Chapter 18: Reckonings
"Time to get up, Frodo."
Frodo stirred within his blankets. "Hmm?" he asked muzzily.
Frodo opened his eyes and blinked at the sight of Boromir bending over him. He could just make out the man's face in the gray, pre-dawn light. "Is it really? Already?"
"We're getting an early start. Gandalf's orders."
Abruptly, Frodo remembered. Today was the day that the Fellowship would finally leave the Feinduin behind. The thought was enough to wake him up completely.
"You wake the rest of your kin," said Boromir. "I will rouse the others." He turned away and stepped toward Gimli, being careful not to tread on anyone.
Between the two of them, Frodo and Boromir made quick work of shaking the others awake – with the exception of Sam and Legolas. By now everyone had grown accustomed to taking pains not to disturb the pair, and the morning routine was begun in near-silence. Legolas, however, woke just as they began to resurrect the fire. He allowed Strider to inspect his injury without protest, though he had to know that all the others were stealing glances for themselves. Frodo shook his head in wonder at the sight of the still-healing wound. Strider had been right; it would vanish completely before long.
Everyone brightened when Sam woke shortly after Legolas. Never one to relish being the center of attention, he blushed and ducked his head at the chorus of "Good mornings" that greeted him. The others smiled at each other behind his back when he set about rolling up his blankets in a matter-of-fact way. No one bothered to ask whether he wanted one more day of rest; it was plain that he was eager to move on.
For his part, Frodo couldn't wait to get out of the gorge. He was tired of the little half-shelter, tired of the forbidding cliffs all around, and tired of worrying that Brund would suddenly appear in their midst. He couldn't look at the river without thinking of Sam and Legolas drifting away, and the memory of Sam's near-drowning was fresh enough to make his heart tremble. Sam had come on this quest because of him; so had Merry and Pippin, and Frodo was keenly aware of his responsibility for them.
Merry and Pippin caught sight of Frodo looking in their direction and shot him identical, hopeful grins. Frodo smiled back, but inside, his heart was aching with love and worry. These hobbits were the dearest friends he had in all the world; how could he bear it if anything happened to them? Sam had already paid dearly for his loyalty. More than anything Frodo wished that the events of recent days had never happened, but of course that could never be so. All he could do was continue to reassure Sam, through words and actions, that he still held him in the highest esteem. It didn't seem like enough.
There were still hot coals in the bottom of the firepit, and Gandalf suggested that they make use of them in spite of his earlier desire to leave quickly. Frodo understood that this was mostly for the benefit of Sam and Legolas. What with everything that had happened, it might be some time before anyone felt comfortable building a proper campfire again, and hot food would not do any of them ill.
Sam insisted on helping with breakfast, and Frodo didn't argue. Being denied the task would hurt Sam's pride. Besides, Frodo knew that Sam really did enjoy cooking, and his labors over the previous meal seemed to have buoyed him up.
Frodo kept a close eye on Sam as they cleaned a set of fish for frying. Sam's high-flying spirits of the night before seemed to have gone, but this was to be expected; the heady moment of confession and forgiveness had passed. Sam now seemed quietly content. Frodo was glad to see it, for this was much more like the unassuming gardener he had known for so long. There had been a terrible feeling of separateness about Sam after he had awoken amid the company, a feeling that hadn't gone away until he had finally revealed his secret. It had been terrible for Frodo to sense that distance – he and Sam had always been close – but Sam had experienced something that Frodo had not, and there was no changing that. As he thought about this, Frodo began to wonder. Merry, Pippin and Sam knew that the Ring was a burden to him, knew how much the Quest required of him in both body and spirit – but they couldn't wholly understand, because they weren't carrying it. That distance that he felt from Sam… did the Ring make the other hobbits feel distanced from him?
Disquieting as the thought was, Sam was happy enough that Frodo could not dwell on his misgivings for long. Merry and Pippin were in good spirits now that Sam was so much improved, and Strider, Boromir and Gandalf were in a better temper than Frodo had seen from any of them since the flood. All of them were behaving so genially that breakfast was in Sam's best pan by the time Frodo realized that Legolas and Gimli had not joined in the conversation. Looking around, he saw that the two of them were watching each other with odd expressions on their faces. Though their looks were more quizzical than challenging, Frodo was instantly wary. He knew just how quickly an argument could spring up between them.
Sure enough, it didn't take long for the pointed glances to become a full-fledged staring match. Gimli's countenance grew harder and harder, and Legolas' eyes narrowed as though in suspicion. The others eventually noticed their silence, and a cloud settled over the company though conversation continued. Frodo doubted if either Gimli or Legolas noticed the way Merry and Pippin were eyeing them nervously, or Strider's obvious irritation, or Gandalf's curiosity as he puffed away on his pipe.
The looks between Legolas and Gimli had grown very ominous indeed by the time Sam asked Frodo to dole out the tin plates. He was just sliding the first bit of fish out onto a platter when Legolas abruptly got to his feet and walked, bent-backed, toward the fire. Everyone froze when he stopped in front of Gimli.
Gimli looked warily up at Legolas, but he did not stand. For a moment elf and dwarf simply regarded each other. Legolas' expression had become unreadable, but as the silence dragged on, Gimli's face darkened further.
"Amends I have to make to you, Gimli son of Gloin," Legolas said abruptly.
If anyone in the company had been pretending to ignore Legolas and Gimli, all such pretense was gone. Gimli's eyebrows climbed until they were in danger of disappearing beneath his helm. "Amends, Master Elf?" he said.
"Aye. Amends for several occasions on which I have insulted you."
Frodo's mouth dropped open.
Gimli's brows drew down again. "And which occasion might that be? There are many to choose from, and I have stopped keeping count."
Oh, dear, thought Frodo.
"I see you do not wish for any apology from me," Legolas said tightly. "Nor did I expect you to accept any." Gimli opened his mouth angrily, but Legolas held up a hand. "Know this!" he snapped. "At odds our people may be, but never again will you hear the word 'Naugrim' disgrace my tongue."
Frodo was still gaping. That was what Legolas had wanted to say? It would certainly be a change for the better – Naugrim was an insult – but it had been most unexpected, and Legolas' tone didn't make it sound like that much of an apology.
Gimli stared at Legolas as though he had grown a second head. Legolas glared right back at him, seemingly challenging the dwarf to act. Frodo could see Gimli's jaw working.
"Very well," Gimli grated at long last, and Frodo's shoulders slumped in relief. For a moment he had been sure that the pair were going to come to blows.
Legolas gave a curt nod and turned away. A moment later he had cleared the low overhang and was striding away from the camp. He had not gone four steps before Strider hurried to his side and caught his arm.
"Where are you going?" Strider asked in Elvish.
"To scout," Legolas replied shortly.
"Not by yourself, you're not –"
"I will keep close to the camp. And I can move better unseen than as a pair." They stared at each other, Legolas looking exceedingly bitter and Strider disgruntled, before Strider silently placed his bow in Legolas' hands and nodded.
This simple act changed Legolas' countenance entirely. In the blink of an eye he had gone from angry to… to pained, thought Frodo, though it didn't seem like it was physical pain that was bothering him. His eyes flickered briefly back to the Fellowship, touching on both Gimli and Sam, and then he was walking away again. Strider watched him leave.
"What was that about?" said Merry.
"Who can say?" Gimli snarled. "No one will ever say that I understood elves. They are flightier than any sparrow."
A long minute of quiet passed while the Fellowship puzzled over what had just happened. Frodo was confused. Legolas and Gimli could be quite volatile around each other, but this exchange was some of the oddest behavior he had ever seen from either of them.
"Why is Legolas going to stop saying 'Naugrim'?" Pippin asked. "I thought it was Elvish for 'dwarf'."
Gimli glowered as Gandalf explained. "It is not the proper word for 'dwarf'," said the wizard. "It is what the Elves call the Dwarves when they mean to be cutting."
"Few Dwarves take the trouble to learn Elvish," Gimli snorted, "but all of us know what that word means."
"And that is…?" Pippin prompted.
"It can be translated as 'stunted one' in Westron," said Gandalf.
There was a loud gasp followed by a clang, and everyone jumped. Frodo whirled to see Sam standing still as a statue with his mouth wide open. He had dropped the frying pan on the ground, but breakfast had mercifully stayed inside.
"What's gotten into you, Sam?" Frodo said shakily.
"Stunted one?" Sam managed.
"It is not very complimentary," Strider said apologetically, but Sam shook his head.
"No, I… it's not that." He closed his mouth and gazed wonderingly in the direction that Legolas had gone. "The men that we…."
"What about them?" Strider prodded.
Sam glanced around at the others. Frodo didn't understand why, but he looked embarrassed. "That's what Garan liked to call me: stunted one. That, or halfling; never anything else." His cheeks pinked and he looked away.
Strider's lips parted in surprise, and comprehension dawned on Gandalf's face. Gimli's eyebrows climbed into his helm again.
"I didn't like it much," said Sam.
Now Frodo understood why Sam looked so uncomfortable. Big Folk sometimes called Hobbits 'Halflings', and while the hobbits that lived at the edges of the Shire had learned to live with the term, they did not care for it. Its implication was that Hobbits were lesser creatures than larger folk, which was both annoying and untrue. And to be called 'stunted one'… that was far worse than 'halfling'. It was an insult, plain as day, where 'halfling' was merely insensitive. Frodo suddenly found himself re-evaluating Legolas' snappish apology and seeming pain. The more he thought about it, the more certain he became that Legolas was ashamed of himself.
A long, awkward moment followed. Gimli ran his thumb back and forth over his axe-blade. Frodo thought he seemed discomfited. Gandalf wore a small smile, and exchanged a meaningful glance with Strider. "Well," Boromir said at last, "that does explain a few things."
"If that isn't just like an Elf!" Gimli barked, rising to his feet. "Even when they admit to being in the wrong, they still manage to leave the injured party in debt." And to Frodo's immense surprise, he ducked out from beneath the overhang and began to head off into the woods in the direction that Legolas had gone.
"Gimli," Gandalf began warningly, but Gimli silenced him with the wave of one hand.
"We will both return to camp in one piece," the dwarf said tightly, and he stomped off down the path, leaving the rest of the Fellowship to gape at each other.
Gimli had passed well beyond the range of hearing before anyone spoke. "I don't understand," said Sam. "How is Mr. Gimli in Legolas' debt? It almost wasn't a proper apology at all."
"Gimli promised himself he'd congratulate Legolas for saving your life, Sam," said Strider. "He told us as much. Now Legolas has managed to be the first to step toward a truce of sorts, and that doesn't sit well with him."
Sam stared at the Ranger. "Why would he tell you something like that?"
"To prevent him from changing his mind later," said Gandalf. "Dwarves have a strong sense of honor, you know, and he surely realized that it would be difficult to be charitable once Legolas had recovered enough to hear what he had to say. For when Legolas was well enough to hear, he would be well enough to speak,and when those two speak…." The wizard shook his head.
"They don't speak," Pippin muttered. "They fight like two cats in a barrel. Wet cats."
"I can't believe Garan called you 'stunted one'," Merry said darkly. Frodo took one look at his cousin and concluded that Merry probably hadn't been listening to anything that had been said since Sam had revealed this information. He looked very angry indeed, and had likely been stewing. "That swine! If I'd known this earlier, I'd've stabbed him all the harder."
Still somewhat flushed, Sam shrugged. "If it means that Legolas and Mr. Gimli can come to some sort of understanding, maybe I'll forgive Garan for the name."
"I don't know how you can say that. If someone had called me stunted –"
"It's the bit about taking us off to Isengard that I'll really hold against him," Sam interrupted. "That, and what he let Dorlic do to Legolas. An awful fellow, he was." A small, bitter smile abruptly dawned on his face. "Don't think he'd be too happy, knowing that something good might come of his namecalling."
"Hmph! Unhappiness is less than he'd deserve," said Merry.
"I think he's got all the desserts he can, now," sighed Sam.
"And in the end, it was his own fault," said Gandalf. "Now, let us talk of something else." The wizard's words earned a grateful look from Frodo, who had been about to suggest this himself. Thinking of Garan was plainly dragging Sam's spirits down again.
Lukewarm fish was appealing to no one, so the company opted to eat without Legolas and Gimli. There were many introspective faces but little conversation, and Frodo suspected that most thoughts were on the absent pair. What were they talking about? Were they even talking at all? It seemed too much to hope that their relationship would improve; they only ever seemed to make each other angry.
Breakfast ended with no sign of Gimli or Legolas, and cleanup began. There was little left to do in the way of chores, and it would not take long to remove all traces of the Fellowship from the site. Frodo wondered how long their missing members were going to take. He hoped it wouldn't be too long, because another day of sitting around in the gorge might just drive him mad.
Frodo was filling in the firepit with Pippin, eavesdropping on Gandalf and Strider's discussion of the Fellowship's road, when Legolas and Gimli suddenly reappeared. Frodo felt a flash of irritation – Strider and Gandalf disagreed on something important, and he was itching to find out more – but it was gone as quickly as it had come. For the moment, Legolas and Gimli were more interesting. Legolas had dropped into a crouch in order to see everyone beneath the overhang, while Gimli stood impassively a pace or two away. They gazed in at the rest of the company but did not look at each other.
"Anything?" Strider asked quietly.
It took Frodo a moment to understand that Strider was asking about Brund and not what – if anything – had transpired between them.
"I saw no sign of Brund," said Legolas.
Frodo's eyes flickered to Gimli's face, but Gimli showed no reaction to Legolas' use of I instead of we.
"Not that I expected to find any," Legolas added. "I did not take Brund for a fool. He would not have stayed so close to us when he is so greatly outnumbered."
"He might try to pick us off from behind," said Boromir.
"Then our rearguard will have to be vigilant," said Gimli. Legolas lifted his chin slightly but said nothing.
Frodo's eyes narrowed. Were they insulting one another again? He didn't think so, but he couldn't be sure.
"It seems we have returned just in time," Gimli continued. "You all look nearly ready to leave."
"Nearly," said Gandalf. "You have managed to avoid trying my patience, at any rate." This was plainly an invitation to speak, but neither elf nor dwarf seemed inclined to take it. They cast flat glances in Gandalf's direction and held their peace.
"I'm sorry to tell you that Merry and I have eaten your shares of the fish," said Pippin. "It was getting cold, you see, and we had to put out the fire. It's no good unless it's hot anyway."
"True enough," said Legolas. "Cold fish would have left me feeling unwell."
Strider's lips thinned. Frodo thought he knew what was coming; there was no way the man was going to let Legolas skip breakfast.
"I will take the usual bread and cheese," Legolas said, glancing sideways at Strider. "I hope you will pardon me, Sam; it was not your cooking that kept me away."
"I will take the same," said Gimli, giving Sam a short bow. "'Tis my own fault if I have missed the better meal."
Temporarily dumbstruck, the company stared at Legolas and Gimli, who looked back with neutral expressions. Frodo could scarcely believe it, but Gimli had just agreed with Legolas. They never agreed on anything! Frodo would not have been surprised to hear Gimli refuse food simply because Legolas had asked for it. Frodo was intensely curious. Had they really reached a truce? Yet though seven sets of calculating eyes watched elf and dwarf, neither gave any sign that he would reveal the substance of their conversation.
As always, Gandalf was the first to recover. "Can you eat as you walk?" he asked.
Legolas and Gimli arched their eyebrows in such near-identical fashion that a smirk came unbidden to Frodo's lips. He stifled it as soon as he realized what he was doing. He would be the target of anger from both parties if they saw him, and he didn't want to be the one to disturb the peace.
"Good," Gandalf said dryly. "Off with us, then, as soon as all is ready. It is time to be away from this river!"
Frodo looked over at Sam, who was tending to Bill. He smiled when Gandalf gave the order and gently stroked the pony's nose. Pippin was watching Sam, too, and when he locked eyes with Frodo, they shared a smile of their own.
Not ten minutes later, the last of the Fellowship was out from under the hollow in the cliff. Gandalf strode off without a backward glance, but most of the others took one last look at the place that had been their refuge before turning away. Gimli gave the lip of the overhang a firm slap with the palm of one hand. To Frodo, it seemed to be a gesture of thanks.
Gandalf took the lead, exuding an even greater sense of purpose than usual. Boromir followed him, with Merry and Pippin right behind; then came Gimli, and Sam leading Bill. Frodo was unwilling to be far from Sam and walked beside him. Strider and Legolas came last, their eyes flitting this way and that as they searched for signs of another human presence. Legolas carried Strider's bow. He had told them all of his intention to leave his broken weapon to decay in a forest somewhere: "When we find a proper forest again," he had said, "and I can be sure that Brund will not find it. It shall return to the earth and nourish other growing things."
The Fellowship made its slow way through the gorge in near-silence. No one knew if Brund was watching them, and they couldn't help but feel anxious. Frodo hunched his shoulders when he imagined that big man up on one of the clifftops, taking aim at them. If Brund was following, Frodo expected it would be from above. If he'd found a way down, he could probably get back up again, and he was far less likely to be detected there. The gorge wasn't wide enough to give anyone following the company much room to hide. Boromir was surely right; if Brund had even the littlest bit of sense, he wouldn't pit himself against all nine of them at once. If he wanted to kill them, he'd try to pick them off one by one… from a very defensible position.
Time passed, and nothing was seen of Brund. No sound was heard save for the wind and the rushing water. The sun reached its zenith, and the Fellowship ate lunch on their feet. Frodo found the continuing silence more oppressive as they went on, but he didn't dare break it. Was this what it was going to be like all the rest of the way to Mordor, he thought? No one speaking for fear they would be found? Things would have been much easier, he decided, if Gimli and Boromir had managed to kill Brund. Unless they actually saw him again, they would always have to assume that he had either followed them or gone back to Saruman. To Frodo, the latter was worse than the former. Brund was just a man. Who knew what devilry a wizard could send against them?
In the absence of speech, Frodo found that he drew great comfort from Sam's familiar presence. He had once heard that you couldn't truly appreciate what you had until it was gone, and Sam was the proof of it. He'd never taken Sam for granted, but now that he'd nearly lost him, he felt keenly just how dear a friend he was. Frodo couldn't imagine life without him – coming up the walk every morning, regular as the sunrise, always ready with a kind word or a bit of organic wisdom passed down from the Gaffer. Though he was far from home, Frodo had often felt that he still had a bit of the Shire with him when the other hobbits were near – especially Sam. Of the four of them, Sam had been the least changed by the journey… until recently, anyway.
A sudden, sharp scrape of boots against rock drew Frodo's attention, and he turned to look back. The rest of the company halted with him. A moment later they were all looking at Legolas, who seemed to be the one who had caused it. He was gazing far down the river, frozen in mid-stride. The rigid look on his face made the hairs on Frodo's neck stand up.
"What is it?" Gandalf asked quickly.
"Are you hurt?" said Strider. "Does the wound pain you?"
"There is a body in the river," said Legolas, still staring.
Everyone spun to look. Frodo's eyes narrowed as he scanned the water. Dark, indistinct blobs marred the surface here and there, but none were moving, and if any of them were a body, he couldn't tell.
It was apparent that no one else in the company could see what Legolas did, but no one seemed to doubt him. "Is it Brund?" Gandalf asked flatly.
"I think so."
Gandalf didn't ask if the person in question were dead, but Frodo supposed he didn't need to. Legolas wouldn't have referred to this someone as a 'body' if he had any doubt.
"Watch him as we approach," said Gandalf. "I'll take no chances with a servant of Saruman."
The company started forward again. Frodo looked sideways at Sam as they went. His eyes had gone wide with anxiety, and his breath seemed to be coming quicker. Frodo laid a hand on his arm and squeezed it. Sam looked over at Frodo and smiled querulously.
Frodo kept glancing upriver as he walked, and though it took a little time, he eventually thought he'd spotted the body. It was lighter in color than the rest of the rocks, and seemed to be moving slightly where the other objects were stationary. Sam saw it, too, and inhaled sharply. Frodo gave his arm another squeeze.
Another few minutes banished all of Frodo's lingering doubts. They were nearly upon it now. It had a roundish shape, so it couldn't be a tree, and rocks didn't float. Whatever manner of creature it was, it had to be dead; no living being could have floated in that icy water without every survival instinct spurring it into motion.
They halted at the river's edge, as close to the corpse as they could get. Now that there were no other objects blocking their line of sight, they could plainly see that it was a very large man, caught against a pile of limbs, roots and leaves that had been been wedged among the nearby boulders. Mercifully, he was floating on his stomach; the skin that Frodo could see was gray-white, and the sight of his dead face would surely have been horrible. No one spoke, but no one had to. Even if they had never seen Brund before, they would have known it was him by the looks on Sam's and Legolas' faces.
Strider, Boromir, Gimli and Gandalf took in the sight of the body with grim faces. Pippin only looked for a few moments before going green and turning away, and Merry moved to comfort him. Sam, however, kept his eyes trained on the corpse. Frodo thought he saw a mixture of sorrow, revulsion and pity in his expression, while Legolas' face bore only icy sternness. Frodo hadn't noticed it happening, but Legolas had drawn near to Sam while they approached the body, and now they stood side by side.
Frodo looked the man over from head to foot, feeling queasy at the sight but unable to tear his eyes away. How had he died? At first Frodo thought there wasn't a mark on him, but a second look told him he was wrong: there was a wound on the side of Brund's head. It wasn't easy to see – his half wet, half frozen hair partially hid it – but once glimpsed, it was unmistakable. Somehow, the man had struck his head and drowned. It might have happened on the very night of the attack; perhaps Strider could tell how long Brund had been dead, but Frodo could not. He swallowed and shuddered, thinking of Sam and how nearly he had avoided this awful fate. Then he thought of his parents and quickly put them out of his mind again. His memories of them were all happy ones – except from the night when they had died, and he preferred not to think of that time.
The Fellowship stood in silence while Sam and Legolas eyed their fallen foe. Unable to bear the sight any longer, Frodo turned his attention to the elf and hobbit. He could only guess at the thoughts that were going through their minds, though of the two of them, only Sam could possibly be feeling any sorrow for the dead man. There was no sympathy in Legolas' eyes. Though they appeared to be wholly focused on Brund, they were obviously aware of each other at the same time. Legolas' hand was resting on Sam's shoulder – rather protectively, in Frodo's opinion – and Sam's hand eventually reached up to give Legolas' fingers a pat, as though he thought the elf needed comforting.
"I s'pose it's all over, then," Sam said suddenly. Legolas' hard expression melted into sorrow and his hand tightened on the hobbit's shoulder. Sam's face constricted in pain, but Frodo knew that it wasn't Legolas who had caused it. There was something going on beneath the surface, and it surely wasn't 'over'.
Sam smoothed his face and turned away from Brund. "Let's go," he said, and started forward with Legolas and Bill in tow. The rest of the Fellowship wordlessly fell into step behind them.
There was no joy in the procession – just an atmosphere of grim determination. The immediate danger had passed, and it was time to move on. And who could feel pleasure after witnessing such a wretched sight? Whatever Brund had done, he was certainly pitiful now, bobbing up and down against the debris of the river, unlamented and unburied. Frodo thought him the loneliest sight he had ever laid eyes on.
Frodo kept his eyes on Sam as he walked. Sam's somber mood was evident in his stiff limbs and distance from the rest of the company. Only Legolas and Bill were very close to him, and at the moment, it seemed right that this should be so. The feeling of separateness that Frodo had felt earlier was back again, but it troubled him less now than it had when he'd first noticed it. Sam was the most stubbornly optimistic hobbit that Frodo had ever known. If anyone could live through such an experience and be able to go on after, it was him.
"The cliffs ahead," Gandalf said suddenly, pointing a gnarled finger. "Do you see?"
Frodo looked, and after a moment he realized what Gandalf was talking about. The cliffs were growing shorter, and they seemed to be farther apart than they had been.
"The gorge will end soon," said Gandalf. "We are nearly there."
"Aye. We should be out by nightfall, I think," said Strider.
"That's good," said Sam. "That's very good." He drew a deep breath and gave Bill a pat.
Frodo smiled sadly. He knew it wasn't really over, no matter what Sam had said. It wouldn't be over for a while. Feelings of friendship and comfort surged in Frodo's breast, and he willed them across the short distance between himself and Sam. He would be patient, and when Sam was ready to close that distance again, he would be there. It seemed that there were some ghosts that had to be fought alone.
A/N: Well, we have come to the end at last. To everyone who has read the story, I hope that you have enjoyed it; just knowing that there is an audience is a great encouragement. To those of you who took the time to leave your comments, questions and suggestions, I can't thank you enough. The writers among you understand how much it means to know that other people have taken pleasure in something that you have labored on for so long. And labor this has certainly been, but it's one of the most enjoyable tasks I've ever undertaken. I have a few other story ideas rolling around in my head, so perhaps I'll see some of you again if they come to fruition (as I hope they will)!