. “Gimli,” the Man said, “Gimli think what you say. Think. If there were any hope, if there were the slightest chance . . .” Boromir trailed off and shut his eyes. His hand clenched on Gimli’s shoulder, and his powerful frame shook. “He is dead, Master Dwarf. He is dead.”
“No!” But Gimli knew the falsehood even as he spoke it, and though he struggled against Boromir’s restraining arm he did so without strength, and his legs were hollow and weak. He sagged against the Man, and tears burned down his face. He was gasping, pushing against Boromir, but his chest heaved with choked sobs, and he was shaking as badly as the Man that held him. Slowly his struggles stopped, and he simply stood with Boromir’s arm around him, and he wept.
The rush of cool air as they came out on Dimrill Dale went to Legolas’ head like a draught of strong wine. After so long in the dark and the stone and the dead silence of Moria, so long a time spent straining to detect the faintest hint of Ilúvatar’s Song, the free air and sunlight and the glorious sounds of life crashed over him and all but overloaded his senses.
He breathed deeply of the fresh clean air and dashed down the slope, not caring in the first heady rush of freedom that he passed up the rest of the Company and left them behind. He could have lived on nothing but that glorious pure air, vibrant with the taste of pine and growing things. It was winter, and the breeze that swept over him was cold, but he threw back his head and opened his arms to it, letting it blow back his long hair and tease his skin.
Everywhere he looked there was life. Green plants, dormant in rhîw’s chill, waited only the breath of spring to send forth new shoots. He looked out over the hills, and saw the great forest sloping away green-gold, and the glint of Anduin in the sun. So much space! Such great distances, sweeping out before him, until the misty haze defeated even his keen eyes. After so long in the dark, limited to a world just within the feeble glow of the wizard’s staff, the vast stretch of forest and hills was dizzying. He tracked the flight of a small bird through the forest edge three leagues distant, watching the play of light and shadow over its beating wings. Bird song and tree song mingled and everywhere, everywhere there was the sound of life, the whisper and dance as the forest delighted in the wind and sun, and welcomed him.
And yet . . . and yet he could not join that dance. He breathed the air, and gazed out over the hills, and heard the call of the green wood. But it bid him rejoice, and that he could not do. For the one who had led them safely through the endless dark was not there, and as he listened it seemed to him that there was a note gone from Ilúvatar’s Song, a discord that never should have been.
Mithrandir was gone. The Song was distorted, and it seemed to echo as if from a great distance. The clear, distinct tone that was unique to the kind Grey Pilgrim was simply gone. It was not a lack that Legolas heard with his ears, but a great chasm that opened in his heart. He stared around, at the sky, the forest, the hills and mountains. It was all as it had been before they entered Moria. Somehow, impossibly, the world had gone on. They had passed through the blackest pits of Shadow, they had faced the darkest servant of Morgoth, and yet Arda continued unchanged. It went on, as it always had done and always would do, and Legolas felt its eternal rhythm in his soul.
He did not understand. If the world continued, so must Mithrandir. The two were bound together, just as Legolas himself was bound. So long as the world endured, so did they. That was the nature of life, the nature of immortality. Legolas knew death. He had seen it young, and often, as the Age crept by and the Shadow of Dol Guldur lengthened. Every warrior of Mirkwood was prepared for it; everyone had lost family to the long defeat.
But Mithrandir . . . Legolas did not know exactly what the Maia was, but he was greater than this. He was a servant of the Song itself, and Legolas had felt the Power in him. There was an air about him like that of the High Elves who had returned from Aman, but greater. For all his foul pipeweed and his short temper and his fireworks and his creased face and his kindly eyes, he was not of Arda. Death could not take him so easily, could not pull him from Ilúvatar’s Song itself. And yet he was gone.
Legolas struggled to comprehend, to twist his mind around this impossible contradiction. And he remembered the Maia’s words in a buried cavern a lifetime ago. It is my right. It is my choice.
His choice. Death had not pulled him from them. For all the demon’s flaming whip and sword, the Shadow was not that strong. It could not have defeated him without his choice. His choice. As if what the others might choose, what the Ring-bearer might wish, did not matter.
Legolas stared unseeing at the green hills, his hands clenched at his sides. Mithrandir had chosen this. Why? To protect them? There could have been another way. There had to have been another way. Legolas had warned him, had begged him to reconsider their path, and he had refused. Why? For ignorance? For bravado? He was not so stupid. Could it be… could it be that Mithrandir wanted to leave them? Was the quest truly so foolhardy, so hopeless, that their only guide wished to be free of it?
A distant pain filtered through the mist of hurt and confusion: his nails were digging into his palms. Legolas ignored it. His breath was short and his chest hitched as he struggled to understand. The aching void within him was slowly being filled as shock gave way to the red rush of anger. If Mithrandir had chosen this, if he had wished to leave them thus, then he was a coward. He was a coward, and deserved no part in Frodo’s mission. And if the Valar received him, if they turned away from Middle-earth’s fate, then they were cowards as well. They left the One Ring in the hands of a Hobbit, and all the world swung in the balance with only a few mortals and a Wood-elf to fight for it, and the Valar had turned their backs, and they were cowards! Legolas lifted his head to scream this to the sky, to cry challenge to Manwë himself, but only a faint gasp escaped his constricted throat. He was shaking with rage, but grief sealed his lips. His heart burned, and though his eyes were dry, his soul wept.
“Legolas!” Aragorn’s voice filtered through as though from a great distance, and he turned slowly. The Man had sheathed Andúril and was standing erect, looking at him. His eyes were clear and dry, and his hand rested lightly on the sword’s hilt, but his face seemed to have aged ten years. There was a note of exasperation in his voice, as if he had been calling for some time. “Legolas, get them up. Boromir, Gimli! Get them up.”
Slowly Legolas walked back up the slope toward them. His feet seemed strangely heavy as he dragged them over the rocky ground. His hands ached and he carefully unclenched them, flexing to work the cramp from his fingers. Aragorn had lifted Sam to his feet and was calling to Frodo, but Boromir broke away from Gimli and confronted the Ranger. His voice cracked with raw pain as he lashed out at Aragorn, pleading for time, time to grieve, time to heal. Aragorn’s impatient response carried a wealth of frustration, but Legolas did not heed the words. The Men’s voices washed over him in a tide of grief and hurt, broken phrases devoid of meaning. He reached the young Hobbits and touched Merry’s shoulder lightly.
The Hobbits seemed to gather themselves, blinking owlishly up at him and then slowly getting to their feet. Pippin’s sobs had given way to a choked hiccupping, and Merry kept one arm around him. But they were up. Legolas turned from them to look at the others. Aragorn and Boromir had broken off their argument and were now at opposite sides of the camp, each furiously ignoring the other. Frodo had come back to them and was standing silently next to Sam, his eyes cast down. Gimli stood where Boromir had left him. He was staring back up the slope toward the entrance to Moria. But he turned as if feeling Legolas’ gaze upon him, and for an instant their eyes met. The depth of pain and grief in the Dwarf’s eyes staggered Legolas, and he actually took a step backwards. But a moment later Gimli’s gaze hardened and his heavy brows drew together, and he glared at the Elf as if challenging him to mention aught of pain or weakness. Legolas met his stare and narrowed his own eyes, putting all his own rage and hurt into a searing glare worthy of Thranduil himself. Gimli blinked and looked away.
Legolas felt no pride in his victory. The rush of anger drained away, leaving him shaken and numb. Aragorn urged them forward, and he followed, but he felt strangely detached as they set out over the hills. He seemed to be watching himself from a distance, the movements of his body separate from his mind. Even the song of the forests was distant and unreal.
With an effort Legolas focused his attention on their surroundings. Aragorn had set a furious pace, but it would not do to go rushing heedlessly into unknown danger. Here, at least, his senses were of use, and he scanned the rocky slopes and approaching trees carefully. They had not gone far, however, when Gimli called a halt.
“That is Durin’s Stone!” he cried, indicating a tall column not far from their path.
Aragorn glanced at it but did not pause in his long stride along the broken road. Gimli, however, halted and planted his stocky legs firmly apart, his hands on his hips. “I cannot pass without turning aside for a moment to look at the wonder of the dale.”
Aragorn blew out his breath in a heavy sigh, looking from Gimli to the pillar and then back along the path they had traveled. “Be swift, then!” he said finally. He started to say more, to warn of the coming sunset and the Orcs sure to follow, but the Dwarf did not wait to hear it.
He whirled and ran down the green slope toward the pillar, calling to Frodo as he went. As he watched Frodo and Sam follow Gimli more slowly, Legolas wondered if the Dwarf hadn’t deliberately sought to give the Hobbits a rest. They had come this far without complaint, but there was a long way yet to go. In the aftermath of shock and horror even Legolas was exhausted. The Perianrim were incredibly resilient, but they had to take three steps to every one of Aragorn’s, and they had already been pushed beyond all reason on this horrible day. Merry and Pippin looked close to collapse, and Boromir was standing over them protectively.
Aragorn was pacing impatiently back and forth along the path, his right hand curled tightly around Andúril’s hilt. Legolas watched him for a short time, then stepped forward and caught his arm. Aragorn whirled, one hand coming up, but he stopped when he saw the Elf. He stood still and lowered his hand slowly.
“Legolas,” he said.
Legolas studied him closely. There was grief etched in the lines of Aragorn’s face, and weariness, but there was also something more. “Aragorn,” he replied. “Aragorn, we must find shelter soon. The Hobbits cannot endure much more.”
The Ranger jerked away from Legolas’ grasp. “They will have to do the best they can. It is miles to Lothlórien.”
“We must find something closer. They will not make it so far without rest.”
Aragorn’s face twisted, and his voice was a low snarl. “What would you have me do? Conjure a safe haven from thin air? Ask the Orcs to please not follow us until we have rested?”
Legolas narrowed his eyes, and his own voice carried a thin edge of warning. “I said not so. I only meant –”
“I know! I know what you meant. I’m doing the best that I can. But I am not Gandalf, and unless you can offer something helpful I suggest that you keep quiet and leave me alone!”
Legolas stepped back in shock, and Aragorn turned away. But pride flared within the Elf, and he could not let the Man escape so easily. With a few quick steps he circled and blocked the Ranger’s path again. Aragorn stopped and glared at him impatiently. “I did not ask you to be Gandalf,” Legolas hissed, stepping close. “No one asks you to be more than what you are. But if you are to lead this Company, Aragorn, you must lead. Take care of the little ones. They depend on you.”
Aragorn met his eyes then, and Legolas saw in him a wealth of anger and frustration, but beneath that there was guilt, and grief, and fear. Aragorn was frightened. Aragorn, who he had seen face a dozen Orcs without pause; Aragorn who had lived years alone in the Wild; Aragorn who had once, after an ill-fated hunting trip with Legolas, faced down King Thranduil himself; Aragorn was afraid. He looked down and seemed to study the dusty leather of his boots.
“Perhaps they should not.” His voice was low: all anger had drained from it. Legolas tilted his head quizzically, trying to see the Man’s face. Aragorn continued, still looking at the ground, his words so soft that Legolas had to strain to catch them.
“Perhaps I am not fit to lead the Company. Perhaps they should not depend on me. Boromir can lead them, or you –”
“Stop.” Legolas caught the Man’s wrist, gripping so tightly that Aragorn drew a sharp breath and looked up. “Stop this. You can lead them. There is none better. Your destiny –”
“Enough!” Aragorn’s voice was soft but vehement. He jerked back, but Legolas did not release his grip. “I am sick unto death of that word. My entire life, I have heard it. The heir of Isildur, the great hope of Númenor. You want to know what that hope is? Do you?” He stepped close then, so that Legolas could feel the heat from his body and smell the dust and sweat that clung to him. His voice was a warm breath, his lips close to Legolas’ ear. “I have heard the Ring. I feel it calling to me, and now that Gandalf is gone, what is there to stop me from answering? If I claimed it, if I took it as Frodo offered it to me, who would stop me? You, Legolas? Could you stop me? Kill me to save Middle-earth?”
Legolas turned his head to look into Aragorn’s eyes. They glittered with a strange light as the Man stared at him. Legolas licked his lips. “You told me once,” he whispered, “to trust the strengths of my companions. I say to you now that I have done so, and I ask you to do the same. I would follow you to whatever end, and offer my friendship as support against that which calls you.”
Aragorn stepped back, and Legolas let him go. “Your friendship,” the Man said. He bowed his head, and drew a shaky breath. “The Enemy comes with ten thousand legions of hate, and we have nothing with which to face him but friendship.”
“It may be enough.”
“Maybe.” Aragorn lifted his head. He seemed more weary than ever, but his eyes were clear. “We must cross the Silverlode at least. There is another stream not far past it. We will make camp there, and the Hobbits can rest a little.”
Legolas looked at him searchingly for a long moment, and then nodded. Gimli was laboring back up the slope toward them now with Frodo and Sam just behind. Aragorn turned away, and they soon set out again.
Aman: the Undying Lands, The Silmarillion
rhîw: winter. Sindarin, Appendix D: the Calendars
Manwë:Sindarin name for the lord of the Valar, The Silmarillion
Perianrim: A group of Hobbits, The Sindarin Phrase Book
Next up: Lothlórien.
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