3: Up the Axe
~~~Chapter 3: Up the Axe~~~
Chewing on the piece of dried meat, at least he assumed it was meat, that the tawny haired hobbit handed him, Wesley thought wistfully of his standing date with morel and shitake gnocchi and Lilah over a bottle of Riesling. Once a week they’d meet and actually have dinner like a civilized couple. He’d ask her about work, she’d prevaricate and inevitably do something that led to sex on the couch, or table, or shower. All in all, he rather enjoyed those nights.
If he concentrated hard enough, he could just taste a hint of mushroom now. Frowning, he decided that maybe it was just fungus on the meat instead. They’d stopped to camp in a small alcove that looked to be the remnants of a guard house when the mine had been inhabited by Dwarves. There was a tiny, well hidden fire for heating water and Wes accepted the cup of weak tea gratefully. It was amazing how much better he could feel after a cup of tea.
Granted, the tea made him think of home, both England and L.A. And thinking of L.A. brought up Lilah, and Fred, and Angel, and the whole farce that his life had become. He couldn’t help but wonder if Lilah had looked for him, had asked her beloved Senior Partners to get him back. He wasn’t sure if she would, but he knew that Angel wouldn’t. It wasn’t only guilt and appreciation he’d seen in Angel’s eyes; there was also relief. Finally Angel could be rid of the possibility of needing Wes’s help, and actually having to ask for it. He snorted softly to himself.
The noise caught the attention of Boromir who sat on a low stone bench nearby. “Thinking of home?”
Wes glanced his way. “Yes.”
“Is it very different from here?” His face was uncharacteristically open with curiosity. The pile of hobbits by the far wall rustled and the bright eyes of Merry and Pippin shone in the gloom.
“Yes, it is very different. No hobbits, elves or dwarves.” The hobbits exchanged shocked glances and Wes smiled. “And we are worse for it.”
Pippin smiled proudly at Wes’s complete sentence, elbowing Merry in the ribs. “See, he can speak whole sentences now!” Merry nodded and shushed him.
Boromir fingered the grip of his sword, eyes distant. He spoke softly, as if more to himself than his companions. “My city is very different from here too. Gondor, the White City, is something beyond words, beyond the tongues of man. To see the towers lit with the dawn, sparkling like crystalline snowfall, the ocean beyond, is incomparable.” He looked around him with disgust. “Nothing like here, the dark and the gloom. Gondor was great once, the pinnacle of mankind, and it could be again. Ah, that I would see my city restored to splendor,” he trailed off wistfully.
Wesley watched him with compassion, wishing silently to himself that he felt that way about his city, the City of Angels. It too had its gleaming towers of steel and glass, ocean mere minutes away. But instead of pride, LA only engendered feelings of pain and dissatisfaction. He looked down at the rocks by his scuffed shoes. These stones, marked by death and catastrophe here beneath the earth, seemed friendlier to him than the asphalt and concrete of his own home.
Strider walked up to exchange the watch with Boromir. He tapped the man on the shoulder and Boromir stood, blinking rapidly to draw himself back to the task at hand. “My pardon, Master Wesley, but perhaps we’ll continue this discussion later.”
The scruffy haired brunette looked over the newcomer and hobbits on the floor. “You should get some rest. We have only a few hours here.”
Wes nodded and watched him walk through the low stone door way. It hit him then, how surreal things felt. As if they couldn’t be real. He couldn’t be sitting in a vast underground mine, talking with mythical creatures, sipping tepid tea. Yet, here he was, and he’d faced much stranger things in his few years in California. Perhaps he’d feel a much larger sense of urgency and danger if he could just accept where he was.
He had to admit that the cavern was beginning to unnerve him. He’d been told that he’d joined the group of the ‘Fellowship’ right before the doorway to the mine collapsed behind him. It meant a forced trip through the ravaged home of the dwarves in the dark. He’d never thought himself a claustrophobic person, but three days of no sky, no light, no breeze, and his skin was starting to crawl. If he looked up, he would almost swear the cavern roof was shrinking lower and lower, waiting to smother them all. He knew it was illusion, but it didn’t make him breathe any easier.
He shook his head. Maybe his problem was who he was instead. He was a watcher. He watched Gandalf watch Frodo, concern rippling over the wizard in tangible waves. He watched Boromir watch Frodo with a hungry, desperate gleam in his eye. He watched Aragorn and Legolas watch him with guarded suspicion. He watched it all, but it was with the gaze of an outsider, not someone truly invested in his fate.
It wasn’t just the language barrier. For all intents and purposes, it was gone. Wes could follow a conversation well enough to contribute if necessary, and the bright little hobbit was always ready to help him work through whatever he couldn’t grasp. The forced delay when the white haired old man played eeny-meeny-miney-moe with the passageways allowed Wesley to interact linguistically with the other members of the party, and it helped dramatically. His accent would always be strange, identifying him as a foreigner, but as long as he could communicate in the Common Tongue, he’d manage.
He wondered then, if it was only because he was here, away from it all, that he even noticed his behavior. The last few months had been that way, as if he was watching himself act through a life he had no connection to. The trysts with Lilah…the borderline stalking of Fred and AI…the driven compulsion to rid LA of evil on his own… It was all so… distant.
He wondered what it would take to make it real, this trek through the underworld. What would break down the barriers he didn’t even realize he’d erected to keep the world at bay? He curled up then, as the others had done, pillowing his head on his folded up, now grimy, pea coat. He dreamed of feather beds and cappuccino on the boardwalk.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~
“This is our last day. We should pass through the Great Hall, from there to the Bridge of Khaza-dum. Hurry now, the end is in sight.”
Gandalf ushered the group into the Main Hall. It was breathtaking, a true marvel, and Wes stopped in awe. He didn’t even hear the others expressing similar sentiments as he stared around. Immense stone pillars rose at regular intervals, the tops disappearing into shadow. Gandalf brightened his staff to illuminate further, but even then, Wes couldn’t see the roof. He craned his neck, tilting back, and turned in a circle. Their voices echoed faintly, giving the impression of immensity, and he wondered what this place had been like when filled with dwarves. The hustle and bustle of every day living seemed so displaced from the cool, desolate space it had become.
A cry brought his attention back to the group, and he chased after Gimli with the rest as they followed him to a small stone chamber illuminated by a thin shaft of light piercing the darkness. The company looked around warily as the dwarf collapsed in grief on the sarcophagus. Gandalf picked up the journal and began to read, and Wesley felt the first stirrings of alarm. The elf and ranger felt it as well, and all looked back toward the entrance. Legolas bent his head to Strider and encouraged them to leave, but most of the company’s attention was still on the wizard, reading about the doom of the previous occupants.
Wesley looked dispassionately at the corpses littering the floor, and wondered about the defensibility of their current situation. It certainly hadn’t worked out well for the dwarves. A crash came from the far side of the room, and all eyes were on Pippin. Wes winced in sympathy for his small friend, as he, too, had once been the one to call down disaster. All hopes of a quick escape were doused when the first drums could be heard in the deep.
Pushing the doors closed against the nearing cries of Orcs, the company drew their weapons. Wes arranged himself on the far side of the stone bier, across from Gandalf, behind the bows of Strider and Legolas, He wasn’t sure what a ‘cave troll’ was, but when the swarm of demons crashed through the doors and met the arrows and swords of his companions, he had no time to puzzle it out. His first axe swing separated the head of an orc from his shoulders, spewing black blood all over Wesley. He grimaced, but made a return swipe to hack off the sword arm of another attacker. The axe had wonderful balance, and despite the age and disrepair, it left clean strokes through its victims.
It was only then he understood what a ‘cave troll’ was, when the giant hairless creature whalloped his way into the narrow room, large stone hammer knocking friends and foes alike. In the chaos of the desperate battle, Wes lost sight of the hobbits. He could hear, from behind him, the dull metallic thud and cry of assurance from Sam, and wondered what exactly he’d been doing with a frying pan. The troll took another few swipes with the hammer then resorted to flinging the massive chain attached to the collar around his neck.
It wrapped around one of the support columns, and Wes watched the elf nimbly scale the taught chain. Ducking another thrust, he almost missed Legolas’s attempt to pierce the tough skull of the troll with arrows from mere inches away. Breaking free, the troll went after the hobbits, and Wes flung himself forward.
He didn’t understand what made Frodo so important, but it was clear that no matter how much the others were fighting for their own lives, they placed the safety of the sad hobbit above their own, as if their deaths would be worthy sacrifices. In the startling heat of battle, Wes realized that he wasn’t afraid of dying, that he’d died already in the grassy park across from his house when Justine slit his throat. He’d felt the life seep away in the cool of night and had never reclaimed it. Borrowed time though it may be, Wes also realized he didn’t want to give it up, not yet. And while he was here he might as well do some good.
The troll had Frodo cornered behind a pillar, and the hobbit called for Aragorn. The man tried, but found himself knocked violently against the wall. Disengaging himself from a tangle of mottled skinned orcs by removing a few limbs, Wes leaped a corpse and lifted Frodo with both hands, flinging him aside as the troll picked up the massive pitch fork Strider had attempted to use. The fabric of Frodo’s tunic ripped, revealing a beautiful silver chain mail shirt, and he landed heavily next to Merry and Pippin. They propped him up, checking for injuries as the troll turned his attention to the newest irritation.
Wes regrouped and circled behind the snarling creature, weighing his options. Arrows hadn’t worked, and Wes wasn’t sure he could get the axe high enough to behead it. There was one more thing he could do, however. With a grunt, he swung the axe straight up between the legs of the troll. It imbedded itself with a sickening thwack, and the troll roared in agony. It fell slightly forward, leaning on one meaty hand, and Wes raised his right wrist, sighting down his arm. As the troll lurched forward, Wes triggered the mechanism over his pulse point. A thick wooden stake burst from under his sleeve and imbedded deep in the right eye of the troll. It uttered a bewildered squeak and slumped forward, dead. Wes was too slow to move out of the way, and found himself pinned beneath the smelly torso of the cave troll.
All around him, the fight was winding down. When the last of the orcs was dispatched, the rest of the company divided itself between the shaken but safe Frodo and the rather smushed Wesley. He pulled at his pinned legs, wincing at the pain in his ankle, but it wasn’t until the dwarf himself lifted the shoulders of the beast up, that Wes could slide out. When the watcher’s eyes met the dwarf’s, Gimli smiled grimly.
“Well, Master Wesley, I think you’ve earned the axe. Keep it with my goodwill.”
Wesley smiled just as grimly back and clambered to his feet. The rest of the company looked at him with a mixture of appreciation, astonishment and amusement. Boromir strode forward and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Well done, well done indeed. Many cave trolls where you come from?”
“No, not cave trolls.” Wes shrugged and bent to yank the stake from the creature’s eye. He wiped the blood and brain matter on the now filthy coat and reloaded the stake holder. “But they would be at home.”
Digesting this new information, the fellowship looked around at the carnage littering the floor. They took time for a short breather, and were out the door at a run. The battle was far from over.