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Gimli stood his ground, evaluating the imperious Elf who towered in front of him. Elrond emanated power; his presence brokered grudging respect, as opposed to many of the others with whom Gimli had had the misfortune of spending so much time. He’d not been around so many Elves since the Battle of Five Armies in his youth. Gratefully, many of them were out on the scouting missions Elrond had commanded. Would to Mahal that Gimli had been allowed to go on his own, or with Gandalf, even, rather than sit around, tarnishing, in Rivendell.
"These are most unusual times," Gimli reminded him bluntly. "Surely the use of your forge, unaccompanied," he stressed, "is not so unreasonable if I am to join this group which heads to Mordor. I have little doubt that my axe will get much use between here and there."
He held Elrond's gaze, daring him to decline the perfectly reasonable, no, necessary and not-unexpected request. Gimli suspected that Lord Elrond did not harbour the same prejudices held by some Elves in his realm, yet their two races had been sundered from friendship for many hundreds of years. It was that Gimli demanded to be alone that gave Elrond pause. What damage did the Elf think that he, as a master craftsman, would possibly wreak in an Elvish smithy?
"It is my wish that these times were less troubled," Elrond murmured at last.
The faintest smile of triumph ghosted over Gimli's lips, superiorly camouflaged by his vibrant beard.
"Certainly your weapon should be sharpened before you depart. I am sure my facilities will prove more than adequate," Elrond continued, the slight barb bouncing harmlessly off of Gimli's smug sensibilities.
"Thank you, Lord Elrond," Gimli said gruffly, bending far enough that his beard swept across the stone floor. He took no time to leave the library and strode quickly toward his chamber. The yearning to be ensconced in a workspace, even if it was Elvish, had been enough to make Gimli's palms sweat and a metallic tang to settle in his mouth. In truth, his axe needed little repair; the blade could stand to spend some moments against a grindstone and there were a few nicks that needed smoothing. He also wished to reinforce the handle's joining to the sturdy arc of metal.
This expedition, however, was not nearly so much about weaponry repair as it was about Dwarvish ceremony. That, especially in an Elvish enclave such as this, demanded solitude. Once in his room, he retrieved his weapons. Humming a tune of dragons slayed and gold arrayed, Gimli shouldered his axe, picked up his dagger for good measure, and walked purposefully to the forge.
* * * * *
"Come on, Merry," Pippin insisted. "I'm bored. Let's go exploring."
"We've been everywhere. Twice," Merry said, irritation threading his voice. "Can't you see that I'm reading? You should go to the library and pick out a book or two of your own. You'll never see a collection like Lord Elrond's again, mark my words."
"I don't want to sit and read," Pippin said peevishly.
"Then don't. But feel free to go somewhere else so that I can read in peace."
Pippin got up from his chair in a huff and clomped to the door.
"Have a good time!" Merry called out.
Pippin grunted in response, but his spirits soon returned to their usual buoyant state. Rivendell was unlike anything he'd ever known; everything seemed alive, not just the myriad trees but also the carved stonework that decorated much of Elrond's stately home. It had taken him more than a month to figure out why he felt so at home, given that he was surrounded by tall, foreign strangers and such rarified air. Merry, of course, had pointed out the obvious.
"It's all on ground level," he'd said nonchalantly. "We're in a deep ravine, it's true, but everything's built in a common-sense way. Not quite as comfortable as the Smials, but certainly nothing like being in a Dwarf mine." The latter image made Pippin shudder. He'd spoken some with Glóin, one of the Dwarves with whom Bilbo had gone on adventures. Pippin found he had little to say, however, and once November had slipped into December, after a memorable banquet, Glóin had left on his own to return home. His son Gimli still roamed around, somewhere; he, too, was brusque and secretive, far more so even than the Elves who appeared and disappeared like shadows.
Pippin went merrily along, his belly contentedly full and an apple tucked away in a pocket for good measure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one else came across his path. Back when they had first arrived and he'd been finding his way around, it had seemed to be positively teeming with Elves. Now, though, many were out on scouting missions. While he knew their small group would be leaving in not too long, it still seemed like a distant event, and he was more than happy for it to stay that way. He was sure there were still more hidden places in this ancient homestead he'd not yet discovered, and today was just the sort of day when such doors might open. He meandered through the now-familiar corridors and chambers, taking a quick detour through the main kitchen and liberating two rolls from a breadbasket. Munching one of them, he went down a couple of sets of stairs and headed toward a darkened entranceway. It looked mysterious, and Pippin was instantly intrigued. It was yet another staircase, and one he wasn't entirely sure he'd ever investigated. A distant, metallic noise sounded off in the distance as Pippin descended the stairs.
Several moments later Pippin found himself in front of a heavy wooden door, barely open. Heat from a cheery fire emanated from the room. His curiosity piqued, Pippin walked far enough in to see who was inside and what he or she was doing. He'd been surprised and shocked multiple times since he'd left Tuckborough, but nothing could have prepared him for the image that confronted him. Gimli sat with this back to the door, his breeches'-clad legs spread wide, straddling a large grindstone wheel. Jaw slack and his eyes bulging, Pippin gawked at the rippling play of muscles as the Dwarf held his massive axe to the stone, one foot pedaling the treadle as the blade grated against the rough surface.
He wasn't wearing a shirt.
Gimli's usual jerkin, leather overvest and vambraces lay in a substantial pile near his right foot on a bench. His torso was a square wall of hirsute strength, though he wasn't as furry as Pippin would have imagined— not that he'd ever considered what a Dwarf might look like under his garments. What was most startling to Pippin's eye was an intricate black design on Gimli's upper left arm. Pippin had never seen anything like it; it appeared to be permanent, though he couldn't begin to imagine what kind of ink existed that wouldn't wash off. And why would such an illustration be put there, hidden away under layers of clothing? He shuffled in another two steps to get a closer look. As he did, he shouldered the door which emitted a traitorous, sighing creak. Far more quickly than Pippin could have imagined, Gimli levered up from his stool and had the gleaming edge of the axe at his throat. Pippin tried to flatten himself against the wall, barely daring to breathe, staring in terror at Gimli's menacing face.
"What are you doing in here, spying on me?" Gimli growled, shoving the axe even closer to Pippin's neck.
* * * * *
The hobbit looked ready to keel over, but Gimli was furious at having been intruded upon. He edged his weapon the smallest amount toward Pippin, whose green eyes were wide and blazing with fear.
"Speak, Peregrin!" he rumbled. "Explain yourself."
Pippin swallowed audibly. "I was— I was just exploring. I heard a noise down here and decided to look inside. I'm sorry! Please don't kill me!"
Gimli fumed, breathing heavily through his nose, lips curling under his beard. "No, I suppose Master Elrond might not take kindly to a dead hobbit in his house." The malice was being leeched away, replaced with a modicum of appreciation for Pippin's audacity and the fact that he hadn't fainted dead away. Gimli drew his weapon back, letting the handle slide satisfyingly through his palms until the butt of it rested on the floor. He took a deep breath, gripping the junction of metal to wood, wondering what to do. This was on the level of déandorkh, of being disturbed in one's private workroom by anyone, much less by someone of another race. Pippin at least was a hobbit and no Elf. For his part, Pippin continued to stare at Gimli with saucer-sized eyes, fingers scrabbling for purchase against the seamless stone wall behind him. In a flight of generosity, Gimli decided the youngling had suffered enough.
"Well, come in and pull the door behind you," Gimli commanded, only in that instant realising how exposed and underdressed he was. He remedied that as quickly as possible, putting on his sleeveless undershirt before sequestering his axe on the nearby bench.
"Thank you," Pippin managed to utter through chattering teeth.
Gimli wanted nothing more than his flask of beloved zhikomîr, but now that his father had gone back to the Mountain, Gimli knew he needed to ration out what little of the Dwarvish liqueur he possessed. By some blessing of Mahal they might encounter more Dwarves on their journey, but Gimli wasn't about to hold his breath.
"So Pippin," he said conversationally, picking up his stool and placing it near the fire. He encouraged Pippin to do the same. "You're exploring, are you?"
Pippin appeared to have recovered a shred of his composure. "Yes," he said, adjusting his waistcoat as he dragged a short bench across the tiled floor. "Do you mind telling me what that mark is on your arm?" he asked breathlessly, his large feet poised as though ready for immediate flight.
Gimli narrowed his eyes, glancing down at his left bicep. Of course— a hobbit wouldn't even have the vocabulary for something like that. He wasn't entirely sure that he had the words to explain the profundity of a silversmith's tattoo. Gimli certainly wasn't about to go on at length about their guilds and regimented cultural hierarchy. It would be blatantly obvious to another Dwarf that Gimli worked with silver, what his patronymy was, and his geographic ancestry. It was all conveyed in exterior clues: the colour of his hood, the particular five-stranded plaits in his beard, the designs in leather on his vambraces. Only a very precious few had ever seen the ink on his arm.
"I'll speak, but on one condition," Gimli said, placing his hands atop his knees. "You mustn't tell anyone. Not even your cousin Meriadoc. Do you even believe you're capable of that?" he asked sternly. Gimli felt an inexplicable affinity to Pippin, which Gimli mistrusted as it didn't make sense. He certainly would not go on this foolhardy journey with a youthful hobbit knowing things about his Dwarvish culture unless he was convinced Pippin would keep the information to himself.
Pippin blanched, but held Gimli's glare. The hobbit seemed to be at odds with himself, finally straightening his back and letting out a deep exhale. "I am," he assured him.
Gimli nodded, sitting up and rolling one of his braids through his fingers as he decided what to say. "I don't know what you already know of Dwarves."
"Almost nothing," Pippin said enthusiastically.
With a sigh, Gimli chewed on his tongue. "We are an ancient race, even older than the Elves," he said, the pride apparent in his voice.
"Really?" Pippin gasped, scooting to the edge of his bench.
Gimli quirked a smile at Pippin's shock, though it was well hidden by his beard. "Yes. I'll simply get to the point. You do know that we prefer to work with metals and gems. Each Dwarf discovers early on in his or her life what it is that one is called to do, whether mining, or lapidary, or in my case, silversmithing."
Pippin nodded, rapt in attention.
"In addition to learning how to wield an axe or other weapon, and the basics of warfare, each Dwarf is assigned to a mentor or guide in whatever particular craft he or she has chosen to pursue. In the past, select youths from Dale were occasionally also allowed to apprentice with a Dwarf, though of course they had lodging away from our main quarters. At an appropriate age, when one's apprenticeship is deemed to have been satisfactorily completed, there is a small ceremony— no, I won't give you the details," he snapped as Pippin opened his mouth. "It's unspeakable what I'm telling you now, and if ever I find out you have betrayed my trust..." As his voice trailed off, Pippin glanced wide-eyed over at the axe and back again.
"I won't!" Pippin squeaked.
"Dwarves can carry a grudge for a very long time, Peregrin," Gimli said menacingly.
"I believe you," the hobbit stammered.
"That's a good thing," Gimli rumbled before returning to his explanation. "As a part of the ceremony, one can choose to receive a tattoo of ancient markings of one's lifecraft. It was done far more often in older days, or so I was told. Most Dwarves don't bother with this part of the ritual; there aren't many left who have the skill. It is a very personal choice, and a somewhat painful process. I can assure you that one's inkings are nearly never seen by another. Especially someone who is not a Dwarf."
"So why did you choose to get one, if they're so rare?"
The thought of Vram, Gimli's closest companion and only confidant, came to mind. He was a few years Gimli's senior, and Gimli had been privileged to see Vram's markings, the solid, wide bands of a rockwright. How the pride gleamed in Vram's topaz eyes as Gimli saw the play of torchlight on the muscled arm. At that point Gimli had known he would seek out the same artist when his own apprenticeship came to its end.
"I just did."
* * * * *
For a moment Pippin considered pressing the point; "I just did" was no answer. He was still burning with questions, yet anxious not to anger this Dwarf who would be joining them in their travels. In a fight, Pippin would much prefer Gimli with him, not against him.
"Do you usually repair your axe without a shirt on?" Pippin asked instead, as genuinely curious about that as about anything else. "Is that a Dwarvish custom? If you can tell me," he hastily added.
"No," Gimli said firmly. "I was going to conduct a ritual, which no outsider is ever to see or know about."
"But you left the door open!" Pippin was shocked at the lack of privacy Gimli had given himself if this event was so secretive.
"It was nearly closed. I had it cracked as a courtesy to Lord Elrond, who I was certain would leave me alone," Gimli thundered.
"I think I'd best be going!" Pippin hopped off of the bench, hearing a rising frustration in Gimli's voice at being bothered. He was well-used to hearing that tone. Additionally, he didn't want to provoke Gimli's wrath again; Pippin didn't really think Gimli would go at him with his axe, but neither did he want to test that theory. "Thank you for explaining your markings. I'll never tell a living soul, Took's Vow."
Gimli raised his eyebrows and nodded after a few moments. Pippin watched Gimli's thick thumb and forefingers stroke on of his leather-bound plaits, his thoughts focussed on something only he knew, but chose not to reveal.
Pippin decided not to waste any time in leaving. He eased through the narrow crack between door and frame and made his way back up the multitudinous stairs until he found himself in far more familiar Elvish territory. Taking the remaining bread roll out of his breeches' pocket, he began gnawing on it, reliving his interchange with Gimli. He found a curved bench in a cozy alcove and with the roll clenched in his teeth, swung a leg up and scampered to a seated position. His legs dangled from the stone seat as he pondered all that Gimli had told him, of the secrets that now smouldered in him: the knots of black that snaked across Gimli's swarthy arm, Pippin's imagination running amok with visions of chanting Dwarves in deep, hidden caves, their low, booming voices nearly able to cut rock with the jagged language he'd overheard Gimli and Glóin speak together when they thought they were alone.
Pippin tore a hunk off of his roll and looked down at his own left arm. He rolled up the linen shirtsleeve until his upper arm was exposed and flexed his muscle. Curling his fist, the small hump appeared between elbow and shoulder.
"Not bad," he said to himself, smiling softly as his adventurous spirit reasserted itself. "Once we've gotten Frodo and the Ring safely to Mordor, I'll have earned one of those inkings, too," he decided smugly, envisioning thin, swirling lines encircling his pale skin, and Gimli at his side, looking on with approval.
* * * * *
Gimli sighed. The moment was lost. His sanctity had been violated even if by accident. No matter that it had been breached by the very innocent, but unnervingly curious Peregrin. Gimli's father would have demanded his beard on a shield if he knew how much Gimli had just revealed to the hobbit youngling, but Glóin was gone, returning to the Mountain, Gimli's most recent letter to Vram in his safekeeping. Looking over at his axe, Gimli saw a few nicks that yet needed attention. He walked over to it and hefted the handle into his palm, tracing the runic sigils of protection and devotion, chiseled by Vram's own hand. For the first time in his life, Gimli felt alone, even bereft. Scowling at his insolent thoughts, he walked back over to the stone. He placed the blade of Gormgloine to the wheel and began pumping the treadle, finding comfort as sparks like flickers of gold fell brightly to the ground.