2. Chapter 2
"We must continue on."
There were only the slightest movements of assent among the group.
"Strider" Pippin said timidly "Legolas is still gone". The stillness of the others seemed to indicate that they were thinking the same.
As if Aragorn hadn't noticed, and even delayed their departure hoping the elf would return quickly. Though Aragorn doubted that the sudden exit had as much to do with scouting as Legolas's wounded pride.
Usually the thought of leaving without Legolas would cause him little worry. But tonight orcs had followed them from Moria, he was certain of that. And the rest of the company might be hidden beneath the leaves of Lórien before the elfs anger had abated. And truthfully Aragorn had hoped that having an elf in their group, especially one of royal birth, would ease their passage into the golden wood. Although he had not shared his misgivings with the group, entrance into Lothlórien might not be easy in these darkening days.
Aragorn gazed out in the direction Legolas had moved off towards, the direction of Moria.
"I know, Pippin" Aragorn answered softly, breaking the silence. He turned away from the mountains and looked hard at Frodo. For not the first time in this day, he was torn. Legolas was a member of their company, and had become a friend. The thought of leaving one of their own behind when danger was so close at hand was hard to stomach. They had already lost one barely hours earlier and it would be grievous to lose another, especially if it was because of his choice. The weight of his decision weighed heavily on his heart.
Frodo returned Aragorn's gaze steadily, seeking his answer and guidance. Thankfully, that seemed to lay the solution clearly before him. The quest, Frodo's safety, and the Ring were all more important than a lone elf, no matter if he was one of their company. Aragorn could deal with the consequences later, but now there was no other choice.
"I know" he repeated. "But we can delay here no longer. I do not wish to spend this night exposed to any who might be following us. Legolas will find our trail and be behind shortly, I'm sure." he smiled at the hobbits who were now looking concerned, trying to soften the blow that they might be abandoning a member of their group.
Aragorn sighed inwardly. If the circumstances had been different he would wait. But their rest had already been too long. And he certainly hadn't foreseen anyone leaving so suddenly. And not even the Wise would have predicted the elf speaking to Gimli as he had. He still wasn't sure of the meaning of all that. If only Gandalf were here--
"I'll wait for the elf." a voice spoke from behind.
It was not what Aragorn had expected to hear, and certainly not from the person he would have expected. Turning, he saw that Gimli had already settled himself back down against a rock looking as unyielding as the stone itself. Indeed his pipe was already between his teeth and he was searching through his pack for pipeweed as easily as if it were a pleasant day that could easily be passed enjoying the sun, visiting with passersby. Boromir was staring at the dwarf wide-eyed, then began muttering to himself again trying to understand the complexities of the races other than men.
"It's no bother." Gimli replied to the odd looks he was receiving. "None of us should be travelling alone. And besides" he patted the short grass beside him and smiled, "The spot is already warm."
Aragorn opened his mouth once, then twice, as if chewing on the words that would not come at the moment. As chieftain of his people he'd lost more friends and companions than he cared to remember. And frequently he had seen the strange spell that grief could weave over a group in the wake of death. This, however, felt entirely outside his realm of experience. He wasn't sure what madness had overcome the company since leaving Moria.
"But, Gimli, you just said that none of us should be travelling alone." Merry said faintly, sounding just as confused as Aragorn felt.
"Ah, then you should see that there's no problem, Master Brandybuck" replied the dwarf. "I won't be travelling. I'll just be sitting here until the elf realizes what a fool he's made of himself and returns."
"Gimli, I don't think that--"
Gimli cut him off and held up a hand as though to stop the flow of conversation then continued packing his pipe. "Nonsense, Aragorn! I will be behind you with the elf shortly."
Boromir approached Aragorn and gripped his arm. "Let him stay if he wishes it," the man said urgently. "As long as Frodo stays here he is in danger. But one alone will be safer than nine—eight."
Aragorn swallowed hard, trying to calm his nerves. Boromir was reactionary at times, but in this he seemed to give good counsel. "Gimli, you can stay here. But wait no longer than half an hour and then follow our trail." He motioned for the others, and with a few backwards glances from the hobbits, they moved off into the night.
Darkness was falling but the fading light was not yet an issue for the elf. He'd stormed away from the clearing as soon as he'd realized the mistake in so much as speaking to the dwarf. Aragorn had called out after him to stop, but he had ignored the pleas and continued anyway. Legolas had scouted ahead or behind the group many times. If they moved on he would have no trouble finding their trail and catching them up. Admittedly this time was a bit different. In the past Aragorn had asked him to scout ahead instead of opposing it. And they weren't usually being trailed so obviously by orcs and.... Whatever it was that was following behind.
The smells that the sharp wind carried and the stillness of the night were the most calming thing Legolas had experienced since leaving the suffocating air of the mines. No matter how cutting, there was still wind in the open land, and that was a comfort to be thankful for. The ground was too open for good concealment, but he darted swiftly from boulder to lone tree to patch of tall grass trying to discern where any danger might lie behind the group.
He saw nothing. The throbbing beat of drums had subsided long ago and now the land seemed to lay empty and quiet. It seemed odd that they had so swiftly and fearfully fled over these bare lands only hours before, flying from danger like deer on the chase. It seemed odd that it had only been hours instead of days. But despite the fact that there was nothing to be seen all around him, he could not drop the nagging feeling that there were evil eyes watching.
A sudden croak and the sound of flapping wings came from almost directly overhead, shockingly loud in the previous silence. Legolas instinctively dropped to a crouch, bow drawn, fearing the eyes of the enemy. The creak of his damaged bow was nearly louder than the sound. With almost giddy relief, he realized it was not one of the crebain that they had been so watchful for, and released and arrow straight into the neck of the duck that soared through the air. The shot changed the trajectory of the animal from a graceful flight to clumsy free fall, its wings uselessly flapping in the air. It hit the ground not twenty feet away from the elf with a heavy thud into the dirt.
Mood suddenly changing again, Legolas ground his teeth in frustration and sorrow. There had been no reason to shoot. It was a clear sign to any watching that someone was close at hand. The twang of the bowstring was loud enough for listening ears. Not to mention there was no use for a duck when they could not light a fire for fear of being seen. But most of all, the groan of his injured bow cut at heart. It had been all too easy to forget in the aftermath of Moria, but his bow would not be useful much longer.
His bow. He had watched the tree it was made from felled. It had been a gift from Mallendraug (must everything remind him of his fallen brother on this day?). In all his years of patrols, it had been only his second real bow. The first had been dragged from his hands and turned to mulch by the pincers of a spider. He could still feel the dread of that day, being left weaponless and defenseless while surrounded by enemies. His actions had been foolish and his father had chastised him in front of the entire court, but Mallendraug had smiled kindly and commissioned a new bow that very night. Since then, the weapon had become an extension of his arm and he had never left the palace walls without it by his side.
The leather grip of this bow had been replaced here and there over the years, but otherwise it had served him faithfully. The feeling of vulnerable nakedness that he had experienced at the loss of his first bow threatened to overtake him again.
Unexpected tears suddenly blurred his vision and he pressed his eyelids shut against them, bowed almost to the ground with grief. Guilt weighed heavily on his conscience. If his shot had not faltered in Moria then perhaps Mithrandir might still be alive. There was no doubt in his mind that he would have sacrificed his life in Gandalf's stead. His weapon was ruined. Mirkwood had been trusted with this creature and had failed...for certainly it was Gollum that was following them. The confusion of what he had seen of the dwarf in Moria.
And the shot he had taken that could have revealed him to the enemy.
Legolas blinked away the tears. No, there was no use now in regretting the arrow he'd fired. A meal lay nearly at his feet, with a perfectly good arrow stuck in its neck. Slowly rising, he moved over to the dead bird. The wind was cool, stirring the cloak behind him like his own set of wings. Standing over the dead mallard, he could see that it was a clean shot. Blood pooled out from the neck darkening the ground and lifeless eyes stared back into his own. A brief prayer of thanks to the Valar and a blessing to the duck that would feed them that night was all that was needed now. The early sickle moon hung above him, illuminating the ground. "Oromë, we raise our voices..." before the murmured words could pass his lips, a light caught his vision and he turned swiftly.
Two pale, lamp-like orbs hung in the night not more than a stone's throw away. He stood motionless staring into the small lights, until they were suddenly extinguished. Legolas only hesitated for a moment before grabbing the duck, arrow still in its neck, and swiftly turning he ran to the glade where he hoped the company still rested.
The sharp, acrid smell of pipe weed reached his nostrils before he was even in sight of the clearing where they'd rested. Legolas frowned, wondering if the hobbits, or Valar forbid, Aragorn, was so foolish to be smoking when there were enemies close at hand.
Soundlessly swinging into a nearby tree, Legolas for the first time in hours felt the safety of concealment. Slipping from branch to branch he approached the glade until he was nearly on top of the reeking smoke. Only the dwarf was there, for more reason than one the last person the elf wished to see. He was sitting peacefully with smoke curling out his nostrils. Legolas frowned and was reminded of Smaug, the only dragon he'd ever seen, another of the dwarves' unwanted gifts to Middle Earth. For a moment he considered moving off silently in whatever direction the others had gone and leaving his least favorite member of the company for the orcs to find. It was an appealing idea, but the thought of explaining it to Aragorn was less alluring and he regretfully abandoned the notion. Unceremoniously he dropped from the branch landing nearly on top of Gimli. The dwarf sprang up in a surprisingly agile motion, coughing out a cloud of thick blue smoke and placing a hand on the haft of his ax but dropping his pipe.
"Where are the others?" Legolas asked sharply, ignoring the other's distress.
"What do you do that for?" responded the dwarf, ignoring the previous question and bending to retrieve his pipe.
"Where are the others?" Legolas repeated. "And why are you still here?"
"They were tired of waiting for you." Gimli snuffed out a bit of smoldering pipe weed into the dirt with the toe of his boot. "And Aragorn thought it best if none of us were travelling alone, so I volunteered to stay and escort our prince to safety."
Legolas narrowed his eyes, a motion he was certain he'd done more since meeting the dwarf than in all his years previous, but the smug smile the dwarf was giving him was incredibly obnoxious. "Is that so?" he said, trying hard to mimic the incredulous look Thranduil might have donned when listening to his children's excuses for why they had not finished their lessons. "When Aragorn knows that I can track any creature in Middle Earth? That's what he said?"
"More or less." Gimli crossed his arms, ready for the imminent argument, but dropped them almost as quickly. "And I thought to ask you away from the others what you…what you meant by your earlier words." he finished more softly.
Would these dwarves ever learn to let things lie that should not be stirred? Any sympathy he'd felt before was dissipating rapidly and the growing dread of being followed was creeping back to the corners of his awareness beneath the anger. It was a shame he hadn't immediately gone back and extinguished those pale eyes for good. "It was a regrettable lack of judgment, obviously." He snapped and turned away before the dwarf could respond, looking for the tracks of the others in the dirt. Even the soft prints of the hobbits were easy enough to find. "We're being followed. We need to go" and jogged off in the direction the others had gone.
It was a few minutes before the heavy tread of boots caught up beside him. Gimli was puffing slightly with the quick pace. "Can you keep up?" Legolas said after a few moments, already wearied by the harsh breathing.
"Ha!" Gimli barked and the sudden sound in the stillness of the night made Legolas wince. "I should be asking you the same. A dwarf can always keep up." They ran for a bit longer before Gimli cut the silence again. "I thought you were scouting."
Is he really trying to make conversation, right now? "I was scouting."
"Looks more like you were on a hunting trip" said Gimli, nodding at the mallard that was tied to Legolas' pack.
"The opportunity presented itself." He replied shortly, annoyed not only at the dwarf, but also at himself for having taken the shot.
"Well, that is a shame." Said Gimli, breathing hard. "I suppose if this Golden Wood is anything like Rivendell we'll be well fed soon enough. But I doubt Aragorn will be letting us light a fire before then. A plump roasted mallard sounds quite appetizing right now. Ah, but you know what they say Legolas, a duck without a fire's about as useless as nipples on a breastplate."
"'As useless as'….What did you say?" Legolas stopped jogging to stare at the dwarf. Gimli continued on for a few paces before realizing his companion was behind him and he turned round to face the elf. They stood now in another clearing, trees blocking sight of the path they had just come from. Despite the trees the wind was picking up with whipping, biting force. It swirled around them sweeping away any other sounds and he felt as though they were standing on an island in the clearing, isolated from the world that surrounded them. Ignoring the argument for a moment, Legolas turned to look down their path. There was nothing. He could see no hanging orbs in the darkness, hear no pattering of feet. Lothlórien loomed ahead of them, not visible, but present with the dull roar of the wind in a thousand trees. It reminded Legolas of the phantom wolves that had chased their heels into Moria. He shook his head slightly to clear the thought and almost missed Gimli's answer.
"I said it's as useless as nipples on a breastplate."
Legolas frowned. "What does that even mean?"
"It means it's useless." Said Gimli furrowing his brows. "You've never heard that?"
"No. I've never heard that. It's stupid." replied Legolas flatly.
"It's not stupid" Gimli countered. "Though I suppose your kind is often more fond of flourish than function. I didn't have much chance to speak with the smiths in Rivendell, so maybe elvish armor is decorated thusly. But my folk would say that such ornamentation is foolish. I suspect that if you'd spent any time in a forge you would know that already."
Legolas felt his temper flaring and the hairs on the back of his neck rising. "I've spent time in a forge. I've spent plenty of time in a forge" he snapped. It wasn't exactly true. He'd been in forges plenty of times but hadn't been tempted to linger. "Besides, I prefer to spend my time above ground rather than in a stinking, deafening fire pit."
He had barely spoken the words when Gimli's eyes became angry coals that had suddenly sparked into flame.
"Khazâd ai-mênu!" He growled and pulled a throwing axe free from its holder. It sailed through the air, a glittering deadly force in the moonlight.
First shock, then rage filled Legolas. He dropped to a defensive crouch, but noticed with amusement that it had not been necessary; the dwarfs aim had been off and would have missed him anyway. His mind raced and quicker than sight he strung an arrow and drew, aiming at Gimli's throat. As if the dwarf deserved such an easy death. Their kind was wicked and traitorous. That he should have flown into a rage over such a harmless comment was absurd. The bow groaned with the force of his pull. Let it break, Legolas thought. Should it shatter while taking the life of this murderous wretch then it would have served him well. And when the dwarf was dead he would happily return to the others, blood on his hands and let them know the truth of the turncloak that had walked among them.
In less than a second all these thoughts passed through Legolas' mind. But just before he let his arrow fly, he was assailed by the sick noise of crunching metal behind him. He turned and watched in horror as an orc fell dead at the edge of the clearing, an axe planted through its helmet between two lifeless yellow eyes. It's arm was raised and an ugly clawed hand gripped a sharp black sword.
Legolas' breath came in ragged gasps, loud in the night that had abruptly turned still once again. He remained crouched on the ground gripping his bow, horror tightening his chest. How could he have missed the approaching danger? Even with the wind, he should have heard something approaching them. But had he not looked just moments before the orc had appeared and seen nothing in the darkness? He wondered if it was chance or some evil that had stirred the wind so much that it covered the sounds of the enemy.
When he had gone to scout, he was sure that there was nothing behind them. No sight or sound of orcs from Moria, only Gollum and his large pale eyes. "He sent them." He whispered, and a rose unsteadily, walking to the body of the orc. If that was true, that Gollum had seen him and sent the orc after them, all of the company was in danger. If this one had come then surely others would as well. It was only a matter of how far behind the rest of them were.
Blood covered the ugly face and the blade that had killed it. The haft of the axe was dark stained hickory, worn smooth by years of use. Gingerly, he pulled the blade free, and it scraped harshly over the metal helmet. He had been mistaken about the dwarf and the thrown axe. But he had still drawn his weapon and if he had hesitated a second less the dwarf would be dead.
He turned to look at Gimli, who was watching him coolly, with a curious expression, another throwing axe already in hand. He crossed the ground between them slowly and started to hand over the axe before thinking that he would never hand one of the elves on his patrol a dirty weapon. He bent and wiped the blood from the blade on the scant grass. He stood and when he returned the axe, he was careful to give it handle first.
"You saved my life." He said softly, trying hard to keep the shame from his voice.
Gimli nodded slowly and after taking the axe from Legolas' hand, replaced it in the holder hanging from his belt. "Aye. I suppose that I did."
"I didn't hear it…the wind…."
"Aye," Gimli repeated and stared hard into the darkness behind them. "If there are others the Company is in more danger than they realize. We need to warn them."
He turned away, leaving Legolas alone in in the darkness before he moved to follow the dwarf.
Gollum: bringing people together since TA 2463.
I'm late in getting this finished, but I was super excited about the Game of Thrones premier when I wrote most of it. You win the internets if you can find my not so subtle tribute to ASoIF. Usually I wouldn't put such an obvious cross-over in, but I don't think it's completely crazy J
I love your comments and hopefully I'll have the third chapter up before too long!