21. Without Glory
"We will venture one more journey by night," Aragorn said to them as they set out. "We are coming to reaches of the River that I do not know well; for I have never journeyed by water in these parts before, not between here and the rapids of Sarn Gebir. Bit if I am right in my reckoning, those are still many miles ahead. Still there are dangerous places even before we come there: rocks and stony eyots in the stream. We must keep a sharp watch and not try to paddle swiftly."
They trusted his lead and stayed to the center of the stream where it was deepest. They skiffed along generously spaced and did not stray to wander the water despite the expanse of flat black river around them. Aragorn set a cautious pace. Sam was appointed watchman and he lay forward peering into the gloom. He was a nervous navigator and they moved ahead perhaps slower than was necessary; he was chosen certainly not for any great skill, but to keep him from fretting over his master. Frodo was unwell.
They had allowed him several hours of sleep more than they could spare, yet Frodo had little strength to show for it. He crept from his bed to join them that evening looking used and haggard; his face was pinched and pale; the blue of his eyes washed away. Those nearest to him were more aware of the waning sunlight and the chill of the evening. He could not eat at supper; Sam coaxed him to drink and take a bite of waybread to sustain him. When the time came for them to leave, Legolas took over Frodo's struggle to stand; he was beyond protesting as the Elf knelt beside him and gathered him up, bearing him to the water. Aragorn settled the Ring-bearer securely between himself and Samwise as they cast off.
"We are losing him," rumbled Gimli as Legolas waded out to their own boat. "He is fading."
"He is fighting," said Legolas, "but there is something more adding to his burden, something he feels that we do not."
"A searching eye, maybe."
Legolas climbed in behind the Dwarf and drew his cloak tightly about his shoulders. Gimli looked at him and asked, "What is it that you feel?"
The Elf shook his head. "I feel nothing. If there are servants of the Enemy abroad, they are beyond my ability to sense them."
Gimli knew his companion's frustration. "His illness could be sprung from grief for Lórien, or the dread of facing the final leg of his quest. You cannot fight his fear for him."
"It is more than that," the Elf disagreed, and naught Gimli said could ease him.
Legolas became more unhappy as the darkness settled around them. The night was still, but his stirrings and sighs filled it with a restless impression. His discomfort built upon itself until it was too large for the confines of their boat and Gimli began to feel crowded by it. He was at first alarmed and heedful; only a fool dismissed such an instinct for danger, but after tolerating several hours of Legolas's incessant fidgeting, the Dwarf began to feel that if something were lurking in wait for them he would prefer to be caught by it peacefully unaware. It was unnerving as a cat starting up from a comfortable place to stare out a dark window. Legolas's eyes roved the shoreline and the sky. He tensed over sounds as slight as Gimli clearing his throat. The Dwarf's attempts to engage him in conversation fell flat; the Elf rejected idle talk and became irritable when Gimli tried to pry into his thoughts. Their slow pace was unbearable to Legolas and he rowed in fits when sitting still became too much for him. Gimli found himself playing a cautionary game of drifting tug-of-war with his companion, resisting the restive Elf when he tried to push them on ahead too fast.
Boromir sensed them overtaking him again, stealing up uncomfortably close in his wake. He hurled a glance over his shoulder in protest and Gimli caught it. He scowled back, regretting the Man's limited sight in the darkness. "How often did he stumble into me when we were in Moria?" the Dwarf murmured. "He might find me now less gracious than I was. Keep your distance, Master Boromir, and we will keep ours." They were still pressing forward, however, on course to overtake the other boat. "Legolas!" Gimli snapped. "If we are not going swiftly enough for you, you can swim ashore here and walk the rest of the way!"
There was a soft creak and trickle of water as the Elf withdrew his oar and subsided. They slowed, falling back into place a prudent distance behind the others.
Gimli felt Legolas sigh and he regretted his impatience. "It could be worse," he offered. "Aragorn could have packed us up into barrels and sent us downstream for stealth's sake. I have been told firsthand it is not a comfortable manner in which to travel. You would find it more stifling than this boat and my poor company, I think."
"I do not like this night."
Startled, Gimli turned half about to look at the Elf. Legolas had drawn up his hood; only his eyes were visible, gleaming from the darkness as he stared up at the sky. "It is too bright," he said in the same taut voice. "The stars are hard... sharp...."
"Should we call for them to halt?" asked Gimli, indicating the two boats creeping along ahead of them.
"Nay!" Legolas shook his head. "We mustn't linger here!"
"Then what would you have us do?" Gimli regarded the Elf with frustration. "We must go on as we are. This course of the River is perilous. Aragorn said so. We cannot afford to be reckless!"
Legolas's eyes flashed with empty defiance at the Dwarf, but he said naught. He laid his oar across is lap and wrapped his cloak tighter about his shoulders. He sat with his arms folded and retreated within himself.
Gimli let him brood. The night was particularly clear, and very still. But for the Elf's agitation, Gimli might have called it peaceful. It was certainly not overly bright in the Dwarf's estimation. Indeed, he would have welcomed more light to better see the possible bends and snags in the dark water. The sky did seem strange without the Moon's crescent; the stars were cast loose and straying whither they liked, their familiar patterns lost. Gimli squinted upward, discreetly seeking Durin's Crown, but a multitude of lesser stars had o'erwhelmed it. He dismissed the sight, unwilling to let the Elf's night-jitters become his own.
They had gone but a small distance when they began to speed up once again. Gimli felt it. He roused himself from his musings and mustered another reproach for Legolas. But this time it was not the push of the Elf's oar winding them on full fast; it was the pull of the River. Gimli frowned. He leaned forward a little. Anduin's voice seemed different to him... deeper, fuller. It was a subtle change and he could not be certain; he was accustomed to the echo of rock and understood the groaning language of mountains, but the speech of running water was fey and played tricks with the senses. He chanced a look back at his companion, but Legolas hadn't noticed; his eyes were still fixed upon the sky and his ears were tuned above the mundane pitch of the River. Gimli listened for a moment, then he shipped his oar and rose up on his knees to peer ahead.
His motion drew Legolas's attention. The Elf looked quickly at Gimli, and then past him as he came to realize the water's rising strength. Ere either of them could speak on it, their boat dipped and surged forward. The current caught them up with a jolt, sitting the Dwarf back down hard on his seat.
"What are we coming to?" grunted Gimli, gripping his oar again as they were swept off suddenly toward the eastern shore. The swelling sound of swift water downstream was now plain to them both.
Legolas gazed over the Dwarf's head. "The others are slowing," he said. "Something is wrong." And then his eyes widened. "They've run aground! Gimli, pull back!"
Elf and Dwarf plunged their paddles into the water, fighting to keep away from Boromir's sloughing vessel just ahead. They slowed themselves enough that the collision was a mere scrape and thump. The others had not run aground, not yet, but they could go no further. Ahead of them the pale foam of the River lashed against sharp rocks that thrust out far into the stream like a ridge of teeth. There was no gap; the water was torn into white-water pieces and then dragged into a deep channel on the left side, over a long steep series of cascades where it was fed down into complete darkness. The boats huddled together at the brink, shivering and rocking as the companions strove to hold them there and the River sought to pound them through.
"Back, back!" cried Aragorn. "Turn! Turn if you can!"
"Sarn Gebir," gasped Legolas. "We have met the Rapids!"
Gimli did not waste the breath to reply. He brought his oar around and with a mighty effort began to push off against Boromir's hull. Boromir leaned out perilously far and helped to shove them away until the Elf and Dwarf were able to bring the baggage boat around. They dug in and began to force their way upstream against the current as the other two boats were checked and turned as well.
The River was determined and untiring. It took advantage of each upstroke and every slip of their strength to steal the distance and pull them back. But the Fellowship was fresh and fighting after listless hours of drifting along. Anduin could only tug at them; it did not have them in its grasp.
"How have we come so far?" panted Gimli as he paddled. "We could not have made better time than Aragorn expected!"
"He misjudged the distance. We were closer than he knew," said Legolas.
"Sarn Gebir in the dark! His wits have flown and so have yours," said Gimli angrily. "You would have pushed us on and drowned us with your haste!"
Legolas accepted the Dwarf's rebuke; it was kinder than he knew he deserved. He spared a worried look over his shoulder and saw that the others were prevailing. Even Sam had taken up a paddle, though the manner in which he was waving it about seemed more a hazard to Frodo and Aragorn than any help. Legolas gave a breathless laugh. The pluck of the poor land-loving hobbit lifted the Elf's heart and he scorned the threat of the surging water, stabbing at it with vigorous strokes.
The warning of his senses was sudden. Legolas stiffened, aware of the true danger ere he heard the faint ring of steel, the scrape of iron boots, the guttural voices. He sought the source; his eyes darted immediately to the shore on his right. Dark shapes moved against the night sky, dozens of them, running along the bank and clambering over the rocks. Everything in his elven blood had been poised and waiting on this attack since the night had begun, but the perilous water had been a distraction.
The first arrow was shot into the air too high by a hasty hand. It rose sharply and slowed at the top of its arch, then tumbled down loosely to clatter spent into the boat at the Elf's feet.
"Yrch!" said Legolas, falling into his own tongue.
"Orcs!" cried Gimli. He stared at the shore, and then back at the black-feathered bolt lying between them. The Dwarf reached for it and cast it into the water with disgust.
The whistle of a second arrow split the air, then another, and Legolas heard one of the hobbits give a sharp cry. The Elf flinched at the sound. He turned in dismay. Deadly darts were streaking like dark falling stars down upon the heads of his defenseless companions.
"Watch yourself!" Gimli shouted at him. "Paddle, or we will be carried straight into their cowardly ambush!"
Legolas despaired. "Ambush or accident, this is an evil place to be caught." He forced his eyes forward and matched the thrusts of Gimli's oar. Bitterly he rued the clear night and he whispered prayers to keep the others behind them safe from harm.
But perhaps his prayers were heard, or the grey cloaks of Lórien and the grey timber of the elf-wrought boats defeated the malice of the archers of Mordor. The black foes clamoured and cursed from the shore, but their arrows bit into naught but wood and water. Legolas cast fleeting looks back, listening in dread for the sound of a solid hit, but there were no more cries from the hobbits or the Men. He did not hear the arrow that struck Gimli.
The Dwarf worked his oar with his powerful arms, his back bent to the task. He kept up the litany of earnest curses he began upon his first sight of the Orcs. Then he missed a stroke. And two more. Thinking him winded, Legolas compensated with his own strength, allowing the Dwarf a moment to catch his breath. Gimli ceased his efforts and brought his paddle out of the water, laying it down at his side. Confused, the Elf wondered if the sturdy wood had snapped. Then Gimli reached over his shoulder and slowly jerked the arrow from his body. He clenched the black shaft tightly in his fist, then held it out and dropped it over the side. Legolas cried out to him, but the Dwarf answered with a firm shake of his head. There was naught that could be done about it, not then. The water swirled about them, still coaxing them toward the eastern shore. Legolas knelt forward and gave his strength to his oar. Little by little the Elf inched their boat upstream and climbed the River, fear spurring his heart to racing.
In the endless darkness it was hard to be sure they were moving at all; it was a nightmare flight as they sought escape and seemed held in place. Gimli sat huddled at the forefront of the boat, buried in pain. Legolas lashed fiercely with his oar as the Orcs hurled threats at them in their Black Speech. One of them grew impatient and leapt splashing into the shallows. "Cringing Elf-curs!" it bellowed in Common. "Tender meat! Come out of the water!" Harsh laughter was traded along the bank and more arrows fell.
Gimli was roused by the taunt. He stirred and lifted his head, then shook it as if shedding some mild discomfort. Legolas looked hopefully at his companion's broad back, willing his hurt to be insignificant, though he could tell it was not so by the way the Dwarf was holding himself. But to his disbelief, Gimli straightened and groped for his paddle, taking it up again.
"Sedho!" Legolas snarled. "Stay still!"
Gimli heeded him not and stubbornly began to thrust into the water, driving them forward. Legolas could hear a regular hitch in the Dwarf's breathing; soon he was drawing shallow uneven gasps, but still he kept on. Legolas bared his teeth and trebled his own effort, begging between each stroke for Gimli to cease.
They laboured long until at last their boat slid into the middle of the stream above the jutting rocks. The pull of the water grew less and the shadow of the eastern bank faded back into the night. Reluctantly the River surrendered and let them go. The onslaught of arrows stopped. The Orcs jeered and howled, realizing their sport was spoiled, their targets out of reach. Legolas shuddered and cast a weary look behind him. The others had made it unharmed. Aragorn was turning and now leading them in a sharp diagonal toward the western shore. The Elf stretched out his oar to sweep and follow.
Their small boat angled in the wrong direction. Legolas glanced up and saw Gimli slumping sideways, slowly bearing them askew. With a low shout, the Elf cast down his paddle and lunged forward over the bundles and baggage between them. He seized the swooning Dwarf, grappling for a hold on him. Gimli was heavy weight and the boat tilted dangerously as it continued to slide with the current. Legolas braced himself and struggled to haul Gimli back from the edge of their heeling vessel. A small wave struck their side and almost they were overturned. The Elf gasped at the slap of chill water and he drew a breath to call out for help.
Let him go.
The thought occurred to him, a loathsome whim. It did not pass. It lingered.
The water is deep... the current strong....
The Elf considered the black water swirling close at hand. He could do naught for a moment but cling to Gimli, resisting the urge to release him to it. His mind dimmed. He closed his eyes tightly as pain throbbed along his jaw and up the side of his head, waking the memory of the blow Gimli had dealt him days ago.
The river will claim you both... he cannot swim... none would know.
Legolas's will wavered. The Dwarf slipped a little from his grasp.
Let him go.
Legolas cried out. With great effort, he shunned the notion, fending it away, horrified and shamed by it. His head cleared and a vision came to him of Gimli slowly sinking to the bottom of the River; and then it was not Gimli, but the Ring itself falling away beneath the murky water to lie between the weeds and green stones, mired in the thick mud -- alive without breath, as cold as death-- its reward for betraying Isildur, for delivering him up to be slain by his foes. Legolas felt heavy and cold as if he were the one being dragged down. He opened his eyes and saw how close he and Gimli were to becoming drowned things themselves. He clutched handfuls of the Dwarf's cloak and tugged at him desperately. To his relief, Gimli responded and groaned. He began a feeble effort to push himself away from the edge. Legolas wrapped his arms around his thickset companion and heaved him back until he was lying safely into the boat.
"Keep still." His voice was a stern whisper in the Dwarf's ear. Legolas made certain Gimli would obey, then pulled away from him and found his paddle. He regained the distance they had lost and veered them toward the far bank.
Under the shadow of bushes leaning out over the water they halted with the other boats. They did not speak. The darkness was such that they could hardly see one another, but they did not trust their concealment. Their hopes sank further as triumphant orc-voices surged again from the far shore.
Legolas laid down his paddle and took up the bow he had brought from Lórien. Then he sprang ashore and climbed a few paces up the bank. His hands were slick with blood and water and he wiped them across his breast. He swiftly strung the bow and fitted an arrow, then lifted his head and peered back over the wide River. There came shrill cries from the other side, but naught could be seen. The eyes of the Orcs were no match for the Elf's, yet their voices were exultant as if their prey were caught.
The reason for their glee came upon black wings.
Now rising and sailing up from the South great clouds advanced, sending dark outriders in the starry fields. Legolas watched the clouds spread. He felt malice seeping from them like poison into the air. The Fellowship huddled fearfully together in the boats below him in the water. Legolas knew their terror, it was a numbing dread, yet he stood over them, a slender figure of defiance. The black clouds thickened and clotted the sky, snuffing out the bright stars. The clouds brought with them no wind. The open air was dead, stagnant. Not a breeze was stirred by the cold, creeping darkness.
Legolas waited. He breathed the night and the stillness deeply into his body, steadying himself. This was not the sudden shock of a Balrog risen from the ashes of lore. Almost it was a relief, this end to expectation, this confrontation. "Elbereth Gilthoniel," he sighed. He heard Frodo gasp, a small sound below him in the dark.
The air swelled with an answering cry, thin and cold and cruel. Legolas tensed. Even the Orcs fell quiet at that. A shape appeared in the sky. It grew into a great creature, blacker than the pits in the night. Legolas could not name it; whatever it was or might have been, the beast was unrecognizable to the Wood-elf. It was large enough but had neither the brash magnificence of a dragon, nor the grace and form of one of the Great Eagles. Its flight was ponderous, its neck long and its wings heavy. It was a carrion creature, a common scavenger; it was an eater of the dead. Legolas could taste the very foulness of its nature and he spat upon the ground. But scavengers were feeders, content to gorge themselves when the killing was done. What kept this scavenger fed?
He could hear the leathery rasp of its wings, the vast creaking of tendons. Another bloodless cry pierced the air and Legolas realized that it came not from the maw of the flapping beast, but from within the deeper shadows that clung to it.
The Once-elves on the far shore loosed their tongues and let forth a wild, lusting shout.
Legolas raised his bow. His eyes glittered as if the light of the doused stars had taken refuge there. Anger filled him, a burning wrath. Their sorrow and strife, Frodo's torment, Mithrandir's loss, Gimli's blood -- all that was good that the Shadow had touched and tainted, his own Greenwood: all of their suffering he poured into the arrow at his fingertips. He could not bring harm upon the Ring or its Black Master, but this, ah this, was something he could strike! Legolas fixed his sight upon the dark shape as it surged forward. He took a slight breath and drew back the string of the great bow, far back, as far as he could take it. He held his arrow steady. And loosed it.
The arrow flew from him with a high whistle, singing vengeance. Up it went, and sliced through the body of the winged beast with satisfying ease, taking its heart. The black thing swerved. There was a harsh croaking screech that came not from the Hunter but its mount; yet Hunter and beast plunged as one from the air and vanished into the gloom of the eastern shore.
The darkness clung to the air and seemed to close in. Then the clouds stirred and were rent apart by a sudden free wind. White light filtered down from the stars and the sky was clean again. There was a tumult of many voices far away, cursing and wailing in the Black Speech, and then silence. Neither shaft nor cry came again from the East that night.
Legolas stood quietly for a moment, hands loose at his sides, gazing uncertainly in the direction the creature had fallen. Then he unstrung his bow and stepped down the bank and back into the boat with Gimli.
The Dwarf was waiting for him. He lifted his head as Legolas knelt beside him, gently rocking the boat. Gimli leaned forward and reached out a hand. He pushed back the Elf's hood to see his face. "Are you hurt?" he demanded.
Legolas shook his head.
"It is gone?"
"Aye," said Legolas.
Gimli closed his eyes and nodded heavily. "I suppose that you are of some use after all. It is good we brought you along."
"Think you so?"
"Aye, Elf... it is good." Gimli settled back carefully, stifling a groan. Legolas helped him to lay on his side and shifted their things to make him more comfortable. He unclasped Gimli's cloak and ripped open his shirt to reach the wound. The arrow had passed from a steep angle behind the Dwarf's shoulder deep into his body. Breathing was difficult, but Gimli was able to do it and the Elf judged the shaft had not touched anything vital when it had gone in, nor when it had been torn out. Legolas berated Gimli soundly for that particular bit of foolishness as he staunched the blood. If the archer's sure hands were now trembling, it went unnoticed.
After a while, Aragorn led the boats upstream. They felt their way along the water's edge for some distance, until they found a shallow bay. A few low trees grew there close to the water, and behind them rose a steep rocky bank. Here the Company decided to stay and await the dawn; it was useless to attempt to move further by night. They made no camp and lit no fire, but lay huddled in the boats, moored close together.
Legolas kept Gimli warm as best he could, but the Dwarf was soaked through and shivering. The constant lap of the water against the hull of their boat was dull agony to him. Gimli scoffed at the suggestion of poison, boasting himself stronger than anything the Orcs could concoct, but still Legolas worried and mourned the lack of a fire for him. Aragorn guided the Elf to the bottom of his pack where a leathern flask lay stored away, treasured all those miles, the last of the miruvor Gandalf had brought with him from Rivendell. Gimli held it aloft in memory of the wizard and then downed it. The Dwarf felt considerably warmer after that. Herbs there were also to lessen his pain and soon Gimli was in much better spirits than his companions, who were still feeling very vulnerable and afraid.
"Praised be the bow of Galadriel, and the hand and eye of Legolas!" he said as he munched a wafer of lembas. "That was a mighty shot in the dark, my friend!"
Legolas hushed him gently, alarmed by the loudness of the Dwarf's voice. "But who can say what it hit?" he said, reluctant to be the one to name their foe lest he summon it again. His gaze strayed to Frodo, who was looking pale but stronger. The Halfling's hand was clutched over his breast.
"I cannot," said Gimli. He heeded the finger Legolas held to his lips and spoke quieter. "But I am glad the shadow came no nearer. I liked it not at all. Too much it reminded me of the shadow in Moria - the shadow of the Balrog," he ended in a whisper.
"It was not a Balrog," said Frodo. "It was something colder. I think it was -" Then he paused and fell silent.
"What do you think?" asked Boromir eagerly, shifting in his boat to catch a glimpse of Frodo's face.
"I think - No, I will not say," answered Frodo. "Whatever it was, its fall has dismayed our enemies."
"So it seems," said Aragorn, marking Boromir with a stern glance. "Yet where they are, and how many, and what they will do next, we do not know. This night we must all be sleepless! Dark hides us now. But what the day will show who can tell? Have your weapons close at hand."
They could not have closed their eyes regardless of Aragorn's words; only Gimli succumbed and fell into a deep slumber. The Elf covered him over with blankets and kept vigil, singing softly to himself as his companion slept. The others were silent mostly, watching the stars, but Legolas was no longer interested in the sky. He watched the Dwarf, captured by the seeming lifelessness of his face. Grey and slack, it did not look like the face of his companion, his friend. The Dwarf looked very far away. He wanted desperately for Gimli to wake for just a moment and he resisted the urge to call to him, to shake him from his much needed rest. He touched the Dwarf's wrist instead and took comfort from the rush of blood he felt there. He chided himself for his fear.
"It's very strange," said Sam. Legolas looked up expectantly, but Sam's attention was elsewhere. "The Moon's the same in the Shire and in Wilderland," he said, "or it ought to be. But either it's out of its running, or I'm all wrong in my reckoning. You'll remember, Mr Frodo, the Moon was waning as we lay on the flet up in that tree: a week from the full. And we'd been a week on the way last night, when up pops a New Moon as thin as a nail-paring, as if we had never stayed no time in the Elvish country. I can remember three nights there for certain, and I seem to remember several more, but I would take my oath it was never a whole month. Anyone would think that time did not count in there."
"And perhaps that was the way of it," replied Frodo. "In that land, maybe, we were in a time that has elsewhere long gone by. It was not, I think, until the Silverlode bore us back to Anduin that we returned to the time that flows through mortal lands to the Great Sea. And I don't remember any moon, either new or old, in Caras Galadon: only stars by night and sun by day."
Legolas listened quietly with Gimli's hand clasped in his own. He remembered. He could have recounted to them every moment of their days and nights in Lothlórien. The Moon had been full and beautiful on the night the Lady had called him to her while the Galadhrim celebrated the bloom of Telperion's light; she had counselled the young Elf, listened to his thoughts, and to his wonderment, she had spoken of marching long ago with Fingolfin's exiled host into Middle-earth by the silver shine of the new-wrought Moon. The splendour of her tale had exhilarated Legolas; the ancient regret in Galadriel's voice had pierced his heart. She had not forgotten the days before the first dawn, yet already Lórien was becoming a vague memory for the hobbits.
"Nay, time does not tarry ever," he told them. "But change and growth are not in all things and places alike. For the Elves, the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream. Yet beneath the Sun all things must wear to an end at last."
Legolas fell silent then and he smiled in the dark, imagining what Gimli would have to say about time slowing to tedium when an Elf opened his mouth to speak. He lowered his head and closed his eyes, slipping back into thought. He attended each breath Gimli took and deemed this was to be the measure by which he would mark his hours, his days, his own running years. He considered the loyalty and love these companions had claimed from him and the price that would come of twining his existence with their brief lives. The odds were against his heart, he knew; yet with a courage that might have shamed the Elf-lords of old, Thranduil's son chose his fate and held fast to the Dwarf's hand.
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.