2. Bitter Mirth
I have been sitting here for over three hours now, telling myself the darkest, sickest jokes I have ever heard in my life.
I know a lot of them, and they truly are filthy things - perverted, obscene, bloodthirsty tales, the kind only ever heard in the worst kind of barracks. I cannot say I am proud to know them.
I heard most of them first from Oin, almost ninety years ago. He was my captain for my first ever expedition against the orcs of the Blue Mountains, back when I was a youth of two-and-fifty. The expedition was a disaster, for Oin and I and four other Dwarves became separated from the main party just as night fell, and had to be rescued at dawn.
There were six of us, five of us mere Dwarvlings, and we spent the entire night waiting in ambush for a party of Orcs. *They,* alas, were waiting in ambush for *us* in the thicket opposite. We - the Dwarvlings not yet grown - were scared most out of our wits, cold, hungry and miserable, and Oin, the leader of the party, kept us sane through all those hours with jokes and tales of such foul humour that under any other circumstance would certainly have made us blush to the tips of our half-grown beards. We did not dare laugh aloud, but our smiles were like scavengers on the prowl, sharp and predatory with just the thinnest of guilt edges.
They were dark tales he told us that night - tales like the Troll's Whore, and Lackwit and the Goblin, and the Thief of Rhun - and some that were worse still. I do not care for them, not normally, but tonight ... tonight, their obscene and gruesome humour touches me now much as it did then.
No, do not mistake me. I am no lover of crude vulgarity, no more than so any other Dwarf. We are not a courtly race, but we are at least known as a courteous one. But sometimes you find yourself facing a situation so dark and so terrible that you *must* laugh at how foul and sick a place the world can be ... if only to prevent yourself being driven into madness and despair by it. They say that it takes a dark joke to lighten a dark place - but tonight I doubt there is any joke dark enough, nor any tale foul enough to entertain me. Tonight I am far beyond the help of such songs as 'The Jolly Brown Turd' and 'Seven Dwarvish Maidens'.
You see, it is very likely that before dawn comes I am going to have to kill my closest friend. Can there *be* any joke darker than that?
Only one; and that is the fact that I am doing it of my own free will.
In the name of Durin ... *why* did it have to be thus?
But I am stupid to ask. I was the one who brought it on myself, and I did so knowingly. I chose it, like a fool.
I could have let some other of the party keep watch. I could have entrusted the deed to Aragorn, as Gandalf bade me. Yes, I should have - a thousand times over I should have! But I would not.
Why - *why* - did I choose to endure alone this darkest of nights?
No; the others are not asleep, or absent. Gandalf has taken himself off in search of healing herbs, he says in case a miracle occurs. Aragorn is standing a little way off, trying to make it appear that he is not watching us. His sword is drawn, and if I were fool enough to ask him why, he would say it is in case Orcs lurk nearby. I am no master of subtle talk, but even I can catch a double-meaning in such words. And the two younger Hobbits - lucky are they to have survived the siege of Isengard when all else went so grim - they still cling together underneath their blanket by the fire. Sometimes I can hear them whispering together. But they will not sleep tonight. None of us will.
And Legolas - he who was my friend and comrade? No; he does not sleep either. He lies before me like one dead, though I can feel the faint pulse beating at his neck. He was almost unrecognisable when we found him, save for his face.
We found an Orc - an Orc with an Elven face.
They did not touch his face, you see - that was the genius of Saruman's mockery. He was not content to bring forth the Uruk-hai - he has delved deeper. He wanted us to know that he is capable of aping even Melkor at his foulest, on one who had been appointed to the Fellowship - one whom we held dear, and he wanted us to recognise what he had wrought.
That is why I watch this night. If the orkish body has brought with it the orkish mind, then none of us are safe while he lives. And if not ... oh, I do not know what will happen if not. I am no seer, but whichever happens I see only pain ahead.
No, I could not trust this task to any other. When he wakes, I will be the one who sees what wakes in him. I will be the one who must decide between his life and his death. I will be the one who must kill him, if needs be. A cruel task, maybe; but I cannot surrender it. If Aragorn or Gandalf took that choice, however wisely - I would never forgive them.
I am a fool, to make myself the butt of such bitter mirth. What else can I do but laugh? After all, here I am, waiting out the night, next to the unconscious body of what was once my closest friend, with my axe at my side, and my hunting knife ready at my right hand, preparing, if necessary, to kill him when he wakes.
Is it any wonder that I grieve?
* * *
I met him first in Rivendell, at Elrond's Council, and thought no more of him than I did of any other Elf, which is to say not very much. Too fine to be strong, and too fey to be sound - that was how Legolas once put it to me, with his usual ear for a well-wrought phrase. Well, that was how I saw him, much as I did all his race. Not to mention the fact that I saw in him all the arrogance of a King's son, of the race of the First-born.
If the truth be told, I had other reasons for not wanting to be involved with Elves, and with *this* Elf in particular. Gloin's line has not forgotten how he and the other companions of Thorin Oakenshield were treated by the King of Mirkwood, on their road to the Kingdom under the Mountain. An old grudge, I suppose, but we are Dwarves, after all. We do not forget our grievances.
No, I had no reason to like him, and many to despise him; and if I ignored him - well, he did no less to me in return. It did not prevent our cooperation, and, after all, nobody would expect any great friendship between us. I suppose I had some distant respect for him, for he did do valiantly, but I could not like him. Too often we clashed, not fiercely, but quietly, as a matter of habit, whenever he or I felt the honour of our races impugned.
So might it have continued, had we not passed through Lorien.
But how can I speak *now* of Lorien? This is no time to ponder now on what passed between us in Lorien, or the bonds it forged between us. After his discourtesy and arrogance when we entered the wood, my indifference towards him had hardened into positive dislike, but the wood changed us both in ways for which there are no words.
We left it friends. Was that so very hard?
Yes ... Yes, very hard. I am a Dwarf, and we neither forgive nor forget. I had been the guest of Elrond, but he has not yet forgotten the debt he owes to Durin's folk. I have been given the friendship of Galadriel, but she is of the Noldor, who above all the Elves honour Aulë. But this overprivileged princeling of the Sindarin? Yes; very difficult.
I am thankful, I suppose, that none of our companions witnessed our quarrel, that first night in Lorien. They at least never saw how deep, or how bitter our hate could be. That night, neither of us held back so much as a word, in all that long quarrel. It was a savage, bitter quarrel, and we shredded each other with words half the night long, until there seemed nothing left to be said, and no strength left in either of us to speak further, glowering at each other across a clearing so beautiful it ought to have put both of us to shame.
It was he who broke the silence; it always is.
So we reach an impasse, he commented with seeming detachment. I suppose we had better begin again and fight it out once more.
I remember grimacing at his lightness. You can trust an Elf to find a flippant remark for every situation. I told him it would be a foolish thing to do, and he laughed, and said to me that we were already the greatest fools in Lorien.
Well, that, I suppose, was undeniable, not that admitting it would have achieved anything.
When I gave him no answer he hesitated for an instant, and then sat down, cross-legged on the bole of a tree, and said with seeming lightness that he didn't suppose I'd accept the apology of an immature, overprivileged, effeminate Elven brat.
My own words, paid back to me, with usury added. That is what happens when you engage an Elf in a war of words.
What can I say? How could I answer such words? Dwarves do not accept apologies made only in words. We cling as fast to our grudges as we do to our loyalties and friendships.
I said nothing, just stood and watched him, half-suspecting him of mockery - until I noticed how his slight smile froze on his face at my silence. I noticed how his right hand plucked with seeming nervousness at the hem of his sleeve, and then fell suddenly still. I noticed how he had seated himself so that his eyes were exactly level with mine.
What can I say? Perhaps I was under some enchantment, or perhaps the Golden Wood had put madness into my heart. No, I said to him. If you must give me an apology, offer it as one fool to another, and I will do the same.
Maybe I *was* insane that night, to make peace with him thus; but do you find me regretting it? Never; and certainly not tonight.
Though I may have reason to regret so many things when morning comes.
* * *
We had this - this contest at Helm's Deep. It was a game, of sorts, I suppose, of a particularly grisly kind, keeping the tally of our kills and comparing notes whenever our paths crossed. His score was the higher by one when the tide of battle swept him away.
We searched for him after, fearing the worst. After all, a bow is no weapon for close-work, and that knife of his is no substitute for a true sword. I kept my spirits up, joking that he would have to return, if only to proclaim his final score. I was quite certain he would be the victor.
Alas, the killing of orcs has ceased now to be a joke. Yet another of the foul ironies of this night. Better for him to have died there, than to have been - changed so. Kinder for him and us all.
Ach - how can I say that? I know nothing yet; it may not yet come to that. Gandalf says that Saruman would never have released him if he were not under his control. He is probably right, but we do not *know*, not yet. I will not let myself give up my hopes until he wakes.
Legolas, Legolas ...
Just to listen to him talking nonsense once more, to tease him once more about his flightiness, to talk about everything and nothing with him! Just once more would be enough. If nothing more, if I could only say farewell to him.
Durin's Beard, what am I doing? This is no time for weeping, you fool Dwarf!
I - I would have helped him if I could, I truly would, I would have endured it with him, even taken his place, if I could have done.
But my words are bootless. I was not there. I could do nothing to help him.
It is too late now for such wishes. All I can do for him now is to wait.
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