Storm Front - Chapter 17

"I see no sense in riding such ridiculously large horses!"

"Come now, Gimli. This is the first time you've fallen off in a fortnight. I think you are doing very well."

Gimli glared up at Maida, wondering, as he had done countless times before now, why he had volunteered to accompany the accursed she-Elf to begin with. With as much dignity as he could manage, he raised himself to his feet and brushed bits of leaves and soil off of his trousers. He tried, to no avail, to ignore Maida's soft laughter.

"Explain to me what you find so funny, she-Elf," he growled.

"You, Gimli," Maida replied simply, shifting her position so she could look down at him more easily. From the lofty position she was in upon Atego's back, Gimli was forced bend backward just to keep eye contact. This alone caused a bolt of fury and irritation. "So valiant and noble one moment, and a typical Dwarf the next."

"If I was the Dwarf you think I am, would I be standing here?" Gimli growled.

Maida did not reply, her gaze wandering quickly away from him. In the few moments of silence, he looked around, and finally spotted a moss-covered log just tall enough to assist him back upon the horse.

"Lead that accursed beast over here," he said, scrambling up onto the log and waiting impatiently for the she-Elf to approach.

Maida did so, and Gimli hoisted himself into the saddle, settling behind the she-Elf and reasserting his grip on her waist. He had never liked horses, and Atego's breed was one of the worst. Atego was broad and muscular, with a back too wide to offer him a decent grip, and legs longer than he was tall. Why Maida loved him so much, Gimli would never be able to understand. It astonished him that the great beast would submit so willingly to the petite she-Elf.

The two of them had been traveling northward for weeks, following the same trail that Maida had taken a half-year previous. Her determination towards their supposed destination annoyed Gimli almost as much as the purpose for the journey itself. He could well remember his shock and astonishment when Maida had told him she was going to track down Faye, and knew where the blood-drinker had gone off to.

"Can good sense not survive in that flaxen head of yours?" he had demanded. "How would you know where the blood-drinker went? And why would you want to find her anyway?"

"I know where she is because I spoke with Lord Celeborn last night, and he told me she had returned to Mirkwood," Maida had replied. "She is with Ancalima again."

Gimli had not bothered to ask how Maida had managed to speak with the Elf-lord. He knew of the strange power some Elves possessed that allowed them to speak with one another over great distances, but had never cared to understand more beyond that. That was only one more reason to add to his list of things that made Elves the most peculiar creatures in Middle-earth.

However, when he had tried to question Maida on her reasons for finding Faye, he had received no definite reply.

"Just trust me, Gimli," she had replied airily. "I know what I am doing."

And that, Gimli admitted to himself with a quiet sigh, was what led to this. Witch though he believed Maida to be, he had not been able to face watching her ride off alone on another foolish quest.

"I am going with you," he had said, with no attempt to find out if his company would be welcome. "Someone has to keep sense in all of this."

A gust of cool wind rippled the canopy overhead, and Gimli glanced up into the trees, watching the leaves shimmer and glow in the light of the late afternoon sun. At long last, they had arrived in Mirkwood once more, but this part of the forest was different from what he remembered. It was a little too dark here. . .a little too quiet. It was beginning to make him nervous.

"Maida, are you sure this is the way?" he asked gruffly. "There is nothing familiar about this place."

What little laughter that remained from his abrupt fall off of Atego was being leeched away. The smile that had graced Maida's face was gone, and Gimli could feel Atego begin to stiffen underneath him. The horse snorted suddenly, tossing his head and breaking into an uneasy trot. He quickly brought his axe around, turning as sharply as he dared and staring into the shady gloom of the forest, searching for whatever was spooking the horse. Only shadows lay where he looked.

"We should turn back," he whispered harshly. "There is evil in this part of the forest."

Gimli knew now that this was not the way to the wandering woman's cottage. They were too deep in the forest. How had they managed to get lost?

"Where are we, she-Elf?" Gimli asked warningly, for Maida had continued to urge Atego onward without pause.

"Too far east," Maida said simply, her voice wavering slightly. "We've gone too far east."

"And how did we manage that?" he demanded.

Maida did not answer, seemingly thinking the same thing. Gimli could feel her trembling slightly.

"There is only shadow here," she said finally, her voice so soft that he could barely hear her. "There was once evil, but it is gone now. . .dead." She gasped, pulling Atego to a sudden halt that caused Gimli to bump his forehead against her back. "We must be near Dol Guldur."

"Then we are turning back!" Gimli proclaimed darkly, hefting his axe. "We have no need to be near this accursed place."

Maida seemed about ready to agree, but before she could respond, something stepped out of the shadows before them. Startled, Atego reared high on his hind legs, snorting in alarm. Maida slipped backward onto him, but by some miracle, Gimli managed to hang on, keeping them both in the saddle as the horse settled on all four legs again. It took only moments for him to recognize the new arrival as the wandering woman, Ancalima.

"What are you two doing here?" she asked, seemingly unfazed at Atego's reaction to her arrival.

"We are looking for Faye," Maida replied breathlessly, one hand still gripping Gimli's arm. "What are you doing so far from your lands?"

"Trying to figure out what exactly is going through Faye's mind right now," Ancalima replied. "She is the one who suggested we come here."

"Is she. . .?" Maida began, but Gimli had already spotted the blood-drinker coming from their right. She was limping slowly towards them, Bill following calmly along behind.

"Why have you followed me here?" Faye asked Maida, her voice soft.

"I was worried about you, Faye," Maida replied, releasing her grip on Gimli and sliding down off of Atego's back. Gimli watched tensely as she approached the blood-drinker and grasped her arms. "I have come to offer you any aid I can."

Gimli saw a tiny smile cross Faye's lips, but it quickly vanished as she turned her gaze to him.

"And you?" she asked, her tone still calm. Gimli could sense no hostility in her voice. "What business have you journeying here with Maida?"

"I came only in the interest of Lady Maida's safety," Gimli replied gruffly. "I had tried to make her turn back before, but her skull remains as locked to good sense as a slab of raw granite."

"But I never wished to turn back, no matter what the consequences," Maida added sharply, casting him a withering glance. "I came for you, Faye. I want to help you."

Faye released herself from Maida's grip, a look of sorrow on her face now.

"What help can you possibly give me, my child?" she asked. "If you have come with advice, then what can you say that I do not already know?"

"I am not here to tell you something you do not know," Maida pressed. "I am here to convince you that what you do know is not wrong."

That comment brought a look of confusion from all present, especially Gimli. Maida sighed and bowed her head for a moment, seemingly thinking.

"Faye, I think I understand what happened between you and Arwen, at least in some ways," she began. "I understand the struggles you faced, and the pain you are in. And I think I can help you work through it, to understand Arwen's side as much as I do yours."

A look that could have been anger appeared for a second on Faye's face, but it was gone before Gimli could look again. The blood-drinker had turned away from Maida, resting her head against the neck of the pony. It appeared that thinking of Arwen was causing Faye great pain, though Gimli couldn't understand why. As far as he knew, Faye had been the one that had started the trouble.

"Our time has passed, Maida," the blood-drinker said after several silent moments. "Arwen chose death over me. I cannot change that. And I will never understand why."

"That is why I came," Maida said quickly. "Why do you not want me to help you?"

Faye twisted around, glaring harshly at Maida.

"Because I do not want to understand," she snapped, her voice wavering slightly. "If Arwen has chosen to turn her back on me, on Celebrían, on her people. . ."

Faye's temper seemed to be rising with each word she spoke. Atego took a nervous step backward, and Gimli quickly lowered himself to the ground, not wanting to be riding the beast should the blood-drinker spook it. Ancalima moved to stand by him.

"Faye will not hurt Maida," Gimli heard her whisper in his ear. "So relax your axe, Dwarf."

After a moment's hesitation, Gimli lowered his axe, but did not turn away his suspicious glare from Faye. The blood-drinker seemed to be struggling to quell her anger.

"If Arwen has chosen to waste her gift of immortality. . ." Faye began, still speaking to Maida and taking deep breaths as she did so, ". . .and to forget everything I ever tried to teach her about how precious that gift is. . .then so be it."

Faye slowly pulled herself onto Bill's back, the pony turning his head to her as she settled into the saddle and leaned down to force her crippled left leg into place. Maida approached and helped Faye place her right foot into the stirrup.

"Why are you out here, Faye?" she asked softly.

"I want to see it," Faye replied. "Dol Guldur is where the terror started. I want to see what has happened."

Faye slowly turned Bill around to face the direction she had come. Her head was bowed, and even Gimli could see her shoulders shaking.

"Go back, Maida," she whispered. "It is over."

For a long moment, Maida stood motionless. Then, with a determined shake of her head and a look of fierceness on her face, she turned and walked to Atego. The horse snorted as she pulled herself roughly into the saddle. Gimli stared at her, as did Faye and Ancalima. The look on Maida's face had not changed.

"Gimli and I traveled this far to find you, and I for one am not going to leave," she said sharply. "Faye, you may think your time in Arwen's life is over, but it is not in mine. I love you." Maida's face softened, her frowned becoming more sorrowful. "Am I not also your daughter?"

Maida's words had not rested well with Gimli, so determined was he to return to Minas Tirith and leave the blood-drinker to her fate. But the look on Maida's face silenced his brewing comments, and he watched as Faye turned Bill back around and approached. For a moment, the two of them simply gazed at one another. Then, Faye reached out and clasped one of Maida's hands.

"Forgive me, Maida," she said gently. "I was wrong to assume you would wish to part ways with me as well. You are as dear to my heart as Arwen." She released Maida and smiled. "If you wish to stay, then I will welcome your company."

Maida smiled as well and leaned over to take Faye in a warm embrace. Gimli sighed quietly and sheathed his axe. If Maida was stayed with the blood-drinker, then he was staying as well. He glanced at Ancalima, who was grinning slightly. She met his gaze.

"Something not go according to plan, Master Dwarf?" she asked. "Lady Maida is perfectly safe with us, if you wish to leave."

"I'll trust my life and limb to a starving Warg before I leave Maida alone with that creature," Gimli replied gruffly. "Faye can act as gentle as an old mule to the end of my days. . ." He turned, glaring at the blood-drinker. ". . .I will never trust her again."

Faye met his gaze unblinkingly, studying him. Suddenly, and much to his surprise, she chuckled.

"What is so funny, blood-drinker?" Gimli demanded.

"Can we move along now?" Ancalima suddenly asked, all attention turning to her. "I would like to be away from this part of the forest by sunset."

Ancalima's words had reminded Gimli where they were, and his mood quickly soured even more. The shadows were becoming darker, the sunlight dimming in the path of a fast-developing storm. Faye bade Bill to walk on.

"Come," she said. "It is not far from here."

Finding no available log to offer assistance onto Atego's back, Gimli was forced to walk alongside the horse. When he noticed Ancalima walking as well, he turned to her.

"Where is your mule?" he asked.

"I left her behind," Ancalima replied. "I prefer walking."

In silence, they continued pushing through the forest. Gimli soon heard the sound of the rain falling against the thick canopy above, but in the shadow of the forest they remained relatively dry.

Suddenly, the trees and undergrowth parted, and Gimli stepped out into a clearing on the crest of a steep hill devoid of any form of plant life. The only noticeable object was an old and badly rusted animal trap in the very center. In the distance, only just visible through the rain, the towers of an abandoned city rose out of the sea of trees. Faye was standing next to the animal trap, having dismounted, and was staring at the city unblinkingly.

For several long minutes, nobody moved or spoke. Even Gimli could not think of anything to say to break the silence. The horses shuffled their feet quietly, kicking up small clouds of dust that persisted despite the drenching rain. Finally, Maida took a cautious step forward. Gimli had noticed the peculiar way the she-Elf had been scanning the clearing. It had seemed like she had been watching an invisible fight take place right where Faye stood.

"This is where it happened," she said quietly. "This is where you killed the shadow woman." Maida glanced towards the ruined city, her lithe frame trembling slightly. "And they saw you. You were captured here."

Faye slowly turned towards Maida, a haunted look in her eyes. A moment later, she looked down at the remains of the animal trap.

"She caught her leg," Faye whispered. "I think she was trying to reach the city." She looked back towards Dol Guldur. "She was calling for help. But nothing came. . .until after she was dead."

"A foul force has done great damage here," Gimli commented gruffly. "Look at the ground. No plant has grown here in years."

Again, Faye did not speak. Ancalima, who had been standing at the forest's edge, walked forward and crouched down over the animal trap. The metal was so old that when she tried to pick it up, the pieces she was holding snapped away clean. Ancalima dropped the broken bits and stood, wiping rust from her fingers.

"I remember this place," she said. "I came here when I was a child. The city was still alive then." She paused, momentarily lost in her memories. "My old mule and I found the amulet in those trees over there." Ancalima shook her head, turning to Faye. "What are you going to do now, Faye? I know you have no intention of staying with me forever."

"I do not know," Faye replied. "Everything that was clear in my life died right here over five hundred years ago." She sighed, resting a hand on the crest of Bill's neck. "And I would have been better off dying with it."

Maida opened her mouth to protest, but Faye raised her other hand to silence her. Ancalima was frowning at Faye, and Gimli suddenly had the strange suspicion that this had not been the first time the blood-drinker had wished for death. Though he did not want to do anything to comfort the creature, the look on Maida's face was so pained he knew he had to suggest something.

"Well, blood-drinker, what did you want to do before you were captured?" he asked. "Surely you did not think of staying here."

"I wanted to go home, Dwarf," Faye replied crisply, as though that should have been obvious. "But I never quite achieved that, did I?"

"Then we'll go now," Maida cut in, interrupting him before he could retort. "We will take you home, Faye."

Faye's eyes flashed, her face twisting in a look of anger, but once again, Maida interrupted before a word could be spoken.

"We will go to Rivendell," she said quickly. "If there is nothing in Rivendell to help you find your way, Faye. . .then there truly is no hope."

The anger on Faye's face had faded the instant Maida had mentioned Rivendell, and after a moment she began to smile.

"Rivendell," she echoed. "You are right, my child. I should have thought of that before now. Rivendell is my home. . ." She paused, gritting her teeth. ". . .with or without Arwen."

Once again, no words were spoken as Gimli followed the others to Ancalima's home. Night had well fallen, and the rain long since passed before they arrived, guided there by paths the wandering woman seemed to know by heart. They were greeted by the happy brays of the mule from the paddock. Gimli helped Maida dismount Atego.

"So," he said, for they were alone for the moment. Ancalima was calming her mule and Faye had limped into the cottage to fetch a lantern. "Rivendell. That will be a long journey."

"Gimli, you do not have to come with me," Maida replied softly. "Your company was welcome these past few weeks, but now. . ."

"I know," Gimli replied. "But I am coming nevertheless. You need someone to watch out for you."

Maida blinked, a look of surprise on her face. She glanced towards the cottage, then turned back to him.

"How long?" she asked, her gaze not on him, but upon the ground at his feet. "How long have you fancied me, Gimli?"

"Fancied?!" Gimli declared, a rush of surprise flooding him. "Why I. . . I never. . .I have no idea. . ."

But in reality, Gimli did know what Maida was saying, and could not find it anywhere inside him to deny what she had discovered. For that was the true reason why he had come this far, though it had taken him a long time to admit it to himself. Ever since the day of Faye's attack on Aragorn, he had seen the she-Elf in a different light. Maida was no longer the irritating she-Elf witch he bickered with day after day. She was a thing of innocence, of a beauty that reminded him of the fair Lady Galadriel.

For several moments, Gimli stared silently at Maida, unable to think of a proper way to reply. He knew the secret was exposed, that he could not deny it to her, but how does one admit love to someone they had spent most of their acquaintanceship cursing?

"Gimli," Maida said again, her fingers brushing his shoulder. "Do you love me?"

Gimli sighed. Slowly he reached up and grasped her delicate hand in his own.

"Aye, I do," he admitted. "I do not understand how, or why, but I see you so much more differently now. I. . .I wish to apologize for what I have said to you in the past. Forgive a fool of his errors."

Gimli was tensed now. He did not know if Maida returned even an ounce of what he felt for her. But he was surprised, and thrilled, when she bent down gracefully and kissed him.

"I shall continue to welcome your company, Master Gimli," she whispered, her smile radiant.

And, as Maida straightened and began to lead Atego away to the paddock, Gimli sighed in contentment. At that moment, everything seemed fair and fine in the world. He felt as though he could strut all the way back to Rivendell.

And, in the shadow of the cottage, Faye released a slow shallow breath. Ancalima, who was standing next to her, elbowed her softly and smiled.

"I know you saw this coming," she said. "Well? Is this any different than seeing Queen Arwen with King Elessar?"

Faye cast a sharp glance at her friend, then turned and moved to go back inside the cottage.

"Let this be for now," she said. "I think I can only handle one shock at a time."

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