26. Against the Grindstone
The Hall of Fire was empty when Rose Cotton Gamgee entered. The sun had set several hours ago, and most of Rivendell’s exhausted inhabitants had sought what rest they could find as soon as they were able. No song or story had been told in the hall this night. The only visitor—aside from the hobbit—was the starlight that crept in through the wide windows lining the sides of the hall. This faint light mixed with the roaring flames in the massive hearth to bathe the room in a gentle glow. From outside, the bubbling murmur of cascading water could be heard, and from within the hall, the quiet crackling of the fire whispered words of comfort and peace.
But even as it offered reassurance, the fire was not entirely calming. Contained within the dancing flames was an element of hidden sorrow. Forgotten pain. Quiet grief. Almost it seemed that the fire mourned for days long past even as it strove to welcome days yet to come. In some ways, it reminded Rosie very much of the elves. The Eldar were filled with mirth and walked with power, but they were also vulnerable. Tainted, if such a term could be used to describe elves. They had the light of Elbereth’s stars, but the darkness of countless battles still shadowed their hearts. They ached with the weight of memories and yearned for years of glory that had been lost to the march of days and would never be seen again.
Not that Rosie thought about any of this consciously. Such musings were beyond her reach. She was blessed with a sharp intellect, but she was still a hobbit of the Shire whose mind had been raised on simple problems and simple solutions. Yet despite her inexperience with such weighty matters, her feelings and impressions were just as shrewd and accurate as any philosophical conclusions that a wiser being might draw. Elves intimidated her at the same time that she felt an overwhelming surge of pity and compassion for them. The Hall of Fire made her feel the same way. And at the moment, the conflicting emotions raised within her by sheer virtue of simply being in the hall were a perfect match for her bewildered state of mind.
She was exhausted. She had spent countless hours running errands for healers as they desperately tried to find an antidote for the poison that had infected many of the wounded elves. Fortune was on their side, and they had indeed found one in time to prevent the deaths of the injured that survived the trip home to Rivendell. But it had been a near thing, and Rosie still trembled slightly because of it.
She was also terrified. She had witnessed the hectic aftermath of a battle with Orcs, and she had seen the powerful, valiant elves laid low by blade and bolt. The enemy had killed and would not hesitate to do so again. Sam was still out in the woods. He was still in harm’s way.
And she was grieved. In addition to assisting the healers, she had aided in burying the dead. It was an experience she did not wish to have again. There was something about the passing of an immortal that had struck a chord deep within her. She could not explain exactly what had so affected her and she could not explain why she was still greatly upset by it. But the fact remained that a heaviness had descended over her hobbit heart, marring a part of her innocence. And she doubted that she would ever be the same.
So Rosie had come to the Hall of Fire. When an elf had introduced her to this hall the previous night, she had been completely entranced. Elanor had been with her at the time, though, and she had not had the chance to fully appreciate this place that seemed to be a living tomb for memories of every Age. But this night, Elanor had fallen asleep several hours ago and was now tucked snuggly away in bed, giving Rosie a few moments in which to reflect on all that she had experienced. And there seemed to be no better place for this reflection than the Hall of Fire.
So much had happened! During the day she had busied herself with every chore she could find, seeking out elves and offering her help even though there was little she could do in some cases. But now that the day had passed, fears were creeping back into her heart, in particular her fears for Sam. Rosie had a sense that the current situation was as nothing compared to what her husband had endured during his long journey with Frodo, yet that did not assuage her worries. The powerful elves were vulnerable against those terrible Orcs. Her husband would be vulnerable, too. And then there was Merry, who had been taken by the dreadful beasts… What horrors did he face? What if Sam was taken? What would he face? What if she never saw him again? What if Elanor and young Frodo were forced to grow up without a father? A choking sob caught in the back of her throat and Rosie shuddered. The weary, grieving hobbit was in no condition to face these fears and concerns, and her heart trembled within her as she stared at the flames.
"Bless me, we should have never left the Shire," Rosie whispered, her vision blurring as her eyes filled with unshed tears. "Bree is safe enough, by all accounts, but to come all the way here… Sam said there were things worth seeing beyond the borders, and I don’t argue that. But there’s darkness, too, and I don’t think hobbits were ever meant to see so much of both good and bad."
Memories of the day came rushing into her mind, and she winced as she remembered cleaning out the wounds of the elves. She remembered thinking that every wound she treated might have been a wound that her husband sustained. What chance did a simple hobbit have against such power and such evil?
One of the tears collecting in her eyes managed to escape, and it rolled down her cheek as she stared at the roaring fire before her. Somehow, she knew that many tears had already been shed in this hall. She could feel the memories of such sorrow pressing upon her. She was not the first to come here looking for solace, nor would she be the last. Though she was the only one within the room, the Hall of Fire was never truly empty, for all who had ever been here left something of themselves behind. Rosie was not alone in her grief, and for some reason, this gave her comfort.
Wiping at her face, the hobbit sighed and turned away from the fire. She should seek her own bed. If Elanor woke and found herself to be alone, she would be frightened. Rosie could not have that. There was enough fear in her heart for both of them, and she would spare Elanor that anguish if possible.
"My greetings to you, Rose Gamgee."
Rosie jumped, her breath hitching in her throat and her heart pounding. Looking quickly to the doorway that led into the Hall of Fire, her eyes quickly landed upon the fair features of Gondor’s queen, who seemed to be struggling to hide a smile.
"My apologies," Arwen said, the corners of her mouth twitching. "It was not my intention to startle you."
"Oh, that’s…that’s alright," Rosie stammered. "I didn’t hear you come in. Am I intruding?"
"That question should be mine to ask," Arwen said, moving toward a bench and taking a seat. "For you seemed deep in thought and I did not wish to interrupt. Have I disturbed you?"
"No! No, you haven’t," Rosie said quickly. "I was just leaving, actually."
"You seek rest?"
Rosie nodded. "Yes. Also, I don’t want to leave Elanor alone for long, my lady."
"Your daughter is fortunate to be blessed by such a loving mother," Arwen said.
"I don’t know about that," Rosie answered with a slight grimace. "I ought not to have left her alone in the first place."
"The healers tell me that your help was invaluable and that never once did you rest in your duties. Surely such effort merits a moment alone with your thoughts. I do not think that any could fault you for that." Arwen glanced around the spacious hall, her eyes lingering on the gaping windows that allowed entrance for the starlight. "Is this place to your liking?"
Rosie frowned, wondering where the conversation was going. She did not know Arwen well, but something told her that the queen wished for distraction. Something had upset her, and she now sought to forget about it for a while. "I don’t rightly know how to answer that," Rosie said at length in response to Arwen’s question. "This Hall of Fire seems a bit above my tastes, if you understand me. I don’t mean any offense, but…it’s a little much for a hobbit like me. I’m not used to…well…to feeling like this."
"You are unused to the memories," Arwen concluded with a sad smile. "For that, you have my envy. Would that I could be so innocent. It might be said that memories are the bane of the elves. The Eldar would be content were it not for the stain of years gone by."
Rosie studied Arwen for a moment, noting the weariness that seemed to weigh upon her shoulders as well as the lines of concern around her eyes. And eventually, the mothering instincts within Rosie could no longer be contained. Even if Arwen was centuries her senior, Rosie now had two children and she could not sit by and watch this growing suffering. "My lady, if I’m not out of place by asking, what’s troubling you?"
At first, there was naught by silence for an answer. And then Arwen laughed. It was a sorrowful laugh but there was contained within it the seed of mirth, and Rosie found her own spirits lifting slightly. "I had thought to comfort you when I learned you were here," Arwen murmured with a rueful shake of her head. "Alas, I fear my own concerns have gotten the better of me. Forgive me. I did not mean to burden you."
"It’s no burden," Rosie assured her. "I just thought I might help, seeing as you and all the elves here have helped me. Is there anything I can do?"
"Unless you are capable of tracking Marchwardens of Lothlórien, then nay. I fear there is nothing to be done," Arwen sighed, glancing out the dark windows. She then seemed to shake herself, and her bright eyes turned upon Rosie once more. "In any case, you have done more than enough and should now look to your own needs. I have no wish to fall under Sam’s censure should he return and find that we wearied you beyond your ability to endure."
"Oh, there’s no call to be worrying about that," Rosie said with something of a dismissive sniff. "Sam knows I need things to do, and he’ll know that I went out of my way to find those things that needed doing." She looked away, her thoughts darkening. "He’d tell you that himself if he were here now."
"He will return, Rose Gamgee," Arwen said quietly. "The elves will see to that."
"He’s just so stubborn!" Rosie exclaimed. "I’m worried he won’t let anyone see to his own safety. He’d sooner look out for another. And that’s one of the reasons I love him, but there are times…" She trailed off and shook her head, unsure of how to continue.
"In this, we are very much alike," Arwen said quietly. "My own husband is much the same. But as I have learned this day, we must accept them for what they are and also ourselves for what we are. There are things in this world that cannot be altered, no matter how much we may wish to change them. The nature of others is one of these things."
"But accepting what we can’t change doesn’t make it any easier," Rosie said, her voice low.
"Nay. Nay, it does not," Arwen agreed. "But at least we are given a measure of understanding. And though the pain in our hearts remains, we are better prepared to face it because of this understanding."
Rosie furrowed her brow, not quite certain that she agreed with this. It seemed to her that pain was not a thing that could be prepared for but rather something that had to be endured. But Arwen sounded certain of herself, and if that brought the queen reassurance, Rosie wasn’t about to say otherwise. Besides, it was time she turned to other things. She had lingered here long enough. "I should go, my lady," she said. "Elanor doesn’t sleep well in strange places. She might wake."
"Then I wish you a good night," Arwen said, smiling gently and rising. "And do not fear for Samwise. He may not look after his own safety, but there are others who will do so for him. And he has a wise heart. He will be cautious."
"I know," Rosie sighed. "And thank you. But I think I’ll worry all the same."
* * * *
The shadows upon the ground were changing.
His eyes roaming the dark forest around him, Gimli scowled and wondered if anyone else felt this shift. The dwarf had actually been aware of it for some time, but it now seemed to be more pronounced. He could not say exactly what the change was, but something was certainly different. It was almost if there was a…a weakening. As though the will behind the shadows had relaxed. This did not make much sense to Gimli, for the shadows still seemed quite potent, yet…
Focus, he told himself firmly, redirecting his attention. The area they now searched was perfect for caves, and Gimli needed to be alert to changes in the ground beneath his feet. But it was difficult to concentrate when the darkness around him continued to shift, for that darkness was connected to the one who had captured Legolas and Merry. A change probably meant that something had happened, and Gimli was willing to bet that the change was not a good one.
Perhaps it is just me, Gimli rationalized. Perhaps I am imagining this change. But even as these thoughts came to him, the dwarf knew them to be lies. No one had commented on the shifting darkness—at least not to him—but he could tell that some of the elves had sensed something. Thranduil, in particular, came to mind. The elven king had changed his tactics since they first began this search several days ago, and his changes corresponded almost exactly with the changes in the darkness. Something was definitely afoot, but what that something was, Gimli could not say.
Focus! he told himself again. Focus or you shall never find any caves! But as before, it was difficult. Far more difficult than it should have been. His mind kept returning to the mists about his feet, and from there, his thoughts would take him to Legolas. Perhaps he should not have listened when Celeborn revealed his suspicions concerning what was happening. Knowing what his friend might be enduring made fear more difficult to control.
Some would probably argue that more information resulted in greater confidence, and in certain situations, that might well be the case. But in this instance, Gimli regretted learning what they faced. Before Celeborn had spoken to them, this had been nothing more than a mission to rescue captives. There was certainly fear for those captives, but it was fear that Gimli had felt before. Fear of torture, brutality, and death were things that the dwarf had encountered all too often during his life. But now he had been introduced to new possibilities, and he did not like these possibilities. He had no experience in these matters. He had felt somewhat helpless before, but he felt utterly useless now. He knew the basic history of Númenor, but nothing beyond that. The things of which Celeborn had spoken were far beyond his area of expertise, yet they lay at the heart of what was happening to Legolas.
The dwarf was nearly startled into jumping. He managed to save his pride and steady himself before such an unseemly display could be seen, but the surprise only served to show him just how far his thoughts had strayed. I am doing it again, he groaned to himself. By the fires of Mahal, I must focus!
Glancing to the side, Gimli discovered that Sam and Pippin had joined him at some point in his musings. How long they had been there, he could not say, but their expressions suggested that they might have been calling him for quite a while.
"Gimli, are you feeling all right?" Pippin asked, his face concerned. "You don’t look well."
Am I feeling all right? Gimli resisted the rather maniacal urge to laugh. He had not been feeling all right for quite a while, but he wasn’t about to tell Pippin that. Still, the question did bring up a good point. How was he feeling? Was he capable of controlling his thoughts long enough to focus on the murmurings of the earth? Or would such a task be left to the flighty, tree-loving elves while the dwarf let his fears get the better of him?
"Gimli?" Sam prompted.
"I was thinking," Gimli answered with a sigh.
"Thinking. That’s…good," Pippin said, his tone rather hesitant. "Sometimes it’s good to think. But sometimes it’s also good to act. Not everything needs thinking."
"And not everyone needs thinking, either," Sam added. "In fact, as my Gaffer is fond of telling me, some things you should never think about until after you’ve gone and done them. And some people should never think at all or else they won’t go and do anything."
Sam’s philosophy brought a slight smile to Gimli’s face even as he realized that this simple, rustic hobbit was right. The dwarf was thinking too much, and that was why he could not seem to concentrate. Before Celeborn’s explanation, Gimli had been able to contain his anxieties and pay attention to the search. But now that the reason for Legolas’s capture had become clearer, it was difficult to focus because fear and helplessness were taking control. Gimli needed to stop thinking, stop feeling, and start following his instincts. They had proven to be useful tools over the year, and if he was to aid in finding a cave, he would have to trust to them now. His mind was no longer any use.
"You are correct, Master Gamgee," Gimli murmured. "And I thank you for your assistance."
"You’re quite welcome, I’m sure," Sam said, sounding rather pleased with himself, and it occurred to Gimli that the hobbits probably felt as useless as he did. Any chance to help in any way would be received with gratitude. If dispensing advice could elicit joy in Sam, then perhaps Gimli could put these two Halflings to work in other areas.
"Sam, Pippin, would you walk slightly ahead of me? And spread apart, if you would."
"We can do that," Pippin said. "But what’s the purpose?"
"I want you to pay close attention to the ground. If you feel any rises, any dips, or any other changes in the terrain, tell me. Such things might be indications that the entrance to a cave is close at hand."
"You think we’re near, then?" Sam asked, a tentative note of hope entering his voice.
"I believe so," Gimli answered, drawing one boot over the ground beneath his feet. "If Elladan is right and these Orcs have taken shelter in caves, we are very near."
"Good," Pippin murmured as he moved ahead of the dwarf and began feeling his way through the darkness. "I don’t know that I can stand any more waiting. And I don’t even want to think about Merry and Legolas having to wait any longer."
"But Strider did say that maybe nothing’s happening to them anymore," Sam said, though he did not sound as though he was convinced of this.
"He was only guessing because Elladan claims the shadows are changing," Pippin answered grimly. "Strider doesn’t know any more about what’s happening than we do. And I think that what we know is too much."
Gimli sighed and nodded in silent agreement, his thoughts once again drawn back to his earlier musings. Though they now suspected that Legolas and Merry were the subjects of Númenórean sorcery once used by Sauron, that really didn’t tell them much. Torture, mind games, forced loyalty…Gimli shuddered as the list rolled through his head. Celeborn had said that Legolas and Merry might not even recognize their rescuers. Their minds might not be their own. How did one heal such a thing? How did one address such a thing? What would recovery be like?
Focus! Gimli practically screamed at himself, once again realizing that he was no longer concentrating upon the earth but rather walking in a stupor. This was certainly not the way of the dwarves. Their minds were built to stand firm and strong against distractions should they choose to occupy themselves with but a single task. It was this peculiar talent that had enabled them to carve out vast regions beneath Arda and create the glory of Khazad-dûm as well as the lesser halls found in Erebor, the Iron Hills, and the Blue Mountains. Their focus and single-mindedness could sometimes rival the legendary concentration of the elves, and often it endured for longer periods of time. But tonight, beset with anxiety for his friends, Gimli could not seem to keep his mind in one place.
His hands curling around the haft of his axe, Gimli cursed the Orcs and the power that led them. The enemy had won on several fronts. It had successfully made off with two members of the Fellowship and it had then foiled the attempts of searchers. Moreover, it had divided these searchers through use of fell whispers in the darkness, and it was now preventing Gimli from doing what dwarves did best. It was preventing him from listening to the sounds of the earth. He was only dimly aware of the rock beneath his feet, and such a thing was nearly unheard of for dwarves, particularly those who were direct descendents of Durin.
"Gimli? Gimli, I think I might have found something."
The dwarf blinked, and anger reared up in his heart. Even as he had thought about concentrating on the task, his mind had taken him elsewhere. What was wrong with him this night?! Was he truly so weary and so concerned that the smallest duties could no longer be fulfilled? Or is this a new product of the darkness? he suddenly wondered. Is this distraction significant in some way? But there was no time to dwell on this, for too much time had already been wasted. Shaking his head fiercely, Gimli sternly disciplined himself and hurried toward Pippin, who was stepping about cautiously as though fearful of disturbing something.
"Here," the hobbit explained, moving back as Gimli reached him. "The ground is rising and it doesn’t feel the same anymore. I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for, but—"
Pippin was cut off as Gimli pushed him to one side and knelt, closing his eyes and running his hands over the ground. He would not suffer a lapse in concentration now. Not with victory so close. Not with Legolas so near! With every desire of his heart tuned to the whispers of Arda, he traced the contours of the stones and the soil, feeling and sensing things that were beyond the ability of men and elves to comprehend. He built a mental picture of the earth beneath him, constructing it from hints and clues garnered from the sighs of Arda as the weight of stone and mountain pressed upon it. And at length, he withdrew, standing and brushing his hands off as a sense of relief began to fill him. "Well done, Pippin," the dwarf murmured. "Well done. I believe you have found exactly what we are looking for."
"This is it, then? There is a cave nearby?"
Gimli did not answer Sam for a moment but stared at the shadows upon the ground, illuminated by the slight touch of moonlight. "It is difficult to tell with certainty," he said at length. "But there is a change within the ground. The bedrock is closer to the surface, and it is rising further south. If it rises above the ground and breaks through the soil, then we are almost guaranteed to find a cave, for there are empty spaces beneath us. Caverns, and large ones at that. However," he cautioned, catching the spark of hope in the hobbits’ eyes, "this does not guarantee that a cave is close. It may take several miles for the bedrock to rise sufficiently. In addition to that, we might not find the right cave. If Elladan is correct, the area further south may be riddled with caves and underground passages. But at least there is more hope now than there was several minutes ago."
"Should we tell the elves?" Pippin asked, his enthusiasm undimmed in spite of Gimli’s warning.
"Nay, not yet," the dwarf murmured, moving forward slowly. "We should not terminate our searches in other areas. It is possible that another team might find a closer cave."
"But Strider, at least, ought to be told," Pippin reasoned. "This is all wearing on his mind and I think he could do with a bit of good news right now. We wouldn’t have to break off the other searches, but we could concentrate more resources on this one."
"And there’s still the Orcs to consider," Sam added. "I don’t fancy meeting them on a dark night in the woods, and I’d feel better if I knew some archers were following us."
"I believe that we are already being followed," Gimli said quietly, his mind now focusing itself more and more on the line of bedrock that he sensed. Armed with something tangible and sensing that results were now within reach, Gimli was finding it much easier to concentrate. "I have caught glimpses of elves moving about overhead, and I suspect that some have orders to watch us specifically," he continued. "But perhaps you are correct when you speak of Aragorn." He paused and looked away from the shadows, his eyes coming to rest upon Pippin and Sam as he considered their options. "Do you know where Aragorn is?"
"I think we can find him quickly enough," Sam answered.
"Very well. Go and bring him here," Gimli ordered. "But make certain that you stay together. And do not tarry for any reason until you find him! You are right when you speak of Orcs, Sam. We are drawing near their stronghold, and we should walk with a greater measure of caution."
"You’ll be alright without us?" Sam asked even as Pippin turned to leave.
Gimli smiled slightly at the hobbit’s concern and nodded. "There are elves about, and should I have need of their services, I will call. Go now. And be safe!"
"We will," Pippin promised, seizing Sam by the arm when the gardener looked as though he might protest leaving the dwarf behind. "And we’ll be back soon. Come on, Sam. Let’s hurry!"
With Pippin in the lead, the hobbits soon vanished into the darkness of the night, and Gimli returned to his hunt. He moved faster now, and the strange waywardness of his mind seemed to have vanished. His concentration was back, and he could feel Arda groan beneath his feet as it struggled against the shrouding veil of shadow. He was close. The bedrock was beginning to rise swiftly, and almost he could hear echoes deep beneath the ground. The network of caves was drawing closer to the surface. There could be no mistaking that. All he needed to do now was to find the entrance.
His excitement getting the better of him, he began rushing forward, using the silent sounds of Arda to guide him. The distractions of the darkness faded away in the face of dwarven obsession, and as Gimli hastened through the woods, he felt the bedrock rise even higher. It would break the surface soon. Somewhere around here, it would form a cliff or a rise of some kind. A hill would spring up, and at the base of this hill, Gimli would find it. He would find his cave. And within that cave, he would find Legolas and Merry. Gone were the warnings he had given to the hobbits in the face of their optimism. This cave would be the right one, and an end would come of their seemingly fruitless search.
So caught up was he in his enthusiasm that Gimli failed to see a lithe form drop out of the trees directly in front of him, and he plowed into this figure with enough force to send them both sprawling.
Instinct honed over years of war and battle dictated his response as his hands closed around the haft of his axe. Pulling the weapon free even as he rolled to his feet, Gimli leaped back to give himself room and swung the axe through the air in a purely defensive move. Unfortunately, in accordance with the philosophy of dwarven defense, the stroke was also intended to maim and possibly to kill. About the time his axe reached the apex of its swing, Gimli realized that he might be making a serious mistake, and he wrenched himself violently to the side so as to alter the course of the attack. Even so, things might have gone grievously awry had not that the newcomer possessed exceedingly swift reflexes. He was already outside the dwarf’s strike radius before the axe had even begun to swing.
"Hold!" an elven voice hissed. "Peace! Stay your hand, nogoth!"
Gimli shuddered, his breath coming hard and the blade of his axe slamming into the ground as he forcefully stopped his attack. With narrowed eyes, the dwarf tried to calm his racing heart as he studied the elf before him. "Calbenarth?"
Calbenarth’s eyes flashed and Gimli was quick to notice that the elf’s hand hovered above the hilt of the knife on his belt. "You would do well to control yourself, Master Dwarf," Calbenarth warned, his voice as cold as the winter winds.
Gimli groaned and cursed his luck. When Legolas had first led a group of elves to Ithilien, Thranduil had dispatched Calbenarth to accompany him. The Mirkwood captain had overseen some of the construction efforts and assisted in driving the last of the Orcs from the Ethel Duath. Gimli and Aragorn had both been present for much of this, lending their own aid to Legolas’s efforts, and Gimli remembered Calbenarth with little fondness. The captain was an incredible military strategist and a gifted archer, but he had little tolerance for those he deemed unworthy of the skills and talents of the elves. "You, Master Elf, would do well to avoid startling one armed with an axe," Gimli answered.
"I would have taken greater care to alert you to my presence had I known that your senses and judgement were so poor," Calbenarth retorted sharply, but to the dwarf’s relief, his hand was no longer near his knife.
Taking a deep breath, Gimli firmly schooled himself in patience and tried to remember that this particular elf was a captain that had earned Legolas’s deep respect. And at the thought of his missing friend, his previous urgency and focus returned. He did not have time to trade insults with an elf who would never see him as anything more than an aberration in the song of Ilúvatar. "Your pardon," Gimli said coolly. "It was not my intention to attack you. And now if you will step aside, I believe I may have found a vein of rock that shall lead us to a cave."
"That I cannot do, much as I might relish the idea," Calbenarth answered. His eyes still burned in anger, but he was a dutiful elf and was quickly regaining his composure and formality. "If you proceed much further, you shall find yourself in the midst of many Orcs. Indeed, it is a wonder that they have not already heard you."
Gimli blinked, his mind working quickly. "Orcs? What is their exact location?"
A look of annoyance passed over Calbenarth’s face, and for a moment, Gimli thought he might be refused an answer. But then the elf shook his head slightly and sighed, his expression becoming unreadable. "You were correct, son of Glóin. However you knew it, the entrance to a cave does indeed lie in this direction. And judging from the number Orcs about, it would seem to be the correct entrance."
Gimli felt his mouth drop open in shock. The realization that their search was now at an end stunned him, and he found himself unprepared for the swell of relief and excitement that swept through him. "We found it?" he questioned, his voice little more than a murmur. "We are there?"
"Scouts have reported back to me saying that there is a clearing a mile to the south. The cave’s entrance is there," Calbenarth confirmed.
His hands trembling slightly, Gimli lifted his axe and closed his eyes, seeking to calm himself with the weight and feel of the weapon. It would soon be able to sever the heads of those who had taken his friends. It would be able to give them deliverance. It would be able to bring them into the light of day. "We must alert the others," Gimli whispered, his mind racing. "They must be brought here with all possible haste."
"My archers are already seeing to this," Calbenarth informed him coolly. "And they are patrolling the area in an attempt to root out any pockets of Orcs that might lie in ambush. Now I would ask that you follow me with as much stealth as you can muster, for we have discovered a place where our forces might gather ere the attack."
"And how long will it take to gather everyone together?" Gimli demanded, feeling an itch of impatience creep into his heart.
Calbenarth arched one delicate eyebrow that reminded Gimli very much of Legolas at his smuggest. "I cannot speak for the men of Gondor, but the elves understand the need for haste. They will be here quickly, of that you need have no fear. So I would advise against any rash action that might alert the Orcs to our presence. Our greatest advantage will lie in stealth and secrecy."
Gimli sighed and once again forced down his feelings of frustration toward elves in general and Mirkwood elves in particular. "Dwarves are not unfamiliar with stratagems, Master Elf. I will not reveal our position to the enemy."
"See that you do not," Calbenarth said, turning away and moving east. "Now come, Master Dwarf, for I would fain lend my efforts to those of my kin as we inform all of what has been discovered."
"Far be it from me to stand in your way," Gimli muttered, following the captain with some reluctance. Still, the dwarf could not truly find it within himself to be upset with this elf, for the excitement of what had happened still pounded in his blood. After two days of searching, they had done it. They had found the cave. Legolas was practically within arm’s grasp. They only needed to reach out and seize him. Hold fast, my friend, Gimli thought, his hands still tight upon the haft of his axe. We are nearly there. Only hold fast for a little longer, and then this shall all be behind us.
Gimli studiously ignored the hint of laughter that seemed to echo up from the shadows at this last thought.
A gentle sigh, soft as the night breeze that had returned to rustle the leaves high overhead, brushed against Haldir’s cheek. "We should not linger."
One arm draped about his brother’s shoulders, Haldir drew Orophin tightly against his side and shook his head. "We shall not leave until you feel yourself ready."
"But what of you?" Orophin asked quietly. "What of your own grief? Why do we not wait until you are also ready?"
Despite the tears that lined his cheeks, Haldir smiled slightly. Orophin had indeed returned to him. That was exactly the kind of response to be expected from his youngest brother. "Fear not for me," he said. "I am well. I have dealt with grief before."
"Not under the influence of such a shadow."
"Nay, but now that I know to guard against it, I should not be troubled unduly."
Orophin nodded. "I take it that you feel yourself ready to travel and only wait for me."
"Do not concern yourself over such things," Haldir said gently. "Your welfare is my first priority. I would wait here until the passing of Ilúvatar’s song if it would aid me."
A silent chuckle shook Orophin’s shoulders. "I do not doubt it, Haldir," he murmured. "But I do not see how such a thing could possibly aid me. Nor do I see how any further waiting could aid me." He stood, pulling out of Haldir’s embrace, and his eyes surveyed the forest. "It is unsafe to linger any longer. Where now do we go, brother?"
Haldir grimaced and also stood. "I do not know," he confessed, running various options though his mind. "Perhaps we should return to Imladris and seek out Lord Celeborn. He doubtless knows of our absence. It would behoove us to seek him ere he seeks us. And in Imladris, we would be removed from the shadows that clouded our minds. It would be good for both of us."
"I suppose that returning is a wise decision," Orophin murmured. "Prudent, albeit cautious."
Haldir frowned. "Have you another suggestion?"
His concern beginning to mount, Haldir laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder and turned Orophin to face him. "Are you certain that you are well?"
"Are you?" Orophin asked, his eyes shadowed. "Are either of us?" He sighed and shook his head, continuing before Haldir could say aught. "An hour ago, I was not myself. Of that, there can be no doubt. But the thoughts that I had while possessed by madness contained pieces of wisdom. We are Marchwardens, Haldir. We are accomplished hunters and warriors." Orophin looked away from his brother, his voice dropping to a whisper. "I have never before shrunk from a challenge or a duty. I do not intend to begin now."
"Your duty lies in recovery," Haldir said, fear eating away at his heart. "Come, Orophin. Let us return and—"
"No. No, I see now what must be done." Orophin turned toward Haldir again, and though his eyes did not hold the desperate drive for vengeance that had shadowed him earlier, there was an earnestness present that unnerved Haldir. "Rúmil said something to me before we parted. He spoke of time and how fleeting it is, even to elves. And then he died. Do you see? He was right, Haldir. Time cannot be dismissed, and time is running out. We have an obligation to make the most of it, and I intend to do just that."
"Orophin, you are not making sense," Haldir argued. "We should return and—"
"Yes, we should return," Orophin agreed. "But I will not. I cannot. Rúmil would continue onward. How can I do any less?"
"We discussed this!" Haldir said, his voice rising as frustration got the better of him. "You cannot replace Rúmil! You have no need to replace Rúmil!"
"I am not trying to replace him but rather trying to apply a lesson he taught me," Orophin answered, his eyes now set with determination. "Nor is this about vengeance, so do not think to argue that. This is about responsibility. We cannot be too far from those searching for the Orcs, and we have talents that could be put to good use. We have a duty to aid them, Haldir. And I will not refuse such a duty."
Haldir closed his eyes for a moment and took a step backwards away from his brother. Something was happening that he did not quite understand. This was unlike Orophin’s previous madness, yet even so, it was not the brother he had known and served with for centuries. Something in Rúmil’s death had wrought a change within Orophin, but Haldir could not determine whether or not this was a change for the better. "What do you propose?" he finally asked, sensing that his brother would not be swayed from his course.
"I propose that we continue to search for the trail. We search for the Orcs. We cannot be more than a mile or so east of the company, for in my journey here, I paralleled their course. Let us continue southward and veer to the west. Perhaps we might rejoin our kin."
"I do not see how this plan is any different from your previous suicidal objective," Haldir pointed out. "There are only two of us. We are vulnerable."
"This plan is different because I do not look to engage the Orcs. I look only to rejoin the main body of searchers and perhaps find clues that will help them along the way. Before, under the shadow of madness, I thought to battle every Orc I found and force myself through to their stronghold. That is no longer my desire," Orophin answered, his face grim. "But you are right; we are extremely vulnerable. And for this reason, I do not ask you to come with me. But my own mind is set. I cannot turn away from this. We are so close already. To turn back now…it defies everything I was ever taught. And time is still of the essence. I understand that now. Yet if you do not wish to accompany me…"
Closing his eyes for a moment, Haldir took a deep breath and then shook his head. "You know better than that," he murmured. "I would sooner fall upon my own sword than leave you alone in this darkness." He opened his eyes and looked around, watching the shadows beneath their tree intently. "Very well. We will turn southwest and attempt to find the other elves. But we will not engage the foe under any circumstances, and we will take every precaution available. Do I make myself clear on this, Orophin?"
"You do, and I would not think to argue against such counsel," Orophin said. "Rest assured that my intentions are only to scout. No skirmishes, no picking off stray Orcs, and no infiltrating the enemy’s camp. We are but eyes and ears for the forces of Lothlórien."
Haldir studied his brother for a long minute before letting out a quiet sigh. "If you are indeed intent on this, then let us go," he said quietly. "The sooner we start, the sooner we can find our kin." He moved back, eyed the limbs above him, and then leaped, pulling himself higher in the tree before moving south. "Stay in the upper branches," he cautioned. "There may be Orcs posted as guards in some of these trees. And should our plans go awry in any way, we will withdraw immediately! Is that understood?"
"I desire neither your death nor mine," Orophin answered. "Fear not, Haldir. I will follow your lead."
"As you followed my lead in returning to Rivendell?" Haldir asked caustically, carefully gauging the distance from his current branch to the limb of a neighboring tree.
"This is different," Orophin said.
"I fail to see the distinction," his brother muttered, gathering himself and making the leap into the next tree. "However, since I cannot alter your mind, let us cease this talk and be silent. But know that I will not hesitate to force a retreat if you fight me on anything else. We are risking much as it is."
"As of now, your word is law," Orophin promised.
I wish I could believe that, Haldir sighed, but he said nothing as they continued forward. And so the two vanished southwards in the night, leaving no mark of their passage and no hint of their coming.
Nogoth—Dwarf (with the connotation of being stunted)
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.