13. Quite the Same
He was not where he had been when he had first closed his eyes, this he knew. He was lying upon cold stone -- just like that, with no blanket under him or pillow beneath his head. A moment of panic took him as a recollection he had thought long forgotten came flooding back, of fog upon the Barrow-downs where he had lain beneath the earth and of the feel of icy- cold steel resting across his neck.
But no, he was not there either. There was vague sunlight and the feeling of space around him. He found he could shift his eyes if he tried, and so he looked about him. The light grew stronger or his sight became accustomed to the dimness of the place for he found that he was not alone, that there was someone else beside him, someone with a pale face and eyes that were closed, someone who appeared to be asleep but upon closer reflection, seemed to be not breathing at all. His master. Sam tried to call out to him but could not form the words, could not make his tongue work or his hand reach to touch Frodo. He could only lie there and look at him, pale and unmoving beside him.
A small, nagging voice in his head told him he was being silly and suggested he simply wake up, but Sam remained transfixed by the vividness of what he saw and could not tear his eyes from Frodo's ashen face. It looked somewhat peaceful, and it did not horrify him as he thought it should. His mind was detached not from his body only but from his emotions as well, and he was curious as to his dream's resemblance now to what he had been shown in the Elf-Queen's Mirror. He was more expectant than afraid, he decided. He half-hoped that this dream might offer him more than the Lady's pictures had done and give him answers rather than more questions, but when he tried to concentrate, the nagging voice (which sounded inexplicably more and more like the Gaffer) became louder and prompted him once again to hang off being such a ninny and just wake up. It insisted that something needed his attention in the world outside and that he would do well to take leave of his dream and find out quick what it was. Surely a few more moments of shut-eye couldn't hurt, he reasoned with it, but the voice couldn't be persuaded.
Sam awoke. He cracked open an eye and squinted through the gap in his blankets at the sun peeping churlishly back down at him. He squinched his eye closed again as beams of playful sunshine darted across his delicate vision and glittering motes of light burrowed through the pleasant sleepy haze which had muffled his senses. He yawned to stall for time ere he got himself up. Sam took a deep breath and tasted the thick, woody smell of campfire smoke hanging in the air.
It struck him suddenly then that the sun had been looking down upon him from up, way up, and higher in the sky than it should have done, seeing as he was still neatly tucked away beneath his covers and not yet whisking off down the river in a canoe. It was too warm beneath the blanket and stifling, the chill of the morning having long since burned away. The last trailing remnants of his sleepy lethargy fled from his mind at the realization. His eyes popped wide open and he lifted his head to look around.
A small fire was indeed crackling merrily close by and someone had set up a kettle of water and a lovely steaming platter of breakfast upon the warm rocks. Sam shifted anxiously and saw that Frodo was sleeping peacefully next to him with one arm cast over his head to keep the sun from his face. Sam grunted and shifted and propped himself up on one arm to survey the campsite. His other companions were all up and moving about; Sam marked each of them and their doings with a blinking, dullish interest. He noted with some relief that they were all present and seemed on the whole to be going about their business with comfortable, lackadaisical effort. Merry and Pippin were wrangling over the fire and the food while the others milled nearby, busying themselves with little mid-morning tasks. Naught was out of place or amiss as far as Sam could see, other than the fact that none of them seemed to be concerned with or in a particular hurry to be leaving.
"How would you like your toast, Peregrin? Stuffed up your nose or crumbled down the back of your neck?" Merry's voice sounded distinctly out of sorts, though his back was to Sam and he could not see Merry's face.
"It isn't so bad as all that," Pippin replied. He was perched on a log and artfully arranging a stack of toasted bread upon the platter with studious concentration. "Scrape away the burnt part."
"It's all burnt part."
"Give it to me then, and I'll eat it."
"Very selfless of you, except that you've already eaten enough breakfast to feed a sizable starving village. There shan't be any left for Frodo or Sam, and I'll leave it to you to tell them why. Though given the state of the toast and this lumpy substance you've passed off as porridge, they may thank you for it."
"The others didn't complain. It isn't any fault of my cooking, cousin mine, but your campfire." Pippin paused in his efforts to take a bite and lick his fingers. "I know now why we prefer to have Gimli or Sam build one. Are you not supposed to coax the heat forth and not the smoke?"
"My fire is a grand fire, I'll have you know. And the others didn't complain about breakfast for fear of wasting the morning arguing about it with you." Merry broke off in a fit of coughing as a twist of wind swept the soft grey plumes of smoke from the smouldering fire directly into his face, much to the amusement of Pippin, who laughed uproariously and brandished a toasting fork to ward off his sputtering friend.
"Smoke follows beauty," Merry managed to gasp.
Pippin cast about. He flapped his hand without enthusiasm in the direction of the riverbank behind him. "Splendid! But Legolas is off that way, and he's quite the only one of the lot of us who might qualify. You are certainly no prize in the mornings. Or any other time of the day, come to think of it," he put in.
Pippin looked up at last and saw that Sam was awake and listening to their conversation and he called out, "Hullo, Sam! Good morning. Care for a sup and a bite?" He waved a wedge of bread in the air cheerfully.
Sam crawled from his blankets, careful as not to disturb his master, and nodded a good morning back to the youngest hobbit. "What's this, then?" he asked as he padded towards the fire. "Why are we still here?"
Merry turned to face him with a wry face. He wiped his streaming eyes with the back of his hand and shook his head to clear it. "Strider decided we should be better for starting off late today," he said hoarsely. "I can't say as I would agree with him so far."
Pippin had been correct; Merry certainly was no prize today. Normally, Meriadoc was an early-riser, but he had apparently also taken the opportunity to sleep in this morning and he looked it. His hair was a nutbrown explosion of curls and he was clad in the rumpled light clothes he had worn to bed. His eyes were still bleary with unshed sleep and were now bloodshot to boot. Pippin too was dressed in suitable fashion for lounging indolently about a breakfast fire but not for setting off upon another day's journey.
Sam's brow wrinkled in thought. The usual hobbit manner of lingering over breakfast and then leisurely tucking into elevenses had not been a practical matter of course during the Fellowship's tramping and more often had it come to pass that they missed meals than they were allowed to sit and enjoy them. Aragorn pressed them on gently most days but press them on he did, on through proper mealtimes and decent hours of sleep with no regard at all to good digestion and their healthy constitutions. It was to the credit of his good-natured hobbit companions that they let Aragorn have his way -- Pippin had tried several times at the onset of their journey to set him aright upon certain matters of civilness ere he had deemed it finally useless to try and alter the set and somewhat unrefined habits of a ranger.
It seemed that Aragorn had finally relented and actually embraced the concept of a late start for once and Sam wondered why. The camp hadn't been disturbed and naught they had brought ashore yesterday had yet been stowed back in the boats, nor their gear readied for departure neither.
Puzzled a little by the change in their routine, Sam mused upon it as he absently began to eat the bowl of porridge Pippin gave to him without thinking to examine the contents first, (which was the wisest thing for it, really.) He stood as he ate and walked about the fire, sending speculative glances every once in a while down towards the shoreline where the rest of the Company looked to be gathered.
Aragorn was kneeling near the water's edge and seemed to be tracing something in the wet sand with his finger as he spoke in earnest with Legolas. Too far were they for Sam to hear anything they said, especially as his ears were filled with the running conversation about toast and smoke which had started up again behind him. Aragorn looked at ease, however, and was talking freely with the elf as if naught was out of the ordinary, even going so far as to throw his head back and laugh at something Legolas had said to him. The elf was standing idly next to the Ranger and motioning with a graceful gesture at the markings he was making, guiding Aragorn's hand with his words.
Gimli and Boromir tarried near the boats and were stooped next to one of the light vessels. The Man of Gondor was running a hand over the hull as if seeking a crack or flaw in the structure as Gimli looked on over his shoulder and shook his bearded head with disapproval.
Sam actually stopped eating for a moment to wonder what that was about. He certainly didn't like the looks of it at all and he fretted for a bit ere he decided he would be happier not knowing what the two of them were discussing. The elves had promised the grey vessels would not sink and that was good enough for the hobbit. His ignorance was not merely bliss in this instance but a necessity if any of them wished to get Samwise Gamgee back into a boat ever again, and so he judiciously turned his gaze back to Aragorn and Legolas and went back to eating his porridge.
The Ranger had risen and was dusting the sand from his hands. He scraped his foot over his markings and motioned briefly and said something to Legolas to which the elf nodded his assent. Aragorn then took leave of the elf and strode back towards the campfire; he seemed preoccupied and his eyes were thoughtful, but he flashed his white teeth in greeting when he saw Sam.
"Good morning, Samwise," he said. "I had begun to wonder if your aversion to water-travel had finally driven you to protest and refuse to leave your bedroll!"
Sam thought that was distinctly unfair of the Ranger to say but he did not tell him so; he returned no answer at all and busied himself instead with more breakfast.
Aragorn paid no mind and circled the fire, then blinked rapidly and turned his head; the smoke which had harried Merry now mischieviously conspired with the breeze and wafted up into the Ranger's weathered face. Pippin gave a wide grin and was on the verge of saying something he would have undoubtedly regretted afterwards but Merry saved him with a quick, effective and silencing poke to the ribs.
Aragorn stepped out of the smoke's path, dismissed it with a sniff, and he bent to reach for the kettle of water. "Keep the fire burning hot, as I have shown you, Master Brandybuck," he instructed Merry. He reproved lightly, "An overabundance of smoke is a sign that fuel is being wasted and an invitation for any who might be lurking nearby to come pay a call on you." Drawing forth a proper cup from his pack and a pinch of leaves from a small pouch he kept close, he set about brewing himself a cup of tea and threw himself back to settle amongst the hobbits.
"Begging your pardon, Strider, but why haven't we set off?" Sam asked. "The morning wears away and here we sit about watching it go."
"There is nothing to be concerned about, Sam," Aragorn assured him. "We shall start out late and travel into the evening, I think. We have had no need for untoward caution so far, but we draw near lands where it is best to now lie low and I have my reasons to think it for the best that we break from our regular habits for a little while. It is my desire to journey through the night and take our rest during the daytime from here on, if we can so manage it."
The notion pleased Sam, who thought the sheltering darkness would help to alleviate the feeling of stark exposure which gripped him as they floated down the river with naught to shield them from unfriendly eyes upon the shore. He had felt these parts to be hostile enough, though no trouble had made itself known as of yet, and he was somewhat apprehensive to hear Aragorn hint at a more troublesome stretch ahead. "How much longer until we take to the land again, Strider?" he asked.
"Less than a week, if all goes well. I daresay I shall then hear of your tired feet and weary legs and be regaled by wistful recollections of our carefree days upon the river." Aragorn's grey eyes were touched with amusement.
"Aye, and my mother was a Bree-lander," Sam declared.
Aragorn chuckled but ere he could say more, he was interrupted by the crunch of gravel and the voices of Legolas and Gimli as they returned from the riverbank. Sudden recollection of the events last night flooded back to Sam and he stretched out his neck to see past Aragorn and get a better look at the elf and dwarf.
"It seems to me to be quite sound," Legolas was saying to Gimli. "I do not think there is cause for worry."
The elf was clad in his usual green and brown, his dusky Lorien cloak folded neatly over one arm, clean and dry. His voice was gentle and easy and he bore neither his weapons nor his quiver upon his back. His hair was loose and hung behind his ears and he walked at Gimli's side with casual, swinging strides. He toyed with a small bit of buttery driftwood he had scooped from the sand, tossing it from hand to hand, seeming unconcerned and unhurried as the others did this morning.
Sam looked carefully at the elf's face, but his eyes seemed relaxed and calm and Legolas should have looked quite himself once more but for the laceration across his cheekbone and the purpled bruise lining his jaw. The wound had been cleansed but still showed plain upon his smooth features. Sam found that he could not help but be drawn to it and he could see naught but the imperfection when he gazed upon the elf.
"You hardly looked at it," Gimli grumbled with exasperation. "How can you be so certain when you gave it not even a second glance?"
Sam turned his attention to Gimli and his eyes swept over the dwarf's appearance with the same scrutiny, but Gimli seemed none the worse for wear. He stalked placidly alongside Legolas, making some effort to keep up, as he sunk into the sand with every stumping step he took. Gimli was clad in merely his shirtsleeves and trousers once more this morn and not his customary coat of steel rings as of yet; Sam could not help but fancy this was perhaps due to the gingerness of the wound he hid beneath his shirt. Nor did Gimli wear his helm, though it should have seemed out of place without his other armor anyhow. The dwarf looked different to Sam, standing there in the daylight without the burden of his steel vestments, and for some reason he could not put his finger on the sight made Sam feel uncomfortable.
"Staring at nothing will hardly turn it to something, Master Dwarf," Legolas had replied.
"I tell you it has begun to warp and if that is not a weak spot measuring almost the breadth of my hand, I shall eat my boots," Gimli said to the elf with a swift snap of his fingers for emphasis.
"I told you breakfast left much to be desired," Merry crowed gleefully and he thumped Pippin on the arm.
"A trick of the shadows or the grain of the wood, Gimli, and nothing more. Boats of the Galadhrim do not wear and will not sink unless we were to set about chopping holes into them," Legolas said to him.
"Was that an accusing look, Master Elf?" the dwarf drolled. "I do not go about looking for something to dig my axe into, if that is what you are thinking, most especially my own boat."
"I said nothing of the sort," Legolas protested.
"A nod is good as a wink to a blind horse," Gimli snorted.
Legolas gave a laugh and replied, but Gimli's words and his own fell upon the deaf ears of Samwise from that point. The hobbit was watching the elf and dwarf warily as they drew nearer and his mood darkened from uncertainty to peevish gloom as he took in their manner. He was distinctly uncomfortable with even the light tone of their quarrelling and listened to it with disbelief. His stomach, which had proved indomitable to Pippin's porridge, had now begun to roil and churn with worry and confusion.
And then the worry shifted to anger inside of him. He looked up at the elf and dwarf and he fought his indignation. He could have shouted at them, had he courage enough. Had he gone out of his head or had they? Sam did truly wonder. For all the grief they had caused his master! and now they stood sparring words with one another when such a thing had nearly led them to disaster. He had not dreamed the awfulness of yestereve, this he knew, and the more he listened to him, the clearer all that had gone on last night came back to him. A flitting shadow crossed his face and he had the distinct feeling that he had missed out on something as usual. Sam wound himself up tight and glared with outrage at the elf and dwarf as they carried on.
Gimli was in the midst of expounding upon elves and blind optimism when he caught the look of burning offense in Sam's brown eyes. He regarded the hobbit with surprise at first, then understanding dawned upon his face and he sobered. He cut short his words to Legolas and reached up to lay a restraining hand upon the elf's arm.
The dwarf considered Sam gravely and then he clumped forward until he stood before the bristling hobbit. "Master Samwise," Gimli addressed him respectfully with a bow. "As it seems I cannot depend upon an unbiased opinion from my companion here as to the stability of our finely crafted boats yonder, would you do me the favour of coming with me to give judgment yourself? I should like to speak with you," he said.
Sam was somewhat taken aback by Gimli's request, unaware as he was that his emotions were as plain as all that; he didn't know that his feelings couldn't possibly be any easier to read upon his naturally open face. He saw the others look at him from the corner of his eye and he flushed and stared sullenly down to the ground. The hobbit's resourcefulness failed him and he could think of no way to escape; he nodded in agreement and followed after the dwarf.
Legolas stepped aside for them and mournfully watched the two go off down to the riverbank. He lingered there for a moment, then looked with concern to the still sleeping Frodo. He murmured something softly to himself and smiled just a little, then the elf came to sit by Aragorn with his arms clasped about his knees; his eyes had grown distant.
Aragorn glanced at the elf. "Gimli will ease his mind, Legolas," he encouraged. Aragorn drew a sip of his tea and hissed as the liquid stung his tongue. He blew across the lip of his cup to cool it, then took another sip and deemed it moderate enough to drink. He crossed his legs and sat back comfortably. He leaned back to look up at the sky. "I suppose it would have been wise to wake him when you and Gimli returned last night, but my concern was with Frodo and I am afraid I did much overlook Sam," he admitted.
Legolas nodded. "So swiftly did I wish to leave the evil memory of it behind that I gave no thought to him. I think it shall take much from Gimli and I to regain Sam's trust," he murmured sadly. "I told him that I would have to cure him someday of his shyness of elves. I am afraid I caused much more damage than that." He flicked the piece of driftwood in his hand into the flames. "And yet I find reassurance in his anger, Aragorn. Sam's loyalty to Frodo is absolute, as it must be."
"We are a Fellowship yet," Aragorn shook his head firmly with disapproval, "and the trust between us, between all of us, cannot be so lightly abandoned. Sam shall have to make allowance."
Legolas said naught; he looked up suddenly and his bright eyes trained upon Merry and Pippin, who had both ceased to talk. They now wore long faces and were politely pretending not to listen to the conversation between the Ranger and the elf.
"And what of you, my young friends?" Legolas asked them. "I know it is your way to assuage your worries with light words, but there are times when laughter cannot lift the spirit. I would know your thoughts upon this matter if you are also troubled and ease your minds, if I might."
Merry exchanged looks with Pippin, then slowly nodded; he lifted his head and regarded Legolas with a seriousness that spoke of the deliberation he had indeed given it.
"Right," Merry began. "I couldn't say whether it was merely wishful thinking upon my part," he explained, "but it seemed to me that you and Gimli had reached some sort of understanding." He cleared his throat and looked a bit guilty. "I didn't think it right to pry, though I must admit to making a few secret plans of my own to kick you both into the river if it got the better of you once again."
Legolas smiled. "I had thought to ask the same from you as a favour."
"Consider it granted," Merry said. "Do you believe you can go on without risking Frodo's safety, Legolas?" the hobbit asked him bluntly.
The smile faded from the elf's face and he lifted his chin. "I do think so, yes."
"Can you promise it, Legolas?" Pippin asked, and if his voice was not quite as sure as Merry's, his eyes were as steady.
"Such a promise I cannot give to you, Peregrin Took," Legolas said to Pippin with rueful honesty. "A warrior who boasts of victory ere the battle has been fought is a braggart or a fool. We are better armed now, Gimli and I, and wiser to the danger, as I hope you all might be. Come what may, we have sworn to hold to one another and protect the Ringbearer to the last of our strength. I hope this does satisfy, for it is all I can offer with any certainty."
"It does," a quiet voice replied.
They turned to see Frodo standing behind them, stretching his arms and pushing back the hair from his eyes. He came forth to stand by Merry somewhat self-consciously, as they all looked at him. "I daresay the Ringbearer might be grateful for less valiant companions with quieter voices this morning, however," he offered to them with a laugh, and their mood lightened a bit.
He rubbed a face, which was cheery if somewhat tired. Pippin rose to give him a seat by the fire. "Why did no one wake me?" Frodo demanded.
"We tried, my dear fellow, but your dauntless snoring drowned out our attempts," Pippin gave an enormous bow of mock respect.
Frodo scowled fiercely. "I'll bring that remark to mind the next time I wake up before you, Peregrin." He reached to help himself to the food, then cast about and asked, "Where has Sam gotten to?"
"Down by the water with Gimli looking for imaginary holes in the boats," Merry said.
"That sounds like an especially ridiculous thing to be doing," Frodo remarked lightly. He poked at the grey porridgy substance in the pot before him and watched with fascinated horror as it sluggishly engulfed the end of his spoon and tried to suck it from his hand.
"I shall prudently leave that for you to tell Gimli," Legolas said. "It is his particular gripe for this morning."
Frodo's face lit with a smile; he looked up uncertainly at the elf and then hastily away again as if with guilt. The Company fell quiet.
Merry cocked his head as if judging whether or not to speak again, but the Brandybuck in him told him he might as well be in for a pint as an ounce.
"Very well," he cleared his throat, "I can see that today is going to pass from quite awkward to worse, and as entertaining as it is to watch you all circle lightly around one another, I don't think we shall get very far that way and I'm becoming antsy just sitting here watching it go on. I can't imagine another few days such as this." Merry gazed at the elf. "Can you still feel it, Legolas?" he asked quizzically. "Is it hard to be near Frodo?"
With a gracious nod to Frodo, Legolas answered him. "It is hard to be near the Ring, not the Ringbearer," he said softly. "Difficult it is, but not such as it was. And in truth, this itself does worry me."
Aragorn looked up at this. "How so, Legolas?" His eyes were suddenly very attentive.
The elf paused. "I expressed my concerns to you when we spoke earlier, Aragorn; as foolish as it may seem, I worry that it has proved so far to be not the challenge we had feared. I know not whether it is but too soon to judge, but Gimli confided in me that he has felt freer of its influence this morningtide as well. Nay, it is not so strong as it was, and I know not what to make of this."
Aragorn tapped his finger upon the cup in his hand pensively, the silver ring he wore grating abrasively against it. "I deem it too soon to judge, Legolas, aye," he said finally, "and I think today we shall do well to simply test the waters, as it were. It seems likely to me that the Ring is simply sporting with us and taunting us with false hopes, but we shall give it time and see." He rose and offered the dregs of his tea to the fire which accepted them with a satisfied sizzle.
"Exhausting is what this all is," Pippin declared with a doleful sigh. "It is one thing to be chased by orcs and spied upon by birds and beasts everywhere we go, but it is quite another thing to wonder if the thoughts in our head are our own. It gives me the shivers."
"You shan't need to worry, Peregrin," Merry said. "Anything creeping into your mind would promptly get lost in the tangle."
"Thank you," Pippin replied and stuck out his tongue.
A booming shout echoed up from the water's edge. "Hi! Legolas! Come!"
The elf stirred himself from his thoughts and lifted his head. "The stubborness of a hobbit has proven a match, perhaps, for the stubborness of a dwarf?" he mused. He looked at the others, his green eyes merry again for a moment. "By your leave, I shall go and see if Gimli is in need of assistance."
Legolas leapt up, skirted his companions seated about the fire and made for the river.
Aragorn watched him go. Frodo wiped the toast crumbs from his shirtfront and stood; he approached the Ranger apprehensively.
"What is it that you are thinking, Aragorn?" the hobbit asked. "Could they have overcome it?"
Aragorn did not answer for a long moment. Then he shook his head and looked at Frodo. "I do not believe so, Frodo. Gimli and Legolas are on their guard and I praise their effort, but I think if they are feeling a respite from the Ring's influence it is because it has chosen to withdraw."
"For what reason?" Frodo wondered, and his hand strayed to the chain about his neck. His lip curled with revulsion as if he held a wild beast by a tether, unable to tame it or loose it and dreading it lest it should tear free.
"I should simply be guessing at its purpose, Frodo, and I will not do such a thing. I would be casting suspicion and doubt with no certainty and weakening the bonds of trust we still must hold to while we travel together. Finish your breakfast and take what rest you can," he bade him. "Your companions are yours still, and they are doing their utmost to remain so. We will leave in a few hours. We shall simply have to take each day as it comes to pass."
Gimli matched Sam's listless pace as they made their solitary way down the shore. Neither said a word, nor did they look at one another as they walked, for which Sam was profoundly grateful. He was very aware right then of Gimli's imposing brawn and brusqueness beside him. In his mind he could still see the dwarf's enraged face and the murderous glint in his eye from last night. Though the dwarf walked not tall, he was a formidable presence of bulk and strength to be near and not the sort of company just then to set a nervous hobbit at ease. Sam shuffled a bit sideways as he walked to put some space between them and tried his best to make it look unintentional. Of course, Gimli could not help but notice.
Sam reached the water-line ahead of the dwarf by a few paces and he eyed the boats with a distasteful wrinkle of his nose. Gimli strode forward and sat against the side of the vessel which had shuttled Legolas and himself this far down the Anduin. He did not look at it, however, but at Sam. He motioned for the hobbit to draw nearer, which Sam did reluctantly.
The hobbit came to lean next to him and he stared down at his feet.
"Finely fit the two of us are to be appraising the soundness of a boat, Master Samwise," the dwarf rumbled. "I could not have even recognized the prow from the stern ere we set out from Lorien."
Sam said naught.
"Still I find I must stop and consider the matter each time we shove the thing off into the water," Gimli added.
Sam merely nodded. He was not listening. He was doing his best to bravely blink back the tears from his eyes.
Gimli looked at him kindly. "Ah, Samwise," he said. "We have much disappointed you, the elf and I, have we not? An explanation we should have sought to give you, but I fear the feelings of one halfling became lost amongst the torrent of all our mixed emotions. You have my undivided attention now and if I might make amends, I mean to do it."
"'Tis nothing, Gimli, sir," Sam murmured miserably. "I wouldn't have you trouble yourself over it."
"I had thought you to be a wiser hobbit than that, Samwise Gamgee," Gimli growled. "Speak!"
Sam mustered his courage and met the dwarf's eyes. Gimli nodded encouragingly and as if he had suddenly been given permission, Sam let his worries spill out from him all at once.
"I don't understand," he fumbled angrily. "I don't rightly know whether I should be hurlin' myself between you and Legolas when you fight to stop the two of you or if I should let you be. And Frodo is changing. I don't know why Aragorn is unsure about where we are going and what we should do when we get there and I am afraid he will leave Frodo and me to our own means when we reach the end of it. And I don't know why Boromir behaves so strangely... I just don't understand any of it at all, and I feel as if I should do something about it when I can't," Sam cried. "I can't do anythin' about any of it." His chest heaved with emotion and his face was red and he slunk against the boat to sit dejected in the sand, the picture of complete despair.
Gimli remained silent and listened patiently to the hobbit's outburst. When he was certain that Sam's rage had run its immediate course, he said to him, "Well, Master Samwise, you may take comfort in knowing that you are not alone in your frustration. You are right. There is very little you can do. I know not whether that might ease your heart or make it worse, but it is not up to you to fix any of it. It isn't your fault." The dwarf gave a heavy sigh. "Whether I could make you believe such a thing or not, I can tell you that it is a greater trial to be a part of the cause of all this confusion than it is for you to stand by and watch it."
"It's awful hard," Sam whispered.
"Have some pity upon your beleaguered companions, Samwise," Gimli said. "We find ourselves at war when we could not have expected it, and we are doing the best we can with what he have been given." He slapped his hand down absently upon the wood of the boat beneath him, then looked at it.
"Aye, flimsy as a child's birch-bark canoe and certainly a hazard," he rumbled. "Have you still the rope that the Galadhrim gave to you ere we departed from that fair land, Sam?"
"I do," Sam said despondently.
"You may need it ere we find our next campsite, to fish Legolas and myself out of the river. Keep it handy, lad."
Sam snuffed and gave a slight smile in spite of his misery. "I daresay it might prove sturdy enough, if we should have to test it," he said in a small voice. "I am no judge of boats, but I know a thing or two about rope."
"Indeed?" Gimli prompted him with all seriousness, and the dwarf delved. "An interest you have in the craft?"
"Aye," Sam answered hesitantly. Gimli watched with pleased interest as the spark of enthusiasm ignited the hobbit's modest spirit as a match set to dry leaves. Sam drew up a deep breath. "It is in my family, you might say. My uncle Andfast is a roper and knows a thousand ways to weave it and craft it, and what raw stuff makes the sturdiest rope and which makes the smoothest. I don't know half of what he knows, but I picked up a lot growing up and watching him work."
"I assume this would be the uncle Andy I recall hearing you mention ere I was set upon and blindfolded by that band of overzealous elves in Lorien." Gimli glowered at the memory.
"The same!" Sam told him, now thoroughly warming to the subject. "Andy would have loved to have seen that trick the elves did gettin' us over that stream. He used to pull a few stunts like that himself, he did. Nearly killed himself on an occasion or two." Sam puffed himself up with pride as if it were his own exploits he did relate. With a shy look at the dwarf, he lifted himself from the ground to settle back beside him.
"I should think you may have surpassed your uncle Andy's foolhardiness, Samwise, in keeping the company you have," Gimli said. "Someday the two of you shall swap stories and I should be very surprised if you did not come out on top."
"Maybe," Sam laughed. "Though it should be a close contest. I can remember one time a long while before I had reached my tweens when Andfast and his son Ansy took the dare from my eldest brother Hamson to scale the tallest oak tree that stands upon the Stock Brook crossing in the South Farthing. They rigged a right proper net of ropes and pulleys that worked on the idea of weights and balances, see. A dangerous business it was, since the whole thing counted on both Andy and his son to be alert. If one of them was too slow or let slip just a little bit as they tossed the ropes to each other, one would have fallen and taken them both down, you know. My mum boxed my ears right then and there as we watched, on the off chance that I should ever get it into my head to try somethin' like that."
"But they won the bet?" Gimli asked.
"Aye, they did! Easy as that. Hamson took a year to pay up, mind you, but he did. It was all anybody talked about for a long time after. Andy still tells the tale when he's been in his cups down at the Green Dragon."
Gimli groaned. "A terrible thing it is to bring to mind a cold mug of ale, Samwise, when no ale is at hand nor shall be for a very long time," he admonished.
Sam sighed and nodded mournfully in agreement. "I'm rather dry with talkin' myself," he said quietly, somewhat flustered now at having gone on like that. The halfling's face was once again genial and lighter, however, if not altogether very happy. Gimli looked at him fondly and placed a broad hand upon his shoulder.
"I throw the rope, Sam, and Legolas tosses it back for me," the dwarf told him.
Sam looked up at him blankly.
"You wished for an explanation and I am giving it to you," Gimli said. "You wondered whether you should come between the elf and I in order to save us both from ourselves. I thank you for your concern and your courage. After witnessing our folly last night, I should expect you should be wary of our behaviour, but I would ask you to do nothing of the sort lest we are at the verge of tearing out one another's throats again. It would seem that our strife with one another is what the Ring deems our weakness, Samwise. I know not if it is the wisest course for us but as we cannot avoid our differences, Legolas and I, we have decided to consider it a challenge. The arguments and wrangling may seem a risk but it is a necessary risk if we are to get anywhere upon this quest. It is our way of defying the cursed whispers we both hear that would turn our thoughts against one another. It is our way of letting one another know that we pay no heed to them. I throw the rope and Legolas tosses it back." The dwarf looked at the hobbit, his eyes dark and searching beneath his heavy brow. "Do you understand, Sam? If one of us should fall, we both shall. Perhaps all of us. I do not intend to let us come to grief like that."
Sam thought long and hard about the words given to him, but Gimli could fairly see the determination and acceptance winning out upon the halfling's face.
At last Sam lifted his head stoutly. His expression was resolute. He said, "Nor do I wish to see it happen, Gimli, sir. I reckon I understand it well enough."
"Good lad!" the dwarf exclaimed and slapped him on the back. "I should not like to suffer the scathing looks of an offended hobbit all these long days abroad. It is an effort enough to keep up with our elf and his changeable moods." Gimli glanced back towards the camp. "Having said thus, he is no doubt stewing himself into depression without me as we dally about here. Perhaps we should summon his presence and see what he makes of your uncle Andy's tree-climbing abilities. I should think that might tweak an elf's interest just a bit."
Gimli shouted out Legolas's name with a voice that made Sam's ears ring. There came no immediate answer and so the dwarf stood and offered his hand to Sam to heft him easily back onto his feet. "Come, Samwise. We shall meet him halfway. He will likely consider it an excuse to become testy if I drag him back the entire distance down here again for naught."
Sam followed. He felt better. Better than he had felt, in any case. He trotted along in Gimli's footsteps and thought more about what the dwarf had said to him. Ere he had taken more than a half dozen paces, however, he halted and looked up with sudden wide-eyed concern.
"Gimli?" he said. "There really is nothing wrong with the boats now.... is there?"
The dwarf turned to look at him and broke into laughter.
Legolas went swiftly towards the water but ere he had gone as far as that, he looked up to find Boromir was walking towards him from a point upriver, bisecting the elf's path to the boats. Legolas halted and waited for him.
The big man's steps brought him swiftly close. His clean-shaven face was red from the cold water and his hair still dripping, evidence of his morning ablutions. The warrior looked at Legolas with customary surety in his bold eyes.
"By the bellowing I heard down by the boats, I should guess that Gimli wishes for you to join him, Legolas," Boromir said to the elf with a quick grin. "You might want to remind him that we strive for stealth upon this little adventure. That voice of his could shake down a mountain."
Legolas smiled. "He is a dwarf and I fear that could be as close to a whisper as we can expect from him."
Boromir smirked and nodded his head. He made to walk on and he rested a hand amiably upon the elf's shoulder as he passed.
Legolas paused with sudden discomfort and he turned to look at him, a dark question forming in his mind. With a slight movement he drew the man to a halt and brought his attention back to him. "Boromir?"
"Yes?" Boromir saw the worry the elf's eyes and responded in like. "Are you alright, Legolas?"
"I would know this ere you take your leave of me," Legolas said carefully. "Has it become worse for you?"
Boromir blinked. "Worse? I know not what you speak of, my friend."
"Aye, that you do, son of Denethor. I would you might be straightforward, for I am not yet so comfortable discussing it myself."
A deprecating smile touched Boromir's lips and he stood ill-at-ease as if considering how to answer. "Very well," he said shortly. "Nay, Legolas, it has not grown worse. Have I given any of you reason to think so?"
"You have not, Boromir, and I meant no offense," Legolas demurred. He held his hands palms upraised and gave a slight bow. "Please, take none. I am troubled, Boromir, and do but seek to resolve matters that are yet unclear to my mind. Have a care, for I fear we have but tasted of the peril that awaits us. I would not see any be alone to face it."
Legolas heard footsteps draw nigh behind him. Boromir looked past the elf and nodded tersely at Gimli and Sam who now approached them slowly, cautiously, listening uneasily to the conversation they had intruded upon and could not now tactfully avoid.
Boromir sniffed and rubbed his nose, and cast his eyes to the ground and back to the elf. "Perhaps I am beneath its notice and not such prey as it should take much interest in, I cannot say. I know you mean well, Legolas, but I should ask you to have a care for yourself and leave me to my own defenses," he said. He cast a surreptitious glance at Gimli and did not look to Sam. The man turned his back abruptly and walked away.
Legolas stiffened and watched after him, concern filling his fair face, but ere he could speak or move to follow, Gimli came to his side and caught his arm. The elf swallowed the urge to pull irritably away from the dwarf's touch and instead offered him an anxious look.
"He is right," Gimli said under his breath.
"He feels it," Legolas protested. "I can see it in his eyes. I sense it when I am near him."
"Is that not to be expected?" Gimli asked. "Of any of us, Boromir has struggled with it the longest. Of course you feel it in him, as do the others when they are near us. Sam can certainly vouch for that. There is nothing for it. It is a battle we all face, Legolas. Let him fight it as he will."
"Even if his way is denial?" The elf stared ahead with steady eyes. "My fear, Gimli, is that it has withdrawn from us to seek a more susceptible mind."
"You believe Boromir now bears the brunt of it?"
"Perhaps," Gimli acquiesced and shrugged. "There is no way of telling, but I say there is not much we can do for it. It is best to leave him be."
"How can you be convinced that is so?"
"My people have had more practice with covetousness and denial, being the greedy, grubbing creatures we are, maybe," Gimli said impatiently. "Take my word upon it and let it go for now."
"His desire, his weakness lies closer to the heart of this quest than does ours, Gimli," he said with a low voice, "you know that. If we were to slay one another, none should suffer but we two. It is not the same."
"I said not that we should ignore it, elf, nor turn a blind eye to his temptation or to ours. But confronting him and bombarding him with words shall do more harm than good, Legolas. Could we have listened? Indeed, Aragorn tried with us and we could hear naught he said."
The elf's brow furrowed and it seemed as if he might argue, but he gave in at last. "It is his battle," he echoed with an uncertain voice.
"Aye," Gimli replied. "We fight ours. Allow him to fight his."
Boromir had rejoined their companions by the fire. Legolas watched him keenly from afar with a mixture of trepidation and sadness in his eyes. "It is by our own folly that the Enemy will defeat us..." the elf intoned quietly.
Gimli looked at him hard, a slight hint of worry showing upon his face. "I should thank you not to surrender our quest ere we have had the chance to see it through," he said gruffly. "If you can find naught but doom and defeat to speak of this morning, Sam and I shall have to kick those long legs of yours out from under you and leave you here for the carrion birds to chew on, if they do not also find you too disagreeable to tolerate.
Legolas did not seem to hear him. After a long space of silence, he said, "Gimli... do not let me fall."
Sam snapped his head around and looked quickly up at Legolas as if he half- expected the elf to collapse on the spot. Never had he heard Legolas plead for anything before, especially from the dwarf. He wondered if Legolas had suffered a more grievous hurt last night than he was aware of, but the same pain was upon Gimli's face as well and at last Sam recognized the precariousness of the situation and the real cause for the strain he could hear in the elf's voice. Sam felt a stab of pity as he regarded his two disparate companions. And for the first time he wondered why the hobbits seemed spared from the Ring's influence; perhaps it was as Boromir said, and they were too insignificant to bother with as well.
Gimli stood quietly for several moments conjuring strength ere he sighed and shook his head. He drew himself up, and with pronounced bluffness in his deep voice he said, "The utter presumptuousness of the elves astounds me! Do not let you fall? You mock my height with your words and your very presence, practically traipsing upon your tip-toes whither you tread, and now you would take me for a walking stick to prop yourself on your feet? Do I look like your crutch, Master Elf?" he demanded.
Legolas raised an eyebrow. He blinked and seemed to return to himself. Then he relaxed as Gimli's words took hold and his lips curved into a smile. He cast a look of sly merriment at Sam who stood by, anxiously shifting his gaze between the elf and the dwarf.
Legolas turned upon Gimli very deliberately and looked down at him, "Nay, I should not waste your virtues as such when you are ever so clearly more well-suited to serve as a doorstop."
"A DOORSTOP?" Gimli roared. He straightened indignantly and his nostrils flared. Then he looked at Sam's cringing face and he winked. "Better," he said. "A rare occasion it is when an elf comes out on top in a war of words with a dwarf, Master Samwise, but our companion here is improving, do you not think? I have hope for him yet."
Sam's expression was pained and he finally managed to find his voice. "Lor bless you, Gimli, sir, Legolas... I know you don't mean it now and you're only whistling down the wind, but my breath catches in my throat when you do that and my heart nearly stops. Please don't."
Gimli chuckled. "Very well. We shall leave off from our games for the moment. I have unruffled a few of Sam's feathers and I think he might forgive us both if we are careful, Legolas...." The dwarf looked up to see the elf still gazing worriedly towards the camp.
Gimli frowned. "Tell me, did you sleep at all last night, Legolas?"
Legolas shook his head negligibly.
"Why not?" the dwarf demanded.
"I felt better keeping watch. And I did not like to leave my mind unguarded," the elf admitted heavily.
"A restless, exhausted mind seems the more susceptible, my friend. If Aragorn ever manages to prod the others from their idle backsides today, will you take your turn for some rest within the boat? I think I might be able to manage a bit of the navigation on my own. That is, if the accursed thing does not split apart in mid-current," he grumbled.
"I will," Legolas agreed, "lest Sam thinks he might succumb to a boredom severe enough to drive him to strike up another conversation with me again," he said.
Sam moaned. "I don't rightly know which of you is worse," he said.
Legolas smiled. "I am sorry, Samwise," he said softly. By his tone, Sam knew the tall elf spoke not of his jesting but of something much deeper. He did not look up at him. He merely took a deep breath and nodded.
"Come, Sam," Gimli's interrupted with a voice that rolled like close thunder in the hobbit's ears. "Let us return ere Frodo thinks we have done away with you. Spirited away by a fey Wood-elf and wild Dwarf! 'Tis a fate which should serve to quell the courage of young hobbit children and cause the elders to tremble in their sleep in all four corners of the Shire. What say you, Legolas? Heroes we are not. Think you perhaps that infamy could be within our reach?"
The elf laughed at Gimli's ludicrous but effective attempts to distract and he began to walk back towards the fire. "I fear you are far too substantial a dwarf to spirit anyone away, friend Gimli," he called. "Frighten them away, perhaps! You are infamous already to those who have made your acquaintance."
Gimli stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I shall take that as a compliment," he said. He bared his teeth at Sam with mock ferociousness and propelled him up the shore with a friendly shove.
(ME: Anyone mind if I play with the events of Legolas shooting the Nazgul? Anyone? I promise I won't stray far. I like to elaborate and speculate and draw it all out, but I only scribble madly between the lines. : ) I promise some major action coming up as we run out of days along the river. And yeesss... more Gollum. I wonder if Gimli ever will get to see him. Hmm.)