To all my readers here: I am really sorry for not updating this here for a while. I had had to revise chapters 1-4 a little due to forgetting completely about Arod blushes and as my computer seems to have a love-hate relationship with I could not summon the energy to re-load the chapters here. Anyway, it's up to date again now, but for future notice this story is more regularly updated over at the Stories of Arda archive.
The legibility of this chapter is due largely to the work of my wonderful beta Gwynnynd. Any remaining mistakes are mine alone.
Text in italics are the entries written by Gimli, unless denoted otherwise (ocassionally they are thoughts within the narrative).
Chapter IX: Unseen Battles
"And Elves, sir! Elves here and Elves there! Some like kings, terrible and splendid; and some as merry as children."
- Sam, Many Meetings
Gimli had never beforeheard such a silence.
Scanning the faces, he saw that every one held different variations and degrees of surprise. Some added a frown, which suggested disbelief. Gauging the responses of the Elves, he became aware of a subtle seating arrangement within the room.
Those seated at the right of the hall bore their weapons visibly, and upon closer inspection, Gimli saw that many of them had faint discolorations on their skin that could be healing wounds or fading scars. The word 'warriors' flashed through the Dwarf's mind, and now that he was focused on them, he could detect a sense of physical strength emanating from them. These Elves gazed at Legolas with a mingling of pride and admiration.
On the other hand, the Elves on the left side of the hall looked… the first word that came to Gimli's mind was 'clean'. Everyone wore the simple short-sleeved tunic and form-fitting leggings that seemed to be the usual warrior's garb, but the clothing on these Elves seemed thicker, more comfortable, with little discreet touches like brooches or necklaces that would be impractical for a warrior to wear. Most of the looks of disbelief, and even a few of disdain, came from this section.
I must confess that before the Quest, I found Elven faces to be inscrutable, at least to the eyes of mortals. Even Legolas seemed rather distant and cold at my first impression. Yet I have come to realise that Elves are simply unreadable to those who are not used to Elven faces. I believe it is only because I have grown very attuned to one specific Elf that I find myself able to read others, though only to a limited extent, by using my royal companion as a measuring-stick. If I had spent the last year in the company of many Elves, I daresay I would have continued being ignorant of their minute physical expressions.
We were the dual loners of the Fellowship. When a Dwarf is on his own amongst four Hobbits and two Men- saving the presence of Gandalf, who is another matter entirely and, in any case, had been informally adopted by the Hobbits as their somewhat oversized elder- and the only possible companion is supposed to be an arch-enemy, it is not surprising that Legolas and I paid a lot of attention to each other.
Albeit in order to make sure that he wasn't sneaking a rock into my bag.
Gimli was not surprised when the first whispers started in the second section. And then the questioning began.
Knowing neither Sindarin nor Silvan, Gimli understood little of what was being said, though at times he would hear the names of people or places and privately come up with a fair deduction. Mindful that the King was sitting at the table, all the questions seemed to be polite and proper. A few were coupled with a meaningful glance towards Gimli, but Legolas answered them with his usual grace. The name of Galadriel floated out of the silver stream of Elvish, and the astonished expressions on most of the Elves in the room caused Gimli to hide a smile in his beard.
Remembering the Sea-longing, Gimli had been worried that any mention or reference to the Sea would ignite that strange addiction in his friend once more, but Legolas had not stumbled once during his recounting of the Quest and the War, so Gimli gained hope that the Sea had relaxed her hold on the Wood-Elf. Once, the Dwarf thought he caught a subtle tightening of his friend's features in response to a question posed in a decidedly haughty tone of voice by an Elf on the left section of the hall, but otherwise Legolas was every inch the diplomat.
The questioning- Gimli considered it to be more like a public interrogation- continued on for a good hour or so, during which the Dwarf even resumed eating, though always with an eye on his friend. Eventually no more questions were put forth. Legolas turned to his father, who nodded his permission, before seating himself once more.
After this, some of the Elves in the room stood and retreated through a door in the far corner. After a few moments they reappeared, bearing instruments, and began to play as they moved about the room, weaving deftly between the tables. Gimli saw that Legolas' friend Boronlach was amongst them, skilfully playing a set of windpipes. During this, Elves began visiting other tables, or standing in groups near the wall.
The advisor on Gimli's right said something to Legolas. Glancing at Gimli, Legolas replied in Westron, "My thanks, Master Ferant, but I would appreciate it if you spoke in Westron. Otherwise, I fear Gimli will think our folk discourteous."
Ferant blinked, then looked at Gimli. "I must apologise, Master Dwarf. I was merely complimenting Legolas on how well he told your tale. I was not aware that he had such a skill with words."
"My son does seem to have a number of hidden talents," interjected a voice from the head of the table. All three turned to look at Thranduil, who was smiling and yet seemed to be scrutinizing Legolas.
"He is a continuing surprise for me, your Majesty," Gimli spoke, seeing that his friend was discomfited by his father's perusal.
Thranduil murmured something that Gimli had not the ears to hear, but it made Legolas frown slightly.
"So you are returning to your father's mines, Master Gimli?" inquired the pregnant female Elf sitting across from them at the table.
"I am, at least for a time," the Dwarf replied, looking towards Legolas and blinking three times in rapid succession. It was a system they had developed in Minas Tirith, for Gimli often found himself facing a noble or a courtier whose name he could not remember, and would need a prompting from his Elven friend, who had both a far better memory and training in such things. An amused Pippin had commented that it made him look as if he were batting his eyelashes at Legolas, which had sent Aragorn and Faramir into such a fit of laughter that neither could speak for the rest of the meat course.
Seeing the signal, Legolas whispered, "My sister, Selvedhil, younger than Nasseryn, married to Rustoth, who sits beside her."
"Lady Selvedhil" Gimli nodded his thanks to his friend. "But I have promised King Elessar a new Great Gate," he continued, "so I plan to bring a group of kinsmen to Minas Tirith within a year, if the King under the Mountain gives his blessing. I daresay it will turn into a race between your son and myself, on which of our promises can be fulfilled first."
"What is this, Legolas?" asked Thranduil, turning his attention to his son with a frown.
Legolas fair complexion took on a distinct flush, and glared at Gimli. Too late the Dwarf realised that his friend might not have had the opportunity to inform his father about their intended return south. "I promised Aragorn a few gardens for his stone City," Legolas admitted. "With your permission, my King and father, I wish to return to Minas Tirith with a few of our people."
"But you have just come home!" protested Derinsul. "Much work needs to be done here. Steel and fire have damaged a good portion of the wood, and there are still a few spider nests near the Mountains."
"Peace, brother," replied Legolas. "I will abide here for a little while, and help where I can. But as Gondor suffered the brunt of Sauron's attacks, I thought it fair that we aid them in restoring their City to its former glory."
"Surely the race of Men can take care of their own?" Derinsul persisted. "They breed like rodents and build without care for the damage they inflict; in a few years they will have rebuilt all their cities and restored their population." He took a drink from his goblet, unaware or perhaps uncaring of the startled looks he was receiving from everyone nearby. "Or have you forgotten where your loyalty lies?"
After a shocked silence, Legolas recovered with a shake of his head. "I know you hold no love for Aragorn, Derinsul –"
"If I had wanted to hear further questioning of Legolas' loyalty, Derinsul," Thranduil interjected in a stern voice that held the beginnings of anger. "I would have invited Dînimlad to the table."
The Heir of Mirkwood wilted under the King's glare. "My apologies, father," said the chagrined Elf. "And I had not intended to repeat the Counsellor's charges, little brother, but I was overcome at the news that you would be leaving us once more, so soon after your return."
"I will always be your younger brother, Derinsul, but I am no longer a child," said Legolas quietly. Derinsul nodded, but it seemed to Gimli that the Elf had not really listened to what Legolas had said, only heard the forgiving tone in his brother's voice. He saw his fair-haired friend clench a fist under the table.
The other counsellors sharing the high table continued to question Legolas, but Gimli listened with only half an ear. The mention of home reminded him that he had yet to receive any news concerning Erebor. He waited for Thranduil to finish a short conversation with a passing Elf, then asked, "King Thranduil? What say the tidings from Dale and the Lonely Mountain?"
"Thank you for reminding me, Master Gimli; I had forgotten that I had promised to give you news." The King took a sip of wine from his goblet as Gimli replied that it was no trouble, then began, "Due to the War, Erebor was ill-prepared for winter. The food stores held out, but there was an outbreak of illness in Dale. It may have spread even into the Mountain, but your kinsmen seldom ventured out during the cold spell. We sent a few healers that could be spared to help the Men of Dale. But repairs have begun in earnest, now that spring has come. If the reports I have been receiving are reliable, then your people are fast builders indeed! They came down as the ice thawed, and already nearly all the families whose homes were destroyed during the battles have a roof over their heads."
Gimli felt a swell of pride for his people. "The art of building is ingrained in every Dwarf, your Majesty. During the days of the Fathers, it was not uncommon for one tribe to wage war on their neighbour, whether for wealth or space. The outcome hinged on which side could delve faster, reinforce quicker, or understood the weaknesses and strengths of rock better."
"Your people waged war upon one another?" Thranduil looked surprised. "I have never come across any record of it."
"Such things take place mostly below ground, your Majesty, with rock beneath our feet and over our heads, and the darkness as our wind. We keep our own records, but such things are mainly remembered in songs and lore passed from father to son, mother to daughter. As for war amongst ourselves," Gimli shrugged, "It is the way of mortals, my Lord. My people are not as prolific- to use your son's term- as Men, yet Men can abide in open spaces, whereas we are limited to our kingdoms of stone, and there are only so many habitable mountains in the world."
Thranduil nodded, his eyes grave and occupied with some thought. "The way of mortals, indeed. Yet, even the Elves fall prey to it." He was silent for a moment; then a passing Elf said something to him, and they lapsed into a discussion that required a lot of hand gestures from the nameless Elf.
"Would you tell me of some of these battles in the dark one day, Master Gimli?" asked a familiar voice. The Dwarf turned and saw that Boronlach was hovering behind his chair. He was playing a pena as if it was as easy and instinctive as breathing.
Gimli inclined his head. "If you wish to hear any, Master Boronlach. Though only a few have been rendered in the Common Tongue; the oldest are in our secret tongue, which I will not speak here."
"Any at all will be welcome," said the bard. "I daresay I could use a new song or two. Even the visiting representatives from Dale know our traditional songs, so often have they heard them."
A guffaw came from Derinsul, followed by something in the Elven tongue. As he could not grasp the individual words, Gimli could hear the note of contempt in his voice very clearly. Every head within listening range- as they were Elves, the area was larger than Gimli would have expected- turned to look at Derinsul. Legolas broke off in the middle of answering another question from Ferant, and his face turned a promising tint of red as he gazed in shock at his brother.
Forestalling what was looking to be a kin-strangling at the very least, Gimli said loudly, "If you wish to insult me, Master Derinsul, at least have the dignity to do so in the open, and in a language I can understand."
"Well said, Master Gimli," Thranduil said in a voice that could rival the cries of the Nazgûl, spearing his eldest son with a fierce glare. "Derinsul, I will speak with you privately. Now. Master Gimli, please forgive my Heir for his behaviour. I can assure you that he will not be so discourteous again." Gimli nodded, and Thranduil stood, followed by a sullen Derinsul.
"Legolas," Edendor spoke up. "Seeing as Master Gimli is injured and should rest for a few days, I took the liberty of assigning you briefly on the forest patrols. You leave at dawn tomorrow, with some reinforcements. The border patrols have been most anxious to see you alive and well, so it would hearten them if you took some time to visit them also."
The Wood-Elf blinked, a faint frown creasing his brow. "Very well, but-" he cut off. His troubled look intensified, and he turned to Gimli. "I suppose our warriors do need to see me, but I would not have you think I am abandoning you, my friend. And I did promise to show you my home."
Gimli waved a hand dismissively. "Nay, your brother is right, I will likely heal faster if I rest for a few days. You can show me this tree-infested place when you return." The words left his mouth before he remembered that there were other ears listening, who would not be used to their light banter and affectionate insults. There were a handful of frowns and looks of displeasure, but Legolas' ensuing chuckle- much louder than usual, which meant that he'd caught the slip as well- made it clear that Gimli's words had been spoken in jest.
The conversations began anew, and Boronlach made it clear to Gimli that he was serious about learning a Dwarvish song. Fortunately, before the bard could manage to press the him into reciting one, a line of servants entered, and began clearing the tables. He felt a tap on his shoulder, and turned to look at Legolas.
"They will be pushing the tables to the side soon, to begin the dancing," his friend said quietly.
"Do you wish to remain, or leave?" Gimli asked, detecting a strained note in Legolas' voice.
His friend gazed out at the milling Elves, but something in his face suggested that he was not really seeing them. Then someone from another table called out his name, doubtless to answer another query. Legolas dipped his head a little, and touched the lobe of his left ear with his little finger.
Gimli sighed. He discreetly shuffled, as if he were making himself comfortable. One of the cushions raising him from the chair slipped and fell to the floor, followed by the Dwarf, who groaned more loudly than the slight ache from his hip wound- which had been numbed by the Elven medicine applied to it prior to the feast- warranted.
Having fallen and "still feeling fatigued from their journey", Gimli soon excused himself for bed. Legolas very graciously volunteered to escort him.
It felt quite nice, sitting in the quiet, on a comfortable bench in a deserted hallway of Thranduil's cave stronghold.
It had been a while since they had properly talked. Oh, they conversed all the time, but Gimli had discovered that it was another thing both Elves and Dwarves had in common- that they could exchange words for an interminable length of time without once saying anything at all.
He began to see why Legolas favoured quietness. He thought of the dinner hall. All that noise, all that speech, yet everything as insubstantial as the air upon which words take wing.
"He may be your Captain," he ventured. "But as your brother, should he not have asked for your opinion before he assigned you to a patrol?"
"Even as Captain, he should have asked," Legolas answered, his fingers unconsciously playing with the hem of his tunic. "But I never cared before. Even Nasseryn eventually gave up asking, because I never voiced any preferences, or objections. I always let them decide where to place me, or when I should take my leave. It never mattered before. I should not be insulted now." He looked down. "But I am."
They fell quiet again.
"Has the Sea-longing returned, Legolas?" Gimli asked quietly.
Legolas sighed. "You do not understand, dearest Gimli." Those familiar eyes roamed restlessly over the arching rock wall. "The call of the Sea is but a whisper in my mind, like an enticing song that has no end. I can bear it, for all the years of your life and more. Nay, what troubles me is something closer, dearer, and so all the more paining. It is the soil on which the tree of my life has been growing."
The Dwarf blinked. "My friend, I fear I have not become so used to your riddle-words as to be able to understand what you have just said."
Legolas was quiet for a long while, and Gimli thought that his friend had withdrawn back into himself, and would give him no further information. But then the elf said, "It is a terrible thing for a son to return home and find that he has become wiser than his elders, and yet is forced to remain the youngest son."
Gimli could not help it; it was an ingrained habit of his, when matters became too serious and sombre. "I have always said you are the wisest Elf on Middle-Earth!" he exclaimed. "I would think you almost a Dwarf, but for your height and smooth chin."
His friend sighed. "It is not a matter for jest, my friend." Though a small smile formed on his lips. "Elves mistake experience too easily for wisdom. I have wondered if that was why Mithrandir came to us in an old and withered body." Gimli made a noise, and received an instinctive prod in the ribs from Legolas. "Mortals put much value on age, also, but at least there is a limit. It is why Elves are less easy to change, for they have long memories and longer lives, and listen better to one who has lived in the Age before, than one whom they can remember in his swaddling clothes."
Legolas leaned back, resting against the cold wall. "You must not be too harsh on my father, Gimli. He has known only conflict since Menegroth was destroyed and his father moved the family here. He is our greatest king, and I say that not only because I am his son. He kept the darkness of Dol Guldur at bay for years without much aid from the outside. He grew harder when he lost my mother, and began hoarding his gems. Nasseryn thinks that he means to sail West one day and give them to her, or perhaps ransom her from the Halls of Waiting. It is madness, I know, but a controlled one, and given our plight here I am sure the Lords of the West themselves will forgive him for it.
"And I do not believe he holds any animosity towards Dwarves, save for that quarrel with Thorin Oakenshield, which was put to rest 'ere the end. You have to understand, we are Sindar lords governing a Silvan realm. Whilst the land was besieged by the shadow, all followed Thranduil, for he was a great commander. But it seems that, with the Enemy gone, the different factions of the court and the realm have risen to the surface. So my father does the best he can, and tries not to upset any group more than another, but it is difficult. I daresay the warrior in him pines for the old foe at times."
Gimli nodded thoughtfully. "I admire your father for all that he has accomplished." Then he frowned. "I saw a little of the divisions in the feast hall. But how did you learn of the current situation?"
"My father explained it during Dinimlad's trial. The divisions have always been there, but the security of our realm and people have afore taken priority over domestic squabbles. With the common enemy gone, it seems that they are using the energy they once spent on fighting the shadow on each other." The prince gave a small shrug. "It is our way, perhaps, of realising that peace has returned. Doubtless in a few years things will calm down once more."
"Then why are you troubled?" an increasingly confused Gimli asked. "What are a few years to an Elf?"
"Derinsul said those exact words to me, once," Legolas commented, gazing at a memory only he could see. He shook his head. "I apologise, Gimli; I know I am not making it easier for you to understand me. But it was… disheartening, to return home from a war only to find myself in the midst of another conflict. It is not only this. I am home at last, but whilst I am glad for the return of the greenwood, it feels as if I do not belong here, in the sunlight and the free winds."
Feeling quite helpless, the Dwarf could only pat his friend in what he hoped was a comforting manner. "I do not think any of our Fellowship can truly return to the light, my friend," he said sadly. "The Ring left its mark on us all. I shudder to think of what Frodo has to endure even now."
Legolas nodded, shuddering in truth. "It is a burden, Gimli, to know things that cannot be understood by one's own kin." He whispered with closed eyes, and he suddenly looked older, like an aged tree revealing for a moment the many rings within its trunk. "You understand a part of it, for you stood with me through the War; my kin here understand another part, by sharing my heritage and my deathless fate. Yet none but I can understand the whole."
Thranduil's youngest son bowed his head, his unbound hair falling forward like soft gold to curtain his youthful face. "I am alone, Gimli. In so many things, I stand alone in the dark."
The pena is the bowed lute of Manipur. Many thanks to the ever-diligent Gwynnynd for teaching me that a viol is not the same as a violin blush and discovering an interesting alternative instrument from the classical norm.