1. Unanswerable Questions
The Rohirric serving-youth made his way around the table and approached Gimli with his pitcher.
"Ah! Yes, thank you," Gimli enthused, holding out his cup. "Your people make a fine mead. Yes, very tasty. To the brim, that's it."
Once the youth wandered off to refill his vessel, Gimli smiled and closed his eyes for a moment. Nostrils flaring, his inhaled deeply of the fragrant scent of honey infused in the mead. He quaffed a third of his cup's contents, belched his gratitude, and then sensed a sudden lull in conversation. A glance up the table revealed that only the unnerving identical sons of Elrond seemed to understand his gesture. They smiled at him, while the Dúnedain were as stony-faced as ever.
"Lady Éowyn!" Gimli said, resting his hand atop his heart. Her gaze snapped to him, sudden and startling as a whip crack. "Thank you for your hospitality. It is most welcome."
Pride gleamed in her light eyes. "I have now heard tell of the battles at the Deep and that you played no small part. Food and drink are the least we can provide to valiant warriors after a defeat such as you all have had."
She raised her chalice up from the table toward him, but then, like a plant to light, she returned her attentions to Aragorn.
"You do remember that we must be ready to depart before daybreak tomorrow," Legolas said, his voice disconcertingly near Gimli's ear.
Gimli shrugged and helped himself to his drink. "Of course." He jabbed his fork into a tender piece of mutton before cutting it into pieces. "What of it?"
In the ensuing silence, he looked over at his comrade. Legolas impassively watched him chew and swallow. If he hadn't been in such a buoyant mood— he wasn't riding a horse, his axe had drunk its fill of orc blood, and the cup at his hand was never empty— Gimli might have reminded Legolas that it was rude to stare. Instead, he merely stared back until the aroma of mutton re-engaged his focus and utensils.
"I'll be in fine form," he said through a mouthful of savoury meat. "Dwarvish ale is much stronger than this."
"It cannot possibly rival the wine of my father's realm," Legolas said blithely.
Gimli readied a retort to defend the brewers of his race, but then he found his attentions dragged to a heated conversation between the Lady of Rohan and Aragorn. After Aragorn's declaration of intent to take the Paths of the Dead come morning, an uneasy silence descended on the group. Gimli's cheer was snuffed out. Trepidation about travelling on a road that struck fear even in the expression of King Théoden began creeping back into his awareness, chafing at him like a mail shirt against bare flesh. Finally the meal came to its end. Gimli followed Legolas' lead in thanking their hosts and hastily exited the pavilion.
He fell into step at Legolas' side, and when he didn't say anything, Gimli took that to mean his presence was still welcome. They ended up at the edge of the encampment, looking out into the dark vale of Rohan. There were a few lights at the base of the switch-backing trail up to Dunharrow; they belonged to guards with torches, just as there were nearby on the plateau. Overhead the stars glittered, bright jewels scattered across night's mantle.
"You seem to have much on your mind," Legolas said at last, turning his gaze from the stars to look at him.
Gimli harrumphed, chewed thoughtfully on the inside of his cheek, and found himself speaking with candour that, until this quest, he'd only shared with one other.
"I've been away from my own kind for too long," he said, keeping his voice down. "My mind is full of questions, except the only question that repeats and repeats. Why? It clangs unceasingly in my head. Why take this Path of the Dead? Why did Pippin have to look into that infernal seeing stone? Why does the Lady Éowyn set her sights on war? And Aragorn? Why am I so changed after meeting Galadriel, who is an Elf, no less? Mahal's helmet!" He could hear the deep unrest in his voice and saw sympathy on Legolas' face.
"I, too, have much to contemplate."
"You have dozens of Dwarvish lifetimes to do so," Gimli muttered. He felt exposed, which made him uncomfortable. Legolas' kindly expression somehow invoked feelings of inferiority he'd not felt since he'd first joined his Guild and his skills were superior to no one.
"This is true. I am sorry that you cannot hope to see any of your kind as we continue to hunt for Frodo. It is unexpected, but Aragorn now has the company of some of the Dúnedain, and my heart was gladdened to see the fair faces of Elladan and Elrohir."
"Exactly," Gimli spluttered. "My kind does not ride. If I fall in battle, I will be surrounded by Men only."
"And one Elf," Legolas stated.
"And one Elf. No matter. Gormgloine's blade will sing. This Dwarf will hunt down orcs and dragons and whatever else the Dark Lord can send forth of until my axe is pried out of my dead hand."
Legolas regarded him, his gaze venturing to where Gimli's axe was usually hanging from his belt, then back up to his face.
"If indeed that comes to pass, I hope that it is no time soon."
"As do I. Still, I believe the horse lords have a treadle-wheel stone to sharpen their pikes and swords. Maybe the Dead will leave me be if they seem the gleam of my newly sharpened blade."
He turned from the guards and began walking toward the tent where he, Legolas and Aragorn were to sleep, if any of them were able to do so. Legolas stayed at his side.
"I doubt that the Dead care about weaponry," he mused, unsheathing his knife and inspecting it as they passed torches that lit the night. "But the men of Gondor doubtless will. I'll accompany you to the arms tent. After Helm's Deep, my knife also should be tended to."
"I'll fetch my axe," Gimli stated, and strode briskly to their lodging. He left Legolas in equine company, murmuring to them in his native tongue. One day he would have to ask Legolas how he knew instinctively how to ride, since the Elves of Mirkwood were notorious for their stealth on foot, not horseback.
"Why are you on this quest?" Gimli muttered to himself once the flap to the tent had waved shut behind him. He patted the left side of his belt where his dagger was sheathed, nodded at its presence, and then retrieved Gormgloine. His father was more adventurous than many, but he and his small band had gone forth to settle a score with Smaug. Dwarves went to battle over treasure, and took care of their own. They most certainly did not go tramping and riding all over Middle-Earth in pursuit of mad hobbits. Just as despair threatened him once more, a memory flew into his mind, bright like quicksilver. It was from the night he'd received his inked armband that forever joined him to the Guild of Silversmiths, and the look of pride on his compatriot's face as he inked in the intricate pattern. Gimli straightened up, hefting his axe in a gloved hand as he answered his own question.
Why should I be anything else but the lone Dwarf in this Fellowship?