4. Strangers in a Stranger Land
Well, here is the strangest riddle that we have yet found! A bound prisoner escapes both from the Orcs and from the surrounding horsemen. He then stops, while still in the open, and cuts his bonds with an Orc-knife. But how and why? For if his legs were tied, how did he walk? And if his arms were tied, how did he use the knife? And if neither were tied, why did he cute the cords at all? Being pleased with his skill, he then sat down and quietly ate some waybread! That at least is enough to show that he was a hobbit, without the mallorn-leaf. After that, I suppose he turned his arms into wings and flew away singing into the trees. It should be easy to find him: we only need wings ourselves!
Legolas—The Two Towers (The White Rider)
For much of the early morning, the Pelennor Fields had been peacefully quiet. And after the long journey from Edoras, the Rohirrim were extremely grateful. Most of them were staying without the walls of Minas Tirith, having pitched a camp in the northern fields near the paddocks and pastures where their horses were being kept. The hustle and bustle of the city was a bit much for the riders, many of whom spent the bulk of their time upon the open fields of the Mark. Only a few guards and the royal family were actually staying within Minas Tirith itself. The rest were enjoying the fresh spring air upon the Pelennor and making the most of a rather lazy holiday.
At least, that had been the case for a good part of the early morning, but things had changed quite abruptly. King Eomer had collected Shade, mentioning a sprint against Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth—an idea that amused the Rohirrim greatly—and then something had happened. None were exactly sure what, but a great commotion was brewing in the southern parts of the field, and many of the Rohirrim were hastening there to discover what had transpired. The sheer number of people as well as the clamor now rising suggested that something ill was unfolding, and given the usual luck of the Rohirrim, Eomer was probably in the thick of it.
Watching the chaotic activity and wishing for the sight of the Eldar so that he might see what was taking place, Elfhelm clenched his fists and debated about deserting his post. Guarding the horses stabled in the northern pastures of the Pelennor was really nothing more than a formality. All here knew that the animals were under the protection of Rohan, and none stole from the Rohirrim with impunity. But Eomer had decided that appearances needed to be maintained, and Elfhelm’s company had drawn guard duty this morning. As such, they had been unable to join their fellow soldiers in rushing to see what had befallen their king. But as Marshall of the East-mark, second only to Eomer and Erkenbrand until Elfwine came of age, Elfhelm wondered if he was actually required to stand with his men. Erkenbrand had been left in charge of Rohan, which meant that should anything happen to Eomer, Elfhelm was in charge of the Rohirrim that had come to Minas Tirith. With this in mind, it could easily be rationalized that he needed to know what was happening and was justified in leaving his post.
Yet even as these thoughts crossed his mind, the obedience that had been drilled into him ever since the day he had first taken up the sword came into play. He had been ordered by his king to guard the mares that were set aside for breeding with Rhûn. He could not abandon that duty. And he would know soon enough what had transpired without having to leave his station. Arhelm’s company was not on duty, and if there was anything to report, Arhelm would return and seek him out. The crown-prince, Elfwine, had also gone to investigate, and he was a smart lad that knew the proper chain of command. Had something befallen his father, he would seek the Marshall’s counsel.
But until such time, Elfhelm was constrained to stand and wait, looking on with the rest of his men as more and more people began to gather. And waiting was something the Rohirrim did not endure well. They were a bold people, charging bravely and swiftly into whatever problems confronted them. They did not stand to the side while others raced to help. If deeds were to be done, then they were to be done swiftly and efficiently. There was no room for dawdling or tarrying in the Rohirrim mindset. Subsequently, Elfhelm and those in his company began to grow anxious, and anxious soldiers of Rohan are an open invitation to trouble.
Fortunately, the wait was not long enough to provoke rash acts on the part of Elfhelm and his men. After a few minutes—though each minute seemed to last several years—one rider called out and pointed, indicating a small figure making his way toward them while two horses trailed behind. One of the animals was an older mare of good breeding, though she would never compare to the mares of Rohan. Elfhelm believed he had seen her in Dol Amroth’s company, but he could not be certain. The other horse, though, was instantly recognized as Eomer’s stallion, Shade. And at this realization, murmurs and whispers began to spread among the men even as Elfhelm sprang forward to discover what had happened.
"Prince Elfwine!" he called, for he could see now that it was Elfwine who led the horses forward. "Prince Elfwine, what tidings?"
At Elfhelm’s shout, Shade suddenly snorted and reared, fighting Elfwine’s hold on the reins. Startled by his sudden movements, the mare shook her head and reared as well, neighing loudly in protest. Taking in the situation quickly, Elfhelm raced to Elfwine’s side and took the mare, pulling her back to the ground and hauling her away from Shade. With quiet words and coaxing, he managed to soothe the skittish horse, but his eyes could not help straying to Elfwine and Shade. Elfwine had begun riding almost as soon as he had begun walking, and though Shade was solely Eomer’s horse in both body and soul, the stallion would occasionally permit Elfwine to groom him and speak with him. But Shade did not appear to be calming down now no matter what Elfwine did or said. Rather, he was becoming more and more frantic with every move, and though he had not lashed out directly at the boy, Elfhelm felt that such an event was only moments away.
Other riders now appeared on the scene, but their presence only served to further incense Shade. Immediately realizing what was happening, all began to back away, but eyes were turning desperately to Elfhelm, demanding orders. For his part, Elfhelm had never felt more helpless in his entire life. This was the chief of the Mearas. He was effectively the king of Rohan’s horses. He could not be manhandled as lesser steeds might be. Yet if they did not do something soon, Elfwine would be crushed beneath Shade’s powerful hooves.
Fortunately for the torn Marshall, a chorus of whinnies suddenly echoed up from the pastures. Other horses had heard the distress of their leader and were calling out to him. Upon hearing their cries, Shade paused, and his hesitation was long enough for Elfwine to regain his feet and take a firmer grip on the harness, all the while whispering reassurances and promises. Shade tossed his head and his ears fell back against his neck, nostrils flaring. One foreleg stomped hard against the ground and his tail whisked the air, but he made no other action. Elfwine continued to speak to him, the other horses continued to call, and after a moment, Shade’s eyes lost the fires of rage. He was still agitated and his ears were still back, but he was no longer fighting Elfwine’s hold.
With gentle, cautious words, Elfwine again started forward. Shade resisted, his muscles bunching as though preparing once more for action, but with steady coaxing, he at last consented to be led toward the paddocks. The gathered Rohirrim hastily cleared a path, unwilling to further upset the Mearas chief, and after a few painfully long minutes, Shade was released into the area containing the other warhorses.
A soft whicker behind him reminded Elfhelm that he was still holding the mare. He gave her a rather absent pat on the neck by means of acknowledgment and then began leading her forward. Two steps later, he stopped, immediately seeing the limp in her stride. But he had no time to care for her now as too many other things were happening. Waving one of his riders to him, he passed the reins over and quietly ordered that a physician be summoned to see to the animal. Having taken care of that, he looked for Elfwine and found him leaning against the fence that formed one of the paddock boundaries.
"Prince Elfwine?" Elfhelm walked over to the boy and placed a hand on the lad’s shoulder. Elfwine appeared as though he was ready to fall over, but answers could not wait until he was better prepared to give them. Under normal circumstances, Eomer would never have allowed Elfwine to handle Shade when the stallion was so upset. The king knew better than anyone just how short Shade’s temper could be. Therefore, something must have happened to Eomer. "Elfwine, where is your father? Where is the king?"
At the mention of the king, Shade loosed a scream of anger and rushes the makeshift fences that had been set up. Shoving an exhausted Elfwine out of the way, Elfhelm placed himself directly before the great stallion, daring him to make the leap and kill in the process. Shade skidded to a halt and snorted angrily, his eyes promising that if Elfhelm did not move, he would not hesitate to trample the man.
"Shade!" Elfwine called out, his voice soft but firm. "Shade, peace. I promise to give you news when I have it."
Shade snorted and his eyes flashed, but he made no move to rush the fence. Wary but feeling safe for the moment, Elfhelm turned back to the crown-prince, his eyes questioning. "Elfwine, what has happened?"
"There was an accident," Elfwine whispered, shaking his head as though still in shock. "I was not there when it happened, and the Lady Eowyn sent me away ere I could learn much. But…" He stopped and frowned, his brow furrowing in concentration. "King Elessar was with my father. Prince Imrahil was also upon the ground, and Prince Faramir was seeing to him. More than that I truly cannot say for I was entrusted with the horses. I believe there was a fall. The pole that had been set up to support tomorrow’s main pavilion was upon the ground, but…" He trailed off again and raised helpless eyes to Elfhelm.
"Your answers give more information than what I had earlier," Elfhelm assured him, squeezing his shoulder gently. "Did you know the condition of your father when you left?"
"He was not moving and King Elessar seemed anxious, but I know no more than that," Elfwine said. "Lady Eowyn sent me away. I could learn nothing else."
"Then we shall educate ourselves," Elfhelm promised. Glancing about he spied an errand rider and signaled to him. "Fréalaf, seek out Captain Arhelm and inform him that he is to assume command here in the Pelennor. He is to report to me immediately."
"At once, my lord," the prompt reply came, and then the messenger was off, quickly mounting his horse and thundering off across the fields.
"And now we wait for Arhelm," Elfhelm said. "Once he is come, we are free to go up into the city and seek out your father."
"I should go now," Elfwine murmured.
"Nay, you have a responsibility to Shade, young prince, and I have a responsibility to the men upon the fields," the Marshall said gently, deciding to forget the fact that he had been sorely tempted to shirk his duties earlier. "Until our responsibilities are given to another, we cannot abandon them. It will not be long. Arhelm is no doubt on his way here even as we speak, and I suspect he will have information that you do not. Patience, Prince Elfwine."
The boy sighed and folded his arms across his chest, but he said no more, seeming to accept his fate. Hoping this dejected anxiety was not seen by Shade, Elfhelm glanced over his shoulder and sighed in relief. The stallion seemed much calmer now and was actually sniffing at the grass as though he was tempted to graze. But he was not totally at ease, for he kept lifting his head and turning his black eyes south, seeming to search for a sign of Eomer. Still, he was now more or less manageable. If Shade had chosen to jump the fence, Elfhelm did not think that any could have caught him once he was free.
"How long will it take Captain Arhelm to arrive?"
Startled by the question, Elfhelm blinked and glanced down at the crown-prince. "We sent for him but moments ago."
"But you said he might already be coming this way."
"He might," Elfhelm nodded. "But then again, he might not. I have no way of knowing with any certainty. It would be safe to say that he will arrive soon, though."
The impatience in Elfwine’s voice reminded Elfhelm very much of the boy’s father. Eomer was not one for waiting either, and the desire for action rather than speech had led to complications more than once. Wondering if there was a way to instill more patience in Eomer’s son, Elfhelm searched for an answer but was suddenly interrupted by a loud whistle.
Jerking with surprise, Elfhelm swung around and stared. Shade was no longer looking to the south but rather to the north, and his posture was one of a challenging stallion. Confused as to what he might be challenging, Elfhelm turned his eyes beyond the paddock housing the warhorses and saw—
"By the blood of Eorl!"
"Those are the mares that were to be set aside for breeding with Rhûn’s studs!" Elfwine exclaimed.
"Come," Elfhelm commanded, racing toward the far paddock and summoning riders as he went. Shade began running as well, clearly intent on driving away the two stallions that had suddenly appeared among the mares. One was a tall black steed and seemed rather nonplussed with the situation, but the smaller bay horse was clearly enjoying himself. Upon hearing Shade’s challenge as well as the shouts of the men, both horses glanced their direction. The black one took several paces back, his ears flipping from side to side. But his companion was not so intimidated and instead reared, sending out an answering challenge while assuming a stance that indicated he was not ready to abandon his newly found mares any time in the near future. And judging from his stature, small though he was, he was quite capable of defending his claim. In fact, upon close inspection, Elfhelm decided that he had seen both these horses before. But when… "The elven horses!"
"The elven horses?" Elfwine echoed, his breath coming hard as he attempted to keep pace with Elfhelm.
"The mounts of Lord Elladan and Lord Elrohir. They joined us at Edoras and traveled with us here."
"I remember now," Elfwine exclaimed. "But how did they come to be…" He suddenly trailed off as Shade leaped the paddock fence and charged toward the pen where the mares were being kept.
"Shade!" Elfhelm shouted, but his cry fell upon deaf ears. The chief of the Mearas thundered toward the interlopers as an angry king intent upon vengeance. And with a challenging neigh, the bay horse raced to meet him.
Most hobbits were not particularly vengeful. Family grievances were sometimes remembered for several generations and grudges did have a way of sticking around small communities far longer than was needed, but as a general rule, if a hobbit was wronged, he did not start looking for ways to seek retribution.
But Peregrin Took was not most hobbits. He was the son of Paladin II and a descendent of Isumbras the III, the same Isumbras that fathered Ferumbras the II as well as Bandobras the Bullroarer. He was a knight of Gondor, honored as a hero and friend to both King Elessar and Prince Faramir. He was a member of the Fellowship, known to be one of the Ring-bearer’s original companions. He was a survivor of the desperate battle before the Morannon and had witnessed the coming of the eagles and the breaking of Sauron’s reign. He was anything but a fair representation of his kin back in the Shire. And today, he was a hobbit with a mission.
Starting at one end of the vast palace kitchens while Merry started at the other, Pippin began looking for anything resembling a storeroom or an entry to a storeroom. The two had decided that it would probably be a passage leading downward, as it was easier for things to be preserved if they were kept below ground in a cool environment. To this end, they tapped out patterns on the floor, listening for echoes or hollows. They slapped the walls, attempting to uncover secret rooms. No cupboard was left unopened and no shadow was left unexplored. Stomachs would be sated, the storerooms would be found, their mission would be accomplished, and in the future, Arwen would think twice about toying with a hobbit’s culinary sentiments!
Pippin was scrambling atop a counter to investigate a stone that was a slightly different color than the other stones when Merry suddenly gave a shout. Startled, Pippin nearly rolled off the counter in surprise. As it was, he barely managed to stop himself just before falling to the ground. Looking across the kitchen, he muttered something rather uncomplimentary beneath his breath and quickly spied his cousin. "Merry, the next time you decide to yell, warn me. I almost—"
"Pippin, you are the greatest fool of our day," Merry interrupted with a sigh of disgust. "Here we are looking for hidden passageways leading to a secret pantry when all we needed to do was open a few doors."
Pippin blinked. "Pardon?"
"Quite honestly, I don’t know why I ever listen to you," Merry said, shaking his head. "Your mind is so addled it’s a wonder you can tell Hobbiton from Michel Delving."
"Is there a purpose to this or are you—"
"Here, Pippin. The stairs leading down to the storerooms are right through here." Merry pointed to an open door next to him and then fixed Pippin with a rather pointed stare.
"What else could they be?!"
"Well, I don’t see why you’re so upset," Pippin answered, jumping down from the counter and walking over to investigate. "We found it, didn’t we?"
"Why did you have us looking for disguised trapdoors and—"
"Because we’re in a palace kitchen, Merry," Pippin said with a slight roll of his eyes. "Don’t you remember those stories they used to tell around campfires back in the Shire? All palaces have secret compartments where they hide their valuables. It’s clear to me that Arwen used something like that to hide things from us. Otherwise, the way to the cellars would have been obvious."
"It is obvious!" Merry exclaimed. "But you were too busy prattling on about a hidden storeroom to notice."
"You didn’t have to listen to me," Pippin pointed out, eyeing the dark stairs. They spiraled downward at steep yet manageable angle, but little else could be discerned. There was no illumination save what the large kitchen windows provided.
"No, I didn’t have to listen to you, but I did because I thought you knew what you were talking about. You are a knight of Gondor, after all."
"If you were wandering about Meduseld, could you have found the storerooms right away?" Pippin challenged, glancing about for something that might be used as a candle.
"At least I wouldn’t have gone searching for some shadowy corridor that led into mysterious rooms filled with heavily guarded food."
Pippin scowled. It had all made sense at the time, but Merry’s words contained a rather condemning element of logic. But logic aside, Pippin felt it had been quite natural to assume that the door to the storerooms would be hidden. Arwen was devious enough to give the hobbits access to the kitchens while making certain that accessible food was elsewhere. Going from that, it was a natural step to conclude that she would have hidden any food that remained at the palace. Of course, the storerooms would have been built long before Arwen hatched her heinous plot and hiding the door might have been slightly implausible, but elves had a way of getting around things like that. At least, that’s what Pippin had told himself. He was no longer quite so certain.
He would have continued to examine the situation, but his inner musings were cut short by a gurgling growl from his stomach. Deciding that rethinking his assumptions could wait until after he had satisfied his appetite, he turned around and found a lantern, lighting it before turning back to Merry. "Well, whatever you might think of my methods, we’ve still found what is probably the way down to the storerooms. I say we investigate."
"Agreed. But let’s try to be a little more efficient this time."
With a weary sigh, Pippin bit back a retort and started down the dark stairs, feeling Merry fall in behind him. They moved slowly, uncertain of their steps and somewhat leery of the shadows cast by their lantern. Moreover, the steps were unevenly spaced and difficult to navigate quickly, so care was required. Pippin vaguely remembered Faramir saying something about stairs like these being a defense mechanism against attackers, as it prevented those unfamiliar with the steps from running up and down them quickly. That was all well and good for times of war, but at the moment, Pippin could only see such precautions as a nuisance. He was not an invader but a hungry hobbit with a mission to eat as much of the larder as he could manage before his stomach burst and the buttons of his waistcoat popped off.
"Maybe I was wrong," Merry whispered behind Pippin. "Maybe this isn’t the way to the storerooms where they keep the food."
Pippin frowned and shot a curious glance over his shoulder at his cousin. "You were certain back in the kitchens that this is the way. What’s wrong?"
Merry’s eyes flickered over the dark walls and he bit his lip. "Nothing. I just…" He frowned and shook his head, absently rubbing his right shoulder as he did so. "Forget I said anything. Let’s keep going."
Pippin studied the other hobbit for a moment, paying close attention to the way Merry suddenly seemed to be favoring his sword arm. From time to time, Merry would fall strangely ill and have unusual pains or feelings of numbness in his right arm. The most recent occurrence had happened nine days ago on the anniversary of victory on the Pelennor Fields. They’d been in Rohan at the time and Merry had hidden his discomfort well, but Pippin was not so blind that he could not see what was happening. He knew well that Merry still suffered from the blow he had dealt the Witch-king, and he knew that dark, silent places had a tendency to remind his cousin of the foul dreams that had haunted him after he fell beneath the Black Breath. "If you like, you can stay in the kitchens while I investigate," Pippin said at length, attempting to show naught more than simple concern. Merry could become very offended if he felt he was being coddled. "I can bring what I find back to you. In any case, it would be more enjoyable to eat up there where it’s lighter."
Merry frowned and then shook his head. "No, I’m fine. Let’s go."
"Must I repeat myself?"
With a sigh, Pippin reluctantly turned away. It was clear that Merry would not be swayed from their journey. There were times when Pippin wondered just how much of Rohan’s haughty pride had rubbed off on the Brandybuck. Still, nothing could be done about that now, and so Pippin began walking again, moving faster so that Merry’s mind would be on his feet and his balance rather than on the shadows of his past.
After countless spirals down the winding stairs, they eventually came to the bottom. They found themselves in a wide, clean room with a low ceiling. A table next to the entryway contained several lamps, and Pippin wasted no time in lighting these. The more illumination, the better, and he could feel Merry relaxing as the shadows began to flee. "That’s better," Pippin said, forcing his voice to be light and casual as though fears of the dark were the furthest thing from his mind. "No sense in tripping over what can’t be seen when we can simply light a lamp and see it."
"True," Merry agreed, looking around the room. "But exactly what are we seeing?"
Pippin turned away from his task of lighting the last of the lanterns and blinked. They had found a storeroom, but this storeroom did not seem to be one used for housing food. Lining the walls and much of the center of the room were large casks that looked as though they held wine. There was writing on the sides of many of the barrels, and Pippin moved to inspect it, curious as to where so much wine could have originated.
"Greenwood," Merry announced, also inspecting the casks. "These are all from Greenwood."
"There is enough wine here to keep every hobbit in the Shire happy all the way into the next Age," Pippin whispered with awe. "Do you suppose this is for that banquet tonight that Strider was talking about?"
"Perhaps, but I didn’t think he would serve wine from Mirkwood. You remember those casks that Legolas’s father sent to the coronation?"
"I try not to remember," Pippin muttered, rubbing his head. That had been an interesting night, if nothing else. The hobbits had known that elven wine could be rather potent, and Legolas had warned them that wine from Mirkwood was stronger than most. But after a glass or two, all such considerations no longer mattered. Pippin could not remember exactly how the night had concluded, but he had found himself on the floor of the baths the next morning with a headache so large it would have made Treebeard wince.
A sudden growl arrested Pippin’s attention and he froze, searching the room for anything that might be construed as a threat. "Sorry, that’s me," Merry piped up with a hint of laughter in his voice. "My stomach does not appreciate the delay."
"Oh." Pippin gave a rather sheepish smile and relaxed, glancing about the room once more. "Well, we’ve found at least one storeroom, but it’s for wine and not for food. I guess we’ll need to—"
"What about this room?" Merry interrupted, moving toward the back of the room. Hidden in the shadows, he had spied a sturdy door. The wine casks had been placed in such a way as to form a path to this door, and it looked to have seen recent use. Pippin hurriedly joined his cousin in the back of the room and his spirits lifted as his keen nose caught an unmistakable scent.
"We found it!" he exclaimed. "This is it. The storerooms for the food are behind this door! I can smell it!"
"Apples," Merry agreed with a broad grin.
"Master Took, we have done well," Merry said, reaching out and grasping Pippin’s hand.
"We have indeed, Mastery Brandybuck," Pippin answered, pumping Merry’s arm. "Shall we feast?"
The moment of triumph had come, and Pippin was nearly bursting with anticipation as Merry reached for the door’s handle. He would soon be within a room that contained the palace’s wealth of sustenance. They could concoct a feast the likes of which had never before been seen in Gondor. Arwen had failed, and this knowledge brought Pippin sweet satisfaction. He grinned, imagining the look upon Arwen’s face when she realized that she had been bested by two hobbits. It would be a moment of wondrous joy, and Pippin only hoped that he would not be too full to miss it.
It was then that the unthinkable happened. Merry pulled back on the handle and met with solid resistance.
The door was locked.
With a scowl and a muttered oath about kings that ordered guests to watch their children, Gimli glared at the garden, searching for any clue that might tell him the whereabouts of Eldarion. But save for a soft humming that came from Legolas on the other side of the enclosed haven, there was no sign that any were in the garden other than the dwarf and the elf.
Knowing his father, I should have expected this, Gimli though dourly. Aragorn also had a tendency to take matters into his own hands. The incident with the palantír along with several other examples were swift in coming to mind. And it seemed that Eldarion was following in the footsteps of his esteemed sire. If the situation didn’t suit him, then he would change the situation. Unfortunately—like his father—Eldarion seemed to forget that others should be informed of the change of plans, thus leaving companions to learn about events after the fact.
Folding his arms across his chest, Gimli cursed quietly and fervently before turning around and glaring in the general direction of Legolas. If Eldarion had indeed left the garden, the elf had probably witnessed it. And in true elvish fashion, he had neglected to inform Gimli. Exactly why Legolas had decided not to tell was another matter entirely and undoubtedly had to do with a twisted sense of humor born from far too many years of hunting shadows and spiders in Mirkwood. And even if Eldarion was still somewhere in the garden—which Gimli greatly doubted—Legolas probably knew his location. In any case, the best course of action now was to ask the elf for assistance. The very thought made Gimli cringe, but he was running out of options and becoming more than a little embarrassed with his inability to find one small boy. So with a growl of annoyance and a mental promise for future retribution of some kind, the dwarf stalked back to his friend.
Upon seeing his approach, Legolas ceased his song and arched one elegant elven eyebrow, a move that immediately put Gimli on his guard. The elf looked entirely too casual, and a slight twitch in his right cheek indicated that he was holding back a smile. This only served to confirm Gimli’s suspicions that Legolas knew exactly where Eldarion was, and the notion did not put him in the best of moods. Deciding to take Legolas for a long sojourn in a cave and then find a way to leave him there, the dwarf sighed, came to a stop before the prince, and waited.
"It appears that Eldarion is winning the game," Legolas observed after a moment of silence. The twitch in his right cheek was becoming more prominent. It was only through a concerted effort that Gimli refrained from clouting the elf upside the head for his insolence.
"Where is he, Legolas?"
The elf’s expression became one of shock. "Do you not know? How is such a thing possible? You, who have walked the Paths of the Dead, stood before the horror of the Morannon, fought valiantly to repel the invaders of Helm’s Deep, witnessed the fall of—"
"I am well aware of these events. I was present for them," Gimli growled, interjecting a stern note of warning into his voice. "Now, know you where Eldarion has gone?"
"An elf knows many things," Legolas said loftily, a slight twinkle entering his eyes as his left cheek began to spasm in harmony with his right. "But it was my earlier understanding that you required no assistance. Has that changed?"
"No, it has not," Gimli answered briskly. "But it would shorten the search if you could use those highly touted elven abilities of yours and tell me where Eldarion is."
"Ah, it becomes clear! You do not need aid. You simply wish to cheat at the game." The elf shook his head and clucked his tongue sadly. "Gimli, I am appalled. I thought dwarves were creatures of greater honor."
"Legolas!" Gimli glared at the prince only to have his look neatly fielded and returned by an expression that combined infuriating innocence with calculating cunning. Exactly how Legolas managed to create that particular look was beyond Gimli, but somehow he did it and he did it well. Durin’s beard, whatever possessed me to make friends of an elf?! Still, it was either play the elf’s game or start a futile search for Eldarion that would ultimately result in asking for the elf’s help anyway. Knowing what was required of him, Gimli gave a heavy sigh and took a healthy swallow or pride, reaffirming to himself that vengeance would need to be planned. "Legolas, my most sincere apologies. I should have enlisted your aid in the beginning. I know not what I was thinking. Will you help me now?"
Legolas’s eyes sparkled and Gimli gave a mental groan, sensing that more was going to be required of him. "It is rare that a dwarf asks for the wisdom and counsel of an elf," the prince said slowly, drawing his words out with obvious relish. "I know not what to say. What is it you see in me that prompts this request?"
"By the craft of Mahal, Legolas, if I am forced to—"
"Then I was mistaken?" the elf interrupted, sounding as though he was deeply hurt. "You do not wish for my assistance?"
Oh, you shall certainly pay for this, my friend. May your trees fade, your rivers run dry, and your wine sour. And may it happen within the span of my life so that I am allowed to laugh at your misfortune! "Legolas, you have elven senses and I do not," Gimli muttered. "For this reason, I desire your aid."
"You desire it? Then this is not a necessary thing? You could carry out a search for Eldarion on your own?"
"I need your aid," Gimli snarled. The elf was pushing his limits far beyond the mark of safety.
"Ah, so you are unable to find the boy on your own. And why is that, my friend? Why should I be able to do this when you cannot?"
"Because, friend," Gimli hissed, "elven senses are better than my own. And if you wish for your head to remain attached to your neck, then you will—"
"Say no more, Gimli," Legolas interrupted, his face breaking forth into a broad grin that nearly earned him a severe beating. "I shall go now and seek out our missing charge. You have made to clear to me why my involvement is a matter of great importance, and I shall not fail you. Rest here until our return and ponder on that which you have said."
But the dwarf’s angry curse faded even as it began, for Legolas effectively vanished from sight, leaving Gimli alone in the garden. Ai. It is bad enough that I must watch Aragorn’s son while others enjoy themselves upon the Pelennor. But was it truly necessary for Legolas to watch him with me? If I am forced to endure the company of that elf much longer… Gimli’s thoughts trailed off into something akin to an angry buzz accompanied by detailed images of a certain Ithilien lord dying in rather ingenious ways. The dwarves were nothing if not creative, and Gimli’s imaginative mind made good use of his anger, concocting a plethora of vengeful schemes. Most of these schemes would never come to fruition and a few were so impractical that Gimli wondered if elven nonsense was beginning to negatively impact his engineering ability. Nevertheless, the pursuit of unique and inventive ways to destroy Legolas was quite relaxing. And after his temper cooled and his pride recovered, these ideas would be converted into safer and more harmless plans that could actually be used.
Finding a comfortable rock and taking a seat, Gimli leaned back and turned his eyes toward the sky, his mind still devising unusual methods of assassination. He would have to play his hand carefully, though, for an alliance with Legolas was still needed in order to retaliate against Elladan and Elrohir. Their mischief had been far more damaging to Gimli’s pride than Legolas’s smug word games. It would be necessary to work with Thranduil’s intolerable son for yet a little longer until vengeance against Elrond’s intolerable twins could be enacted. And unfortunately, it would probably be necessary to work with Legolas in denying whatever they did so as to prevent Aragorn’s wrath from descending. After that, though, the way would be free for a dwarven version of retribution.
Perhaps I should tunnel beneath his home in Ithilien and destroy the foundation, Gimli mused. That would certainly be entertaining, and were I clever enough, he would never know the true culprit. Or rather, he would know, but he would have no evidence to support his accusations. And it would be difficult for him to retaliate as he is barely able to endure my own home. Aglarond would certainly be safe from elven scheming. Intrigued by this idea, Gimli called up a mental map of Legolas’s home and began examining the surrounding area. He would have to begin tunneling quite a distance away from the court itself, or the elves would find and catch him. And he would have to strike a final blow when none were within the halls so as to avoid injuring anyone. Perhaps he should start near the Ephel Duath. Nay, they patrol those regions too often, the dwarf decided. They would be drawn to any suspicious activity and the game would be up. Near the Anduin? Nay, too much trade. Too far south and we risk alerting the men that have taken up residence there. And though they might help us in our endeavor, they are completely unable to keep a secret.
Frowning, Gimli pursed his lips and began drumming his fingers upon the rock. Where could such a tunnel be started so as to keep its existence a secret from the elves? Would Faramir be willing to take part in such a scheme? If that were the case, the tunnel could be started near Emyn Arnen. But could Faramir’s men be trusted to keep this a secret? It would be a long undertaking as they worked their way through the bedrock. Beregond would be willing, and his lips would remain closed, Gimli mused. Bergil would also enjoy this scheme, but I do not think he could keep word of this from slipping. It will have to be a select few that knew of it, and that will prove difficult. Still, the greatest risk to secrecy would come in beginning the project. After that, the entrance could be hidden and we could work at will, periodically checking direction when none were around. Or perhaps we could create a ruse. Perhaps Faramir wishes to begin a mining project and we would come to aid him. None would think to question that. In fact, we could then position ourselves closer to the elven realm and—
"Gimli, we may have a problem."
Curse elves and their silent feet! Startled into jumping, Gimli swung around and fixed a stern glare on Legolas, who had come up behind him. "Is it too much to ask that elves announce themselves as would any courteous being?!"
A ghost of a smile flickered across the elf’s face, but it vanished quickly. "My apologies for the deaf ears of the dwarves. However, we still have a problem."
Gimli glowered and then looked around. "I thought you went to find Eldarion."
"I did. But it seems that—"
"You did not find him." The dwarf’s face broke out in a broad grin. "Your keen elven senses were unable to find him. You—"
"Gimli!" Legolas interrupted sternly, and something in his voice made Gimli pause. "I did not find him because he is no longer in the courtyard. According to a guard I spoke with, he has gone into the palace."
"The palace? But…you did not find him there?"
"I did not go into the palace. I came back for you because I told the guard that you were with Eldarion and I merely sought your whereabouts. I decided that would be best to hold back alarm and panic."
Gimli frowned. "Alarm and panic?" he echoed.
"Apparently, Elladan and Elrohir were also seen entering the palace. This was shortly after Eldarion went in."
There was a long pause following this announcement. "What would they do?" Gimli asked at length.
"I am reminded of a story my father told about his father. It seems that Oropher in one of the only individuals aside from Lord Celeborn who has been able to make mischief for Galadriel in Lothlórien itself. He kidnapped Celebrían."
Gimli stared at Legolas in astonishment. "Your grandfather kidnapped Elrond’s wife?"
"She was not more than ten at the time and was returned within a day," Legolas answered. "Still, the uproar lasted for centuries."
"I can imagine," Gimli murmured, overwhelmed at the very thought of such a thing. Though I cannot say that this act would be beyond Oropher or any of his descendents. If anyone was to risk angering the Lady of Lothlórien, it would be the foolish elves of Mirkwood.
"Gimli, I believe Elladan and Elrohir may try something similar here in Minas Tirith. It would explain why they have not come after us again. And if they succeed in their plans, then Aragorn is going to be most displeased with you."
This last statement was enough to shake the dwarf from his inner thoughts concerning the sheer audacity and stupidity of Legolas’s sires. "Me!?" Gimli gifted his friend with an expression of pure outrage and indignation. "I was not watching him alone, Master Elf! You are just as responsible as I!"
"Nay, Aragorn specifically gave Eldarion over to you. He was your responsibility. I suggest you either find him quickly or become missing yourself."
"I will not take the blame for this alone!" Gimli shot back, his anger mounting. "Valar, Legolas, are you losing your elvish hearing?! When making his request to watch Eldarion, Aragorn included your name as well. My name. Your name. Gimli. Legolas. Me. You. Two different names. Two different individuals. Both responsible for one small prince. And if we do not find that one small prince before a pair of arrogant Imladris lords do, then we are both going to be mûmakil fodder!"
A long silence fell during which elf and dwarf traded dark glares. Eventually, Legolas looked away and sighed. "This is pointless and we waste valuable time by standing here. We must begin the search."
"And where do we search?" Gimli asked, still fuming but grateful that Legolas seemed to be accepting responsibility. "Where do elven children go when they run away?"
"Elven children do not run away."
"Oh?" Gimli’s eyebrows arched, and though he knew time was of the essence, he could not quite forego this opportunity. After all, Legolas had already exasperated him several times that day. Some retribution had to be made in order to preserve the dwarf’s sanity. "I seem to remember you telling me about a time in Mirkwood when—"
"If they do run away, it is for very good reasons," Legolas interrupted quickly.
"A desire to avoid your lessons was a very good reason?"
The elf sent Gimli a withering glare. "As I said before, we are wasting time. Eldarion did not run away. Rather, he sought a better hiding place than what the garden could offer and decided to seek it in the palace. He could be anywhere. It will be difficult if not impossible to find him."
"My thanks for your words of comfort," Gimli growled.
"I did not intend to comfort you. I intended to portray the situation accurately."
Gimli clenched his fists in frustration. "Very well. Now that all things are portrayed accurately, what do you propose we do?
"I propose that we slip into the palace using the servants’ entrances and then we separate. We ask after Eldarion and also after the twins. If you are questioned, say that Eldarion is with me. If I am questioned, I shall say he is with you. None shall be the wiser, and Valar willing, we will find the crown-prince before Elladan and Elrohir do. But we must act quickly and above all else, we must act quietly! Great discretion is required. In fact, this situation might call for your dwarven expertise in the art of subtle deception," Legolas concluded with forced levity.
Muttering a rather foul dwarven curse beneath his breath, Gimli pushed past the elf and walked out of the gardens. "And what happens if we cannot find Eldarion or if Elladan and Elrohir find him first?" he asked as Legolas fell into step beside him.
The elf grimaced and looked away. "In that event, we should probably hearken to the voice of discretion. I would suggest running."