Hooves thundered all around him; despite the height offered from his
vantage point on Firefoot's back, Gimli felt suffocated by the
sound. Inexplicably, he wanted to turn around, to see the fierce
would-be warrioress left to guard the remaining citizens of Edoras. Her
defiant but unwavering gaze had reminded him of Galadriel, though the
power of the Elf-queen, the Vrâlsfire, radiated with the light of a
thousand diamonds. This young sword-bearer of the horse lords brought to
Gimli's mind a newly hewn opal; fire obviously blazed within, but it
As they rode swiftly away from the Golden Hall on its hill, the seeming chaos of warriors fell into organised, orderly ranks. Gimli turned his head to the left to glance at Legolas, riding Arod as always without the benefit of saddle and reins, but the Elf kept his eyes focussed on the horizon ahead. After a time the incessant jostling and constant motion of sitting astride a horse settled painfully in Gimli's backside. It wasn't long before the soreness and chafing reached down to claim his thighs as well. At least the going was flat, and he was able to lessen his grip around Éomer's waist.
Firefoot pounded the earth, carrying them across the wide plains to this stone stronghold of the horse lovers. Gimli felt they couldn't get there fast enough. He would gladly have taken flight on foot again, especially after the hearty meals and ale generously provided by the King and his house. Once his axe had been returned to him, he had slept well, swaddled in the fur bedcoverings which the people of Rohan appeared to favour. During the day he'd walked about the sturdy enclave, ignoring the curious looks from many in Théoden's household. Gimli knew that some of his distant kindred must have travelled through this country; though now most preferred to keep to themselves, certainly there had been those Dwarves who were driven to lands and riches farther afield. His own father came to mind, and a rueful smile ghosted across his lips. Gimli was sure that he would much prefer to be housed in a barrel and sent floating along a river or even be back in one of the Elven boats than spend hour after hour on the back of an uncomfortable, stampeding beast.
The hours progressed with bone-jarring monotony. At two points during the dusk and evening Éomer broke ranks and pulled away a short distance, providing the two of them an opportunity to relieve themselves. The indignity of having to be helped down and then hoisted back up on the seemingly-disgruntled steed was rankling, but Gimli was practical enough to acknowledge his body's limitations.
During such a respite, Gimli took the opportunity to pace several strides toward the disappearing phalanx of horses and riders before returning to the King's nephew. The solid terrain had never felt so powerful, so much like a sundered companion. Gimli had felt the burning desire to stamp his boots against it, feel its dull thudding shoot up through his legs, grounding him. He resisted that urge, but did allow himself to stretch discreetly.
"Are you in pain, Master Dwarf?" Éomer asked, tending to his lacings on his breeches, his behaviour startlingly immodest to Gimli's perceptions.
Obviously Gimli hadn't been as covert as he'd hoped. "No, I'm not," he replied brusquely. He adjusted his wide belt and leggings, wincing as the sore skin of his inner thighs rubbed against his breeches.
"Very well," Éomer replied. He took a moment to put the many strands of hair that had worked out of his thong back into order before placing his helm back on his head. For his part, Gimli saw no need to uncover his head unless he was settling in to sleep, and indoors. "Step into my hands. We cannot tarry," he continued.
Gimli managed not to growl as he grasped the saddle and put his boot in Éomer's intertwined hands before being heaved back up to his unnatural perch. He had neither knowledge nor love of horses, but even he could now appreciate the intuitive grace and understanding of Arod. It was decidedly lacking in Éomer's proud stallion.
"Would you like some meat?" Éomer asked as he situated himself and took the reins, offering a strip of dried veal from his provision sack.
"Certainly." Gimli accepted the proffered meat and put it quickly in his mouth as they galloped off. "What I would most like is to be in front of a roaring fire, solid stone walls around me and my pipe full of fine leaf," he thought to himself. Even the hasty image of comfort and smoke made him think of Meriadoc and Peregrin, and he found himself under a cloud of melancholy, anxious for their safety.
Éomer rode Firefoot hard until they had rejoined the rest of the éored, up at the front of the column as his rank demanded. Even after the sun set and the sky transformed to an inky expanse, they continued riding. Just when Gimli had resigned himself to a long, painful night bumping behind Éomer's wide back, Théoden cocked his head and the convoy slowed. As one unit, and without any speech that Gimli observed, the éored spread out, falling into organised groups as each of the riders dismounted and set to his pre-appointed task. This greatly impressed Gimli, reminding him somewhat of his own khaladbol. Éomer joined the King, Gandalf, Háma, Aragorn and Legolas, who were setting up their bivouac away from the centre of activity but still well within the outer periphery of guards. Théoden and his doorward were deep in discussion as Éomer brought Firefoot to a halt. Gimli was so grateful at the thought of walking on hard soil again that he nearly dismounted without assistance. He was judging how best to move his left leg and whether or not he'd be able to hold both his axe and the saddle as he slid down when Éomer made such musings moot.
Once his boots were firmly planted on the ground, Gimli stood to full height. "Thank you," he rumbled, clasping Éomer's hand longer than necessary. "I was glad to have ridden with you today. Your penance for speaking with ignorance about Galadriel is paid. As is said among my kind, grind neither your teeth nor your axe."
Éomer raised an eyebrow, confusion clouding his features. "I am unfamiliar with sayings of the Dwarves. But you are welcome. I would have you ride with me tomorrow as well, unless you would prefer another of your company." He glanced over at Legolas, who was tending to Arod, murmuring in words that reminded Gimli of the sound of rustling leaves.
"I shall accompany you again tomorrow," Gimli stated, grasping the handle of Gormgloine and crossing his arm at his waist in a gesture of gratitude.
Éomer appeared pleased. "So it will be. Now I must tend to Firefoot before I seek counsel with the King and my scouts. I trust you will find a place to bed; no fires will be lit, the better to pass through the night undetected."
"I am no green warrior," Gimli said stoutly, glaring up at the horseman's blue eyes. "I was told I was too young, but still I had to be tied to a chair to be kept from going to fight in the great battle of five armies, at which the Dwarves triumphed."
"I did not mean to offend, Gimli," Éomer said, grimacing as he patted Firefoot's flank. "My knowledge of your people is almost nothing. Perhaps when these dark days have passed you will tell me more and so remove my ignorance. I do know that next to the swords and spears of my own men, I would most welcome you and your axe at my side in battle."
Gimli nodded smugly. "You shall." He began fishing underneath his jerkin to find his pipe and dwindling supply of pipeweed. "Now, however, I will take my leave to stretch my legs. Though horses can go at speed, a Dwarf is not meant to ride."
Éomer made an agreeing sound as Gimli turned and began walking to what he thought would be the outside of the encampment.
"Gimli— a moment!" Legolas called and Gimli paused in surprise. "I, too, want to survey the lands. May I join you, if indeed that was your intent?"
"Certainly." Gimli found his tinderbox and lit his pipe, drawing in deeply of the fragrant leaf. He watched Legolas brush down his fiery horse, shocked at himself when he felt a passing regret that he had agreed so quickly to Éomer's offer of companionship tomorrow. Gimli moved closer to Arod but refrained from reaching out a hand to pet the animal. He was content to listen to Legolas' incomprehensible sibilants before food and water were placed in front of Arod by one of the Rohirrim.
At last, Legolas nodded to the blond lad and looked questioningly at Gimli. "Shall we go?"
Gimli grunted in the affirmative and began tromping toward the outer edge where the guards stood watch. Each step felt like a homecoming, the unyielding earth spread out under him as an expanse of welcome. He was brought up short when he realised how quickly he'd arrived at the far perimeter. Glancing up at his companion, he saw that Legolas' eyes shone merrily.
"Your feet seem eager to run across the plains," Legolas said, a smile touching briefly at his lips. "I would have thought after the many leagues we crossed together at such a pace that you would be grateful for a less weary way to travel."
"Dwarves are not meant to ride," he snapped, wondering just how many times he would have to repeat himself.
While it was satisfying to be on his feet again, Gimli's legs and hindquarters were sore in ways he'd never before experienced, which was making him testy. Not that he would admit that to Legolas. After spending time in Galadriel's presence, however, he had an appreciation for the strength and power of Elves, as well as their ability to keep things to themselves. That was a quality he hadn't witnessed among the hobbits or men. A twinge of pain seared through Gimli's hip and he winced, but continued determinedly on, hoping that the stalwart solidity of the good earth would settle back in his joints.
"You seem lost in thought," Legolas commented after they had traveled partway around the camp. "My last statement was made in jest— I hope you took no offense at it."
"What? Oh. No," Gimli reassured him. Legolas had been making fun, only it no longer grated on Gimli, not since their time in Lothlórien. Surely that was the Vrâlsfire's power at work, her understanding of Dwarves somehow enlightening this wood-Elf who had behaved in a manner so difficult and irritating until they had entered her domain.
"We Dwarves are not humorless, though I do not think now is the time for me to share a joke or jibe," Gimli said, puffing on his pipe.
"I agree. You and I are friends, but there is much about you, and all Dwarves, I admit, which remains a mystery."
Gimli sucked in a mouthful of fragrant smoke, savouring it on his tongue as he made a noise of assent. There didn't appear to be much he could say in reply. The interaction between their two peoples was nearly always like a blade pressed to a turning wheel; in conflict with each other, and there were bound to be sparks of distrust and malcontent.
As they made their way past a small cluster of riders, the hushed murmur of Rohirric with its roughened syllables rose gently and receded. A question popped into Gimli's mind as he pondered how different the various realms of Elves appeared to him. "Legolas, where did you learn to ride? Your father's folk in Mirkwood marched to the Lonely Mountain. Those so fortunate as to live in Galadriel's fair lands also come and go by stealth, on foot. Yet when presented with Arod, you mounted him without hesitation, even throwing aside his saddle and reins."
Legolas arched an eyebrow, a thoughtful expression settling on his luminous features. "To you I must seem young, especially in comparison with Lord Elrond or Lady Galadriel and some of the warriors of their realms. But I have lived for many ages of Dwarves or men. In my youth my father felt it wise for me to spend many years in Elrond's house; it was there that I learned more fully how to care for and ride a horse. Even were that not so, I suspect that the ability would come with ease," he ruminated, his fingers twisting a slim silver band around his wrist. "Many things come naturally to Elves which take much instruction for others."
"It comes naturally, does it?" Gimli harrumphed, disliking Legolas' implications. "Can you also swim to the bottom of a lake and stay there like a fish? Or fly over mountains like a bird? Now that would be a skill well worth honing."
The Elf's lips quirked slightly downward and to the side. "You know we cannot fly. I am bound to Arda in this form until my death just as you are in yours."
"Until I am in Mahal's safekeeping," Gimli said under his breath. For several paces he let his attentions focus on how his boots sounded as he walked, connected to the impassive soil. The nearby mountain ranges rose like sentries, reminding him of those near Dwarrowdelf with a pang of longing, as well as a jab of resentment. "Another question, if I may," he said, sucking on his pipe to ensure that it didn't go out.
"Certainly." Legolas cocked his head to the side, his open, expectant appearance reminding Gimli unexpectedly of Pippin.
"Back before we reached the hallowed halls of Khazad-dûm," he said quietly, finding himself protective of his language even though he doubted the horse-lords could hear him, "you heard the rocks speak. Aragorn is of the Dúnedain, and his abilities appear far beyond that of most men. Why the ground offers up her mysteries to him I do not understand, but it does not weigh on me. You, however, are a wood elf. You have no lineage to the Noldor, the great craftsmen to whom Galadriel is kin. How did the voices of those stones reach your ears?" he asked, his gravelly voice rising with his voiced frustration.
As they walked along in silence, Gimli chewed on the stem of his pipe, grinding it between his teeth. After several moments went by and Legolas remained silent, Gimli looked up at him, his pale skin reflecting the chilly glow of the moon. Legolas turned his face to gaze at Gimli, disquiet in his eyes.
"I do not know that I have an answer," he said, the words seeming to weigh heavily on his tongue. "I had not thought of it since we entered Moria, though it appears to have troubled you. Does the earth here have words for you?"
Gimli shook his head, twisting one of his plaits in his fingers. "No, but it is good ground. I will sleep well tonight." He puffed on his pipe and realized it had gone out. He took it out of his mouth while rummaging through his vest pocket for his tinderbox.
"I was surprised at the melancholy message from the rock," Legolas admitted, nodding to a pair of Rohirric guards evidently returned from a scouting party. "I am not of the Noldo, and am far more at peace in a forest than on rocky ground. But what of you?" he asked.
Gimli felt the burden of the Elf's intense scrutiny as he re-lit his pipe.
"What of me?"
"You are far beyond the realms that most of your kind travel. You have spent days in a boat, stayed in Galadriel's realms of Lothlórien, and now you ride upon a horse behind the Rohirric king's nephew across flat plains. None of these things are very Dwarf-like."
Gimli narrowed his eyes, thinking of his father's adventures, his capture and escape from Legolas' father's keeping. He reminisced about the bitter tears he'd shed at his distant kin's tomb in the ruins of Khazad-dûm.
"Never underestimate the Khazad," he said, relishing the imperceptible raising of Legolas' eyebrows at the comment. He puffed an aromatic mouthful of smoke, his thoughts scattered like sparks from a grinding blade. He was deeply worried about Meriadoc and Peregrin. Despite the walk, his joints were quite sore, and he doubted that this group of horse-lords traveled with ale. He wished that he could write to his comrade Vram, but his letter from Rivendell would have to suffice for now.
"We have returned to our resting place," Legolas observed, gesturing with his long fingers at Gimli's bedroll and his own, wrapped up tidily next to it. "I will stay on watch, and think on your admonition."
Gimli was certain he saw mirth in the Elf's eyes, but the levity passed in a moment. "You are wise, at least among your northern kind," Gimli said smugly. "As for me, I hope to sleep soundly. It will be a full day of riding tomorrow until I can stand upon this renowned fortress of the Rohirrim. I will be curious to see its construction."
"Until the morrow, then." Legolas turned and slipped shadow-like into the night, disappearing amidst the muffled snorts of horses and whispered low voices that sounded like grasses swept by wind.
Gimli lay down on his bedding, easing off his helmet and placing it on the ground. He pulled half of the bedroll over him and eased his spine against the firm earth, letting it cushion his travel-weary body as he waited for sleep to claim him. Though he was cradled by the ground, the endless sky above made him uneasy; he felt exposed without shelter of any kind. After tossing and turning, at last he retrieved his helmet and put it back on. With a deep sigh, his eyes closed against the glistering stars above and he drifted into sleep.