The Misty Mountains, East of Rivendell. Pouring rain by day, freezing ice by night. Still, my cloak is warm enough, my beard is thick and long, my feet hardy, and I am a Dwarf of many journeys. I have seen worse, much worse.
This Ranger leads us as much as Tharkûn, with firmer footfalls and sharper gaze. The Man from the South shivers in the cold, pulls the furs of his cloak about him tightly, but says no word of complaint. Our pack pony snuffles and snorts, but doesn’t bray his displeasure. But the Hobbits? Well. Hobbits are another matter entirely.
Their youngest, Peregrine Took—Pippin, or even Pip—lets his teeth chatter and moans with every step. His cousin does his best to comfort or silence him, depending on his mood. Samwise Gamgee trudges on, grim-faced, pots banging in his pack, noise enough to scare off game for miles, alert every orc in Mordor. And Frodo? Frodo Baggins, Bilbo’s nephew and heir? Frodo says not a word.
A Dwarf and a Hobbit—a Baggins, no less!—set out from Rivendell. Now there’s a tale I’ve heard before. Hard to believe all those years ago it was Fí and Kî and ‘Adad wondering here, hard to believe after eighty years it’s finally my turn.
[Can’t help but wonder—what if I had gone? If ‘Amad hadn’t stopped me?]
[Would things have turned out differently?]
But we have reached the end of our march, and a camp and fire are quickly set up. Samwise Gamgee may be a cook and a gardener, may have never set foot outside his Shire before, but is a Mahal-damned miracle when it comes to fire and food. Our supper is prepared before our bedrolls are laid! And the smell of food, piping hot, the sight of steam, the thought of hearty potatoes, sausage, and tack sets my stomach rumbling.
“Eat up, eat up!” Sam says. “Hot taters and sausage, just like they serve them in the Shire!”
“Bless your woolly toes,” Merry sighs. “A hot dinner will go down nicely!”
“It’d go down nicer at the Dragon,” Pippin sulks. “With a flagon—or five—of ale. I miss ale.”
“You miss home,” his cousin quarrels. “Shut up and eat.”
“It needs some salt,” Pippin insists. “And mushrooms.”
“I think it’s perfect, Sam. Just like the Gaffers.”
“Thank you, Mr. Frodo,” Sam glares at the Took boy.
“I liked Mrs. Maggot’s better,” he continues, oblivious. “Do you remember, that whole basket of mushrooms—?”
“I said shut up, Pip! You’ll only make it worse by talking about it!”
“Well come on then, dig in!” Sam calls the Big Folk. “Some for you, Strider, and you, Mr. Boromir, and Gandalf, you wouldn’t miss the Gaffer’s secret recipe, would you?” Hobbits, Dwarves, and Wizards. Sharing food by a fire. It has not been so long, I think, since this land saw this same sight. Reluctantly they come. Take their share. Big Folk and Little Folk, eating side by side.
…and I a Dwarf. I belong nowhere.
But I am not the only sitting alone in the dark as others convene. That fucking Elf watches us all from afar, standing silent and alone, a shadow lost against the flames and smoke. Let him.
“Mr. Gimli! Come on, then, a hot dinner and a pipe! No Dwarf or Hobbit could say no to that!”
“Aye, lad,” I say. Think of Bombur, of Bilbo, of my Uncle and Cousins who never came home, never reclaimed the throne of Erebor, died as an exiled king and children. “Aye, no Dwarf could.”
“And you too, Mr. Legolas!” he calls to our reluctant companion. “You’re naught but skin and bones, as my old Gaffer would say!”
Now this is curious. The son of Thranduil, and the gardener of Bag End. How odd such a thing should happen! That he and I, that a Hobbit, that this same Ring, should be here again!
The Elf levels him a look. “I do not eat this.” he says.
“Nonsense, there’s plenty for all!” Sam coaxes as he might a young Hobbit lad or lass. “It’s different, I grant, none of your Elvish fare, just right proper Hobbit food, but it’ll do in a pinch. Why, even Mr. Gandalf’s eating it. It’s hot! Come and eat!”
“Now, now, Samwise Gamgee—“ Tharkûn begins. “The Wood-Elves of Mirkwood—“
“You don’t partake, Master Elf?” I ask him. “It is all too below your tastes?”
“I do not eat this,” he says again, and slips away.
“Well, that’s rude,” Sam frowns. “Why, what did my taters ever do to him?”
“It’s fine, Sam. Your taters were lovely,” Frodo says. “He is a long way from home, the only of his kind here, and Hobbit food isn’t to everyone’s liking, even the best of Hobbit food.”
“Not lovely enough then, I suppose. But more for the rest of us!”
“Hear, hear!” Pippin toasts.
“Pip!” Merry chokes. “Leave some for the rest of us!”
They tussle and wrestle, carefree and happy. It is amazing to me the spirit of Hobbits, of which I have so long heard. The cold and dark and distance from home have not changed…and yet. Yet a hot meal and good company, a drinking song, all these bring them cheer. It does not change our quest. Cannot destroy the Ring..but for now—for them—it is enough.
I wonder if Thorin, if Fí, if Kí, had the same thought on this very road. I wonder if only Tharkûn had thought to bring more than one Burglar, more than one Hobbit, if the road to Erebor may have ended differently.
The food is hot, the night is dark, my heart is heavy. I do not hear the Ranger approach.
“A flint, Master Dwarf?”
“Aye,” I fumble for my belt. “If you wish.”
He lights his pipe, face lost in his hood and hair. “You ought not call him out so,” the Ranger warns.
“The Elf. You antagonize him.”
“You are a Ranger. I am a Dwarf, he an Elf. Do not meddle in what does not concern you.”
“The welfare of this company concerns me greatly. You know what should happen were our fellowship to fail.”
“I am a Dwarf, a Dwarf of Erebor. I know more than you what it means should a quest fail.”
“Think you so?” he asks me. “Then you know the Enemy of Old will seek to destroy us from within as well as without. Do not be found wanting.”
“Think i so? Do you think you are the only who would leave exile to become a King? My people have lost as much as yours—and there are those yet alive who may recount the tale. My Uncle and Cousins are among the dead. Have a care to whom you speak!”
“I know you joined the quest latest. I know another of your company would have taken your place. I know your father was old, and you would have taken him home…and I know that you changed your mind.”
“And is that a crime in the wild, then, that a Dwarf may change his mind?”
“It is an odd coincidence, do you not think, that a Dwarf of Erebor—a Dwarf of Ered Luin—an heir to Thorin Oakenshield himself, the son of Glóin his companion, should volunteer for our fellowship the very eve the son of Thranduil agrees the same?”
I do not answer. I have nothing to say.
“Gandalf may not see your true purpose, but I do, Gimli, son of Glóin," his stern eyes flash. "And I tell you he is a Wood-Elf, he is a member of our Fellowship, he is not his father nor his father’s kin, and your fight lies not with him but with our Enemy.”
My heart is cold. My pipe forgotten. “And what, may I ask, do you accuse me of?”
“Conspiracy, Gimli son of Glóin. To assassinate the son of Thranduil.”
I say nothing.
“Have a care!” he warns. “There are nine walkers against nine riders! Do not let the Enemy prevail in this!”
“Come, Gimli, Strider!” the hobbit’s clear voice interrupts us. “Frodo is going to sing us Bilbo’s song again! How was it again, Frodo? ‘There is an inn, a merry old inn—“
“Beneath an old grey hill!” Pippin and Sam join in, and Tharkûn laughs.
But it is too much. Too much. This is Bilbo’s song, and I have heard Bofur and his children sing it since I was a Dwarrowling. They are so young, these Hobbits. Young like my own cousins, carefree with food and song and comfort, they know not the dangers that lie ahead, they do not know their own deaths lay at the end of this road, and in the end their loyalty and laughter will be their downfall.
And now it is my turn to bow away from the firelight. I would not have them see my tears. My anger.
I do not wander far—I do not have to. The sound of the fire and its long shadows are behind me, the stony earth is inscrutable. And yet the night wind carries down a song, soft and lilting, smooth liquid as the surface of a sheet of pooled glass.
And here he is, Thranduillion. Son of the Elven-king. Singing in the moonlight, hair unbound, scrounging in the dirt for acorns from ruinous oaks, prying snails from their shells with fingers and tongue. Raising them to pale lips. And the sight is—
The sight is as if detritus has fallen away from a vein of pure gold.
[And oddly alluring.]
Acorns. Acorns and snails. I think—inexplicably—of Thorin. A king in Exile. But no, no, that is Aragorn. Here is no king, no prince, no Elf that I have ever known. This creature—what is he? Who?
[And what is this feeling?]
He sees me. “A, Óli!” he hisses, hands flying to his hair, fingers over his ears. There is anger in his eyes, and he averts them from my gaze, head down, shoulders hunching. He is—I do not know why he is—so angered, so ashamed.. “What is it?” he asks. “Why have you come? What do you want?”
My cousins, my King. Erebor restored. Your blood, your pretty golden head, your father in pain as my people—as I—have writhed in grief and loss. I wish you dead, but know you not. How can such hate be so blind in intention? For you, Master Elf, I have no answer. “Nothing, Elf. Aragorn is asking after you.”