19. A Sense of Precarious Balance
They would have to be.
“Do not fear, Eldarion,” Legolas absently repeated the whispered litany over and over as the stone slowly lifted. Eldarion just nodded confidently, completely trusting in his uncles’ promise to rescue him. Despite being the one under the boulder, Eldarion was not the one nearly trembling in anxiety. He was perfectly calm. The Elf and the Dwarf, on the other hand, were terrified.
Gimli knew that at any moment the rock could slip a little too far to one side or the other, and if it went to the one it would mean death for both his friends while if it went to the other it would at the least mean grave injury to the boy’s legs and the archer’s hands. Despite the chill conditions of the cave, sweat rolled down Gimli’s taunt face as fear gripped his heart.
Legolas knew that at any moment the boulder could decide to roll backwards with the lever, and that would mean Gimli’s death. He had every confidence in the Dwarf, but accidents could happen, and if one did he knew that Gimli would never allow it to harm the boy—or the Elf. He would sacrifice himself before that happened and the thought terrified Legolas.
The child flinched and bit his lip as the weight lifted off his legs but made no other sign of distress. Legolas tugged sharply on Eldarion’s legs and the child moved a few inches—
But just as relief passed across the faces of Elf and Dwarf the boy stopped. He was stuck. Somehow both Gimli and Legolas kept from crying out in dismay, but it was evident on both their faces. Legolas flashed a glance at Gimli and the Dwarf nodded shortly; he would hold the stone in place. If it killed him to do it, he would not let that boulder budge.
Quickly turning back, Legolas, now lying nearly prone in an attempt to practically wriggle into the small gap between rock and floor, squeezed his thin fingers in as far as they would go along Eldarion’s legs as he searched for the impediment. He found a large rock that was lying on Eldarion’s trousers—although fortunately not on the boy himself—that was pressed tightly between boulder and floor. Whispering a swift prayer to Elbereth that this rock was not one on which the stone was resting, and hoping that his act was not about to have dire consequences for both Eldarion and himself, Legolas forced it aside.
The boulder quivered almost imperceptibly but did not otherwise move. Letting out a breath he had not known he was holding, the Elf wrapped his fingers around the boy’s knees and pulled again. The child was almost free when there was another snag. Legolas felt carefully with his fingers but could not find the source of the hindrance, yet Eldarion would not come out. The Elf pressed himself as close to the floor as he could and peered under the boulder.
The flickering torches gave Elvish eyes just enough light to dimly make out the problem. The boulder was not entirely round and one of the protrusions was directly in line with Eldarion’s right foot. It had not stopped the boy’s leg, although doubtless it had grazed the knee slightly, but it would not allow the child’s booted foot to pass. Glaring at the piece of rock with all the power an Elf could muster, Legolas mentally cursed everything about caves, stones, rocks, Dwarves—however that related—and most especially boulders who thought it amusing to pin innocent children beneath them.
Squirming further under the rock, the lithe archer’s fingers strained to carefully ease the child’s foot around the outcropping of rock. Holding his breath for fear of disturbing the precariously balanced boulder, the Elf gradually slid back out from under the stone with Eldarion. He froze when he felt the rock quiver above him.
Gimli strained with all his might to hold the boulder perfectly still. He barely breathed, barely blinked; just stared fiercely at the haft of his axe that was serving as a lever to raise the large rock from its precarious position. The slightest tremor could send the whole thing crashing down onto his friends.
He dared not watch the desperate rescue attempt going on to the side, for that would mean taking his eyes from the frail balance point and that he would not do. His friends were depending on him, and he would not fail them through inattention, no matter how much he wished to see how they were faring.
Instead, with all the famed stubbornness of Dwarves’ stiff necks, he focused solely on the thin axe and heavy rock to the exclusion of all else around him. But inside his mind he was screaming for the Valar to guard Legolas and Eldarion. Let Mahal keep my hand steady, he begged. And let neither of them be harmed. The litany repeated itself in his mind over and over until it reached the point of obsession. His muscles strained and his eyes burned, but Gimli did not flicker. He was as unmovable as the cursed rock; neither of them would flinch, neither of them would shift, neither of them—
The rock quivered. Fear making Gimli’s heart hammer in his ears louder than all his kin in Aglarond and Erebor combined, the Dwarf tried to balance the boulder and still it. For a moment, it seemed that he had succeeded.
Then, with a horrid grinding sound, it shifted slowly—painfully slowly—from the axe haft. Before the agonized eyes of the helpless Dwarf, the boulder fell as if through thick honey. The sound of its crushing impact with the stone floor of the cave was echoed by the raw cry that burst from Gimli’s throat.
From the Elf and child, there was no sound.
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