I can hear him breathing.
Sound is amplified a thousand times in the vast places beneath the earth. A drop of water, a chip of stone, each rings in the perfect, timeless silence. Yet to hear the breath of an elf is a rare thing indeed, and I lift the torch I carry to better glimpse Legolas' face.
The clean-cut line of his jaw is lifted and turned outward, and set tightly. From time to time, since knowing him, I have thought that to sculpt the face of an elf would be a true test of craft, and I have even contemplated the types of stone that might be used. After much deliberation I have come to the conclusion that nothing less than marble, the stone of the masters, would be sufficient. However, no sane Dwarf would undertake such a thing, and any doubts my kindred have about my sanity for even keeping the friendship of an elf would thus be laid to rest forever. So I examine the thought and pass it aside with the same sense of amusement I always do.
We have left behind the outer caves, the dry, dead stone amidst which is still piled the stores of the Westmark. Though the War is passed the habits of war have not, and I still grumbled at the untidiness of Rohirrim practices, leaving boxes and bundles and heaps of provision to clutter the gateway to a treasure. Now darkness presses close as the passageway turns and deepens, and I feel coolness wafting from within the mountain's heart.
I pause for a moment and am surprised when Legolas bumps into me, for clumsiness is not his way. Nor does he seem to notice, instead transfixed by what lies beyond our wavering pool of torchlight. Or perhaps by what does not. There are no stars. There are no trees. There is no breath of air save what the mountain itself breathes upon us, chill and damp and metallic in odor. I inhale deeply of that mineral aroma, tasting it in my senses like copper upon the tongue, for it is the smell of the living earth, the cradle in which my people first drew breath and the tomb in which we leave this life. It is this fragrance that is reborn when ore is refined and metal is shaped in the forge, pungent and bracing as the raw gifts of the earth are reshaped to take form as things of beauty.
"What is that smell?"
I glance up at him and now that fine face is etched in lines of distaste; a curl of the lip, a flaring of nostrils.
"Smell," I growl. "That, my good Legolas, is the perfume of the mother earth."
With a light snort, he replies dryly, "She should try another scent. I recommend lavender."
I will ignore him, for he is only an elf, and he is here only because of a promise he undoubtedly regrets. If we two survived the War, I would agree to visit his Fangorn Forest if he would agree to return with me to the Crystal Caverns of Helm's Deep. Behold, the Darkness is past and even now our King Elessar awaits us outside, joyful in the presence of our companions and the sweet spring Sun, where certainly Legolas wishes he was at this moment. Yet he is an elf of his word, and so he treads silently behind me as torchlight dances upon the chamber walls.
The passageway narrows again, and Legolas is forced to lower his proud head as the ceiling dips heavily in upon us. The stone to either side is nubbed and rough, and the rasp of my sleeve against it is jarringly loud. However, with Legolas all but treading upon my heels, I find I have less than the usual room to move in. My concern has been that I do not scald the stone with the smoke of my torch, but now I wonder if I might catch fire to an elf. The ceiling rises again, and mercifully he falls back.
He is talking to himself. It is in elvish, so I know it cannot be complimentary. Listening, I am able to pick out one word, gador. Dungeon. I snort loudly enough that he knows I have overheard. The corridor narrows again, until I must turn sideways and hold the torch overhead, and the dragging scrape of clothing on stone fills my ears. Here the mountain presses close as a lover, yet with patience I make my way, one careful step at a time. Abruptly the mountain lets go, and I step into clear dark space. Soon, very soon we will be there.
"Gimli?" His voice echoes hollowly. "Please wait."
I do not remember ever hearing him speak so politely, and I pause, turning with the torch in hand. Surely he can have no difficulty with access, for an elf entirely lacks the sturdy stature of a dwarf. Indeed, he is right there, the torchlight glinting on his hair as he edges out of the narrow passageway towards me. He looks at me, both hands pressed to the rock as if trying to force it back, and his eyes are big as silver coins. The urge is powerful to make some disparaging comment about the courage of elves, but I suddenly find I lack the heart.
"Come, Master Elf. That is the last of that." As he slides out into the open I turn away, setting forth once more. "That should be one of the places requiring attention, to ease the passage of future visitors."
His muttered reply follows me; "I cannot imagine why there would be any."
I do not reply, for what I have in mind is something extraordinary, something no elf and few dwarves have ever seen. There are easier ways we could have gone, though I will not tell him that, other caverns we could have seen, but this - this would be grandeur unlike anything else. If he can lay aside elvish sensibilities for but a little while, perhaps his visit here will not be in vain.
Strange shapes begin to emerge ghost-like from the gloom, thin, pale pillars like the trunks of stone trees and smaller stalactites like the piercing fangs of dragons set in vast stone jaws. Yet I feel space, emptiness waiting somewhere before us and Legolas must sense it too, for he pauses, his breath catching in a quick, soft sound. It strikes me that he fears what he cannot see, what elvish sight cannot reveal to him, and I am not pleased at the sudden twinge of uncertainty in myself. I do not wish to upset when sharing what may be my greatest joy, but I had hoped he would at least try to understand what I showed him.
"I wish you to wait here, Legolas," I tell him, and hand him the flickering torch.
"Wait?" His long fingers close about the torch as his voice rises subtly. "Where do you go?"
"Peace, my friend, I will not stray from your sight." Turning, I step away towards what I had left here long weeks before, a small heap of prepared faggots. "First, I will make light. And then you will see the grandeur of the hidden world."
I light one faggot from his torch, aware of his eyes intently on me though he speaks no other word. His tension is nearly palpable and I imagine if I touched him I would be pricked with tiny sparks.
The light thus doubled, I look up at him and ask, "Do you think you could close your eyes?"
Astonishment winks across his face. "Why ever would you wish that?"
"A secret," I reply, and smile through my beard. "I have a surprise for you."
It has the desired effect, for I see humor and annoyance mingled in his expression. "Very well, Master Dwarf. Certainly it can be no darker here with eyes closed than open. But know you that I will listen for your every step, so do not think to lose me in this grim labyrinth."
Chuckling, I said, "Fear not. And trust me."
As I turn away with my torch, I hear his soft reply behind me: "I do."
Gathering the rest of the faggots under one arm I begin my preparations. I had hoped to bring others here to see this marvel, this living wonder, even as we counted our dead within the walls of Helm's Deep. I pray that I have equipped wisely and the results will be as I imagine. Into black shadow I clamber, extraordinary shapes emerging into the circle of my torch and passing behind me. One by one I light the faggots I carry, one by one fixing each in its place. Each dancing flame is aided by its kinsman, as I build a ring of torchlight about this great space. I glance over my shoulder and see the single point of illumination that is Legolas, his head bowed before his small flame, trusting and patient. I take care to scuff my feet ever and anon, though I would not be surprised if elvish ears could hear my very heartbeat. In this vast grotto even a single drop of water rings like a struck bell. Then at last I am through, and I trudge back towards my waiting companion.
"May I open my eyes now?"
Dear fool, he had not so much as peeked, and I laugh gently as I touch his shoulder. "Open your eyes, my friend. Open your eyes and see."
He straightens and puzzlement flickers across his face as he sees the array of golden light before him ... and then he simply stares. As if transfixed he steps forward slowly, his torch almost forgotten in his hand. His eyes are wide and in that moment his smooth, ageless face seems very much that of a beautiful child.
"Gimli ..." he breathes, and has no other words.
What does an elf see? How do they measure beauty, they who sing of stars and moonlight and stones that carry the light of the heavens? Is there any kindred spark between them and my folk of the earth, who see beauty where no star has ever shown? I know not ... but I have hope, and I watch him step into the vision before me.
And vision it is, sculpted perhaps by Mahal himself during ages beyond our reckoning. Before us a dark lake gleams in torchlight like a sheet of polished copper, neither ripple nor reed marring its perfect surface, held in a vast sculpted bowl of glazed stone. Polished pillows of stone await the weary at the water's edge and a court of smooth, varicolored paving sweeps beyond. Amber and gold, rose and white, all the colors of earth and flame vie with inky velvet shadows. Pillars and columns rise from the floor in stark, fluted forms and billows of golden rock curve in frozen shapes, as if poured by mighty hands, layer upon layer caught in eternal stillness. It is a place of dreams, of fantastic forms of grace and beauty, torchlight gleaming through curtains of delicate, folded marble and igniting long, sweeping banners of stone hanging far above our heads. It is a court of kings, if any but came here, noble beyond any mortal crafting. There a delicate rank of spears stands guard forever against a gleaming wall; here a great pinnacle rises as a throne for a mighty lord, draped in long, folded robes of molded amber rock.
Legolas stands at the water's edge for the longest time, unmoving, until at last I step beside him. "Come," I say, and he follows.
Now we walk on timeless paths, among vast, translucent tapestries and towers that lift sculpted shoulders into shadows high beyond our sight. Beneath our feet flow frozen rivers, polished stone spilling in an arrested torrent from bench to bench, yet never moving and making no sound. I watch as Legolas' long hand caresses shell-like fingers as graceful as his own, and I am struck by the thought that perhaps Mahal reached also to elvenkind. And lo, in a basin hung with gleaming draperies of stone our torchlight strikes a brighter spark. There spar crystals shimmer like the light in Galadriel's eyes and Legolas goes to his knees before them, touching them so carefully. I cannot see his face behind the curtain of his hair and he is still for a long time.
He rises and we walk on, the uneven floor lifting us above our circle of flame and amidst immense curtains and draperies and twisted pillars. More crystals ignite their own inner flames as the light of our torches draws near, and wink out like fading stars as we pass. As night in the world above has its light, so the endless night of underground needs but a spark to banish its shadows. There looms a very forest of stone, massive boles rising as a glade of stately trees, and Legolas walks among them with his face turned upwards. Here gleams an icy basin of ancient water, and as we watch a single drop falls with a silvered ping. So the Master Sculptor builds. All around the great domed room we traverse, finding palaces within palaces, courts within courts, and within that vast silence ever and anon we hear the light music of water falling.
Last we return once more to the dark, mirrored lake below, for the time draws near when torches will fail. There Legolas sinks to rest upon a couch of welcoming stone and stares into the polished water. It is some moments before I realize there is an echoing shimmer in his eyes, and I see that he is weeping. My friend makes no sound nor does he sob, but his face is open and guileless as the veriest babe. My friend weeps because his elvish heart has been stricken with beauty.
My own heart wrenches painfully that I could have ever doubted he would see as I did. I grieve that I ever thought he would not grasp what is lovely beyond all reckoning, in worlds above or below ground. Legolas who sang on our long journeys simply to banish shadows from our mortal sleep knows beauty more truly than I understand friendship.
Quietly I sit beside him and for a long moment we both drift within the dream. The heartbeat of the earth is reckoned in tiny silver droplets falling amid grottos unseen, and we harken to it together. At length he stirs himself and leans forward, reaching towards the dark waters before us. He touches the glassy surface lightly and we watch as fine ripples spill outward in concentric rings of gold and sable, perhaps the first ripples to mar the mirrored expanse in even his long elven lifetime.
Then he sits back with a soft sigh, hands in his lap. One hand moves again, reaching briefly to clasp my wrist.
Even as my heart pangs warmly to that unexpected gesture he says softly, "Thank you."
He looks full in my face then, himself a creation of graven shadows and firelight, beautiful as the realm of gleaming stone around us and as strong and enduring. Yet it is not the fairness of his form that I see, but instead what shines in his eyes. My friend. I have an elf for a friend and I have brought him belowground, and he has wept for beauty that would bring Dwarves to their knees in awe. However it came to be, the differences between our kindreds now seem petty and small, for how can enmities or grievances remain, where beauty has been shared?
"You are welcome, Legolas," I reply.
And so we arise together and leave the earth to its dark and timeless sleep.
"Then Legolas repaid his promise to Gimli and went with him to the Glittering Caves; and when they returned he was silent, and would say only that Gimli alone could find fit words to speak of them." - J.R.R. Tolkien - Return of the King: Many Partings
~ FINIS ~