The friends journeyed in the shadow of the White Mountains and made their way to Edoras in Rohan where they were the guests of Éomer’s for a time. From there they travelled leisurely over the plains of West Emnet and past Fangorn. They took safe passage across the Anduin near Lórien and were now heading steadily north through the former forests of Mirkwood.
It was a beautiful Summers day, the sun shone warmly through the canopy of trees throwing speckles of light on the thick layer of fallen leaves which carpeted the forest floor.
The sky was a magnificent blue and held naught but the barest few whispy white clouds. Millions of leaves in countless shades of green rustled softly in the gentle breeze that made itself known from time to time.
The air was fresh and smelled of lavender and rich decaying mulch. All in all it was a glorious day for travelling and a delightful contrast to some of the areas they had previously seen.
Earlier they had ridden through an area of forest now belonging to the Beornings and the Woodmen. Here the forest still showed lingering evidence of it’s dark past. The trees were ancient and knarled. Their twisted frames bending over as thick vines seemed to strangle the last remaining traces of life from them.
High up in their branches hung the tattered remains of countless spider webs, though the foul creatures themselves were nowhere in sight. Many had been slain by Mirkwood’s finest warriors during the battle and fire had destroyed dozens of nests, this two pronged onslaught thankfully had a devastating effect on the spider population.
The under growth beneath the smothering canopy was harsh, thorny and full of weeds, very little light made it to the forest floor and the air seemed stale. It reminded Gimli of Fangorn Forest. But they were most fortunate and they passed through without incident.
Soon the friends had left the darker parts of the old forest behind them and were getting closer to the elven King’s Halls. They had also passed through pockets of forest damaged by battle and ravaged by fire. Huge ancient oaks, pines and sycamores reduced to ash and blackened stumps. Here the faint smell of smoke had lingered in the air.
The forest had paid dearly and it had saddened the elf’s heart greatly to see such wanton destruction, such lack of respect for the trees but already visible through the charred debris new saplings could be seen clamouring for the light. The death of the old trees was bringing new life to the forest, their scattered ashes feeding the earth below.
Legolas could only hope that his people had fared better than the trees. Realistically he knew there would be losses, the loss of life in battle was a tragic waste but inevitable and he now feared learning what those losses were. It was possible some of his close friends had fallen and it grieved him greatly that he may never see them again.
As they made their way steadily north they had passed under several occupied talans hidden high up in the trees. Gimli had been unaware of their presence and though the Prince considered the dwarf a good friend it was not his place to point out these secret out-posts as they were part of his father’s defensive net-work.
The many patrols that ceaselessly protected the borders of his homeland used these talans to store supplies and rest. Legolas knew they were being watched but the silent sentinels remained hidden, had they perceived a threat things would have gone differently.
They allowed their Prince safe passage through the forest and the elf smiled to himself wondering what they had made of his companion, no doubt the dwarfs presence had raised the eyebrows of a warrior or two ! Perhaps he would reveal some of their secret guardians when they got closer to home.
Home. Thoughts of home and the dwarf brought another matter to mind, what would his father’s reaction be to his new friend ? But the elf’s ponderings were suddenly interrupted.
“If we do not stop soon elf I will lose the power to walk !” the dwarf complained gruffly.
They had been riding for hours and while it had no effect on his eleven companion, Gimli was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and it was wearing on his patience.
“As you wish Master Dwarf,” he replied complying with the dwarfs demands, “there is an ideal resting area ahead and the wild life is plentiful here, mayhap we shall have rabbit to feast upon, what say you ?”
“Aye, that sounds good, nothing like a bit of freshly roasted meat to sooth the weary traveller. I have had my fill of salted pork of late, a rabbit will be a welcome change,” he answered, the thoughts of a freshly cooked meal already lifting his spirits.
“Then it is settled, we shall make preparations for a fire then I shall hunt us some rabbit.”
It would be the first fire they had lit since entering the forest for the nights were not that cold and neither were susceptible if it were and they had brought food provisions with them, however the real reason was that they had simply not wanted to draw attention to themselves. While the risk of being attacked by orcs, spiders and wargs had diminished the treat had not totally disappeared and one does not openly ask for trouble if one can help it.
Soon they entered a beautiful glade surrounded by tall silver birch trees, their white bark dazzling in the late afternoon sun, they resembled the fabled nimbrethil of lost Beleriand.
To one side of the glade were the ruined remains of an ancient stone watchtower. Large pieces of carved stone lay scattered on the ground and would make ideal seats while the companions ate.
The grass was lush and green and many ferns grew in the shade of the beeches lime green canopy. Wild flowers carpeted the forest floor in stark whites, soft pinks and the occasional shocking red as clusters of poppies poked through the grass.
The riders dismounted and removed the necessary supplies then Legolas allowed Arod to roam and graze nearby. The elf picked out an appropriate place to set the fire amongst the scattered stones.
“I will prepare the ground for the fire Gimli and hunt us something to eat, would you gather some wood and dry kindling my friend ?” the elf asked politely.
“Aye,” came the brief reply as the dwarf set off into the wood.
“Oh and Gimli…..”
The dwarf paused, glanced to the heavens and released an exaggerated sigh then turned to face the elf giving him a withering look.
“I am not so old as you and my mind is not so feeble that I have forgotten my promise elf, I will not use my axe on living wood !”
The elf smiled apologetically, “Thank you Gimli and don’t wander too far my friend,” he cautioned.
As the dwarf headed back into the trees his deep grumblings about the craziness of pointy-eared elves and their blasted trees brought light laughter from the elf Prince.
Legolas removed one of his knives from it’s leather scabbard and began to cut into the earth. He worked until he had almost freed a large sod of earth three-quarters way round, then he flipped it back to rest on the grass. He carefully cleaned his knife and replaced it, a good warrior always took care of his weapons, one of the many lessons learned during his novice training.
He then gathered some small pieces of masonry that had broken off the large stones and made a small make-shift wall in the newly exposed earth. All it needed now was the wood so he removed his bow from his back and set off noiselessly into the woods in the opposite direction of his friend. No doubt the dwarf’s heavy footfalls were sending potential prey running for cover, it would be pointless to follow him.
He had not travelled far from their rest site when movement in the undergrowth ahead caught his attention and so with the agility he was graced with he leapt effortlessly up into the branches of a near by tree and waited. His keen ears heard the rustling of grass and the pawing of the earth. As he quietly removed an arrow from his quiver two large brown-grey ears made themselves visible. A young hare. Bigger than a rabbit and there would be more than enough meat. It paused and sniffed the air for danger, sensing nothing it went back to it’s foraging.
Legolas set the animal in his sights, gave silent thanks to the Valar for this blessing and released the shaft. It was a clean kill.
The elf jumped nimbly from his hidden perch and collected their meal . He removed the arrow and looked it over with a critical eye, it was still in good condition, after wiping it in the long grass he returned it to his quiver to be used at another time. It was then that he noticed what had grabbed the hare’s attention. Wild berries were growing in abundance amongst the undergrowth and so he collected two large hand fulls and carefully tipped them into the quiver.
When he returned to the glade Gimli had already begun to build the fire and was fashioning a wooden spit to cook dinner on.
“Look Master Dwarf to-day we feast on hare !” he exclaimed, holding up the animal for the dwarf to see.
“Nicely done elf ! And not too old either by the looks of it, the meat will be nice and tender, you best skin and clean it and I will get the fire lighting , should be nice and hot by the time you are finished !” the dwarf was getting more and more excited at the prospect of a hot meal and he eagerly removed his flint and set about lighting the fire.
The kindling was good and dry and the sparks soon became dancing amber flames encouraged to life by the dwarfs steady puffs of air. The flames had well and truly established themselves by the time the hare was ready and it wasn’t long about cooking on the make-shift spit.
They ate their meal in a comfortable silence then the dwarf’s curiosity got the better of him.
“What is this place Master Elf ?” he asked.
“It is called Barad Gleimor (Tower of Echoes), though I do not know if that has always been its name. Long ago it was used as a look out. It was quite tall in its day and gave a clear view above the trees in all directions. I heard it said that on a clear day and elf could see across The Great Sea Belegaer to The Undying Lands though it is most likely a myth. It fell to ruin long before I was born and I have only ever seen it as you see it now, though many of the stones were removed some time ago and taken to my father’s halls for other uses.”
They lapsed into silence once more and rested contently when both had eaten their fill. As the moments passed the dwarf noticed a look of apprehension on the elf’s normally guarded face. Unconsciously he had begun to chew his lower lip, a sure sign of some hidden turmoil for the elf would never knowingly allow his actions to betray him. This continued for a time until finally the dwarf could take no more.
“Enough ! Out with it elf! What is wrong ?” he demanded loudly.
The sudden outburst caught the elf some what by surprise and he looked questioningly at Gimli.
“Excuse me?” he asked, both delicate eyebrows raised in slight confusion.
“I said what is wrong with you elf ? you have done naught but chew your face and stare blankly at the ground this past while. Clearly something is eating that crazed mind of yours, now out with it !” he shouted slapping the wooden handle of his axe that lay across his lap.
“Nay Gimli I am well,” he assured unconvincingly.
“Of course you are stubborn elf and one day I shall wed a fair orc maiden and we shall live in the tress !” he growled glaring at the elf who suddenly erupted into a fit of uncontrolled giggles.
He rested his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder and smiled.
“Ah Gimli you always know how to lift my spirits,” but the levity was fleeting and the elf grew serious again taking in a deep breath and releasing a soft sigh he continued, “but you are right my friend my thoughts have been troubled of late, in truth I can not help but wonder how my father will react upon my return.”
“Surely he will be glad to see the safe return of his son,” the dwarf stated quite matter of factly.
Legolas got up from his stone seat and walked to a nearby birch placing a hand on its mottled bark allowing his connection with the trees to ease his tension.
“I do not doubt this Gimli even though I joined the Fellowship without my father’s permission and blessing for there simply was no time but I believe he will understand my decision to go was because of my love of Mirkwood and our people. I would do anything to protect my home even if it meant abandoning my duties there,” the elf declared in earnest.
“Thranduil is a fool and a blind fool at that if he does not see the reasons behind your decision to aid Frodo,” the dwarf grunted harshly in reply.
“My father is no fool Gimli !” the elf bit back some what sharply, a flash of anger momentarily darkening his bright eyes. Then he sheepishly apologised and returned his gaze to the forest floor.
“I am sorry my friend but you must understand the presence of evil and darkness has been abound in my homeland growing in strength with each passing year since before I was born. Now with the destruction of Sauron and the ring the light will return to Greenwood the Great, in time the forests will heal and it will be a place of beauty once more. But for a long time my father has been hard pressed to keep the evil forces at bay with naught but the skill of our warriors to rely on. Bow and blade protects our realm my friend, we did not have the luxury of magical rings to call upon. As ruler and protector of our people my father can ill afford mistakes of any kind or evasion of duties from anyone, myself included and I respect and understand this. Mistakes and negligence in Mirkwood are unforgiving foes and leave grave consequences in their wake. My father may be many things Gimli but he is no fool.”
The dwarf raised his hands and softened his gruff voice in an effort to placate the elven Prince.
“Peace my friend, I meant no offence or disrespect to your father,” he offered.
The elf stepped forward from the tree quietly advancing on the dwarf closing the gap between them before Gimli had time to react or retreat. Legolas stared into the dwarfs dark brown eyes for what felt like an eternity, a sad expression gracing his fine features.
“Oh but you did………..it is there my friend subtle and wily but there none the less, it is in your tone and oft in your words and I can see it now…………in your eyes………the betray you Gimli son of Glóin,” he returned to his place beside the dwarf and continued, his voice low as though he were weary, “but in truth I can not blame you elvellon my father’s relationship with the children of Aulë has been strained at the best of times and it is this aspect of my return that concerns me.”
“You fear your father’s reaction to my presence and our friendship,” the dwarf stated, understanding now the real reason behind the elf’s anxiety.
“Yes Gimli, I fear he may not understand or worse simply refuse to understand how a dwarf and an elf, how you and I could become friends. He has his reasons for this and they may prevent him from keeping and open mind.”
“Oh really and what reasons are they ?” the dwarf enquired in a slightly irked tone.
“Reasons that are his own Gimli and his alone to tell my friend.”
The elf removed his quiver and poured out the fruits he had collected earlier.
“Would you like some berries ?” he asked, skilfully changing the subject as he offered a handful of the juicy red fruits to his friend.
Gimli took a few and popped them all into his mouth, thinking on what had been said as he chewed. He had wondered himself what the Elf King’s reaction would be to his appearance in his halls.
One thing was for certain he would not be allowing history to repeat itself. This was one dwarf who would not be enjoying the hospitality of Thranduil’s dungeons.
His father had already endured that particular pleasure and if that tree-hugging, wine-guzzling, jewel-thieving King sought to detain him he would not be taken without a fight. He would swing his axe and gladly knock that pompous, pampered elf down a peg or two, then he would……….Gimli stopped his own thoughts in their tracks, Legolas had been right, he did not respect the elf’s father. Well if Thranduil was allowed his reasons for animosity well by Durin’s axe this dwarf would have his !
Then he made a silent promise to himself that however bad the King’s reactions may be he would not allow them to spoil his friendship with his son. The young elf had proved himself to be a skilled fighter time and again despite the lack of a good axe, he was brave, loyal and trustworthy and even if he didn’t fully understand all the crazy elf’s ways; talking to trees, singing to the stars, sleeping with open eyes and to avoid partaking in a decent bit of pipe-weed is just not normal, he knew he could tolerate these peculiarities and annoying elf habits for the sake of their friendship.
As the dwarf mused one word crept back into his thoughts demanding attention; trustworthy.
In his long life Gimli had never believed he would come across an elf worthy of his trust and yet here sitting quietly beside him was such a fabled creature and he marvelled again at the uniqueness of their friendship. But the word would not go away and it pounded against the walls of his mind like a hammer on an anvil.
“Legolas,” the dwarf began.
The serious tone combined with the use of his first name snapped the elf’s attention.
“Yes Gimli, is something wrong ?” he enquired, his soft voice tinged with concern.
“Nay I merely want to say…..that is I must tell you that……what I mean to tell you is………Oh for the love of Mahal !” he sighed frustrated at his inability to express his thoughts and he began fidgeting with the leather wrappings of his axe handle.
His friend was clearly having trouble and the elf grew more concerned causing furrows to appear across his pale brow.
The dwarf took in a deep breath, released it slowly and began again.
“I want you to know that when I spoke at Lord Elrond’s council I spoke in anger, my words were said in haste and not meant as a personal slight against you, I hope that…”
“Peace Master Dwarf,” the elf understood at once what his friend was referring to and interrupted the unnecessary apology, “what you said in Rivendell you meant at the time and who could blame you for you had no reason to trust an elf especially a Wood elf. Trust must be earned, I know this and I hope that I along with the many elves you met during our quest have helped to sway your thinking on this matter.”
“Aye lad more than you know,” the dwarf nodded with heartfelt earnest.
“That is good to hear, shall we make a move elvellon ?” the elf enquired.
“Aye,” he agreed regretfully, “though my body has no desire to be back on that beast !”
Legolas began to pack up their few supplies. Their meal was over and they had let the fire burn itself out and there were plenty of hours of daylight left before they would have to rest for the night. All going well he would be home some time after mid-day tomorrow. He called for Arod to return, who soon approached looking sated and rested, he had enjoyed the lush green grass nearby. He patted the horse down and told him that their journey was nearly over and that soon he would be able to run with the many elven horses stabled outside his home.
As he secured the last few items to the grey horse he said a silent prayer to Ilúvatar pleading for his father’s understanding. After all he had eventually if not reluctantly accepted his friendship with Aragorn even though he had initially held the failings of Isildur against the man like they were his own and was oft prone to dragging up these failings during their many “discussions”. Maybe he would learn not to blame Gimli for the actions of other dwarves just as he himself had learned over time.
Meanwhile Gimli had removed the small stones from the fire and scattered them back amidst the long grass. Then he placed the few remains of the hare into the ground and covered the bones and ashes with the sod. Once he had stomped on it a few times it looked as if the fire had never been there which was the elf’s original intent. As they mounted their horse and left the glade behind them only keen elvish eyes would have detected their presence.