1. Stars, Under Stone
'You move me, Gimli,' said Legolas. 'I have never heard you speak like this before. Almost you make me regret that I have not seen these caves. Come! Let us make this bargain—if we both return safe out of the perils that await us, we will journey for a while together. You shall visit Fangorn with me, and I will come with you to see Helm's Deep.' --The Two Towers
Trees they had seen, and trees some more. Ancient, dark, secret trees, that had been sinking their roots into the earth since Durin woke, it seemed. Gimli had to admit that they were, after their kind, impressive; fantastic sculptures of bough and branch, untouched by any hand, yet like to the fanciful shapes of dream. Green-mossed, harsh-barked, the stippling of soft and rough, light and shadow, who could be immune to the beauty and majesty of these quiet giants, leafy above them? Yet Gimli was not delighted by the trees so much as by watching his friend's delight.
Legolas ran from one to the next, casting his hands over their bark, standing as if in deep thought, or silent speech, or sometimes speaking out loud. Sometimes the trees seemed to answer, and the deep groaning and creaking of their speech set Gimli's teeth on edge, but Legolas was delighted as a child. Beside the giant trunks and upthrust buttressed roots, some huge as houses, Legolas did indeed look like a small child. Gimli reflected that perhaps what the Elf loved most was to touch a living thing still older than himself, to approach something unfathomable.
Whatever the reason, Legolas was happy, and Gimli well-pleased by his friend's happiness. It would have pleased the Dwarf even better for the Elf not to be so determined to give greeting to every single tree in the entirety of Fangorn, however. Gimli bore wandering under the ancient, watchful awareness of all those trees as long as he could, but when Legolas' enthusiasm far outlasted his, Gimli at last had to beg a halt.
"You would find the air less oppressive if you wore no axe at your belt, Gimli," Legolas told him. "The trees are less welcoming to one so armed."
"I will not walk unarmed here for the goodwill of trees—or anyone else, for that matter," Gimli growled. "Legolas, I am done here. You are not. Shall we part our journey for the space of a few days, that you can wander here longer, and I go to those glittering caverns to await your half of our bargain? In that time I will map out the choicest wonders to show you when you arrive."
"Are you so impatient to explore your caves again?" Legolas smiled.
"Yes, and to be out from this dim and crowded forest." Legolas' face fell a bit, and Gimli added, "I see the treasure these trees are to you. There is beauty and wonder here surpassing what I could have imagined. But it oppresses me still, and I would be out from it. Let us meet, say, in a seven-day?"
"As you wish, my friend! In seven days, I will meet you at the Narrows at Helm's Deep, and we shall see what I make of your caves."
Gimli was not idle while he awaited the Elf. Many leagues he walked in those beautiful caverns, and true to his word, carefully noted what, to an Elf, might be most worth seeing. For himself, he walked in reverent awe everywhere! That stone should so grow, as if sculpted by some unseen hand! That such subtle colors, patterns, sheen should ripple out of rock in such glory! Gimli wandered far underground, rejoicing. It would be the work of his lifetime to explore these caverns, to found a mighty city here. He walked, and he dreamed.
By the morning of the seventh day, all was in readiness for Legolas to visit. Gimli sat sentinel at the top of the Narrows, and waited.
As he often did when alone and his thoughts wandered freely, Gimli reached into the safe, secret pocket at his breast and took out the precious strands of Galadrial's gift. The locks shone brightly in the warming rays of the springtime sun, and, as he was wont to do, Gimli wove the strands between his fingers, slipping their silk around and around, admiring the play of light. He lost himself in remembrance of that fair, fair Lady, and turned his thoughts to designing the piece that would attempt to be a fit setting for such treasure.
The crystal should be round, pure and unflawed. The three strands—no, really, he couldn't bear to lock all three away from his touch, one he must save, unset—the two strands would make a coil so large as this...and the setting, the setting...what gold could be pure enough? True silver would be a fitter metal, fitter than mere gold; gold would seem dull beside this fire that twined his fingers. Would that true silver could still be found! And would that his folk had still the skill to work it. Gold would have to do....and it must bear the likeness of the mallorn where the Lady dwelt, leaf and bough twining.....
There was a sudden, cheerful voice behind him. "Such a fine day! A pity we must spend it underground. " Legolas! Gimli gave a guilty start,and quickly stowed the strands of hair in his pocket. He stood, cheeks burning under his beard, to face the Elf laughing behind him.
"You should never sneak up on a Dwarf!" Gimli scolded gruffly, "I might have put my axe in your head! And the seventh day is nearly done. You took your time getting here. Did you have to talk to every single tree in Fangorn?"
Legolas sat down on a rock and looked a bit more serious. "Not the ones of bad heart, and there were more than a few. Very sad, for good trees to turn to the bad. Treebeard said there was hope for them yet, with less evil in the world now, but I am not sure I agree. Still," Legolas turned his smile upon Gimli again, "I have spent many happy hours, and learned much. I think I could live in Fangorn quite happily a very long time, if--" the Elf's smile faded a bit, and his eyes grew distant.
"If what, my friend?" Gimli prodded, although he knew the answer.
"If I had heard not the gulls in Pelargir, Gimli. My heart will know no peace like it did before, no quiet under beech or ash or elm. Not even such an awesome and wakeful forest as Fangorrn could still the sea-longing, nor quiet the echoes of the gulls."
"Time may yet quiet those voices, Legolas, at least a little. You have much yet to do before you follow your kin over the waves! To begin with, there is the little matter of a pledge between us."
"Yes, there is! And think you the truth or not, I am eager to see your wondrous caves."
"As I am eager to share them with you!"
So they went, and, as it had been in the forest, the chiefest pleasure of the one friend was in the delight of the other. For although Legolas admired the fantasies of stone that Gimli showed him, and truly found beauty he had never imagined to find deep under the earth, nothing he saw pleased him so much as to see Gimli's joy in showing it.
At last, the weight of the rock above him and the stillness of the air around began to press on Legolas, and, as Gimli had done in the forest, Legolas found he was ready to leave long before his friend was.
"Gimli," said Legolas, "I can wander here under stone no longer. I need to go out into the open air, I need to see what the wind and sky are doing! I need to see the stars."
"Well," said Gimli with a grin barely visible under his whiskers, "if it's stars you need, I can take you to those straightaway. Come."
Gimli, sure-footed on the rocky cave floor, turned this way and that along the passages, Legolas following close, their lanterns casting light that gleamed and glittered between their shadows on the walls.
At last the two came to a passage that narrowed, and, from the echoes, a much larger space beyond. There was the smell of fresh water. Here, Gimli halted, and turned to Legolas.
"Here is the last wonder I would show you , and I have saved the best for last. But I ask you to indulge my fancy, Legolas, so you may enjoy it all the more."
"What fancy is that, my friend?"
Gimli narrowed his eyes just a little. "I wish you to enter this chamber blindfolded."
"Blindfolded! So, would you pay me back for my kin's treatment of you at Lorien? Gimli, I went as blind as you on those paths, and worse, I could hear and understand their whispered taunts! You have no cause for this." Legolas was quite aggrieved.
Gimli stroked his beard."No, this is not to pay you back, nor to shame you, nor due to any lack of trust! This is for your benefit, Elf! What I will show you now is such a wonder--and it will be even the greater for how it is shown!-- that I promise it will still the shrilling of your gulls, at least for a while." Gimli held up his hand at Legolas' skeptical look. "Nay, I know I speak true. But you must see it correctly, to have the most effect."
Legolas sighed. He was tired of being buried under the earth, and longed to feel free air on his face. Soonest begun was soonest done. "Hand me the blindfold," he said, and held out his hand.
Gimli searched his pockets, and his face fell; Legolas guessed the blindfold had been lost. "Here," Gimli finally said, "you'll have to use my hood." He took off his hood and handed it over to Legolas, who looked at it doubtfully.
"It smells of Dwarf," said Legolas.
"Yes, and you smell of Elf."
"Elves don't stink."
"Nor do Dwarves! Pull it on, over your eyes, and let us go forth!"
Legolas gave Gimli one more long-suffering look, and did as he was bade. He heard a clink of metal on stone as Gimli left their lanterns in the passageway, and then Gimli took him by the arm out around the corner, toward the grand chamber beyond.
Legolas stepped lightly on the gravel of the cave floor, trusting that Gimli would remember his head was quite a bit higher than a dwarf's would be. They walked forward a score of paces or so, and Legolas could smell water strongly, just slightly dank, like a still lake or very sluggish stream. There was a scrape of wood on sand as, so it sounded, Gimli pushed a boat into the water.
"We are going for a boat ride? Where are we going?" asked Legolas.
"Not far, not far. Here, step over here. Your boots will get a little wet, but not much. Now, sit there, in the stern. Settled?" Legolas nodded, and could feel the boat wobble as Gimli climbed awkwardly in. The Dwarf settled in the bow, put the oars in the water, and rowed out strongly, but only for a dozen strokes. He brought in the oars and set them aside.
"Now, my friend," Gimli whispered. "Now, take off the hood. And be absolutely silent. That is very important."
Legolas cautiously pulled the hood from his face and stopped, transfixed.
They were floating among the stars. Above, beside, below, starry points of light glimmered, glittered, glowed everywhere. It was marvelous, disorienting, enchanting. There was no up or down, no here or there. They drifted in the firmament, and Legolas was filled with wonder.
After a few minutes, Legolas caught his breath and asked, "How?--"
"Hst!" hissed Gimli quietly.
"But--" Legolas tried again.
"Hst!" the Dwarf hissed once more, and the Elf could see him glowering in the starlight. Legolas gave up, and just looked around, still unable to comprehend how the boat could be floating among the stars...under stone....
It was impossible to reckon how long they floated thus, but it was a very long time. Finally, Gimli caught Legolas' eye, and asked a silent question with his own. The Elf nodded, and Gimli took up the oars again, and rowed back to the dimly-seen shore.
They both jumped out and pulled the boat out onto the sands again. Legolas could see, from the shore, that the glowing stars were actually only on the ceiling and walls of the cavern; those below were only reflections. Gimli guided him back to the passageway they had entered through, and when they had nearly left the cavern, Legolas handed Gimli back his hood, and hazarded a question.
"The stars!" he whispered, "what are they? I have never seen the like!"
Gimli gave him a wide grin and fetched their lanterns. Lighting them once more, he handed one to Legolas and beckoned the Elf to approach the wall of the cavern with him. Looking closely at the wall, Gimli took his knife and scraped something off the wall with the tip, and showed it to Legolas.
It was a tiny, white worm, not even as long as little finger-nail. "This! The walls are covered with these tiny things. I know not where they come from, or why they glow as they do, but it gives a pleasant effect, does it not?" He chuckled, and carefully placed the worm back on the wall.
"Pleasant! I have seen few things to match it, Gimli, truly. It is a marvel. But now...now, I am done, even if you are not. Please, I need to be above the earth, not buried so far in it! And I think it may be time for a bit of supper."
"Breakfast, more like, but it matters not to my stomach! I think I could eat like a hobbit, now that I think about it."
"Then lead on, good Gimli, lead on."
But before he left the chamber, Legolas paused for one more look at the glowing points of light above the lake: So like the beauty of the heavens, yet the glow was given by an insignificant worm! So amazing. Perhaps there were still wonders in Middle-earth for him to see, and perhaps great works yet to be done...the sea would still be there, when he was ready. When it was time.