11. Fickle Games
Ere the call of the Ring had come, ere malice and hollow hunger replaced light and love, there was to be found the beginning of Gollum's existence, the key to what he had been.
Along the banks of the Anduin on a long forgotten day, Smeagol trudged lazily through the tall marsh grasses, the smell of the warm sun upon stagnant water making him wrinkle his nose, weaving and leaping to miss the green pools and sucking mud as he tramped along behind his cousin. His companion was a distance ahead of him and Smeagol was following the swaying grasses. Deagol's warbling voice launched into the air.
"Oh, el-breath gilth-on-kneel,
We do not forget, we who live
Over here, under the trees,
The stars on the sea."
"What in the world are you singing?" Smeagol shouted, and closed the gap between them at a clumsy, mucky run.
Deagol whirled, his face delighted. "What the Fair Folk were singing!" he declared, and he leapt upon a mossy rock and sang the verses again with more gusto. He grinned and bowed floridly, then frantically pinwheeled his arms to keep from tipping off into the marshy water.
"It is not! It doesn't sound a thing like it."
Deagol rolled his eyes. "It's what their song *meant*, coz. Well, sort of. Grandmother said so!"
Deagol had been irritatingly buoyant since yesterday, when a group of half a dozen Fair Folk had passed West over the Great River, pausing along their way to speak with the elders of their small hill-village. It had been some time since any visitors had happened that way and life had just begun to feel dull. Deagol had been ecstatic and spent the entire morning shyly circling the horse which had accompanied the Fair Folk, daring even to dart forward and pet its shining coat when none were looking.
Smeagol picked his way through the mire, scowling, chewing upon a long blade of grass. "It makes no sense, Deagol."
His observation did not dissuade his younger cousin from voicing another chorus of the nonsensical rhyme, this time more loudly and further out of tune. "Perhaps it's a riddle?" Deagol suggested, as the last, painfully dying note drifted away on the breeze.
"It isn't neither a riddle."
"It isn't! Anyhow, the Fair Folk don't tell riddles. Did you ask grandmother if it was a riddle?" Smeagol's voice rose a little with interest despite the indifference he tried for.
"No. I... didn't... think... to... ask!" Deagol declared, and punctuated his last words by jumping through the mud and water, generously splattering both of them.
Deagol stopped. He bent down and gingerly picked up a long, slimy, green stick which lay at his feet. He grasped it, then drove it, splunch!, into the ground. He gestured to it meaningfully. "Stick. In. The. Mud."
Then he screetched and dove pushing through the grasses with Smeagol in pursuit. He did not make it far before his older cousin caught him and tossed him down, rolling him over and over in the muck and slime until Deagol was covered in black ooze and laughing so hard he couldn't stand up.
"Enough! Enough enough...." Deagol gasped, then broke into another fit of giggles. He pushed himself off the ground and stood there blinking water from his eyes. "I don't know what it means, Smeagol, but I liked it right enough." He looked mournfully down at his mud-covered clothing and made a regretful chirking sound. "Father said if I came home like this again, I'd be going about the village bare."
"Perhaps you could sing your song as you went."
Elves were indeed not a people who practiced word-play such as riddlemaking and conundrums; they took little pleasure in shutting their words away in concealing rhymes. Riddling-talk was loved by dwarves and hobbits and dragons who were raised and reared and fashioned their speech within hidden caves and meandering burrows. The elves much preferred to set their words free with clear music and soaring voices, but never let it be said that any elf was to be found lacking in eloquence of a kind when occasion called.
Legolas regarded the little creature rocking and twitching in misery before him and he hastily swept together words which would suffice. The elf carefully shifted his legs from beneath him and pushed himself to his knees. With an eager flash of his verdant eyes, Legolas chanted:
"I run as smooth as any rhyme I love to fall but cannot climb I tremble at every breath of air, And yet shall heaviest burden bear."
Whirling, swirling, the wind danced over the water and tugged at the elf's cloak and tousled his dark hair; it picked up his words and swept them tickling into the creature's ears, and Smeagol ceased the incessant writhing of his hands. He stared blankly at the elf for a moment, then his luminous eyes blinked and focused and his expression twisted into something akin to surprise. He hiccuped hoarsely and made that hard swallowing sound again deep in the back of his throat.
Whatever Smeagol had been expecting, had he expected anything at all, this was not it. He crept sideways uneasily, and then crept back, pacing and picking his way this way and that as he contemplated the elf's purpose.
Legolas forced himself to keep still, though he exulted uncertainly. He had unquestionably garnered the creature's full attention! Emotion was upon Smeagol's face, though the elf struggled to read it. For good or ill, it was no longer that hopeless, morbidly curious expression of the mouse waiting upon the cat, nor was it the hazy greyness of remembered torment. It seemed beyond that.
There was something in Smeagol which was still intrigued by games. It was in the hobbit's story and it was evident in the creature's eyes. Smeagol had enjoyed Legolas's discomfiture over his sudden, strange appearance; a part of him revelled in the elf's attempts to tempt him from his hidden thoughts. Legolas believed this to be so. A wry smile touched his lips and sat quietly, wondering, intrigued.
"Come, Master Smeagol," the elf said. "I am no loremaster, and I deem it to be an easy enough task to unlock my simple verse. Have you not the skill to do so?" Gimli would have recognized the playfully taunting quirk of the elf's eyebrow and his persuasive tone; it was just such the manner Legolas employed to draw the dwarf into countless idle arguments or baited conversations. Gimli hated that look; it had been perfected over the course of several centuries and it rarely failed.
The creature's eyes narrowed at him. Smeagol squirmed, and he sniffed the air as if trying to scent deceit in the elf. Legolas could determine not whether he had drawn Smeagol's thoughts back to his cave and his encounter with Bilbo, or if he had touched upon some other memory from his past; the elf hoped for the latter. Someone had taught Smeagol the rhymes he had dredged from his mind in his battle of wits with Bilbo Baggins; Gollum had certainly not played riddling games with the orcs he throttled in the dark underground of the Misty Mountains.
Smeagol regarded Legolas with a smouldering interest and it seemed, just for an instant, almost as if he might take up the challenge.
Smeagol did respond, but not with the answer the elf expected. He crouched down slowly low to the ground and his breathing deepened. His thin flanks heaved in and out and he looked at Legolas, the glittering slits of his eyes lurking behind heavy lids. He hissed, a soft, prolonged hiss, a rush of air pushed between tight teeth, and he seemed to consider the elf, cracking and flexing his long fingers slowly, emphatically. Considering him.
Legolas steeled his light heart and banished all hints of jest from his demeanor; his face became cool and austere, and he drew himself up imposingly, prepared to fend off an attack.
Smeagol wet his lips, and he spoke with a rasping whisper that prickled the elf's skin.
"It comesss on black wings," he said. "It comes."
There were tracks here, many tracks, all of the same sort, and they had stirred the smooth sand to mud. Gimli paced forward cautiously with a frown and crouched to examine them. Oddly, they seemed to be the marks of bare feet, trampled near the river's edge; the depressions were filled with gleaming water and sparkled in the starlight. Well, why not? Legolas had sauntered over the snows of Caradhras in naught but light shoes and would certainly not hesitate to stroll unshod along the banks of the Anduin if the mood took him.
But these were not the footprints of the soft-stepping elf. The prints were pressed deeply into the earth and were strangely elongated, faintly webbed; whatever had clambered from the water had dug into the moist earth with grasping toes, like an animal and yet not.
Gimli studied the footprints, his face impassive, his eyes hard and thoughtful. He ran a hand over his thick beard The rocks near the patch of disturbed mud had been overturned, the dirt scraped away as if something had tipped them over to search for the slimy things which hid beneath. His eyes were drawn to a glitter of silver flashing in the moonlight and he rose stiffly to investigate. He retrieved the object from the sifted sand and cleaned the grime away with his thumb. It was a steel buckle from a pack or strap, unadorned and unremarkable other than it was there, upon their eyot, where it should not have been. Gimli's frown deepened.
He fingered the cold metal pensively and puzzled over it, and was feeling just a little pleased at his astuteness at finding it when he turned and stepped on the fish.
Or rather, what was left of a fish. Muttering a disgusted oath, Gimli flicked it over with his foot and stared down at the vile thing. The bulbous, dead white eye of it stared back at him accusingly, as if it had been he who had dragged it from its calm, wet existence to leave it half- eaten and moldering between the stones. The dwarf scowled and kicked sand over it in defiance, then scraped his boot clean upon a nearby rock.
His heavy brow furrowed and he bent to the ground once more. Trodden into the muck at his feet there winked a tiny bit of cloth. Gimli tugged upon it and pulled forth a knotted and torn pocket handkerchief. He smoothed it out upon a rock and discovered the dirty thing to be very much like the blue one Merry used to carry with him in the breast pocket of his jerkin before it had been lost along the road. A light began to dawn in the dwarf's tired mind. Disquieted, he combed through the mud, gathering more of the discarded 'treasure', for that was indeed what this scattered debris had been.
A length of stretched leather. A sharpened stone. A wooden button. A bit of old, white jawbone with broken teeth still clinging to it, too small to belong to any but a child. Gimli grimaced and cast this out into the water. He found as well a shard of crockery and a bent hobnail. A silver penny. A desiccated frog's leg.
His eyes flared with indignation as he pried something dark from a cleft between the rocks... the rounded, familiar shape of an object that startled him immensely, given his thoughts upon it a mere hour ago. His thumb traced the curved side, the scrolling etchwork along the bowl, and the chips and cracks which now marred the edges where it had been knocked about and beaten upon the stones. The long sturdy stem had been snapped off at the shank, and the remains of it were ragged and uneven as if it had been gnawed and chewed.
Gimli's flesh crawled. "Little scavenger!" he spat. He rose and surveyed the small pile of objects at his feet and he strove to make sense of it. Gimli thought he could put a name to that unknown danger lurking in the darkness. A nasty name.
His blood ran suddenly cold in his veins. These were the treasured possessions of a vicious and crafty little creature, cast haphazardly about as if the owner had lost interest. Abandoned carelessly. Abandoned with haste. Abandoned for something more tempting. Perhaps an elf, alone in the dark.
Gimli clutched the battered remnant of his pipe tightly in a white-knuckled hand. His eyes followed the pattern of the splayed footprints from where they led off the riverbank. He pushed himself hastily from the ground and followed. He had at last a clear and unmistakable trail laid out before him to lead him to his companion; he wished he had not found it, and he dreaded what he would come upon when he reached the end.
The elf knelt, half-ready to spring from the ground, and his eyes were sharp and wild. "What is coming, Smeagol?" Legolas demanded apprehensively.
The creature looked fitfully up at the sky, and Legolas did the same. The elf strained his senses, but there was naught to be seen, naught to be heard. The stars shone as they had and the night remained clear. Smeagol tilted his head and gazed towards the south, out over the hills and blasted earth. Legolas also turned his sight, then he prompted Smeagol with a questioning glance.
The creature pawed at his face and feverishly stroked his neck. He raked his hair over his face and peered at Legolas through the ragged strands. "It comes," he said. "On black wingses it comes. He mussst not get it, precious, no, *He* musssst not find it." Smeagol's sharp rasp grew low and his eyes were hopeless; he regarded Legolas with a mixture of weariness and desperation.
Legolas eased a little, and swallowed, and shook his head imperceptibly. "Nay," he whispered softly. "He must not."
Both heard the footsteps approaching ere more could be said. It was the sound of steel-shod boots moving towards them, not the threat which had filled the creature with fear, but a threat nonetheless and Smeagol had yet the presence of mind to pay heed to it. He swivelled his head towards the sound in alarm, then flattened himself upon the ground. He crept a few paces back and stopped, twitching in agitation, clinging to the stones, then crawled further away. He cast a last inscrutable look at the elf, then he turned from him to run. Legolas did not give chase; he watched the pale light of the eyes wink out ere the creature vanished into the darkness. A faint echo of rippling water met the elf's ears and he knew the creature had taken once more to the river's current and had slipped away.
Legolas released a shuddering breath and listened to the rush of the breeze and the river and the beat of his heart. He felt it. It was remote and difficult to discern amidst all that did plague his thoughts and grieve his mind, but the feeling was there. He sensed the presence of a new shadow rising, and heard the distant echo of a fell voice screaming its consecration high upon the wind. It hunted. It was far, far from them yet, but it would come swiftly enough. Upon black wings.
The footsteps drew nearer. A firm tread and short stride which was as familiar to the elf as his own. "Gimli...." the elf murmured. But he did not rise to meet him.
He bowed his head and closed his eyes and waited, willing his hands to cease trembling ere the dwarf arrived.
(ME: What?! Abandon a story? Perish forbid! My most sincere apologies for my delay in taking up this tale once more. Circumstance and state of mind slowed me down. Just because I know where this story is heading doesn't make it any easier to flesh out the chapters and get it there. Even threats and persistent nudging sometimes won't work, but I greatly appreciate the encouragement, you patient people. Your feedback makes this all worthwhile. Well, your feedback and the fact that the dwarf would splice me open with that axe of his while the elf stepped on my neck to keep me planted there if I ever tried running off without finishing their story... Look guys! Another chapter! Stop looking at me like that! AA....!)
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