Unravelling the Tale: 10. Whither Strays the Mind

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10. Whither Strays the Mind

A wisp of cloud passed the moon and a trailing finger of darkness touched the brooding elf. Legolas sat quietly and listened to the wind sigh about him; he was summoning to mind the words of a story which took on new depth, new meaning for him, given the company he now kept. Snatches of it played through his mind, and he mused over each word carefully, piecing together all he knew of this creature and his past.

*All at once there came a blood-curdling shriek, filled with hatred and despair; Gollum was defeated. He dared go no further. He had lost: lost his prey, and lost, too, the only thing he had ever cared for, his precious. 'Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!*

It had been a singular tale, simple and yet astounding, for those who lent their ears to it knew it to be the missing piece of the Ring's history that the Wise had long sought. The appetite of the halflings for story-telling and song rivaled nearly their insatiable appetite for good food, and Bilbo Baggins had served a tantalizing tale indeed to the Council gathered beneath the sheltering eaves of Imladris. At the bidding of Lord Elrond, the hobbit had readily taken up his narrative and drawn them wide-eyed into his account of burgling the most perilous of treasures in the unlikeliest of places; some would be literally drawn into the story and find themselves upon stranger roads than any could have foreseen as a result of what was revealed by Bilbo that autumn morn.

Such a one was Legolas son of Thranduil, messenger of Mirkwood and guest of the Last Homely House. The tidings Legolas did bear were not of the sort he might have wished and Frodo's uncle had made his task little easier. The elf had listened with dawning dismay as Bilbo gradually illumined the dark origins of the prisoner who had been entrusted to his folk and whose very escape had been responsible for his journey from his home.

The old hobbit nonchanlantly waved aside the fact that he was seated in the midst of elf-lords, dwarven emissaries, warriors from distant lands and a handful of the most significant personages in all of Middle-earth, and had settled into a comfortable, engaging verbal canter as if he were unravelling a tale before the hearth in his own small parlour in the Shire. Such was Bilbo's skill that each of them walked with the halfling almost a century ago down into that blackest of black caves in the depths of the Misty Mountains and had felt the icy chill of the sun-shunned water pooled far below which had sustained the corruption and malice of the creature called Gollum.

*Bless us and splash us, my preciousss! I guess it's a choice feast; at least a tasty morsel it'd make us, gollum!*

The thoughts of Legolas were returned to that dark and lonely place conjured by the halfling's tale in Rivendell, and in his mind he formed the shape of the weeping rock and tangible shadow about him as Bilbo had described them with nary a stretch of the imagination. The river trickled close by with a ghostly voice, fueling the illusion, and no other sound but the creature's quiet, rasping breathing could be heard. The coldness of the sand and shale upon which the elf sat seeped into his limbs until even the night air felt warmer to him, but it was not the brisk wind which caused Legolas to shiver; his attention was wholly upon those two lantern eyes peering back at him there in the gloom.

*It's gone! What has it got in its pocketses? Oh, we guess, we guess, my precious. He's found it, yes he must have. My birthday-present.!*

So it is that our fate steals silently upon us and lies in wait where we should least expect to find it. Bilbo's confrontation with Gollum had seemed to him to be but a small, insignificant detour along the path to greater adventure, yet it would ultimately bring to him more woe and renown than any dwarvish hoardes or dreadful dragon's death. You will usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the same thing you were after.

Stumbling steps taken along a forsaken passageway and the Ring of Power is stuffed hastily into a frightened hobbit's pockets.... A pause along the river's edge and the bane of the son of Elendil is found, the dormant evil wakened.... The doom of Middle-earth is held within small hands and passes furtively from fen to mountain to field whilst greater eyes rove elsewhere unsuspecting.

Legolas looked quietly upon the extraordinary figure sharing the solitude of the night with him and he marvelled. As the hunter, Legolas had taken no pains to learn anything of this creature beyond what might serve useful in catching him. It is unwise, after all, to look too deeply into the eyes of an enemy lest one falter and miss one's mark. Gollum had proven himself to be a wily foe in eluding capture by the elves of Mirkwood and in following the Fellowship with nary a revealing misstep giving him away to the likes of Legolas Greenleaf and Aragorn son of Arathorn; this alone did pique the elf's interest in the small creature. Legolas had laid aside his bow, however, and his interest was at the moment of a somewhat less apathetic nature; he allowed mazey queries rather than hunter's instinct to take reign of his mind.

For here was Gollum. He was not merely a vague shadow, a seldom-seen nuisance who hounded their trail. The creature was huddled there before Legolas of his own volition, inviting speculation, close enough to nearly touch, and the weight of ages did seem to rest upon his thin shoulders. Legolas looked deep into those eyes, and his mind reeled at the terrible enormity of this little one's fate and the winding paths of circumstance which had led him here.

"You have my attention, Master Smeagol, though you may come to regret your boldness." The threat was in Legolas's words but not in his heart. He did not like the intrusive sound of his soft voice in the pensive silence. He did wish to know more of this creature and the meaning of this meeting in the darkness ere he acted upon it, though his guard was up.

What sort of being had Smeagol been before the Ring distorted him into the loathsome and loathing Gollum? the elf wondered fiercely as he studied the creature. How had he come to find his perilous prize? Acquiring his "birthday-present" might have been the end-all of Smeagol's life, but it was not the be-all.

*It slipped from us, after all these ages and ages! It's gone, gollum.*

Legolas mulled over snatched of the hobbit's tale in his mind, and he knew that Bilbo had erred in claiming to have taken the only thing Gollum had ever cared for. 'Ever' was assuming much, and as preoccupied with the pressing of time as the elf had been this night, 'ever' was not a word he felt should be tossed about lightly by those who could not comprehend it. Long had this fell creature suffered, of this he had no doubt, and long had he lived beneath the Ring's sway. Yet, not always. It had not always been so dark. Legolas looked upon Smeagol and it seemed to the elf that he could almost see the beginning, could see beyond.

*What isss he, my preciouss?*

There were none now to remember Smeagol as he had been, none who cared to. Even the creature's own recollections of days past were nearly gone, fitfully picked to pieces until there was naught left to him of his life before the Ring but shredded, scattered memories, and these served only to torment what bliss he might have found in ignorance. It should not have been so wrenching, perhaps, if the creature had no knowledge of how far he had fallen, if all had been madness within him, but the Ring granted no such mercy. There was now that unveiled awareness in this little one's eyes which spoke of such loss and loneliness, of voices half-recalled and ravaged innocence; it disturbed Legolas and intrigued him as well.

The Ring had ensnared this creature, lured him from those he might have loved and who did love him and drove him to dark deeds and this basest of existence; he had lost all he cared for long, long ago to the drowning control of Sauron's contrivance. What had Smeagol been before the Ring took him? The answer was there in the eyes that met the elf's there in the darkness; the green fire of madness in them had burned low enough to allow Legolas to see what few others had seen: a glimpse of the remnants of the soul it consumed, the small, confined corner of Smeagol's mind which was still his own, hidden deep down inside away from the horrors which sought to devour him.

"I can see it and I can feel it within you." the elf murmured. "Your remembrance is bitter. Were it not better to utterly forget what does so grieve our hearts, yet to some that peace shall never belong." Legolas felt the fine hairs along the back of his neck rise as Smeagol licked his lips in response and continued to stare. Legolas shook his head and sighed lightly. He leaned forward, trapping Smeagol with clear eyes, and he rested the less-tender edge of his chin upon his hand. "I would know, Master Smeagol, what it is you remember."

Smeagol's eyes shifted, became more lucid in response, and to Legolas came suddenly the vivid imagining of years, countless years alone in the dark, enfolded by those slithering, invading whispers of cruelty and deceit until the boundary between one's own consciousness and the Ring's was no longer discernible. The elf had felt the taint of that subtle control but briefly, and it had been enough; the malignant taste of it lingered still.

He broke his eye-contact with the creature abruptly. He shuddered at the recollection and wished he had not touched upon it. He passed a hand before his face and cast the darkness from his mind. His wound pained him, but he refused to pay heed to it; the elf firmly pushed the ache aside, unwilling and unable to deal with matters so near to his own heart just yet. The inevitable could wait. He mastered himself and guided his errant thoughts back to the welcome distraction that was Smeagol.

He looked up in time to see Smeagol lower his own hand from his face. Legolas raised a questioning eyebrow, and reached up to sweep a stray strand of hair behind his ear. Smeagol raked his matted locks from his eyes. Legolas drew a finger down the long length of his nose, and watched with amusement as Smeagol imitated the gesture. The elf couldn't be sure, but he might have sworn there was a glint of grim amusement in the eyes of the creature as well. Quite unlikely, but it did seem so to him. Where did this boundary lay within this creature? Where did Gollum begin and Smeagol end? For all his growing might, the power of the Dark Lord was not absolute, not yet. Legolas thought perhaps there was a hint of something, even there in the mind of this wretched little being which could not be touched, not even by the strongest will of evil.

A fanciful whim it was, to seek a gleam of hope in one whom hope had abandoned long ago, the elf supposed. Smeagol could not be cured, could not be reclaimed; others had sought to draw Gollum from the black web of his soul and had received naught from his mouth but the marks of his teeth. The creature was lost, and naught but malice lurked in his mind. This was madness beyond mere folly; much wiser it would be for the elf to slay him here and now, for the sake of the Company and Frodo's safety. It would be just and many times deserved in recompense for all the lives this creature had shaken or destroyed. Legolas drew himself up and took a deep breath, and tried to ignore the fact that Smeagol did the same.

Gollum was dangerous. Quite apart from murder by night on his own account, he could put any enemy that was about on their track. It was quite clear where the elf's duty did lie; this creature was a threat to the Ringbearer. He should harden his heart to the task, he knew. One swift, merciless instant . Fear governing reason, hatred governing compassion, the world encompassed within a tiny circle of perfect gold. He should harden his heart to the task and snap the frail neck.

"It would take such little effort, Smeagol, to end your miserable life, if death it is you seek from me." The elf's voice now held the grim edge of a promised threat that it had lacked before.

Smeagol flinched and left off his game. He curled in upon himself like an agitated spider, his wide eyes never leaving the elf's face. He brought his thin hands to his breast, and his disfigured fingers fidgeted. They began to clench and unclench, to twist and writhe incessantly in a pattern of nervousness and remembered discomfort.

Legolas tipped his head inquisitively to watch, disarmed once more by curiosity. He watched Smeagol rub his thin hands together with feverish intensity, and the elf's brittle eyes softened once more as he understood.

"Nay," the elf said. "You have little love for my people, Smeagol, this I know well, but we are not cruel. Doubt not that I would kill you if you dare to come near those I protect, but it would be a swift and unerring death. I take no pleasure in causing pain."

Legolas raised his own long-boned hand to his fair face and gently brushed his bruised cheek, then very deliberately touched the fingertips of his other hand, one by one by one. The creature followed his gesture with an intense gaze, suspiciously tracking every small movement.

Yes. One swift, merciless instant was all it would take. An instant which could never be taken back.

"What did they do to you, little one, to make you betray all you knew?" Legolas asked quietly. He motioned last to the creature's twitching fingers, then folded his hands slowly back into his lap.

Smeagol's attention lingered for a moment upon the elf's hands, then he lifted his own before his face; he expression grew solemn and his eyes grey as ashes. Legolas remained very still, wondering if the creature might speak, but Smeagol kept his silence and instead swallowed hard with a queer gulping noise. It was a startling, horrible sound, like a convulsive sob combined with a chortle of laughter and the muscles in Smeagol's throat constricted grotesquely as if squeezed by an invisible grip. Legolas tensed and caught his breath a little. He swallowed instinctively himself as he watched the creature's tongue flick out over bared sharp teeth, but Smeagol's eyes were focused inward, now distant, and he gave heed to the elf no longer. His wasted hands continued to writhe and his body had begun to rock slightly to and fro, to and fro, as if he wallowed in some vague, unpleasant recollection. Long did he remain like this, and after some time it seemed to Legolas, incredulously, that the creature had forgotten his presence altogether.

The elf's perplexity increased tenfold and he was at a loss. Smeagol was so near, and yet profoundly unreachable. It seemed clear that whatever had coaxed Smeagol to seek Legolas's company was not strong enough to conquer the creature's solitary mistrust. Too deep was the hatred and doubt ingrained in this fugitive of Mirkwood and spy of Sauron to draw him further from his black thoughts, regardless of the fey compulsion which had brought him here so near to the elf beneath the harsh white light of the moon. Legolas searched the face of the preoccupied little creature with frustration. Ever did Legolas watch reluctantly for the consuming green fire to kindle once more in the creature's eyes; he knew that this reprieve was but temporary. The elf shook his head lightly, his expression troubled.

"I know not what it is you seek from me, Smeagol," Legolas sighed, "and I am far too weary to while the night away with futile speculations. I cannot leave you here, for I will risk no harm to my companions, nor do I think you would suffer yourself to be bound and led back to our camp without a fight, and I admit my heart is more of the hare tonight than the hunter. These meaningless games are of no use, if you will not speak...."

Inspiration struck the elf like a sure-shot arrow and his eyes lit with quizzical delight; he straightened and looked at Smeagol thoughtfully for an instant, then slowly he smiled.

Perhaps the key to loosening this little one's tongue lay within the hobbit's tale.

Riddles. Riddles in the dark.

---------------------------

Gimli paused once more to peer into the darkness ere he set off down another length of the shoreline, mumbling imprecations against the accursed light-footedness of elves. He had set off in the general direction Legolas had taken when he left the Company, not expecting a long jaunt; the eyot had not seemed as large as that and the elf knew better than to wander far from the camp, no matter how distraught. Minutes passed, however, and the red glow of the fire was left far behind him. His ears grew accustomed to the light night noises and the dull, rhythmic tread of his boots upon the level ground for there was naught else to be heard. Beyond the droning rush of the river, all was stillness, and there was as of yet no sign of Legolas.

It was an island! How far could the elf have gone?

Far enough. It seemed Legolas found the threat of any unknown danger lurking in the darkness preferrable to that of the Ring, and risked the former to distance himself as far as he could from the latter. Gimli could not fault the elf for that; indeed, though he would not have admitted it, his own heart felt lighter the further he moved from the others.

From Frodo.

His heart was lighter, perhaps, but his conscience was not and it was with great bitterness that Gimli son of Gloin bore the guilt if not the blame for his behaviour over the past few days. A dwarf should not have succumbed to the blasted whispering of Sauron's trinket! It rankled his pride. Yes, his dwarven pride, a pride that rivalled Legolas's, he admitted, and he hated that it had been the elf and dwarf who proved to be the weakest of the Fellowship.

Why had it been so? Surely Legolas's race had long dealt with the wiles and ways of the Dark Lord to recognize them and resist! It was an impossible task to drive anything into the mind of his stubborn elven companion if he was unwilling to listen; Gimli could attest to that. Gimli had argued with Legolas unsuccessfully for weeks on end during their interminable journey through Moria that beards were anything but an unsightly inconvenience and a hindrance to a warrior upon a battlefield. (Legolas had abruptly dropped the matter after Gimli blithely suggested the elf shear his long hair.) For all their faults, the elves were not weak- willed. Legolas should not have been so lightly caught, and while the mind of a dwarf is said to be susceptible to the lure of gold, his own should not have been turned so easily by this particular, poisonous little golden trifle!

Gimli's thoughts wandered, but his path wound unerringly along the water's edge and he moved swiftly along his chosen course. Never did his gaze lift and linger long upon the hither shore. He did not consider the possibility that Legolas had crossed the river; the elf would never have left them.

Legolas might have had the consideration, however, to stumble over a bit of driftwood now and then for the benefit of anyone daft enough to come out here looking for him! The elf was making no effort to move stealthily and Gimli kept his eyes trained for faint traces of Legolas's passage, but there were none to be found. The fleet feet of an elf in the dark could confound the most skilled of trackers, and Gimli was weary. Still, he trudged on, for he found himself sensing the elf's path rather than seeing it, and was propelled by the surety of his heart if not the assurance of his eyes.

Gimli felt the wind slide beneath his shirt and he irritably tugged his grey cloak tighter about him. The dwarf felt uneasily light, bereft as he was of armor and axe. Not often was he lacking either when awake, and frequently did he sleep encased in metal with his weapon near at hand. He felt awkward now without the familiar encumbrances and he rolled his shoulders uncomfortably as he walked, feeling the absence of the weight of his mail coat pulling him upwards, lifting him off his feet. A dwarf without his armor was as peculiar as a dragon without scales, and Gimli felt every bit as exposed and disgruntled. The floating sensation annoyed him, and coupled with his exhaustion, it plucked at his stride and gave him a feeling tantamount to a few strong pints hastily downed.

"Unsteady I must be to have followed him out here," the dwarf muttered. "He is perfectly capable of caring for himself." Gimli shrugged and shifted beneath his cloak and reached up to rub at his neck and flexed his arms. "He is not likely to appreciate my company once I do find him. If I had any sense left to me whatsoever, I would turn back. No doubt he has already circled 'round and returned to the Fellowship, safe and sound, and is now waiting upon my return. "

*No doubt he has returned. He has returned, and lounges near the warmth of the fire with a disdainful smile upon his elvish lips... laughing at the thought of the simpleminded dwarf running off into the night to find him. Would he fret at your absence? Would his heart be moved to seek you out here in the darkness? He would not... he cares not....*

Gimli stopped dead in his tracks and his eyes narrowed. With a snarl, he thrust the shallow, petty notion from his mind. "Not mine!" he growled. Whether it was the distance he had put between himself and Frodo, or whether the events of the night had served to fortify his will, he now recognized the hateful intrusion into his thoughts and he spurned it; it did not belong to him. He might have left his armor behind, but his encompassing concern for his companion proved his shield against such pitiful attempts now to sway him and it was impenetrable. He was in no mood for the Ring's games. Gimli went so far as to sweep a hand about his head with a dismissive motion to ward off the nagging deceit, batting it away as if it were nothing more than a hovering fly seeking to settle.

The moon had climbed higher into the sky. As thin as a nail paring it was and its light touched the water with but a muted glow, but the night was so clear and fine above him that Gimli could make out the dark orb of the moon's completeness that was obscured in shadow.

A bright face marred by the black mark of a violent blow.

Gimli brought his gaze back down to the ground and he moved on, seeking the elf's subtle path. He made a point of stepping firmly between the stones to leave deep, substantial prints in the marl as he passed.

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Nimue

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Work in Progress

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 09/14/04

Original Post: 07/13/02

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