Author's notes: All praise to Docmon, the harried but tireless beta who forced me to confront a significant tone problem in the drafts and also gave me the means to fix it. If this story flows at all, it is because of her. If not, feel free to place all blame on me.
"The primary forges then connect with both the Third Hall and the Second Hall by means of this passage," Gimli explained, tracing the route with the end of a chisel. "A second guard chamber is placed here in the Second Hall beside the junction. Its size will depend upon the strength of the rock beneath the Deeping Wall, but I am confident it can host a modest contingent if necessary. And from this position, it can watch this corridor, which of course takes us back to the First Hall, the First Deep, and the entry chamber." The last received a triumphant slap of the hand, and Gimli looked up, his face expectant. "Well, Otin? What are your thoughts?"
Otin, son of Odrin, studied the parchments scattered about the floor of the Hornburg. He was one of many who had agreed to accompany Gimli on his quest to colonize the Glittering Caves, and by virtue of a long friendship, he had become Gimli's second-in-command just prior to leaving the Lonely Mountain. At that point, he had heard naught but Gimli's description of the caves to inspire him, though said description was certainly enough at the time. But now he had seen their glory for himself, and he found he could only stare at Gimli's plans with a sense of awe and wonder.
As well as a bit of unease.
It was an ambitious proposal, though that was not surprising. Gimli had always been ambitious. But these seemed to surpass even his usual aspirations. The First Hall, in particular, would prove a daunting task with its leaping archways and intricately carved pillars. It was clearly designed with the halls of darkened Khazad-dûm in mind, and as Gimli was the only Dwarf in recent history to pass the doors of that ancient stronghold and live, this struck Otin as appropriate. He had both the knowledge and the right to craft a memorial to their lost home.
But something about the proposed layout of this Hall—and the rest of the colony, for that matter—troubled Otin. It was nothing he could put his hammer on. Nothing specific he could point to. There was just something about Gimli's plans that eluded him. And therein lay part of the problem. Otin was a skilled architect and had designed extensions in both the Blue Mountains and the Iron Hills for years. He had seen hundreds of ideas for crafting a stronghold within rock, and he was often able to take in the full scope of such strategies with but a glance. Yet this… Something about this was different from anything he had seen before, and that difference prevented him from understanding.
"It is structurally sound," he said, keenly aware that Gimli was waiting for an answer. "From what I saw of the rock, we should have no problems with support provided we watch the spacing between pillars carefully. We may have to reduce the secondary forges where they undercut the Third Hall, but those decisions will have to wait for a better examination of the deeper stone."
Gimli nodded slowly. "I will make a note of that. What other thoughts have you?"
Otin shifted uncomfortably, still struggling to comprehend the plans. He could see how they fit into the caves as they existed now. He could see the calculations that had gone into each entryway and every connecting tunnel. He could see that it would be both a beautiful and a defensible home. But he could not see…what? What was it he could not see?
His frustration mounting, Otin pulled out the designs for the upper levels. He had felt his first twinge of uncertainty when Gimli was explaining the guest quarters, and he hoped that a second examination might reveal the cause. "These windows will look out over the Hornburg?" he asked, more to break the silence than to learn the answer.
"And the Deeping Coomb," Gimli said, tapping the parchment. "The windows closest to my own chambers will afford an unbroken view of much of the Westfold Vale. And if one's eyes are keen enough, it might even be possible to see the shimmer of the Entwash from afar."
At this, Otin gave Gimli a sharp glance. The Entwash was nearly fifty leagues from Helm's Deep. Regardless of how good the view from the guest quarters, no Man or Dwarf alive could see that river from such a distance. A sudden thought occurred to Otin, and he turned back to the parchment with mounting concern. "There are many passages connecting the upper chambers," he murmured, rapidly flipping through the plans.
"Should we play host to the kings of Gondor and Rohan, I felt such passages might aid in diplomacy."
Otin had spent more time in the drafting rooms than in the councils of the Lonely Mountain and so could only take Gimli's word on this. But he felt certain that there was more to it than that, and now that he understood the pattern, he began to perceive the whole. And that whole was disturbing, for if his mind was now of an accord with Gimli's, then the upper passages resembled nothing so much as intertwining branches. "This design is not from the Lonely Mountain," he finally said, unsure of how to approach the matter. "Nor is it from Khazad-dûm."
"The design reflects diversity. I expect Helm's Deep to be a stopping point for many travelers, particularly those traveling to and from Eriador. Mayhap a familiar feel in Aglarond will prove comforting."
Otin gave Gimli another sharp glance, and this time, he caught a twinkle in his friend's eyes. He knew that look. It was a look that meant Gimli was hiding something and was now waiting for Otin to realize what it was. Deciding to uncover the full scope of the problem, he forged ahead. "A tree," he said flatly. "You have designed the Glittering Caves to mirror a tree."
"I knew you would see it!" Gimli exclaimed, clapping Otin on the shoulder. "The likeness is good, is it not? And note how the different areas represent different guilds. Here are the forges at the root, providing the foundation. Here are the Halls in the broad trunk where all may gather. And here are the studies and the residencies in the branches where one might go to take refuge from the rest of Aglarond. And do you see how the various branches represent various cultures? Here are designs from Rohan in the lower chambers. Should we ever provide housing for Riders, I anticipate putting them there. And further up, we have designs from Dunland, Dale, Bree, the Blue Mountains, and the Iron Hills. And further up from that, beside the caverns where the crystal is most delicate and beautiful, are designs from the Lonely Mountain, from Meduseld itself, from the Shire, and from Gondor. Do you see the honor we give each of our guests? But we reserve the greatest honor for our dearest friends."
"Then what of this?" Otin asked, pointing to the level that housed the most spacious of the guest quarters. "From whence does this design hail?"
Gimli pursed his lips, his expression suddenly guarded. "From whence do you think?"
"I had hoped you would tell me, for it is not a style I recognize." Which was partially true, for Otin had never before seen that style etched above a doorway. But he had seen a similar style on leather sheathes that housed white blades and on bracers that protected elusive archers.
"Surely you recognize the design of the corridors. They are all but an exact match for my family's chambers in the Lonely Mountain."
"But there are also differences, and it is these differences that puzzle me."
Gimli smiled. "Then a puzzle it shall be! A challenge for your nimble mind."
Otin wondered what the other Dwarves would do if they came back from their exploration of the caves and discovered that he had murdered their lord in a fit of exasperation. "Are there elements here of Gondor and Rohan?" he asked, hoping to force an answer with a false assumption. "For surely these chambers would hold Elessar and Eomer."
"They are certainly welcome to use them."
Seeing that Gimli was not going to give anything away on his own, Otin looked down at the plans and opted for a different tactic. "Have you decided upon a name for our new home?"
Gimli blinked, evincing surprise at the change in subject. "I had thought to call them as the Rohirrim do."
"The Glittering Caves?"
"Have you a more fitting name in mind?"
"No, but I thought perhaps you did. You have not seen fit to use the name 'Glittering Caves' either within the designs or during our speech this day."
Gimli now looked thoroughly confused. "It seems you have followed our speech more closely than I," he said, and there was a hint of irritation in his voice. "If I have not used 'Glittering Caves' as a name, then what have I used?"
Gimli blinked again. "It is the same."
"In meaning, yes, but not in purpose."
"And what is the purpose?"
"A name that Dwarves might use!"
Gimli shook his head. "If it bothers you to hear them referred to as Aglarond, I shall refrain from doing so in your presence."
"But why must you do so at all? Why are you inclined to refer to them by…" Otin paused, wondering how far he was prepared to go. But they had reached a point where it had to be said, and if Gimli would not say it, then he would. "By an elvish name?" he finished.
And there it was. Elvish. The subject they had been going out of their way to avoid ever since Gimli returned to the Lonely Mountain amidst strange rumors of an even stranger companion. It had hung between them like a specter, forcing caution in every word and gesture lest they be led to a topic they had both ignored by unspoken agreement.
"Aglarond was how Gandalf named these caves," Gimli began, apparently convinced that a certain subject could still be ignored. "And Aglarond is—"
"Aglarond is an elvish designation," Otin interrupted, driven to boldness. "Aglarond is what the Elves will say when they speak of our colony. Aglarond is how it will be known throughout Middle-earth should you insist upon calling it that, and Aglarond will cease to be a dwarven home!"
Gimli's eyes flashed, but he was silent for a long moment, gathering his thoughts. "Elvish or dwarven, I do not see that it affects us," he said at length. "Others may think what they will, but it is the Dwarves that will shape this colony. Aglarond is simply a name."
But it was not simply a name. And it was not simply a design. It was the way Gimli had changed. The way he spoke. Acted. Thought. Dreamed. Gimli had set out to craft a colony that echoed the glory of strongholds now reduced to legend, but if this elvish leaning was to be a part of that echo, Otin needed to know. The other Dwarves needed to know. And above all else, Gimli needed to know. These first changes were just the beginning, and Otin feared what the morrow might bring if such changes were not recognized now. "Gimli, who will be staying in those guest quarters?"
"One who will appreciate them."
"And such a one would be?" Otin pressed, ignoring the warning on the other's face.
"One who will recognize their design."
Otin nearly tore out his beard. Gimli had always been fond of mental games, but not like this. It was not in him to be so deliberately evasive, and here was evidence of yet another change. But if that was to be the way of things, Otin would state his accusations outright. "Then I shall solve this…puzzle, as you have called it," he said, locking eyes with his friend. "I believe the design hails from Mirkwood. I believe the network of passages is intended to simulate the maze of branches in Mirkwood's trees. And I believe the occupant of these guest quarters will be a son of the Elf who imprisoned your own father!"
Even as he said it, he knew he had gone too far, but Gimli's behavior had made civil discussion impossible. Otin was determined to have the truth brought to the fore, and if that tested his friendship with one of the most powerful Dwarves in the Lonely Mountain, then so be it! Said friendship would allow for nothing less.
"You speak of that which you cannot possibly understand," Gimli said, his voice colder than winter in the Blue Mountains. "The insult to my father is my own affair! I will handle it as I deem appropriate, and I will thank you not to—"
"Durin's anvil, do you think me blind?" Otin demanded. "Do you think I cannot see what you are attempting? You think to separate son from father on the part of both Elf and Dwarf. You think to ignore all that has happened and forge the future into a design of your own making."
Gimli's lips curled in a humorless smile. "And you deem this to be a problem?"
Otin stared at Gimli in amazement. "Centuries upon centuries have carved naught but animosity between Elf and Dwarf. Can you so easily ignore that? Can you so easily dictate change when thousands of years of culture and race have decreed otherwise?"
Gimli folded his arms across his chest. "If I cannot, then who can? More importantly, who will?"
"So you think yourself superior to the countless Dwarves who have come before you? Do you also think your elven friend superior to the countless Elves who have come before him?"
Amidst the anger, there was a flash of amusement in Gimli's eyes. "Superior? No, he is not superior. Different, certainly."
"And you also are different?"
"If I must be."
Otin swore and turned away, twisting his beard in his hands. "If you wish forsake your heritage," he said at length, "there is naught I can do to stop you. But I would ask you to consider all that you risk."
"I am not—"
"Perhaps others have yet to see," Otin said, forcing himself over Gimli's protest. "But I have known you for many years. The time you spent journeying with the Ring has changed you, and this change is more than what might be expected from such a journey. Your thoughts, your values…they have been altered."
Gimli shook his head. "The Dwarves have long feared change, my friend, but the world changes despite our fears. If we are to continue, then we must change as well."
"But can we not hold to some things? The strength of the Dwarves lies in our foundations. We are bound to stone in ways that other races cannot even begin to fathom, and there are several designs that might have worked well in this rock. Yet you rejected them all in favor of a tree!"
"I dedicated the First Hall to Khazad-dûm!" Gimli shot back.
"A token gesture! The appearance is dwarven, but the core, nay, the whole of your design speaks of the change within yourself, and I wonder if you are even aware of the extent of this change. Your priorities lie not with your kinsmen but with the lands around us. The first contracts and treaties you arranged were with Gondor rather than the Lonely Mountain. The greater part of your time is spent among the Rohirrim rather than among your own people." Otin paused, his eyes searching. "Or have you forgotten us as well? Are we also but a token gesture?"
Gimli's face might have been chiseled from stone. "I am one of the few remaining Dwarves that can trace a direct lineage to Durin the Deathless. I am a noble in the ruling House of the Lonely Mountain. If you wish to challenge that—"
"Do not take refuge in insult," Otin snapped. "If you lack the courage to answer directly, then at least—"
"Enough!" Gimli roared. His voice echoed off the high ceiling, and his eyes glinted like drawn steel. "I have never abandoned my responsibilities. I have never shirked from my duty. I have led many a merchant party, organized many a patrol, and attended many a council. I understand the needs of this colony, and I have fulfilled them as I see best. Do you question that?"
Otin closed his eyes. "No."
"I have spent hours mapping the caverns. I have spent hours detailing designs. I have spent hours sampling the rock and learning the strength of the foundations. Do you question that?"
Otin felt a weary sigh building in his chest. "Again, no."
"Then, in truth, your only complaint against me is a design intended to facilitate our position as a politically attractive stopping point."
"And a name," Otin added.
"And a name which already existed. Now, if that is all, I will excuse your impertinence on the grounds of friendship and ask that you give me your opinion on the structural support of the lower caverns."
It was Gimli's way of dismissing the matter. Otin recognized the tactic, and he knew that nothing short of intervention from Mahal himself would force Gimli into further discussion, if discussion it could still be called. In that, at least, Gimli had not changed. But what of the other changes? And what of future changes? There were reasons that Dwarves avoided close contact with Elves. History had much to say on the matter, but more than that, Elves shaped the world around them. They changed the forest to suit their needs. Or if their speech could be believed, the forest changed for them. Regardless, though, it was not the same change that Men created. It was slow. Gradual. Difficult to notice, yet inexorable. And Dwarves did not change well. They weathered the world as the rocks did, and when they were worn into dust, they died. The type of change overtaking Gimli was like a crack against the grain from deep within, and should it continue, Otin feared the results.
Rubbing his brow, he turned again to the plans, all too conscious of Gimli's burning gaze upon him. He could not, in good conscience, sit idly by and watch as his friend sowed the seeds of his own ruin. The crack of change would only grow, and even if it did not prove Gimli's destruction, the end product would not be recognized as a Dwarf of Durin's line. But to press the issue now might only increase the divide.
"Otin?" Gimli prompted, his voice low and dangerous.
"The weight of the Hornburg already rests over some of the caves," Otin finally said. "It is a heavy burden. I would recommend closer inspection ere we delve any deeper."
Gimli nodded. "I will charge that task to you, then."
"As you wish," Otin said, silently taking upon himself two tasks: the rock and the Dwarf. Once begun, there was naught that could be done to heal a fissure, but sometimes it could be stopped or directed with a timely cut. As Gimli's second, it was Otin's duty to act as a check. The damage may have begun, but it did not have to conclude in sorrow.
"When the others return, you may have your pick of Dwarves to assist you," Gimli said.
"I will hold you to that," Otin said. "In fact, I think I hear them returning now. Do you wish to present them with the final plans for the Glittering Caves?" He emphasized the name, challenging Gimli to meet him on this point.
"The Glittering Caves of Aglarond," the other answered, responding with a challenge of his own.
Otin smiled grimly. It was a start.