2. Yuleday, 3018
Gimli tapped the haft of his axe thoughtfully, all the while keeping a close watch on the sleeping elf. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether or not the elf was asleep. Like all elves, Legolas slept with his eyes open, and it was always unnerving to glance over and find him looking at you when in truth he really wasn’t looking at you but at something else that only he could see. Still, after studying his opponent carefully during his watches, Gimli felt that he could label Legolas as either asleep or awake with a fair amount of accuracy. And the dwarf was reasonably certain that the elf was now asleep.
Boromir was due to relieve him on watch within the hour. The man had an uncanny ability to wake himself just before his scheduled watch, but as of yet, he showed no signs of stirring. A slow smile crept over Gimli’s face as he continued to study Legolas. The elf was usually quite careful when he slept, especially if he knew Gimli would be on guard sometime during the day. But his caution had slipped this time, and his water skin lay far enough away that Gimli was certain he could make off with it without disturbing the elf. That left the dwarf with one last question: what did he do once he got it?
Taking a few puffs on his pipe, Gimli ran several ideas through his head, but none seemed to fit. The hour was passing, Boromir murmured something as his sleep grew lighter, and Gimli knew he had to act quickly or not at all. And then the idea came. It was a simple idea but sometimes the best ideas were simple ones, and this particular idea was guaranteed to produce desired results. Wasting no more time, he stole quietly to the elf’s side, seized the water skin, and went to work. He finished just before Boromir woke for his watch, and the man roused to find Gimli peacefully smoking his pipe and watching the horizon.
"Anything to report?" Boromir questioned.
"Naught that I’ve seen," Gimli responded, the picture of innocence. "All remains quiet."
Boromir grunted, something that Gimli had learned meant the man was satisfied, he would take over the watch now, and the dwarf could get some sleep. Boromir never said much to any of them, even to Aragorn. Gimli could sense the man’s uneasiness around Races not his own and wondered if this would change over time. From the dwarf’s own observations, Boromir carried a mixture of suspicion and hesitant deference for Gandalf, grudging respect and a bit of envy for Aragorn, condescension and amusement toward the hobbits in general, confusion and bewilderment toward Frodo in particular, uncertainty and almost a hint of awe for Legolas (though for the life of him, the dwarf couldn’t understand why the elf would be held in awe), and a reluctant honor and curiosity for Gimli himself. The poor warrior had joined a company with only one other man, and that other man would oust Boromir’s father as ruler of Gondor. It was an awkward situation, and Gimli felt a flash of pity interrupt his plots of revenge. Still, there was very little he could do to put Boromir’s mind at ease. The man would simply have to figure it all out for himself. "I shall see you tonight, then," Gimli said, moving toward his chosen plot of ground. "If you have need of anything, call me."
Boromir grunted again, and Gimli translated it to be a means of expressing thanks for the offer but that the offer was unneeded. Deciding that two could play the non-verbal game, Gimli shrugged, nodded, and lay down, leaving Boromir to translate that message for himself. And good luck to him, Gimli thought with a hidden smile as he began to drift to sleep. Because even I’m not sure of what I was trying to say.
* * * *
Sam had the last watch of the day before the others would wake, fix a cold breakfast, and prepare for the night’s marches. This particular watch was typically shorter than the other watches, because many of the Company would wake ahead of schedule and begin preparing early. Today was no exception. Fifteen minutes after Sam had relieved Boromir, Aragorn woke and left the group to scout ahead. Boromir had decided to use this last bit of time before nightfall to sleep, but it was obvious that his sleep was a light one and he would wake the moment everyone else began to stir. Pippin roused himself not long after Aragorn departed and joined Sam, engaging the other hobbit in a bit of quiet conversation. Their talking, though hushed as only hobbits can make it, woke Legolas who stood, stretched, and decided to follow Aragorn in case the Ranger would like some assistance or merely some company. After another few minutes had passed, Gandalf seemed to be stirring, Merry was awake but relishing the fact that he didn’t have to move anywhere for another hour or so, Gimli was snoring, and Frodo, for once, was sleeping peacefully.
An hour later, Aragorn and Legolas came back to find Merry getting to his feet, Boromir polishing his sword, Sam starting breakfast, Frodo blinking sleepily, Pippin poking through his pack with an air of concern, Gandalf evaluating the weather, and Gimli leaning against the trunk of a tree looking thoroughly bored.
"No sign of spies on the road ahead," Aragorn informed Gandalf when the wizard noted his return. "It may be that we have lost them for now, though my heart tells me this is not the case."
"They are merely set back," Gandalf agreed with a sigh. "It will not be long before they hound our tracks again. Tonight we shall have to move faster. Our pace has become leisurely of late."
"Okay, Sam, give it back."
Aragorn and Gandalf looked up from their discussion in the direction of the hobbits. Sam was giving Pippin a confused look and the indignant Took was shaking his pack menacingly.
"Give what back?" Sam asked.
"You know very well what. You took my Long Bottom leaf!"
"You had Long Bottom leaf?" Frodo broke in. "How did you get hold of Long Bottom leaf? I thought we used ours up in Rivendell."
"You mean you’ve had Long Bottom leaf and haven’t been sharing with the rest of us?" Merry demanded.
"Oh, that’s harsh, Mr. Pippin," Sam complained. "I’ve had to make do with what little I could scrounge up, seeing as elves have no call for pipe-weed, and here you have a collection of Long Bottom leaf!"
"Had a collection of Long Bottom leaf," Pippin growled.
"What makes you think Sam took it?" Frodo asked.
"Because he slept closest to my pack," Pippin said with a glowering look at the accused hobbit.
"If I’d known you had Long Bottom leaf, I would have asked for it first," Sam protested. "I can loan you some of my pipe-weed if you need it, Mr. Pippin, but I promise that I have no Long Bottom leaf."
"If he did, he’d probably share it," Merry added darkly.
"Well, if he didn’t take it, who did?" Pippin demanded.
"Are you sure you remembered to pack it?" Frodo asked. "You were late getting up yesterday, and you packed in a hurry. Perhaps you left it."
"No, I distinctly remember putting it right here next to my change of shirts. I know I did because I wondered if the smell would need to be washed from my clothes."
Frodo peered into the Took’s pack for a minute and then looked up. "Well, you’re right. It’s not here. But Pippin, if Sam says he didn’t take it, then he didn’t. And I know I didn’t take it. Merry, did you take it?"
"I would have if I’d known about it," Merry answered.
"So Merry didn’t take it, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Gimli all have their own, and Boromir and Legolas don’t use it." Frodo looked at Pippin and shrugged. "It’s just not here. You must have left it somewhere."
"But I didn’t…" Pippin’s protest trailed off suddenly when a hacking sound filled the camp. All eyes quickly found the source of the coughs to be Legolas, who had dropped to one knee and was shuddering violently. One hand clutched his throat, another grasped at his chest, and he doubled over in a very un-elven position.
Aragorn was immediately at the elf’s side, but soon found there was little he could do to help. Fortunately, the coughs seemed to be subsiding and Legolas managed to straighten just enough to catch Aragorn’s eyes and motion him to something on the ground. Puzzled, Aragorn picked up the elf’s water skin, studied it briefly, sniffed it once, and then tasted the water around the rim experimentally. A strange look came over the Ranger’s face. He first glanced at Pippin, then at Gimli who looked a little too innocent, and then back at Legolas. Legolas was caught in another round of violent coughs, but he sensed the looks and managed to throw a deadly glare in Gimli’s direction.
"Pippin, I think we may have found your missing pipe-weed," Aragorn said quietly, emptying the contents of Legolas’s water skin.
Pippin stared, Sam blinked, Frodo sighed, Merry glanced at Gimli, Gimli tried to appear surprised, Boromir turned away muttering under his breath, and Gandalf leaned wearily on his staff. "I see," the wizard murmured. He grimaced when Legolas clutched his stomach and started to heave. "Will he be all right?"
"Once he expels it from his system, he’ll be fine," Aragorn said, putting a supporting hand on the elf’s back. "Perhaps you should take the Company on without us," the Ranger added with an almost imperceptible jerk of his head toward Gimli. "We can catch up after a bit."
"There is danger in separating," Gandalf warned. "How long does he need to recover?"
Aragorn eyed Legolas who was still coughing convulsively. "Not long, but long enough that the rest of you can get a good start on the night’s travels. As I said before, we will be able to catch up. Have no fear of that."
Gandalf sighed and nodded. "Very well. But make haste when you come. It is safer for us to stay together than to break apart."
"We will not take long," Aragorn assured him, turning his attention back to the elf.
"Come," the wizard said to the others. "The night is passing, and we have far to travel."
"Long Bottom leaf," Pippin muttered while hoisting his pack over one shoulder. "Of all the things he could have put in that water skin, why did it have to be my Long Bottom leaf?"
"Serves you right for not sharing," Merry growled.
* * * *
Around midnight, the Company reached a small clearing and Gandalf called for a brief halt in the hopes that Aragorn and Legolas would make an appearance. There’d been no sign of either one since the group had left them at camp, and the wizard was becoming concerned. Both were quite capable of dealing with almost any problem that might come their way, but in these uncertain times with the danger of the One Ring looming over all hopes of the future, Gandalf was reluctant to go on until he’d received some sign that they were still safe.
To his credit, Gimli did appear somewhat remorseful. Gandalf supposed he should be grateful for that much. All of the Company seemed concerned with the continued absence of their two comrades, and there were more than a few dark glances thrown Gimli’s direction. And while Gimli might not mourn the loss of Legolas, he did respect Aragorn.
The group sat in an awkward silence, straining ears and eyes for signs of the Ranger and elf. Gandalf wondered if that would do them any good. Rangers and especially elves could move silently and stealthily if the need pressed. Aragorn and Legolas would probably not be noticed until they walked out of the surrounding trees into the clearing.
It was Boromir whose voice eventually broke through the night air, shattering the stillness like a swinging sword in a room filled with precious glass.
"Perhaps one or two could break from the group and start a search," the warrior suggested. "They need not wander far. Just a sign or token of Aragorn and Legolas would be enough to set our hearts at ease."
Gandalf looked at the remainder of the Company and raised one bristling eyebrow. Gathered in the clearing was one proud warrior of Gondor who fought more on the open plain than in the woods, one cold wizard who had advised against breaking up in the first place, one dwarf from the sparse slopes of the Lonely Mountain, one pony who was quite content to graze in peace and quiet, and four well-intentioned but bumbling hobbits. Humoring Boromir by mentally arranging a variety of pairings from the remainder of their Fellowship, Gandalf reached the conclusion that splitting the group further would be disastrous. Besides, the two best qualified to lead a search party into the surrounding forests were the two who were missing.
Boromir, watching Gandalf evaluate the members of the Company not missing, quickly reached the same conclusion and revised his earlier recommendation. "Or perhaps we could all go back and look for them."
"There may be nothing wrong. And they both travel faster than we are currently traveling," Gandalf mused. "Were we to continue on, they could easily catch us. Were we to turn back, we might run into them and so allay our fears, but the journey would be lengthened."
"You need not continue your debate," a voice suddenly called from the concealment of the trees. Boromir’s hand strayed to his sword hilt, the hobbits grouped together, and Gimli laid his hands on the haft of his axe. But Gandalf instantly recognized the voice and relaxed.
"It is long since we left you," the wizard said as Aragorn emerged from the dense forest. Legolas followed behind him. "Did you tarry for some reason?"
The Ranger frowned and looked back at the elf. Legolas shook his head slightly in answer to an unspoken question. Aragorn eventually turned his gaze back toward Gandalf. "I think this is best discussed as we walk. If you are all rested, we should resume the journey."
Only a flicker in the wizard’s dark eyes betrayed his surprise and concern. Keeping his face a mask of deceptive calm, he nodded and turned to the rest of the Fellowship. "We shall rest a few more minutes, and then we must continue. There are still many leagues to cover, and every minute of delay is a minute in which our Enemy grows ever stronger."
"I wish Gandalf would say something with a bit of cheer now and then," Sam muttered to Merry. "Something like ‘oh well done’ or ‘we’re winning today.’ All this doom and gloom is making me shiver."
"Well, look at it this way," Merry suggested. "If he keeps making things look bad, then the good things that happen will seem even better."
"Providing there will be good things," Frodo murmured ominously.
**In the reckoning of the Shire, each month had 30 days and the first and last day of the year were days outside the normal calendar, called Yuledays. This meant that December 30 was the next to last day of the old year and January 1 was the second day of the new year. See ROTK Appendix D.
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