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Author's Notes: This was written for the October Challenge: "Believe it or Not" over on the LotR Genfic livejournal community. My element was the word "mysterious," and I immediately thought of the Paths of the Dead. Specifically, I thought of those trees that even Legolas couldn't tolerate, which always presented something of a mystery to me. For what it's worth, this is my reasoning on why those trees were so bothersome.
I should also note that a few portions of dialog were taken directly from Tolkien's The Return of the King, pages 69-70. Additionally, the poem I quote is from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." The opening quote comes from Stanza I while the closing quotes come from both Stanzas I and V, respectively. Enjoy and have a happy Halloween!
Those who have crossed
The day was silent, if day it could still be called. Gimli no longer knew the time. It had been many hours since he last glimpsed the sky, and he could not say if the sun still shone. All things here were veiled by a somber shadow that made those beneath it feel weathered and worn. It was not dark, but neither was it light. In truth, it seemed as though it was not anything. If a void could take on a color, Gimli felt this would be it. The shadow beneath the black firs came not from the world of the living where life abounded with vibrant hues and contrasts. Nay, this shadow crept forth from another source: a source as lifeless as the surrounding forest.
Gimli had never been fond of forests. He preferred the vast, open plains of northern Rhûn or the steep, jagged slopes of the Iron Hills. Forests were filled with the unknown, each tree serving as concealment for any number of possible dangers. And in addition to hidden perils, there was the tone of the forest itself.
Contrary to what views Legolas held on the subject, Gimli was not deaf to the voices of trees. Not entirely. He could not hear their voices clearly and he certainly lacked the elf's ability to discern their words, but he could hear enough to gage a general feeling in each forest he visited. Hollin had been watchful and wary. Lothlórien had been ageless and sorrowful. Fangorn had been quiet yet brooding. This forest—this Dimholt, as the Rohirrim called it—was silent.
But not still, for the forest was not empty. Between the trees, shadows flickered. Shadows beyond the sight of mortal eyes, yet Gimli could see them. And these shadows were aware of the passing company. Never before had Gimli felt so watched. And never before had his presence felt so…intrusive.
Such were Gimli's thoughts as he and Legolas rode in the wake of the dour Rangers. Each step moved them further along the Paths of the Dead, and the creeping cold made even dwarven bones ache. During the previous night at Dunharrow, some of the Rohirrim had informed Gimli that the trees of the Dark Wood were the only living things to dwell so close to the Dwimorberg. Eying the forest warily, Gimli wondered if the silent trees were indeed still living or if they, too, had passed into the realm of the waking dead.
A shiver ran the length of his spine, and Gimli pressed himself forward, offering silent thanks that he rode behind Legolas. If any sought to harm them in this shadowed forest, a wood-elf was probably their best defense. Not that the Rangers weren't also capable. They were solemn men who said little but saw much, and Gimli was glad of their company. But they were as troubled as he by the gloom and the silence. Legolas was not.
Beneath him, Arod suddenly danced to one side, tossing his head. The horse had been restless ever since leaving Dunharrow, giving Gimli ample opportunity to practice keeping his seat. He immediately fell into what was now a weary routine: he squeezed his legs around Arod's broad back, clung to Legolas, and waited for the elf to quiet the horse.
Legolas did nothing.
Arod pranced backward and reared. His breath catching with surprise, Gimli all but buried his face in Legolas's quiver, frantic to maintain his seat. Arod reared again, higher this time, and Gimli felt himself slipping. Falling—
A hand seized the back of his cloak.
Fisting his chain mail, his rescuer pushed him forward and steadied him as whispered words sounded ahead. Arod dropped back to the earth, flanks quivering, and Gimli loosed a sigh of relief.
Easing himself away from the elf, Gimli discovered that Legolas had not calmed Arod. Nor had it been the elf who seized him by the cloak and prevented him from falling.
The voice was hushed but demanding, and Gimli shook off enough fear to answer. "I am well," he whispered, wondering exactly how well a dwarf could be while traveling a road known as the Paths of the Dead.
Beside him, one of the sons of Elrond—Gimli had not the faintest idea which—released the back of his cloak. Ahead, the other son of Elrond continued to whisper to Arod, though it was clear his attention was not on the horse but rather on the horse's riders.
"Legolas?" prompted the one who had fisted Gimli's cloak.
Legolas sagged, his head bowing, and Gimli stared. He had not noticed the elf growing anxious. "I am also well," Legolas murmured. He stroked Arod's neck, muttering a few words, and then he urged the horse forward again.
Gimli frowned, skeptical. "Legolas, are you—"
"I am well enough for now," Legolas said curtly, directing Arod into a trot in an effort to catch up with the rest of the company. Being in the rear, it seemed no one save Elrond's sons had noticed Legolas's lapse. "And I will be better when we leave behind these accursed trees," the elf continued, his voice suddenly hard.
Gimli blinked, shocked at the words. He began to demand an explanation, but Arod's rough trot made speech difficult. His teeth snapping together painfully, Gimli reluctantly turned his attention to finding a rhythm that matched whatever it was the horse was doing. Even so, he managed to catch a glimpse of the sons of Elrond, and disbelief was evident in their faces. It seemed Gimli was not the only one taken aback by Legolas's declaration.
Nor was Gimli the only one who wondered if Legolas was well enough for now, for Elladan and Elrohir took up positions on either side of them. If Legolas noticed, he gave no sign. His attention was forward, and he did not speak. Even after they resumed their place as the rearguard of the company, Legolas did little more than stare at the path ahead, never glancing at the forest around them. Gimli found this behavior more disturbing than the silent trees.
Almost as disturbing as the large standing stone that suddenly loomed in the middle of the trail.
"Elbereth Gilthoniel," murmured one of the sons of Elrond, though whether he spoke in prayer or blasphemy, Gimli could not tell. Either seemed appropriate. Gimli could not fathom how he had failed to see the stone earlier. Possibly he had been too distracted by the woods, the horse, and the worrying antics of a certain elf. But even so, the path was straight, and the towering stone was neither shrouded by mist nor shadowed by trees. Paler than the moon, it stood as a sober sentinel, drawing the eye as it barred the way forward. It was tall and daunting, separate from the forest just as the forest seemed separate from the living. Yet Gimli had not seen it. Nor had the Rangers, if he judged their reactions aright. That alone raised great mistrust in the dwarf, and then there was the feel of the stone itself…
"My blood runs chill," Gimli murmured, unaware that he spoke. But few others heard him, for his voice did not carry far. The silence of the forest was complete. His words fell dead on the black fir needles scattered about the base of the stone.
By unspoken agreement, the entire company came to a stop before the looming rock. Its sides were perfectly smooth, unblemished by marks or sigils. Nevertheless, Gimli felt that it stood in warning. That any who passed it counted their lives forfeit. So clearly did this message come to Gimli's heart that he found himself shrinking away. He. A dwarf. Shrinking from stone! But it was not the stone alone that pressed him back. It was the silence beyond the stone. Within the stone. Around the stone. Around them all. Asilence that crept forth from the base of the mountains like a shroud. A silence that was not meant for the living. A silence that was not meant for anything except—
Legolas urged Arod forward.
They moved so quickly that Gimli had no time to protest. Before he was fully aware of what was happening, they had drawn even with Aragorn, and the Ranger's gray eyes glittered in the gloom. No words were spoken, but it seemed no words were needed. A question blazed in Legolas's face, as clear as the standing stone before them: Are we going on?
The answer from Aragorn was just as clear: Yes. Suiting word to deed, the Ranger made a soft clicking noise in his throat and pressed his heals to Roheryn's sides. But the horse snorted and stamped his feet, ears flattening against his head. Aragorn backed Roheryn away a few steps and turned him to the right, again trying to move him past the stone. But as before, the horse refused.
Other Rangers now tried to move forward, their faces pale and their eyes shadowed. But though fear was not enough to halt the men, it was enough to halt their mounts. Even Arod no longer answered Legolas's urgings, and despite the jerky movements that had him clinging to the elf, Gimli could not quell a surge of relief.
Without warning, Legolas dismounted, his quiver twisting sharply out of Gimli's hold. Gimli fell forward, grasping for purchase, until he was once again seized by the back of his cloak. Looking over, he expected to see a son of Elrond, but this time it was Legolas who held him. Warmth flooded Gimli. Perhaps Legolas had recovered from whatever so upset him.
One good look at Legolas doused his hopes. The elven eyes were cold and hard, and in their depths flickered…unease? Fear? With a tight expression, Legolas waited as Gimli managed to move his right leg over to Arod's left side. Then the elf released him, and Gimli dropped to the ground in a practical but ungainly dismount. His assistance no longer required, Legolas turned back to Arod and began to walk him about.
Unable to fathom his riding companion, Gimli gave his attention to the standing stone. But the stone defied him in a way he had never before experienced. Indeed, the twilight about the stone was easier to define than the stone itself. Gimli was a dwarf of the mountains, and he knew well the secrets of the deeper rock. But something about this stone was wrong. Something he could not put his hammer on. Something so…silent. So…
His hands trembling, Gimli hurried after Legolas's shadowed form. An unfathomable elf was at least a familiar mystery.
Even before he left Rivendell, Gimli had come to respect elven stubbornness, and thanks to that stubbornness, Arod and Legolas were among the first to pass the standing stone. Gimli trailed behind them, watching the stone nervously. He saw it clearly, but it felt as though it existed only in his mind and had no anchor to the earth beneath his feet. As though—
A figure loomed above him.
Gimli started, laying a hand to his axe. The shadow quickly put up its hands in a show of peace, and Gimli gritted his teeth in frustration. Trust a Ranger to be as silent as an elf.
"Elves do not fear the dead," Aragorn murmured, his eyes on Legolas.
"So he claims," Gimli muttered.
"So it is," Aragorn countered grimly. "Has he said aught to you?"
Gimli shook his head, not trusting his own voice.
Behind him, Roheryn jerked at the reins, and Aragorn stroked the horse's head, whispering words too quiet for Gimli to hear. But Roheryn would not be calmed, and Aragorn pulled him forward, leading him away from the standing stone but further into the gloom. He cast a glance back at Gimli and then nodded toward the elf. "Watch him closely."
A thoroughly unnecessary command, Gimli decided, moving aside as another Ranger walked his frightened horse. About half of the company had passed the standing stone, and the nervous horses were adding to Gimli's unease. He wove through them quickly, careful to avoid the stomping hooves, until he rejoined Legolas. Without waiting for the others, Legolas had continued forward to a place where the forest thinned, giving way to a rising wall of rock. Some of the tension had faded from his face, and the elf seemed less troubled now.
But Gimli's disquiet was greater. Much greater.
He stared ahead into the darkness, knowing something was amiss. Knowing the shadows hid a fell secret. Knowing—
Before him loomed the hulk of the Haunted Mountain: the Dwimorberg. Or so his eyes claimed. Yet the mountain was not there. It could not be there! It was as the standing stone, an image in the mind but not in the heart. Gimli saw it, but he could not feel it. He could not—
"You hear it now."
Gimli did not jump at the sound of Legolas's voice, for he had sensed Legolas's approach. It was impossible not to. The elf burned like a smelting fire in a dark forge, for unlike the mountain before him, the elf was real. The elf was…filled. Gimli could not say what filled the elf or what was missing from the mountain, but his impressions in this were clear and sharp.
"I heard it first in the trees," Legolas continued, the silence heavy over his hushed words. "Or rather, I heard its absence in the trees. There is a hole. A maw. A hollowness behind the shape. We see the form, but form is all that is left."
"The mountain is not…it is not there," Gimli murmured, staring at the darkness awaiting them. "There is no foundation for what I see."
"It is without substance," Legolas whispered. "Without claim upon this world."
"Like the dead."
The elf shook his head. "No. The dead haunt the twilight that is my people's fate. They are a note held in fading suspension as all the Song around them moves on. Well do I understand their place here, and thus I have naught to fear from them. But the trees and the stone…they are without Song. That is what you hear. Or rather, that is what you do not hear."
Gimli turned as the sons of Elrond approached. "Orcs?" he echoed.
"The breaking and fading of Song is how Morgoth gained the ability to breed and cull the elven offspring that would give rise to the first orcs," one answered, his eyes dark in the gray shadows.
"Or so we are told," said the other, "for we were not yet conceived. But we have listened to the tales of those who walked before the moon and sun. Broken beneath Angband, captured elves were filled with the corruption of Morgoth's will, and their hollowed offspring had naught with which to counter it."
"Perhaps this is why men fear the shades," Legolas murmured, his eyes closed and his face pinched. "The mockery of what should not be. The loss of that which gives them life. The empty shell of a creature born to light but cast to shadows, filled with a withering harmony not its own. The Second Born are often numb and deaf to the promptings of Ilúvatar's Song, but they are not always blind. They can see the fading of the Song in the faces of those now wrested from its harmonies. And bereft of the comfort that the Song continues beyond death, how can such not elicit horror?"
Gimli did not even attempt to understand what Legolas was talking about. But he thought he understood the sons of Elrond. As a race, the dwarves were very aware of a steady chant thrumming through all of Arda. In lore, this rhythm was said to come from Mahal's Forge, for it could be likened to the steady pounding of many hammers on many anvils. But the pounding was muted here. Gimli felt it in the earth beneath his feet as a faint echo from the lands of the living. But in the lands of the dead, he heard only a wasting silence.
The silence of the forest.
The silence of the standing stone.
The silence of an entire mountain.
"What power could accomplish such an evil?" he whispered.
"I do not know that I would call this evil," said the son of Elrond who had first spoken, "but it is wholly unnatural. We fear the hollowness as you and Legolas do. We also fear the dead as the Rangers do. Together, they represent a perversion of an ancient Art. A twisting of lore and legend that binds what was never meant to be bound and sunders what was never meant to be broken. Almost I could imagine this to be the ending of Arda—not by war or by tempest but by silence."
Gimli looked up at the mountain he could not hear. Unlike elves, dwarves had no twisted orc-echoes from the years of Morgoth's dominion. Not for want of trying on Morgoth's part, but it was difficult to change a dwarf without breaking him beyond all hope of use. Yet perhaps that was Gimli's fear: The breaking of heritage and foundation. The stilling of Mahal's Forge. Dwarven lore stated that without this steadying rhythm, chaos would break forth and the world would be consumed by a deafening clamor of wayward Song. But perhaps it was just the opposite. Perhaps damnation lay not in unguided din but in complete and terrible silence.
Muted whispers caught his ears, and he pulled his eyes down from the cursed Dwimorberg. Aragorn and another Ranger spoke quietly before a dark door. The rest of the company crowded behind them, bunching together against the silence and the shadows. They were to enter the mountain that could not be there. Gimli's mouth went dry, and he only dimly noted Legolas and the sons of Elrond moving to join the others. On stumbling feet, he forced himself to follow.
The Rangers began to disappear into the mountain. Gimli fought the urge to cry out, for as they entered, they became silent. As silent as the mountain and the stone and the forest. One by one, their voices were lost. Then all the men were gone, and the sons of Elrond with them. Legolas and Arod remained, and Arod fought to keep it so. But Legolas was determined, and despite his fears, the horse finally allowed himself to be led within.
Alone in a hollow world, Gimli stood before an empty mountain.
"Here is a thing unheard of," he murmured, striving to rally his courage. "An elf will go underground and a dwarf dare not." But as with all sounds here, his words died soon after passing his lips. Moreover, there were none to hear or answer him. None save the dead, and they had been summoned. They, too, were leaving.
With a shuddering breath and more daring than he had ever needed, Gimli staggered after them.
Shape without form, shade without colour,
This is the way the world ends
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