The splendor of the great cave with its vaulted ceiling and crystal stream was behind them, replaced by the dull and gray storerooms of the Rohirrim. Gimli walked ahead of Legolas in the narrow passage, his steps steady across the rough floor of the cavern even in the dim light of a single lantern. Legolas could stretch forth his hand and touch Gimli's back, yet even that small separation seemed too far. He hardly dared look at Gimli lest he drown in the joy welling from his heart like water from a fountain; still less could he bear to look away. His feelings were too strong to express even in song.
The passage widened and Gimli stopped to let Legolas draw abreast of him. The door to the outside world stood before them, the end of their time alone. Two days they had spent in the caves, and while he would be glad to see the sun again, he was not yet ready to share his beloved with the wider world. He reached out to touch Gimli, framing his face with his hands, unwilling to let this moment pass without ceremony.
"Meldon," he whispered.
"Hervenn," Gimli replied.
Legolas laughed in delight. "My beautiful, clever dwarf."
Gimli scowled, though Legolas believed it not, seeing the smile lurking in his eyes. "It could be insult for all I know."
Legolas laughed again and then sobered. He must have called that in his passion, for he did not remember speaking Elvish to him that did not speak it. Hervenn. His hervenn. "Ah, no." He smiled again, feeling the joy welling out. "As I to you, so you to me."
"What does it mean?" Gimli asked, cocking his head to one side.
What did it mean? The common translation was not enough, not for Gimli. It meant lovers and friends and family. It meant... "Forever."
Gimli shook his head. "Which is how long we will remain here if we do not move on."
Legolas started to remove his hands. "And would that be such a bad thing?" he teased.
Gimli caught his hands and laid a kiss on each wrist. "Never," he vowed. Catching a fold of skin between his teeth he worried it, not biting down hard enough to hurt, just hard enough to send a bolt of desire to Legolas's groin. Legolas shivered--Gimli was a fearless and inventive lover, substituting boundless curiosity and enthusiasm for the experience he lacked. "Still," Gimli said, releasing his wrist, "I would not have our friends come in search of us."
Choking back a laugh, Legolas pictured the fellowship's reactions. "The hobbits would be shocked--they are such a private people." And his dear, even-more-private dwarf would be mortally embarrassed. Mortal--he shunted that thought aside. "Come, then, let us leave." He raised Gimli's hand to his lips and pressed a kiss on the back in promise to them both. "Perhaps we can plead fatigue and escape early to bed."
Aragorn met them at the door to the inner keep of Helm's Deep with all his wonted friendliness, but there was something conscious in his actions, as there had been much of the time since his crowning. Here was the king of Gondor showing favor to his former companions, not the man welcoming his friends. "Glad I am to have you back from even so short an absence," he said. "How did you find the caves?"
"Were they as wonderful as Gimli said?" Pippin asked Legolas without concern for a king's precedence. "Gandalf was telling us about Gimli's descriptions."
"The caves...." How could he describe the caves? Their wonders were mixed with and subsumed into the greater wonder that was his union with Gimli. He could not describe the rock pools and pearlescent pillars without waxing poetic over the one who showed them to him. "I cannot speak of the caves sufficient to do them justice. You must ask Gimli if you wish eloquence."
"Never has a dwarf bested an elf in a battle of words," Gimli said when Pippin looked eagerly at him.
"One of you has to describe them," Merry said, laughing. "Poor Frodo has to write it all down for Bilbo!"
Aragorn looked from Gimli to Legolas, his expression darkening. "I think perhaps they had other matters to concern them than caves," he said at last, his voice heavy with disapproval.
Legolas met his gaze, knowing what Aragorn must see in his eyes. Could Aragorn, child of the union of Man and Elf, Elf and Maia, begrudge him his own choice? Legolas laid a hand on Gimli's shoulder, ready to cast defiance at any who would deny them.
"We are not now at war," Aragorn said in Sindarin. "Was such haste necessary? You do not honor your family or his by wedding without their knowledge and consent."
Their families. Gimli's people would approve of their union no more than his own would, yet their disapprobation had not entered his thoughts in the caves. Gimli's joy was beautiful to see; he would not have risked that bloom of desire to an early frost. "There was need," he said, in the same language, standing tall and reminding himself that he was the son of a king and no subject of Aragorn's. "I do not regret it."
Aragorn turned to Gimli, who had watched their exchange with evident puzzlement at the change in language. "Are you aware, Master Dwarf," he said in the Common Tongue, "that by Elvish custom you are now married?"
("Married?" Legolas heard Pippin whisper to Merry. "To whom?" Merry whispered back.)
"Married?" Gimli repeated the hobbit's whispered word. "Nonsense!"
The denial was like stepping on a branch that was not there, falling into darkness. Surely Gimli had understood....
Gimli snatched his hand before he could withdraw it and turned to face him. "My heart was wedded to yours ere we left Lothlorien," he said as if they two were alone. "Only my body lagged behind." He spoke louder, answering Aragorn though still addressing Legolas, "If we are married by elvish custom then that is well, for I would have all eyes see our union."
"But how can you be married?" Pippin demanded. "You're both men!" All the company turned to look at him. "Both male, I mean," he stammered.
Legolas blinked. That was an objection he had not anticipated. Were the hobbits really as alien as that?
Gimli seemed not so surprised. He had grown up near the Shire, after all, perhaps he was more familiar with their curious customs. "Can male not love male?" he asked, merely sounding puzzled.
"Well, of course they can," Merry said. "Just look at Sam and Frodo." The ring-bearer and his companion were nowhere in sight, Legolas could only hope Frodo was not ill again. "But marriage isn't about love, it's about family. Husband and wife. Children." Legolas could only shake his head. The hobbit said it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. What a sad and depressing idea.
"So Frodo and Sam will not marry?" Legolas asked hesitantly. It seemed so unfair, that two who shared so many trials, who shared so close a bond, would never know his own joy.
"Oh, certainly!" Pippin said happily. "Well, maybe not Frodo, he's an odd duck, a lot like old Bilbo, really. But Sam and Rosie'll probably jump the broom soon as we get back to Shire. She's had her eye on him for years!"
Legolas stared, too appalled for words. To think he had considered the hobbits honorable, worthy of respect! "That is the blackest--"
"What?" Merry asked innocently. "It's not like she doesn't know!"
"To marry one while in love with another is not the custom of the elves," he said coldly.
"Nor dwarves," Gimli growled.
The two hobbits looked at each other, clearly baffled, and shrugged.
The company left Helm's Deep the following morning. Frodo was well enough to ride, at least, though he looked worn and pale, as he too often did of late. Sam rode close by his side, as ever. Legolas looked away from the pair, troubled still by Pippin and Merry's blithe predictions of betrayal. Except that the hobbits, presumably including Frodo, did not consider it betrayal. He shivered in the hot August sun, comforted greatly by Gimli's arms around his waist, his warmth against his back.
"They are an odd race by elvish standards," Mithrandir said, sitting Shadowfax's restless back beside Arod as lightly as any elf. "Still, they are honorable by their own lights. If Sam marries his, Rosie he will love her as deeply as he does Frodo, if in a different way."
"A very strange way," Gimli said. "I knew that hobbit-men did not marry hobbit-men, nor hobbit-women marry each other, but I thought that they felt not the desire. That they feel it and deny it and marry another--" Gimli shuddered.
"They do as is natural to their kind and custom," Mithrandir snapped. "As do all!"
Gimli only grumbled something that not even elf ears could make out.
"What of Frodo?" Legolas asked, trying to understand this strange custom in those he thought honorable. "Does he--accept this?"
"Perhaps you should ask him yourself," Mithrandir said. Shadowfax sped without apparent signal, catching up with the shorter-legged ponies with little effort. Arod followed the chief of the Mearas without Legolas's command.
Frodo smiled and broke off a desultory conversation with Sam when they drew abreast of the two hobbits. "I understand you two are now married," he said. "Congratulations. Daer galu." His Sindarin accent was good but hesitant.
"Hantam," Legolas replied in the same language. "We thank you."
"It does not trouble you," Gimli asked, "that we are both male?"
Frodo shook his head. "Poor Merry, poor Pippin. No, I was old enough before Bilbo left the Shire to hear the tales that you don't tell to children. The stories Merry and Pippin heard were much--simpler. I don't think it ever occurred to them that Oin and Bombur might be sharing the same bedroll at night, or that Glorfindel is a woman's name in Elvish."
"He what!" Sam exclaimed from where he had been riding silently at his master's side. Frodo grinned.
"Obviously it never occurred to Sam either," he said. Sam sputtered. Frodo turned to his companion, "Glorfindel is a mighty warrior; you couldn't expect her to ride to our rescue wearing skirts, could you?"
"Glorfindel is a girl?" Sam asked, eyes round and incredulous.
"I would not call her thus," Legolas said as gravely as he could manage. "She is a powerful Noldo, second only to Lord Elrond, and well adult even by the count of my people." Against his back he could feel Gimli shaking with suppressed mirth.
Sam only stared at him as if he were speaking Orcish. "But--" He turned back to Frodo. "But he fought those Black Riders!" he protested.
"As did the lady Eowyn," Gimli said. Sam seemed not to hear.
"No, Mister Frodo--" He shook his head. "You're having a laugh on your Sam, I know it. Aren't you?" His gaze was pleading.
"Yes, Sam," Frodo answered easily. "I was only joking."
Sam's obvious relief was short lived, turning quickly to suspicion of Frodo's bland tone. Frodo merely smiled and Sam turned to Legolas for confirmation or denial, but he would not spoil Frodo's jest. Nor his lesson, however reluctant the student.
"Does it matter whether Glorfindel is elf-lord or -lady?" he asked. The more he learned of hobbits the less he understood. "Whether he sires children or she bears them? Full half the elves who fought in the Battle of Five Armies were elf-women, many of them counted among the fiercest."
"Mister Bilbo never mentioned that!" Sam protested.
"No, Sam, he didn't." Even Frodo looked mildly surprised.
"Perhaps he did not know," Gimli said from behind Legolas. "At a distance and in armor, one elf looks much like another. Bilbo did not recognize dwarf-women when he saw them, so perhaps he was equally ignorant of elf-women." Now Frodo looked more than mildly disconcerted.
"I never knew--" he started and then broke off.
"That he met any dwarf-women?" Gimli completed for him. "Oh, aye. More than one."
"But all of Thorin's company were male," Frodo insisted. "Weren't they?"
Legolas felt Gimli's shrug against his back. Mithrandir laughed. "The biter bit!" Frodo gave him a thoughtful look.
Sam had ignored this last bit of interplay; dwarves, it appeared, did not interest him. "Strider'll tell me the truth," he said abruptly, clapping his heels to his pony's sides. The sturdy beast lurched into a slow canter and Sam clutched at the saddle.
"I'd better go and keep him out of trouble," Frodo said. "Besides--"he smiled mischievously, looking almost like the hobbit Legolas had met in Imladris. "--with any luck I can keep Strider from telling him anything!" He too put his heels to his pony. "Daer galu!" he called back when he was almost out of sight.
"Well, Master Elf?" Mithrandir asked. "Are you content?"
"Content? Nay, merely more confused." They rode some way in silence while Legolas thought, remembering the long road from Rivendell. "When I first met the hobbits--any hobbits!--they seemed very alien to me. Yet we became companions and as we traveled I came to know them. Yet now I find I do not know them as well as I had thought."
"One hobbit, alone, is much like any other person, be he elf or man or dwarf," Mithrandir said. "But as a group they are as different from any other race as--" he lifted a brow. "--as elves are from dwarves?"
"Elf and dwarf can love one another," Gimli growled. "Does that not show that we are much alike?" His voice was the width of an axe blade away from open challenge.
Mithrandir smiled gently. "As individuals, yes." He looked ahead, down the track where the king's banner could just be seen around the curve of the trail. "I believe I too shall go and see if Aragorn has set our poor Sam aright." He smiled again. "Good day." Shadowfax flowed smoothly into an extended trot that Arod could not have matched short of a full gallop.
"Wizards," Gimli growled as soon as Mithrandir was out of sight.
"Indeed," Legolas agreed absently. Yet elves and dwarves were different from each other. It was easy to forget when they were alone amidst a sea of Men, but what of when they returned home? The elves of Mirkwood and the dwarves of Erebor had never been great friends, even after fighting beside one another in the Battle of Five Armies. Would Gimli seem more alien amongst his own people?
They rode in silence for most of the rest of the day. When the company stopped for the noon meal Gimli seemed distant, abstracted, disinclined to conversation. Did he share Legolas's own concerns? Did he regret joining his life to an elf's? Legolas's heart froze at the thought. Shaking his head he tried to chase that idea off. Whatever the problems, they would work them out.
Gimli remained withdrawn until almost the end of the day's ride, until Galadriel rode back from her place at the head of the column to ride beside them. "Lady," he said softly, almost reverently. Legolas throttled back a spurt of jealousy.
She smiled at them and he found he could feel no resentment towards her. "I rejoice to see the two of you together at last."
"Hantam," Gimli thanked her in Sindarin.
Galadriel laughed. "You outdo us all in courtesy, Master Gimli. But stay--" she held up a hand when he might have protested. "I came here with more serious business than the exchange of courtesies. I will not sleep this night, but take my rest by walking this green and pleasant land. I offer you the use of my tent tonight."
Gimli's voice was not altogether steady. "You have my deepest gratitude, my lady."
"And mine," Legolas added softly. Her offer neatly answered a question he had not thought to ask. There was no keep where they would stop this night, nor any inn large enough to house their company. Only Galadriel and a few of her ladies had tents; the rest slept under the stars. No hardship in such pleasant weather, yet it provided little in the way of privacy. Two elves might trust to the darkness and their companions' discretion, but he would risk no embarrassment to Gimli.
"Then go. Our helpers have gone ahead to set up camp, the tent should be ready."
Gimli's arm tightened about Legolas's belly. "My lady--"
"Go now and perhaps you will be fit company by supper," she interrupted. She gave them a look of mischief out of keeping with her age and dignity. "Or perhaps not."
Gimli chuckled. "You have heard that saying, my lady," he said with mock-resignation.
"Of course," she said. "Now go."
Legolas obeyed, signaling to Arod almost without thought. They broke out of the line of riders and sped to a canter.
"Yes!" Gimli shouted into the wind. Legolas urged Arod into a full gallop and Gimli's arms tightened about his middle, but the dwarf made no protest at their speed. They had come far together since his original complaints of the 'great tall horses of the Rohirrim.'
A few minutes' gallop brought them to the camp prepared for that night. Lady Galadriel's tent was easy to find, the largest present, set some ways off from the rest. One of the folk of Lothlorien stood waiting beside it, a border guard from his bow and mottled gray garb.
"My lady bids you welcome," he said in Sindarin with the peculiar accent of Lothlorien. "I will care for your horse if you wish." The Common Tongue would be more polite in Gimli's presence, Legolas decided, nor did he care for the disdainful look the other gave his beloved.
"Our thanks to you and your lady," he said in the Common Tongue, hoping the other would recognize his own discourtesy. He gave Gimli a hand down from Arod's back, the guard making no move to assist, and then lightly slid down himself. "Your care for Arod would be most appreciated."
The guard frowned at the horse. "This is no Elvish horse!" he protested, still in accented Sindarin.
"But no less valiant for all that!" Legolas snapped in the same language. "He is not quite so swift as one of our own horses, but no Elvish horse could bear a double burden for so many miles without wearying." Switching back to the Common Tongue, he continued. "Give him a small measure of grain while grooming, then turn him loose to graze. He needs no tether or hobble," he added, fearing lest Arod be denied the full courtesy granted a horse of their own breeding.
"Very well," the guard said, speaking--at last--in the Common Tongue. He came forward and laid a hand on Arod's neck and made as if to leave.
Gimli cleared his throat. "My thanks as well, Elf," he said, resting his crossed hands on the head of his axe. "Be sure that I will tell your lady of your courtesy." The guard gave him a hard look before turning to leave, still not deigning to address a mere dwarf. Gimli smiled grimly at his retreating form and then turned to enter the tent. "Rude lout," he added, loud enough, perhaps, for the departing guard to hear. Legolas picked up their packs and followed.
Lady Galadriel's tent was plain but comfortable, a pallet and few cushions the only furnishings. Legolas gave it scant heed. Should he apologize for his fellow elf? "Gimli--"
Gimli tossed his axe onto one of the cushions. "Nay," he said, taking the packs and throwing them beside it. "My skin is not so thin as that," he chuckled, though it sounded forced.
"He should not have treated you thus," Legolas insisted, amazed that Gimli could dismiss such behavior.
"He is not important," Gimli replied with a touch of impatience, pulling Legolas down into a hard and demanding kiss. "I have been riding behind my beloved for ten endless hours," he said softly, dangerously, when finally he released Legolas. "Touching him, smelling him, but never alone with him. The only elf I care about is standing before me!"
"Oh." Gimli's distance that day gained an entirely new interpretation. Legolas had banked his own desire for so many months that one day had not troubled him so. Yet in the face of a dangerous dwarf his desired flaired anew. He smiled, spreading his hands. "What would you have of this elf?" he asked.
Their lovemaking had been fast and desperate and oh so very sweet. His own desire had taken wing with Gimli's and they had soared together. Afterwards they lay together on the pallet only partially undressed. Gimli would not meet his eyes. Legolas tangled his fingers in the dwarf's beard and forced his head up. "Do not regret your passion."
"I regret my...haste."
More troubled his beloved besides speed. "Why? I do not. I delight in your desire for me."
Gimli bowed his head again. "All day I could think of naught but you. I do not know myself any more!"
To laugh would be to deal a mortal blow. And, indeed, to one born to desire but three days since it must be a strange thing. He studied the bowed head before him. "If orcs attacked this camp, would you leave my arms to fight them?" he asked at last.
Gimli raised his head to give him an indignant glare. "Of course!"
Legolas nodded. "If Frodo needed you--you alone!--would you leave my side to go to him, even if it meant months traveling to the Shire?"
Gimli's mouth twisted. "Aye. With the greatest of reluctance, but aye. We owe him much, for he has suffered more."
Now he could laugh. "I know you then, if you do not. You are still the same honorable, mule-headed dwarf who set off--into the teeth of winter!--to Mordor itself, merely because Mithrandir and Lord Elrond said it needed to be done. This--" he waved a hand down their two bodies. "This is new, but it does not change who you are."
They were only a little late to supper. Mithrandir was nowhere to be seen, but Aragorn, Lady Galadriel, Lord Celeborn, Frodo and Sam, and Lord Elrond were seated at a simple trestle table, while the rest of the company made shift with rugs laid upon the grass. Merry and Pippin served the high table as squires, though only Pippin was in service to the high king of Gondor.
Lady Galadriel gave a small smile as she saw them. "I am pleased that you have chosen to join us this night," she said, her voice hinting at mischief.
Gimli bowed low. "Such company is not lightly to be missed." His words, though doubtlessly sincere, were flavored with a subtle irony to match the lady's mischief. He and Legolas sat at the table in their normal places, Gimli at the lady's left and Legolas beside him. "A dwarf, alas, cannot live on air and moonbeams." Gimli gave Legolas a sly look and a smile. "Unlike some."
"No need for that," Pippin said, placing a full plate in front of each. "Plenty of food left, though if you wanted mushrooms you're too late. Sam and Frodo finished them off." His gaze across the table at his cousin was both amused and fond.
"I am not so enamored of mushrooms that I would begrudge the Ring-bearer my share," Legolas said. "Indeed, I do not believe that any could be so fond of that food as a hobbit." Seeing the too-thin hobbits eating well was joy enough.
"You are perhaps fortunate, my lady," Gimli said to Galadriel, "that our company did not stay longer in Lothlorien, or you would not have found a mushroom left in all the Golden Wood."
Pippin shook his head sadly. "You'll never make a hobbit, Gimli. It was quite the wrong season for mushrooms." He dashed off before Gimli could respond.
Gimli turned to Legolas. "Would I wish to be a hobbit?"
Legolas pretended to give the matter great thought. "I like you best, I believe, as a dwarf," he said at last.
Across the table from them, on the lady's other side, Celeborn smiled and Sam chuckled. Frodo seemed not to be paying attention, nodding over his almost-empty plate.
"You'd make an uncomfortably tall hobbit, Master Gimli, if you'll excuse me for saying so," Sam said. "Even more so than that overgrown pair," he added, waving towards the now-departed younger hobbits.
"Your friends and your beloved seem in agreement," Celeborn said with a fine show of gravity. "I advise you to surrender this ambition and remain a dwarf, Master Gimli."
Gimli laughed. "I will be guided by your wisdom, my lord." He shook his head. "Alas." Legolas shared his laughter and then addressed himself to their belated meal.
Sam glanced over at the nodding Frodo and then gave a theatrical yawn. "Well, now, I think it's time for me to be going to bed. Coming, Mister Frodo?"
Frodo woke with a start from his half-doze. "Yes, I suppose we had best put you to bed."
Legolas watched thoughtfully as the two hobbits stood to make their farewells. The care Sam had for Frodo, for his pride as well as his health, was unmistakable. He could not--would not--wound Frodo by marrying another. If he were to take such action--Legolas shook his head--Legolas must believe that it would only be with Frodo's full blessing and support and would cause the Ring-bearer no injury. Strange creatures.
"We are still in disgrace, I think," Gimli said softly for his ear alone.
"Hmm?" Legolas followed Gimli's gaze to Aragorn, who had interrupted his conversation with Elrond to bid the hobbits a good night.
"My lord Aragorn has not spoken to us this day and seems determined not to do so," Gimli explained, studying the man with more curiosity than annoyance.
Legolas could not share his equanimity. Aragorn had not paused in his discourse with Elrond, a matter of an Easterling trade and diplomatic visit some months off, so much as to nod at their arrival. A fire of resentment kindled in his breast. "Lord Aragorn," he said slowly and distinctly for any to hear if they would, "is no king of mine or yours to judge our actions." As he turned away from the king, he saw Galadriel watching and knew that she at least had heard. "Well, my lady?" he challenged. "Would you too censure us for wedding without awaiting our families' approval?"
"Approval? To wed?" Amazingly Gimli chuckled.
"It is the elven way, Gimli," Galadriel explained, "to seek approval of one's parents in such matters, save when war or other emergency makes haste a necessity." She looked to Legolas. "You will find such is not the custom among the dwarves." Indeed, Gimli was shaking his head in apparent bemusement.
Aragorn joined the conversation at last. "By doing thus you show respect for those who bore you, as well--" He glanced at Elrond, still speaking to the departing hobbits, "--as to those who engendered your dearest treasure."
Gimli snorted. "My father may not approve of tomorrow's weather, though I hope he finds it to his liking. But if the rain would fall or the sun shine, then such is the day, will he or nay."
Legolas's own father would not accept such defiance so easily. "Our lives are our own," he snapped. "As are our hearts!"
"Do you think my heart or Arwen's wished to wait as long as we did?" Aragorn answered with equal heat.
"Arwen was a fool to waste half your life!"
"A fool! Will you have the strength to make her choice, Master Elf? Or is all this just a game to you?"
"A game!" Gimli roared, stepping forward, one hand reaching for his axe. "This is no game, not for me, not for him!"
Galadriel stepped between them. "Peace, Gimli!" Turning to Aragorn she spoke quietly. "The choice granted Arwen by virtue of Earendil's blood is not thus given to Legolas. His heart is no less true for that."
Celeborn laid a hand on Aragorn's shoulder. "Come, kinsman. Let us walk until your temper is cooled, and then we may speak of what troubles you." He drew Aragorn away.
Galadriel turned to Legolas and Gimli, meeting the eyes of each in turn. Legolas flushed, knowing her eyes could see through him to the guilt and fear that fed his anger.
The afternoon of the next day brought them to the vale of Isengard. The summer's growing season had done much to repair the bleak devastation of Saruman's stronghold, carpeting the bare earth with grass and wildflowers. The pool that still surrounded the tower was now clean and clear, no longer fouled by nameless filth from the drowned pits. A single year, or indeed a score of years, could not replace the mighty trees felled by the wizard, however, not even under the care of the Ents. Only young, small trees broke the expanse of grass within the former ring of stone. Two tall trees stood sentinel where the stone gateway had once stood, however. Trees...or perhaps not, for such trees would require much of a mortal man's lifetime to grow so tall. Not all the huorn had returned to the forest after wreaking their vengeance on the orcs that felled their brethren, it appeared.
The company dismounted and stood to await Fangorn's arrival, nor was the Ent long in coming. He and another Ent strode in from the north, making great speed for such an unhasty folk. As Fangorn and Mithrandir spoke of the momentous events to the south and the Ents' own work in Isengard and Rohan, Legolas drifted towards one of the "trees."
It looked no different from a normal tree, a smooth-barked hickory, slender for its height. Its roots were sunk deep into the earth, as if it had stood there for a hundred years, not a bare few months. Greatly daring, he reached out a hand and laid it flat against the trunk. Its bark was gently warm from the afternoon sun, and he felt a sense of sleepy contentment from it. If the tree had been awakened--by the Ents or of its own accord--to move it here, that power had since ebbed.
Gimli was a silent presence at his back and he knew without looking that his hand would rest on his axe, not threatening, but ready if the supposed-tree offered Legolas violence.
"He is weary from his labors," Legolas told Gimli without turning. "He holds no anger or malice towards you or me."
"That is well," Gimli rumbled. "You have an unhealthy interest in dangerous trees."
Legolas turned in time to see Gimli shake his head at the idea. "I am a child of Mirkwood," he explained with a shrug.
"The albino squirrels have stolen your wits," Gimli agreed. "Come, we should rejoin the others."
Legolas chuckled and turned from the tree to walk with Gimli. His hand found its way to Gimli's shoulder and Gimli's arm wrapped around his waist. Seeing Aragorn watching them even as he spoke to Treebeard, Legolas steeled himself against further hurt, but met only a wistful sadness.
Saruman was gone; the Ents had let him go free. As the erstwhile guardian of the wretched Gollum, he should have expected this. Evil defeated was so small and pitiful that it was difficult to harden one's heart sufficiently to enforce captivity. Mithrandir and even Aragorn seemed to understand this and treated Fangorn's revelation without censure.
Fangorn spoke then of the Entwives and Entlings before offering passage through his forest to Galadriel and Celeborn on their return to Lothlorien. Celeborn and Galadriel declined, preferring to travel yet awhile with Elrond, Mithrandir, and the hobbits, but Legolas bowed low to the Ent.
"If I may have your leave to accept what was offered to another, my companion and I would wander your fair woods before making our way to our homes in Mirkwood and beyond." His hand was still on Gimli's shoulder, to make no mistake as to his companion in their travels.
Fangorn gave a long, rumbling hroom, yet seemed pleased. "Prettily said, Master Elf," he said. "Yet I recall that I gave you leave some months past when first we spoke here."
Gimli bowed in turn. "And I recall that I promised then to lay my axe only to the right target."
"News of your hewing has come to the forest's ears, axe-wielder," Fangorn said. "I do not think you will be unwelcome."
"Then come, Gimli!" Legolas cried, suddenly impatient to leave this land of grass and stone. "We will visit the deep places of the Entwood and see such trees as are nowhere else to be found in Middle-Earth."
Gimli shook his head. "Trees again." He looked at the rest of the company. "Never let it be said that a dwarf was more reluctant to fulfill an oath than an elf!"
"Here then at last comes the ending of the Fellowship of the Ring," Aragorn said quietly. "Yet I hope that ere long you will return to my land with the help that you promised."
It was all the apology they were likely to receive, all the apology, perhaps, that a king could give. Words spoken in heat were to be forgotten and a promise give in happier times remembered. "We will come," Legolas said.
"If our own lords allow it," Gimli added. The grudge of a dwarf was not so easily washed away, it would appear. Gimli turned to the hobbits to wish them a pleasant--and above all, safe--journey.
"You have chosen the path of Luthien Tinuviel," Aragorn said softly to Legolas in Sindarin. "May the Valar grant you a kinder fate than she."
Legolas laid a hand on his shoulder, understanding much now. "The Lady Arwen does not regret her choice, my friend," he assured him in the same language. "Nor do I."
Taking leave of the rest of the fellowship was hard. Less than a year had passed since they had left Imladris together, hardly more than an eye blink in the life of an elf, yet the time before he joined their company seemed another lifetime, remote and far away. So much had changed: strangers had become friends, almost kin, and the strangest one of all had become his beloved. Still-- "Middle-Earth is a safer place to travel than once it was," he said aloud to Gimli. "A strong king in Gondor will make it safer yet. We may visit them when we will."
"Aye." The weight against Legolas's back shifted and he thought Gimli no longer looked back to see their departed friends. The dwarf's arms squeezed about his middle. "In truth I am not loath to have you for myself for a little while yet."
Legolas nudged Arod into a walk. "A dwarf newly-wed is no fit company for a month?" he asked, glad Gimli could not see the mischievous smile on his face.
The dwarf groaned. "She told you." There was no question who 'she' was.
"Last night, while you slept, I walked a while. I needed to see the stars," he added apologetically. After two nights and days underground and another night in a Mannish keep he could not bear so much as a tent between the sky and him. "Lady Galadriel found me and spoke of your dwarvish saying." More she said that he would not think of on such a pleasant day.
"Yours is not the first union of dwarf and elf I have seen," the lady said as they walked, "though I know of but one other, Celebrimbor and Narvi, they who crafted the western gates of Khazad-dum. After Narvi's death Celebrimbor crafted this ring." She held up her hand and Legolas beheld the ring on her hand for the first time and knew it for one of the Three. "He gave it the power to maintain all that is beautiful and good, unstained by the ravages of time." She gave him a searching look. "Can you not say why he would wish that power?"
Legolas shook off the memory and forced a laugh. "And will you be fit company for me, Master Dwarf, or must I too wait a month?"
"You would do well, Master Elf," Gimli said with a great play at indignation, "to remember that I ride behind you and have you at my mercy." Gimli's hands rose from Legolas's waist to run light, teasing fingers over his ribs. Legolas allowed--enjoyed!--the attention for a moment or three before giving Arod a signal that Lady Eowyn taught him in their recent visit to Edoras. The stallion reared obediently and Gimli's hands once more fastened around his waist.
"Never trust you have defeated an elf," Legolas warned wickedly. "For we have more wiles than one!"
"Unfair!" Gimli cried, laughing in his outrage, keeping his seat with ease. "You have recruited an ally."
"You had best remember that if you do not wish to walk home!"
A few hours' ride brought them to the eaves of Fangorn forest. So close to the foothills of the mountains the tree cover was thinner than it had been to the east where the Entwash left the forest, but Arod still balked at passing into their shadow. Legolas dismounted and sang a soft song to calm him, using his hands to each side of the horse's neck to urge him to look to his rider, not the forest.
When he looked up at Gimli after soothing the worst of the horse's fear, the dwarf was staring at the forest with dark, suspicious eyes. Legolas shifted until he could lay one hand on Gimli's knee while keeping the other against Arod's neck. Gimli looked down at him.
"Do you wish to hold my head and sing to me as well?" Gimli asked. "For I tell you true, I cannot remember why I agreed to travel this path with you!"
"My memory was no better when we stood before the doors to Aglarond," he admitted. "Yet I am glad we went, and not just for what occurred in the chamber of the pillar."
Gimli smiled. "I know. And if an elf can learn the beauty of a cave I am sure he can teach me the beauty of a forest."
"Then come," Legolas held up a hand to help him dismount. "Let us start by walking, for Arod does not share your enthusiasm." That earned him Gimli's laugh, as he had hoped it would.
A faint trail led into the forest's depths, most likely made by deer come to graze at the edge of the grasslands. He led his companions along this trail, one hand on Arod's neck, the other on Gimli's shoulder.
Here in the foothills rhododendron and mountain laurel vied with the larger trees for space. "In spring these trees would be covered in blossoms," he told Gimli, wishing he could show it to him as the dwarf had shown him the rock crystals in Aglarond. "In autumn their leaves turn the most fiery red you can imagine." He snuck a glance at Gimli's face and found him smiling, looking about himself with eyes grown less wary.
"The air is not as close here as it was where we met Gandalf," Gimli said. "This is almost...pretty."
Legolas laughed. "We will make an elf of you yet, Master Dwarf," he said, laughing again at Gimli's grumble.
The trees here were less angry than their cousins to the east had been, or perhaps they had slaked their anger on fleeing orcs. The sense of great age and watchfulness remained; to this forest he and Gimli were nearly of an age, the entire life of an elf merely a freeze and a thaw and a freeze. When Yavanna first sang trees this forest was here and the trees remembered her.
He sang in Sindarin and the sense of watchfulness lightened. "The trees recognize my song!" he laughed.
"Trust a wood-elf to grow giddy among the trees," Gimli scowled.
"It has been long since I last walked in any forest," he apologized, though knowing he was not meant to take the complaint seriously. "A Silvan elf is not meant to walk so long on the bare earth, under the naked sky."
"Nor a dwarf above ground." They walked a few more paces on. "What were you singing?"
"A song in honor of Yavanna, she who sang the trees into being and created the Onodrim, the Ents, to be their guardian."
Legolas steered them slightly to the left, uphill. The trail they had followed had disappeared, but there was little underbrush, making it easy to travel where they willed. A short distance brought them to the bottom of a small cliff, twenty feet or so in height, that paralleled their course. He followed his ears to a small spring that broke through the rock face and fell into a tiny pool, no bigger than a basin, before running off downhill.
Pushing through the ferns that clustered about the pool he knelt and drank from his cupped hands. The water was cold and clear and tasted faintly green. He held out a double-handful of water to Gimli. The dwarf's beard tickled his fingertips as he bent to drink.
"Have you ever tasted any drink better?"
"No." Beads of water sparkled in Gimli's beard, almost as bright as his eyes. "Though I do not know whether that is the water or the cup."
"Perhaps you should assay another trial," Legolas said. "Shall we camp here tonight to give you time?"
"That seems wise." Gimli knelt beside Legolas at the pool and drank from his own cupped hands. Frowning in concentration he took Legolas's hand and dipped it in the water before delicately licking the drops of water off his fingertips. "Hmm," he said, giving Legolas's index finger one last suckle that nearly made Legolas forget the game. "The water is good, but the cup is better." He smiled wickedly. "The cup wishes to be drunk from again, but not, I think, water."
"And why would you think that?" Legolas asked as casually as he could manage, though he feared it was little convincing.
"I am a dwarf," Gimli said. "I can smell you."
"Is a dwarf's nose so keen?" he asked, curious despite his arousal.
"You will never confuse a dwarf as we did poor Samwise yesterday morning," Gimli said. He took a slow breath through a half-open mouth. "I can smell that you are elf and male and want--" He grinned smugly. "--me."
"Are you so sure of your nose?" Legolas teased. "Perhaps it is another I desire." Gimli froze and Legolas cursed his own tongue. "Gimli--" He laid a finger on Gimli's lip to keep him from saying anything they would both regret. "I am sorry, it was a poor jest. I am yours alone, as you are mine. Elves may play with many before we are wed, but afterwards we cleave to that one alone."
"I know that," Gimli said in a low voice. "I just--" He shook his head.
"Will you forgive me?"
"Of course." Gimli leaned over to give him a kiss on the nose and then draw back grinning. Legolas grabbed him and toppled over backwards, pulling Gimli with him, intending to cushion Gimli's fall with his own body. He got more than he planned on.
"Ai! I had forgotten that you wore mail!"
Gimli laughed. "We dwarves are armored against over-amorous elves."
"Saying nay would suffice," Legolas said in mock complaint.
Tilting his head Gimli studied him with serious regard. "I do not believe I shall."
"Then perhaps it is time to remove the armor? Before your amorous elf bruises his--ardor?"
Gimli sat up, straddling Legolas's body. His captive watched appreciatively as Gimli contorted his way out of the mail. Settling it aside his hands went to his padded under-tunic and hesitated. "The forest is watching us," he said, scanning the trees with worried eyes.
The forest was watching them, but in mild and idle curiosity, not malice. He wondered that Gimli could feel it. "They are trees, my dear Gimli. They care not for what we do." He laughed, "For those who watch squirrels in springtime we are dull creatures indeed."
"Still--" Gimli looked uncomfortable, uneasy and embarrassed by his unease.
"Avo tiro!" Legolas called to the trees and anything else who might hear. The sense of watchfulness diminished.
"What did you say?" Gimli asked after giving the forest a last thoughtful gaze.
Legolas smiled up at him. "I told them my companion was bashful and asked them to look away." He pulled Gimli down and breathed against his lips. "For I would have him all to myself."
It took eight days to cross Fangorn, sometimes riding, most often walking. Of the three only Arod was not sorry to see the end of the trees. Gimli had come to appreciate the beauty of the forest, as well as its solitude. Another two days of riding brought them to the border of Lothlorien. Half a mile within the border of trees Legolas halted Arod and dismounted. Gimli gave a questioning look.
"When entering another realm it is best to let them find you," Legolas said. Especially when bringing a dwarf into a land where so many had Doriathan kin, he did not add. Gimli had not been trusted by all even at the end of their previous stay in Lothlorien.
"But we are invited." Gimli slid off Arod's back unassisted, taking Legolas's hand only to steady his landing.
Legolas shrugged. "I do not know that all border guards are aware of the Lady's invitation. We will not have long to wait, I think. The times are troubled enough still that I am sure the borders are well watched."
"We will not be blindfolded again, will we?" Gimli asked with a trace of a growl.
A laugh sounded from a nearby tree. "Nay, my friend, for you are known here." Haldir swung down from the tree. "Welcome, Gimli Lock-Bearer. Welcome, Legolas son of Thranduil. The Lady sent word of your coming."
"And did she tell you to await us here?" Gimli asked, growl very much in evidence. He had not, it appeared, forgiven Haldir for their first meeting.
"Nay, for I have followed you from the trees' edge. You were watched for many leagues across the grass; few cross that plain and all who do are worthy of notice." Gimli growled again at these words for no reason Legolas could see. "Come now, there is a talan but a mile or two off where you may be comfortable this night. Tomorrow my brothers and I will guide you to Egladil." He turned and led the way deeper into the forest. His next words indicated that he heard Gimli grumbling about elves nesting in trees. "If you wish to sleep on the ground, Master Dwarf," he said courteously enough, "you may. It is safe now. Too many orcs have felt the points of our arrows these last months--those few who survive dare not venture into our woods."
Gimli stared him down. "That will not be necessary." He stalked forward, passing Haldir. The other elf turned to Legolas as if to ask if he had given offense. Legolas shrugged, having no explanation for Gimli's sudden bad temper.
They caught up with Gimli quickly, long legs overcoming dwarvish stamina. Legolas rested a hand on Gimli's shoulder and the dwarf's stiff, fast walk relaxed into a more normal gait. Legolas's hand migrated to the back of Gimli's neck, underneath that wealth of hair, and the dwarf actually smiled. Normally Gimli shunned public displays but his time he pulled Legolas down and kissed him, hard and demanding. "You are mine," he growled.
Gimli was not jealous of Haldir, was he? Legolas stared at him in confusion. "Gimli?" How was he supposed to react to this? "You have no cause to be jealous," he said finally, trying to keep both hurt and anger from his voice.
Gimli took a deep breath and let it out. "I know." His tone carried all the apology Legolas needed.
Gimli slept in the talan that night. Legolas pretended not to notice that Gimli placed himself between Legolas and Haldir. At least he was being polite to the other elf. Was this what Lady Galadriel meant when she said a dwarf newly married was no fit company? Jealousy--he had always heard that dwarves were jealous of their gold, their crafts, and their mates. If this was temporary he would just have to endure it. If it was permanent--he might still have to endure it.
Gimli was still sleeping, his hair tousled and straggling across his face. Legolas regretted the presence of Haldir and his brothers. He longed to kiss him awake and reassure him with hands and body--reassure them both--that his jealousy had no cause. He contented himself with pushing the strands of hair off his beloved's face. They needed baths and perhaps when they were done Gimli would let Legolas rebraid his hair. Of course bathing together was apt to be--he smiled to himself--distracting.
Haldir was awake and watching them. "You and he are--" The Lothlorien elf broke off, at a loss for a polite word in the Common Tongue.
"He is my hervenn," Legolas said proudly.
"I see." Legolas did not know what to make of his tone, whether disapproval or something else. The other elf looked at the sky. "We should move on. If you will wake your--wake Master Gimli, I will roust my brothers."
Haldir remained silent for most of the morning. As his brothers did not speak the Common Tongue, nor Gimli Sindarin, it made for an awkward walk. When they reached the Silverlode Haldir spoke for the first time since they left the talan.
"If you give your horse to Orophin he will take him to the mouth where the Silverlode joins the Great River. There the water is quiet enough that a ferry may take him across."
"My thanks, Orophin," Legolas said to that brother.
"You are the Lady's guest," he said in Sindarin. It was nearly the first Legolas had heard him speak in any language. His accent spoke very strongly of Lothlorien. He grinned suddenly. "Will he let me ride him?"
"I do not doubt it."
Legolas whispered words of reassurance to Arod while Gimli removed their packs. Leading Arod over to Orophin he laid his hand on the horse's neck and kept it there while Arod learned the strange elf's scent. Arod whuffed into Orophin's palm and the elf grinned again, making a slice of dried apple appear as if by magic. Arod accepted the bribe greedily.
Legolas laughed. "He will bear you, I think." And extract every last treat he could for the privilege.
Haldir smiled as he watched his brother ride off. "There is little place for horses in the Golden Wood. Orophin seldom gets the opportunity to ride. Thank you."
"It was Arod's choice."
Rumil had rigged ropes across the river while they had dealt with horse and packs. He and Haldir crossed first with the packs, while Legolas waited with Gimli, sneaking a few stray touchs while the brothers' backs were turned. He was not used to going a full day without his lover's touch. How did an elf like Lord Elrond live when his wife had gone over the sea without him? His elders told him that this ardor would diminish as he grew older and turned his mind to 'higher things,' but he could not imagine anything higher than loving Gimli.
Their turn to cross came too soon for Gimli's taste. Legolas watched as Gimli crossed with a slow but steady tread, and then untied the extra ropes. Legolas danced across the single rope, feeling the weight of Gimli's hungry gaze, unable to resist showing off for his lover. Gimli pulled him into another embrace when he stepped lightly off the other end, heedless of the watching eyes.
"Wait until I get you alone," Gimli growled for his ears only.
Haldir watched them with the same expression of...something...on his face, though it looked less like disapproval than it had. He led the way on into the forest without comment.
Haldir led them to the gates of Caras Galadon and thence to the heart of that green city. The Galadhrim had erected a pavilion beside the fountain there for them, like unto that given the Fellowship, only smaller.
"Our lord and lady have not yet returned," Haldir said once they were inside, "but the lady bade me to make you welcome. She and Lord Celeborn will return by the time of the autumn festival, if not before. She invites you to stay or leave as you will."
The autumn festival, held when once again the night overtook the day in length, was some three weeks away. Legolas opened his mouth to speak, but Gimli beat him to it.
"We will be honored to await the Lady's return," Gimli said with a bow.
Haldir returned his bow. "I will so inform the lady." He hesitated a moment. "If you so desire I will inform my compatriots of your wedded state, so there may be no--misunderstandings."
Legolas flushed, angered by the implication. Gimli gave Haldir a look that could have been amusement as easily as anger. "I thought elves could see another's 'wedded state' by the look in that one's eyes."
"We can--if we think to look." There was apology in those words. Perhaps Gimli had cause for his jealousy after all, some sign of remaining interest from the Lothlorien elf that Legolas had missed. He could remember--dimly, as if from a thousand years past--enjoying Haldir's interest and returning his attraction when the Fellowship came to the Wood. His burgeoning friendship with Gimli had prevented them from acting on that attraction, which was probably best for Haldir's continued good health.
Gimli chuckled. "Aye, you must look to see." He gave Haldir an almost friendly look. "If this city is like a dwarven manse you need but tell one person and gossip will speed the news to the rest."
Haldir echoed Gimli's chuckle. "Perhaps elves and dwarves are more similar than I thought. 'Gossip flies swifter than an arrow,' we say."
And cuts sometimes deeper, Legolas silently completed the saying. The camaraderie between the two was somehow irritating. Gimli's jealousy was not contagious, was it?
Gimli was wandering, seemingly at random, but Legolas was content merely to follow. The forest of Lothlorien was balm to a heart bruised on the stone city of Men and it mattered not where they went. He was surprised then when Gimli stopped. "This is where it all began," Gimli said.
They were in a small clearing, the ground scuffed to bare dirt, with branches and cut wood lying in piles. Of all the places in the Golden Wood this was the least lovely. Legolas laughed. "Will you tell me now why you were so aggrieved that you took your axe to wood?" Gimli's face, stained with tears, haunted his mind's eye.
"You are an elf." At first Legolas took that for yet another denial, but Gimli shook his head and continued. "You are an elf and I knew that I could not have you, that I must spend my life alone."
That indeed would be a cause for grief, untrue though it had proved to be. "You knew much," Legolas said with a smile. "And yet you have me. You shall never be alone, for I shall not leave you."
"As long as we both live," Gimli said solemnly, the words having a ritual sound to them.
Legolas took a step towards him. Gimli tilted his face up in anticipation of kiss or caress, yet Legolas had a debt owed from that long ago afternoon. Smiling down on his beloved he hooked a leg behind Gimli's ankles and pushed hard at the center of his chest. Gimli stumbled backwards and landed on his backside with an audible thump. Gimli glared up at him, but his outrage quickly turned to laughter.
"So you seek revenge, do you, Master Elf?" Without regaining his feet he dove for Legolas's ankles. Legolas dodged, but not quickly enough. He fell and Gimli scrambled to pin him, but he was able to roll to the side and get to his feet. Gimli stood as well, and they circled each other warily, seeking an opening in each other's defenses. Gimli was beautiful and dangerous and even more beautiful for the danger.
He feinted to the right, but Gimli anticipated him and blocked the real move to the other side. Gimli grinned at him, "Will you dance, my friend?" and rushed forward. Legolas stepped aside and they circled once again.
Legolas had the reach on Gimli, with longer arms and legs, but not the weight. If he wished to injure or kill he might land a blow, but to bring him low without injury--easier to fell the mountain. His only hope was to use the ground against Gimli. Feinting and retreating, he maneuvered Gimli until the dwarf stood with his back to an area of loose branches, and then attacked once more. Gimli stepped back, his heel landing on a round branch which rolled out from under foot. Legolas stepped forward as Gimli flailed his arms for balance, ready to give him the final push. Instead he was caught in Gimli's arms, suddenly no longer flailing, and borne to the ground as he fell on top of Gimli. Gimli quickly rolled him onto his back and straddled his chest, holding him captive.
"You will not catch a dwarf with a trick so obvious as that," Gimli told him with a sad shake of his head at the obtuseness of an elf. Much of Gimli's flailing had been act, Legolas realized, designed to bring him in reach of Gimli's shorter but more powerful arms.
He struggled again Gimli's weight, but could not throw him off. Gimli pinned his arms and waited through his attempts. "You have won," Legolas admitted at last. Gimli was sweaty and aglow with exertion, beautiful in the aftermath of battle. "You may name a forfeit if you wish," he added hopefully.
Gimli released his arms and made as if to rise. "There is no forfeit I would wish of you if you did not give it willingly."
Legolas stilled him with a hand on his thigh. "There is nothing you would ask that I would not give," he tried to explain. "This--what I offer is a game." A game he wished to play--and lose.
Gimli looked startled; his face grew abstracted as he thought of this, breathing through a half-open mouth, smelling Legolas, tasting of his desire. "You want this. You do not wish to give, you wish me to take," he hazarded. He sounded...intrigued.
Legolas smiled. "Yes." A flicker of movement in the trees reminded him that this place was not private. "But not here." He bucked to dislodge Gimli.
Gimli pinned his arms again and brought one captive hand to his lips, licking delicately at Legolas's fingertips. Legolas whimpered, giving himself to the sensation. Gimli had found his weakness, his hands, and exploited them without mercy. "Very well," he said with a final nip to the index finger. "Show me to a place where I may claim my...prize."
Gimli was sleeping the sleep of the mortal and well-sated. Legolas watched him breathe for a while before slipping from the pavilion into the cool night air. The year was winding down into autumn, the chill on the nighttime breeze presaging the winter to come. They had been in Lothlorien for half a month at least, though the days in the Golden Wood were difficult for even an elf to number.
"You are well, Legolas Thranduilion?"
He turned and bowed to Lady Galadriel, not overly surprised by her presence, though he had not heard of the lady's return. "We are well, my lady." She was still dressed for travel. "I hope you and your lord have had a pleasant journey since we parted."
She smiled. "Very pleasant, for we rode in easy stages. Many long years has it been since we friends have met together to take council, and none were eager to see its end." She sighed. "I fear we will all meet again soon enough. The time of the rings is past and so is that of the ring-bearers."
"Middle-earth will be a poorer place if all the great ones leave us." The cries of the gulls were too recent to miss her meaning.
She did not respond to that, there was little need, for she felt his own sea-longing and lacked his mortal ties.
"You will stay here," she said, without any question or doubt.
He closed his eyes. "I must." His fate had been sealed when he chose Gimli.
"Will you look into my mirror?" she asked. "For your future is dark to me and my sight much diminished by the passing of the ring."
Galadriel's mirror. Even in Mirkwood wondrous and terrible tales were told of its power, yet it would be discourteous to refuse. "I will look."
The lady led him to an enclosed gate and then down a long flight of steps to a deep hollow. A silver basin sat in the center in lonely splendor. She filled the basin with water from a pitcher and then breathed upon it. "Come. Look if you will."
Legolas hesitated, suddenly afraid of what he might see. What if it showed him Gimli's death? Or Aragorn's? Or his own? Yet how could he not look? Stepping forward he bowed his head over the water.
At first the mirror was dark, then a glimmer of light appeared, a lantern set in a cave, the walls of which reflected the light back as a thousand tiny stars. His own hand, raised to caress a dwarven cheek, the cheek grown old, framed by silver hair and beard. Gimli, standing at the prow of a trim gray ship, face alight with wonder. Himself, clutching a weeping child to his side, threatening an unknown dwarf with drawn blade. Galadriel, watching him with pity in her eyes. Frodo, laughing, embracing a Sam grown both old and young. A dwarf, who was both Gimli and not, kneeling at his side, and then darkness once again.
"What did the mirror show you?" Galadriel asked when he stepped back from the basin.
He dropped to the ground, weary out of all measure, and hid his face against his knees while he tried to make sense of the images. Only one came clear. At last he raised his head. "What I saw cannot be," he told Galadriel dully.
"That which the mirror shows may not come to pass," she admitted. "Yet seldom does it show the impossible."
"I saw Gimli on a ship. A gray ship." The mirror was cruel, cruel as an orc blade, to hold out hope where no hope could be.
"And this you think cannot be," she said, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. After a few moments she looked at him again, searching his every thought. "And what if it could? Would you bring a dwarf to the ancient home of the elves? Would a dwarf leave Middle-Earth and all his kin to come? Would he be happy there?"
Gimli. Gimli, who spoke with such enthusiasm of leading his people to Aglarond and rebuilding the gates of Minas Tirith. Gimli, who lived in the here and now, who heard nothing in the cry of the gulls but an odd and annoying bird.
"I do not know." He shook his head. "No, I know that I would take him if he were willing, but I do not think he would go."
Galadriel laid a hand on his head. "You wrong him, I think. He would go if you asked him."
"Aye, for he knows I feel the sea-longing yet will not go without him." This then was the curse of Galadriel's Mirror of which his people spoke, to bring knowledge that only caused greater pain. "I cannot ask this of him."
Galadriel lifted her hand. "You speak the truth, but not perhaps all the truth. The words you must add are 'not yet.'"
The Galadhrim ferried them across the Great River, and if some gave less than friendly stares to an elf in union with a dwarf Legolas pretended not to see. Lady Galadriel had smiled upon them, and that, perhaps, was enough. They had said their farewells on the other bank, so there was little cause for the ferry to linger after horse and travelers had disembarked. This land did not invite one to stay without need.
The ground was late a battle-plain, and a few months had done little to cleanse the land. It was too open, the remains of great trees, felled by the orcs' malice, lay in useless piles. The ground was trampled into mud and ruts, with pieces of armor, weapons, even old bones peeking through the mud. Most of the bones showed the signs of gnawing by fell scavengers. Night would bring the scavengers back.
"A dreary place," Gimli said, echoing Legolas's thoughts.
"Indeed. The sooner we leave this open plain for the trees the safer I shall feel." They were exposed, easily seen by any eyes.
Gimli stared at him and then looked at the darkened forest. "You want to go in there?" His tone made it clear that Legolas had taken leave of his senses.
"There are safe paths within the forest even this far south," Legolas explained. He had trod those paths himself for many years, leading spying parties against Dol Guldur. "The river's edge is not safe, for the distance between woods and water is never great. Too many things may hide in the forest's eaves and attack us unawares."
"Ah." Gimli gave a resigned sigh. "I have never cared greatly for traveling your forest even by the Forest Road. You have taught me to see the beauty of Fangorn, and even a fool will admire Lothlorien, but can even you find beauty in that?" He jerked his head towards the forest.
Legolas loaded their bags on Arod while he thought how to explain Mirkwood to a dwarf, even such a dwarf as Gimli. "It is perilous," he admitted, leading horse and companion towards the trees. "Yet I love it as I cannot love a safer forest." They passed into the forest's shadow and he stopped to let their eyes adjust to the light. "She challenges me, she keeps me on my mettle, for anything less than my best can spell death here." He turned back to look at Gimli, praying to the Valar that he could explain one great love to the other. "I am most myself here. Mirkwood, you call her, and even we use that name now, but once she was Greenwood the Great, and I have always been one green leaf."
Gimli looked down at his axe, fingering the edge, and then looked up again. "I cannot blame this one on the squirrels stealing your wits, for I knew this feeling in Khazad-dum."
Mirkwood was not so dark as Moria, Legolas wanted to protest, for the horror of those halls haunted him no less than the orc tunnels in the Misty Mountains that he helped scour after the Battle of Five Armies. Yet to a dwarf, orcs underground might seem no worse than spiders in the trees.
He started forward again. "Aye, much like that, I suspect. But never believe that there is not beauty here as well! High in the air live little plants in the crooks of trees, that bloom like no other. Clearings surround fallen giants, glowing emerald green with new growth. Butterflies float in the sunlight above even the darkest of trees. Like a candle in a dark room the forest's beauty shines the brighter." He looked about himself at the trees, choked with vines, struggling against each other for light and soil. Unhealthy patches of mold shone white against the trees, engendered by the damp and lifeless air. He gave a sad laugh. "So near Dol Guldur there is little such beauty to see. Perhaps now that Sauron is destroyed we can cleanse his taint from the forest and she can be Greenwood the Great once more."
A glimmer of spider silk in the trees caught Legolas's eye, the third such he had spotted in as many minutes. Should he warn Gimli that there might be spiders about? His companion was tense almost to the breaking point in the unfamiliar surroundings, clumsy with tension. Would a known danger ease his mind or add to his distress? Yet he could not let Gimli walk into a potential battle unaware.
"Gimli," he said softly, so as not to startle or warn their foes. "Do you see that scrap of white there?" he asked, pointing to the silk.
"I cannot see my own hand in front of my face, elf," Gimli growled with something like real anger.
Legolas blinked. The light was dim, but not so dark as that--to elvish eyes. "Ai! I did not think!" He knew that dwarven eyes were not so keen as his own, but he had not realized that Gimli was walking blind. "I am sorry, Gimli, I will make a light."
"No!" Legolas gazed at Gimli in surprise. "I know these woods enough to know that a light will draw eyes, few of them friendly," the dwarf explained.
That was true, yet he could not let Gimli continue to stumble in the dark. "I am loath to mention this, but a light will bring little more danger than the noise you make as you walk without sight," he admitted. He winced at the stricken expression on Gimli's face. "Your pardon, for I know you are woods-wise when you can see." He watched pride and sense battle across Gimli's face, and wondered whether Gimli realized he could see it so clearly. "Arod will be better for the light as well," he added when it seemed sense had won. Gimli chuckled.
"You need not salve my pride, Master Elf."
Legolas called the light, bringing it gradually brighter until Gimli signaled enough.
"I knew not that you had such ability," Gimli said, wide eyes reflecting Legolas's light back to him. "I have never seen you perform magic."
"I do not know what you call magic," Legolas said, surprised that such a simple things would cause such wonder. "I have not the power of Lord Elrond or Lord Glorfindel, but this little I can do." Any elf could do the same or better.
Gimli simply shook his head, smiling. "Now. There was something you wished to show me?"
Legolas increased the light just a little and then pointed to the silk. "Spider sign. They should not be so near this trail. Its protections must be wearing thin."
"Spiders. Pah!" Gimli shook his head. "My father ran afoul of your spiders once." His disgust nearly equaled Legolas's own.
Legolas nodded. "A small colony, by Master Bilbo's account." He met Gimli's amazed stare. "Aye, they come much larger than that. This close to Sauron's former abode I fear they may be numerous indeed."
"You do not comfort me."
Legolas shrugged. "This part of the forest is not made for comfort."
Gimli sighed. "Sooner begun, sooner done, as Samwise might say. Shall we go on? Cautiously."
Legolas let the light dim to its former level and led the way. Gimli was much quieter now, though no dwarf would ever equal elf or hobbit, as well as much less tense.
The spider sign became more and more common until it adorned nearly ever tree. A pool of darkness, black even to elvish eyes, spilled across the path ahead. Legolas stopped and strung the great bow of the Galadhrim, Galadriel's gift. Gimli gripped his axe in both hands, holding it at the ready. "The spiders' lair lies across the path," Legolas told Gimli quietly. "We dare not leave the path to circle around them."
"So we go through them." Gimli sounded neither eager nor reluctant.
Legolas nodded. "We must creep as close as we can without notice. When they spot us I shall make as bright a light as I can manage and we will fight our way through."
Gimli nodded. "Keep behind me." He held up a hand before Legolas could protest. "You can do more with that bow of yours than knives. I will keep the creatures from mobbing you as you fire."
"Your tactics are sound, Master Dwarf," he was forced to admit, little as the thought of killing the foul creatures only from afar pleased him. Pulling Arod's head down, he whispered words of reassurance into the horse's ear, warning him of the battle to come, and then turned back to Gimli. "Let us go."
They had nearly reached the net of web encircling the lair before they were spotted. Legolas had already put arrow to string and shot fast and sure, but not before the spider could raise the alarm. He called the light, letting it flare across the clearing. Dozens of the creatures roused from their obscene slumbers and swarmed down thick silk cables to the attack. He drew and fired, drew and fired, each arrow spelling the death of one, but the swarm kept coming. With a dwarvish cry, Gimli drove his axe into and through the first spider.
An equine bellow from behind drew Legolas's attention away from the fore to find a spider dropping from a tree behind them. Before he could fire, Arod reared and smashed his steel-shod hooves into the spider's body. The spider dropped with an audible pulp; Arod reared and crashed down again and the spider lay still. Legolas returned his gaze to the front, confident that their rear was guarded.
Almost all his arrows were gone and the ground in front of Gimli was littered with cloven bodies before the few remaining spiders gave up and scuttled to safety. He shot his last arrows after them, but some half-dozen escaped. He cursed and then turned to check Arod for wounds.
The horse was unharmed, though the spiders' black blood coated his forelegs almost to the knee. Three or four spiders lay before him, too trampled for accurate tally. Legolas turned back to Gimli. "You are unhurt?" he asked, surprised at how calm he sounded.
"Yes. I must collect my arrows."
He kept the light at its brightest as he collected his arrows from the spiders they had slain, watching each for the slightest sign of life. One twitched and he drew his blade and stabbed it through the body. His mother died thus, poisoned by a spider she had thought she had slain. He had seen it bite her, but could not draw the poison in time. He stabbed again, slashing the blade across its body. She died, but not quickly. Three days she had lain delirious, before dying on the fourth. He stabbed again and again, trying to blot out the memory of her feverish tossing.
A hand was laid on his shoulder. "Legolas, meldon--" He looked up at Gimli. "It is dead, beloved," Gimli said gently. Legolas looked back at the spider's body, scarcely more recognizable than Arod's trampled victims.
Gimli took the blade from his unresisting hand and wiped it clean on the leaves carpeting the forest floor before sliding it into its sheath. Legolas kept staring at the spider's mutilated remains until Gimli tugged him to his feet. "Wait by Arod. I will collect your arrows."
"Sometimes--sometimes they sham death."
Gimli raised his axe, still dark with blood. "Not with an axe through their middles," he promised. "I will be careful."
Legolas went to Arod's side and leaned his head against the horse's shoulder. Arod seemed little affected by the battle, not even by his own part in it. Arod brushed his head against Legolas's side, lipping at his tunic. Horses had no imagination and little memory. They feared what had hurt them in the past, but they did not relive it. Horses lived in the now. Legolas found that he was shaking, fingers twined in Arod's mane, when Gimli returned with his arrows.
Gimli wrapped his arm around Legolas's shoulder and led him across the lair to where the path exited on the far side. "Come. Let us leave this place."
They walked a mile, maybe two, before Gimli stopped under a rock overhang near a stream. "Is this safe?" he asked.
Ward marks were graven into the rock face. Legolas nodded.
Gimli led Legolas into the shelter of the overhang and guided him to a seat. Pulling out a water bottle, filled that morning from the fountain at Caras Galadon, he wet a cloth and wiped Legolas's face clean, as gentle as if bathing a child. Moving to Legolas's hands, he paid attention to each individual finger, making sure each was clean. He asked nothing.
"My mother," Legolas said at last, when Gimli had started on his second hand. "It poisoned her--we thought it dead."
Gimli finished the hand but did not let it go. "My father was bitten by one. It made him sick and weak, but he recovered."
"They have two poisons: one to paralyze their prey and one to kill." It was easier to speak now; Gimli's care had cleansed more than the blood from his hands.
"Your light is fading," Gimli said. "I cannot tell in this place if night is near, but you need to rest and eat and sleep."
"Is it safe to build a fire?"
Legolas nodded, suddenly too tired to keep his head up.
"And the stream?"
He nodded again.
When he woke it was true night. His head lay pillowed against Gimli's shoulder. A few feet away a small fire burned in a ring of stones. Gimli must have felt him stir, for he looked down at Legolas with worried eyes. Legolas smiled at the concern and the love that drove it. "Thank you."
Gimli smiled. "You seemed in no state to set up camp."
"No." The shock was gone, but the residual grief remained. Killing all the spiders in Mirkwood, worthy as that goal might be, would not bring his mother back from the halls of Mandos. He sat up but did not pull away from Gimli.
Gimli had set up a tidy camp. Beside the fire lay a small pile of wood, sufficient, with care, to see them through the night. A cooking pot sat near the fire to keep it warm. A square of canvas on the ground near Arod still showed a few stray kernels, proof that he had been given a measure of grain to make up for the scant forage in the deep forest. Even the spider gore had been washed from Arod's legs. Legolas would like to have seen the negotiations that led to that: dwarf and horse had an uneasy relationship, united only by their love for him.
"You should eat," Gimli said. Legolas smiled and took the bowl of stew Gimli prepared for him. Gimli watched him as he ate, seeming pleased with his appetite. He waited until Legolas had finished eating and then spoke. "If--I do not want to distress you, but if you wish to speak of your mother I would hear of her."
"There is little to tell. She and I and some half-dozen companions encountered a lair of spiders," Legolas explained. "We slew the creatures, but one feigned death. When my mother went to retrieve her arrow it rose and bit her."
Such scanty explanation did not content Gimli. "When was this?"
"About five hundred years ago." It was a curious thing--he had never spoken of this, for all in Mirkwood knew the tale.
"What was she like?"
It was hard to push back to the years before her death. "She was a Silvan elf. She loved my father, yet she was little enamored of being queen." He laughed suddenly, remembering his father's exasperation. "She would rather hunt or scout for orcs than attend my lord's court. Once my lord planned a grand feast to honor a visit by Lord Elrond. She arrived two hours late, muddy and torn from the brush, having tracked a lone warg for a league or more before she could safely ambush it. My lord was wroth, but Lord Elrond praised her skill, and his sons rode out with her the next day to see if any others were about." Legolas shook his head, no longer amused. "For many years when I have done aught to displease my father he says there is too much of my mother in me."
Gimli smiled. "If there is too much of her in you then I regret that I could not meet her, for she must have been nearly as fine a person as her son."
Legolas laughed. "Truly Lady Galadriel is right that you possess a golden tongue!" Gimli too chuckled. "But come, what then of your own mother? For I have met your father." Gloin had been little pleased with any elf at Elrond's council, save the master of Rivendell himself. Legolas dreaded his reaction when he learned of his son's relationship with an elf.
Gimli sighed. "She died, a year ago--no, two." He looked at the ground by his feet. "Her death was not as noble as your mother's--old age defeated her in the end. She was over a hundred when she married my father and bore his son, and that was more than a few years ago."
"I am sorry." He knew that Gimli was mortal, there was no escape from that, yet if Gimli could die in a mere hundred years.... He did not want to think of it. "Will you tell me of her?"
"Aye," Gimli said, "though I do not know what I can tell, for to me she was just...my mother." He thought for a moment. "She taught me axes, the making of them and the wielding, for Gloin my father has little interest in weapons work. She called it madness, Thorin's quest to return to Erebor and Balin's to return to Khazad-dum, and forbade me to join either." He sighed, perhaps remembering Moria. "She was right, even about Thorin's quest--good luck, not skill, saw its success. My father and his companions were no warriors."
Indeed not, from tales Legolas had heard in his father's hall. "She sounds a most practical lady."
The next day saw them traveling through forest light enough that Gimli could see without help, if not well. A further two weeks of walking and riding brought them to more familiar territory. Faint calls like birdsong announced the unseen presence of sentries. Legolas answered with calls of his own, identifying himself and his companion as friend.
"I would expect to have been challenged before now," Gimli said as they crossed the river-bridge to the cavern's gate.
Legolas laughed, though ill at ease. "We have been. They know my name and yours, where we are coming from and where we are going." The only thing he had not told was Gimli's relationship to himself. That must be told to the king--to his father--first, and he did not know if king or father would take it worse.
Galion, his father's steward, met them at the entrance to the caverns and proved Legolas's words. "Welcome, Legolas. Welcome, Gimli son of Gloin." He gave them a shallow bow and then waved a servant forward to lead Arod to the stables. "The king awaits you in the great hall," he said, turning to lead the way. "Unless you wish to wash away the dust of the road first?"
His father would be pleased if he came before the court in finer clothing than that in which he traveled, but the delay would only give time for Galion to ask awkward questions. "We are well as we are," he answered.
His father's hall seemed smaller than once it had. He had seen the throne room of the king of Gondor and Moria's somber immensity, and this, though beautiful, did not compare to the grandeur of either.
Thranduil came down from his throne to greet them before they had crossed half the room. "Legolas, my son, welcome home!" he cried, keeping to the Common Tongue for Gimli's sake. "Glad I am to see you safe." He folded Legolas into an embrace that Legolas returned with a will, wondering if it would be the last. He did not doubt his father's love, but this would strain the king's notorious pride.
"Thank you, father," he said as Thranduil at last released him. He turned Thranduil's attention to Gimli. "My I present Gimli son of Gloin, my good companion for these many months, and my beloved."
Thranduil blinked once before the mask of a king hid his thoughts. Legolas's voice had been pitched to carry and a hush fell over the court as they waited to see how their king would react.
The king gave Gimli a regal nod. "Welcome, Gimli son of Gloin. My son's friend is ever welcome in these halls." He hesitated only twice in this speech, once before Gimli's father's name and once before 'friend.' The cause of the second was all too obvious, but Legolas wondered at the first. Had he remembered that Gloin had once been his prisoner?
Gimli bowed. "I thank you for that welcome, my lord king."
They managed to escape the court with little more conversation, none of it of any consequence. The real conversations would take place in private. Galion led the way to Legolas's chamber as if the steward thought Legolas might have forgotten the way after barely a year. In truth he wished to pry into their sensational news, but Legolas discouraged any openings. That which was told to Galion was told to all within a day, though seldom without embellishment.
Arriving at his room, Legolas ushered Gimli in and firmly closed the door behind them, shutting Galion out in the passageway. Their bags, his and Gimli's both, had been brought from the stable. Legolas's mouth twitched as he wondered who had run ahead to bring Gimli's gear to Legolas's room, and where the dwarf had originally been housed.
Legolas hung bow and blades on the weapons rack near the door and then collapsed across the bed, staring up at the white-draped ceiling. His father had been polite, all distant courtesy to Gimli, but it was impossible to judge his private feelings from his public face. Sooner or later he would summon Legolas to private speech. Sooner, Legolas judged, through the timing might say something of the king's mood if he could only interpret it.
Still, that summons would come when his father willed it. Legolas rolled over to watch Gimli, who was prowling about the room like a cat released into a new home for the first time. Gimli's axe was leaning against the wall beneath the weapons rack. He would have to build a new one, with space for both of them. The idea pleased, two warriors' weapons mingled as their lives would be, and he smiled. Gimli stopped his exploring to look at him.
"And what might you be smiling at, Master Legolas?"
"I shall need a rack for your armor as well as space for both our weapons," he realized.
Gimli came to the bedside. "Aye, we cannot have my armor just lying about the floor, though it is true that it does not wrinkle." His mouth was solemn but his eyes were not. After pulling his mail shirt over his head and placing it neatly on a chair, he sat on the edge of the bed.
"It does not wrinkle," Legolas admitted, "yet my own tunic will not rust."
"Rust!" Gimli recoiled. "Rust indeed! If you can find so much as a spot of rust on any of my gear I shall gladly eat it!"
Legolas pulled on Gimli's under-tunic, toppling him to lie beside him. He leaned over Gimli and--
--and cursed at a knock on the door.
Gimli sighed and then laughed. "Your father?"
"Desires speech of me, I have no doubt."
Thranduil was waiting for him in the king's private sitting room, which was better than might have been expected. His study would have been worse, his private audience chamber dire. Here Legolas faced his father, not his king.
"So when did this begin?" Thranduil asked after Legolas had made his bow and sat at his father's invitation. "Is the dwarf perhaps the reason you chose Elrond's quest over your duty to your king and our people?"
He had too much experience of his father's probing to let it rattle him. "When first we left Rivendell we disliked each other most exceedingly," Legolas said without heat. "Only in Lothlorien did we become friends."
"So I may blame Galadriel and Celeborn for this deed."
"You need blame only me," Legolas responded. "Or perhaps yourself, for raising a son clear-eyed enough to see a companion's worth despite his race."
A small smile almost broke past Thranduil's calm demeanor. Legolas relaxed, but only slightly, for the game was not half played.
"So you became friends with the dwarf in Lothlorien, and in the face of war you married him," Thranduil said almost musingly. He lifted a brow. "I am surprised you did not tell me of this when you wrote to me before the Elfstone's wedding."
Hiding a wince, Legolas awarded a point to his father. "We did not wed until after we left Gondor this autumn, long after the war was over. There was no messenger that would reach you before we ourselves."
"You waited so long, yet you could not wait another month to consult your own father?"
Another wince, another point. "Dwarves--dwarves love but once, slowly coming to full maturity only after meeting that one." That was more than he had ever wished to tell his father about dwarves, more perhaps than his father ever wished to learn. "Of my will I would not have waited so long, save that Gimli--" He felt his face grow hot. "In--in Rohan--"
Thranduil held up a hand. "You need not say more." After considering Legolas for a long moment, his lips twitched. "I remember my own 'coming to full maturity' and yours. If your dwarf endured this in the midst of battle and war, he has my sincerest sympathy."
Legolas's own lips twitched. "By your leave I will not convey such sympathy to him. I do not think he would appreciate it."
Thranduil chuckled and the contest was over. "So. What is done, is done, and naught will change it. What will you do now? When I knew him only as your battle-companion I had thought to honor him--and you--at a feast this night and send him on his way in the morning."
Legolas considered the matter, for he and Gimli had not spoken of it. "Gloin his father knows no more of this than you did. I would not delay too much longer in telling him."
"Indeed not." Thranduil chuckled again. "Perhaps I should write a letter for you to give him." Legolas froze in sudden worry at the mischief in his tone. Thranduil stared at the far wall for a moment and then spoke as king. "We shall feast tonight. Rest tomorrow and then take a boat the following morning."
The feast was...predictable. As honored guest Gimli sat at the king's right hand, with Legolas as honored son at the king's left, giving them no chance to speak privately. Gimli comported himself well, speaking to the king of their travels and the new king in Gondor, and asking knowledgeable questions of the wood-elves' battles near Dol Guldur against Sauron's forces. The king in turn praised the dwarves in Erebor for their battles against the northern orcs. Smiles and compliments reigned all around, making the king's favor to his strange son-in-law clear for all his subjects to see.
Legolas resolutely turned his attention away from Gimli and the king and toward the lady on his left. Cenire, one of his father's advisors, was primarily responsible for the warding of the paths and safe camps throughout Mirkwood and so must be told of their encounter with the spiders. "I have a matter to report to you regarding the southern paths," he said. "When might I find you tomorrow to discuss it?"
"Any time in the morning will suit me." She sighed. "If you report that the protections have faded in the far south you will not surprise me, nor indeed tell me anything that I do not already know. After you left last autumn the evil resident in Dol Guldur began working more openly than ever before. It became too perilous to re-lay the wards in the south, and we are still repairing the damage done then."
Legolas considered Cenire thoughtfully. She was no warrior, but she was skilled in her craft and valiant in its execution. For her to abandon the southern paths, the danger must have been dire indeed. "I had not realized that your situation here had deteriorated so quickly," he admitted, feeling a twinge of guilt over his absence as he had not felt when his father had challenged him earlier.
"It was a difficult winter," she said. "Oh, not the weather," she waved that aside with one hand. "But orcs and wargs, and even spiders that should have been slowed by the cold and yet were not."
"Gimli and I encountered a spiders' lair built across the path itself." He described the path and she nodded. "We destroyed most of them."
She eyed Gimli past Legolas's shoulder. "Your companion is brave and skilled in battle from all accounts." She looked at Legolas and smiled, raising a brow. "And surprisingly well-formed for one of the Naugrim."
She meant the words as compliment, a pretty flattery, even, but Legolas had to work to keep a grimace off his face. He found that he did not like the word Naugrim, 'the stunted ones,' nor the implication that all else of Gimli's race were less than well-formed.
Something of his thoughts must have shown on his face. "Have I said something to distress you?"
"No," he said. "Yes," he immediately contradicted himself. They had been speaking the Common Tongue: he switched to Sindarin so that Gimli might not overhear. "Gimli and his people are neither stunted nor malformed!"
She laughed, not cruelly, but in genuine amusement, and followed his switch in language. "Your love cannot give him an extra foot of height, Legolas. As for the other, I said he was well-formed. Do not expect me to say more or to see him with a lover's eyes as you do."
She was older than he and trained in the ways of power, while he held status only as a warrior and his father's son. Clenching his fists together under the table, he struggled to contain his anger. She meant no insult. A year before he would have considered her words almost charity towards the dwarves.
"Come," she said, returning to the Common Tongue. "Tell me of the new king of Gondor."
As honorees of the feast they could not attempt to escape too early, but their travels let them plead fatigue and leave only a short while after midnight. The rest of the party seemed likely to keep dancing until dawn. Legolas and Gimli's withdrawal went virtually unnoticed.
"I think our arrival was merely an excuse," Gimli said as soon as they had left the feasting hall and were out of earshot of the revelers.
"I do not doubt it. Autumn--autumn is a season of much work and more merriment," Legolas said. "The fruit is ripe, the deer are fat, and winter is only a few months away. Larders must be filled, but so too may bellies." Spirits too must be bolstered for the coming dark of winter and the fell creatures that haunted the long nights.
Gimli nodded and walked on thoughtfully for a dozen steps before giving Legolas a side-long look. "I thought you usually feasted out of doors."
"Sometimes." The issue had some significance to Gimli beyond idle curiosity, he thought. His stomach clenched as he realized where Gimli would have heard of such a feast. "When the weather is fair we often gather in the open air," he said as if he had not attached any importance to the matter. "Of course the first day of autumn is always marked by a hunt and a feast under the trees, without regard to the weather, but that day is some weeks behind us." Eighty years ago the feast had been marked by the intrusion of thirteen dwarves into the feasting ring. He and Gimli had never discussed the incident since becoming friends. "But tonight's feast has no such tradition."
Gimli was not yet ready to discuss the matter either, it appeared. "I for one am glad to eat under a roof and sit in a proper chair--if one rather too tall--after our weeks of travel."
They had arrived at Legolas's room as they talked. "I noticed that you do not complain of the size of the bed," he teased, ushering Gimli inside. When he had returned from his conference with Thranduil that afternoon he had found Gimli sprawled across the bed in sleep, occupying more space than seemed possible for one dwarf-sized body.
"The bed was not too large," Gimli admitted, "nor too soft. But it was much too lonely!"
"I--have made the same complaint, though I did not know it was you for whom I waited to bear me company." His life had been empty and he had not known it. Someday--Eru grant not soon!--he would be alone again, knowing his affliction.
Legolas awoke the next morning with his fingers tangled in Gimli's beard, one of Gimli's legs still resting over his. Last night Gimli had not let him brood on his coming loss for long, instead pinning Legolas to the bed and letting him struggle against Gimli's greater weight until they were both roused to a fever-pitch.
Legolas had expected Gimli to bring his dwarven reserve into bed with him, that their first forays into love-making would be as slow and cautious as the months leading up to it. Instead he pursued their mutual pleasure with the energy and verve that he brought to war. Dwarves did not speak of sex or love-making, it was true, but that merely left Gimli with no rules for what should--or should not--be done. To imagine a thing was to try it, and while not all assays were successful, enough were to satisfy the hungriest of lovers.
Gimli groaned and stirred, but Legolas continued to watch him silently, letting him waken at his own speed. In only a short while Gimli opened his eyes and chuckled. "And what might you be looking at, Master Elf?"
Legolas gave the question more consideration than it deserved. "I think," he said at last, "that I look upon the greatest good fortune to befall me in a thousand years."
"A mere thousand years?" Gimli asked. "I believe I am hurt! What greater blessing than the son of Gloin could have come your way so recently as that?"
Legolas fought to keep a smile off his face. "A little less than a thousand years ago my lord and his lady came together and engendered a son. I do not call life greater than your love, but it was, I think, necessary in order for us to meet." Gimli gave him an odd look, but Legolas could not tell if he was surprised that Legolas was so old, or surprised that he was so young. "What shall we do this day?" Legolas asked, forstalling any discussion of their relative ages. "My father has suggested we rest and travel on tomorrow."
"Rest." Legolas felt Gimli's chuckle more through their intertwined limbs than heard it. "No doubt he expected us to be some the worse for wear after last night's feast."
"He and most of the court will be," Legolas agreed. "The dancing and drinking will have continued until the sun's rising. I doubt we will be interrupted this morning."
A small boat, longer but narrower than the boats of the Galadhrim, awaited them the next morning in a cavern opening onto the Forest River. Arod was to remain behind on this last stage of their journey, for marshy ground made the eastern end of the Forest Road nearly impassable save at the height of summer. Legolas had already said his farewells to the horse in the stable, and now he and Gimli needed only take their leave of Thranduil at the water-landing. The king had not yet arrived, so they waited.
Gimli was eyeing the boats askance. "I thought the boats of the Galadhrim mere cockleshells," he said thoughtfully. "This makes those look live the very galleys of the Corsairs!"
"The Great River is more easily navigated than our forest streams," Legolas explained. "Our craft must travel narrow passages and shallow water that the boats of Lorien would have to portage around. This will carry us up the River Running to the doors of Dale itself!"
Gimli snorted, perhaps in amusement. "Well, it is a more comfortable voyage than my father had at any road!"
Legolas winced, and winced again when he saw his father appear in the passageway behind Gimli. Bowing to his father, Legolas wondered if he had heard. Gimli turned and made his own bow. The king returned it with a nod.
"Perhaps you could inform your father that invited guests fare better in my realm," the king suggested without apparent heat. Gimli forbore to answer. Thranduil smiled. "You and your kin are of course welcome in my halls at any time." Looking at Legolas, he added, "I hope to see my son in these halls at least once before winter closes in upon us."
Legolas bowed acquiescence to his king, and then accepted his father's embrace. "I will return before the coming of the next full moon," he promised. "We must discuss those who will travel to Gondor and Ithilien with us." Thranduil nodded.
"Gimli son of Gloin," Thranduil intoned with all the majesty of the king of the largest realm of elves east of the Sundering Sea.
Gimli raised his chin. "My lord."
Thranduil gave him an appraising look and then smiled. "You will do." He bowed and straightened. "Be you well, beloved of my son. I look forward to your return when next you pass this way."
Thranduil stood at the water-landing while they entered the boat, and remained there until they passed out of sight, a signal honor. Legolas paddled silently until they slipped through the water-gate into the open air.
"I do not defend my father's decision of eighty years before," he said at last, knowing they must speak of the matter before it festered. "But neither do I condemn it. I was not here when your father and his companions--arrived. I was south with Gandalf at Dol Guldur, as were many responsible for the defense of our realm."
The boat surged at Gimli bent his back into the paddling. From the rear Legolas could not see his face, but the set of his shoulders was eloquent of his anger. Legolas paddled on the opposite side to correct their course, but resisted the urge to excuse himself or his father. After a dozen strokes Gimli's pace slackened.
"When my father arrived in your father's halls he was tired and hungry, ill with the spider's poison, and lost," he said without turning around or stopping paddling.
"Yes," Legolas acknowledged.
Gimli continued to paddle in silence for several minutes as his shoulders lost their angry set. Finally he shipped his paddle and turned back in his seat. "Bilbo had the Ring, though even he knew not what he possessed. I wonder if--if even then the Ring was influencing events."
Legolas absently fended them off a snag protruding into the river. "It is tempting to dismiss all ill-behavior as the result of the Ring's presence, yet there have been...misunderstandings...between our two races ere the Ring was forged. Aye, before even Sauron turned to evil."
"The Ring does not act when there is naught to act upon," Gimli agreed. "But the Men of the Long-Lake were seduced by greed as much as elves and dwarves, and even the orcs left their mountain fastness and attacked in open battle, as they seldom do unless driven by their master."
Legolas had not considered the orcs. Men he could believe to covet dragon-gold, but orcs cared only for meat and carrion. They were cowards, save when they outnumbered their foe or the whips of Sauron drove them.
While he was still pondering this, Gimli continued, "Gandalf told us in Gondor that he instigated the quest to reclaim Erebor to stabilize the North. How better for the Enemy's purpose than to foster war between the three great races?"
"Why then would the Ring call orcs and wargs to defeat that purpose?" Legolas protested.
Gimli shrugged. "The Ring is--" He gave a satisfied, even smug grin, "--was an instrument of malice, not intelligence. It could foster discord and draw evil creatures to itself, but it could not plan or think."
"Your argument seems reasonable," Legolas said, "but I so want to believe it that I do not know if I dare think it true." He sighed, realizing that he might have deceived Gimli, knowing the deception could not stand. "I was there, Gimli. I told you that I was away south when my father imprisoned yours, but I returned north when Gandalf did and joined my father on the field before Erebor. If things had fallen out differently I might have killed dwarves that day!"
"Or been killed," Gimli corrected grimly.
"Aye." Legolas fended them off another snag, steering them more firmly to the center of the channel, and then locked gazes with Gimli. "To die that day would have been the kinder fate, for I do not know, with our two races warring in the north, that Sauron might not have gained the victory."
Gimli laughed uneasily. "You overestimate your role in our quest and mine."
"And if a fair-seeming envoy of the Enemy had come to your king and offered aid in war in return for information on 'the least of rings'?" Legolas asked gently, not wanting the question to seem an accusation. "What then?" Gimli grimaced. "If orcs from the north had been free to attack Gondor with the rest of Mordor's armies, the White City might have fallen before Aragorn brought reinforcements from the south. With none left to lay siege to the Black Gates, Sauron's eye would have been free to notice two little hobbits that fatal bit sooner."
"The past that might have been is even harder to espy than the future that might be," Gimli said with a hint of growl. "You fought only orcs and wargs that day, there was no war between your people and mine, and the Ring--and Sauron--are destroyed. That is all that matters!"
Legolas wished he were sitting closer to Gimli. Surely if he were touching Gimli he could understand this inexplicable anger.
Gimli suddenly looked shame-faced. "My apologies," he said, picking up his paddle again. "I--I have little love of getting lost in might-have-beens."
An elderly dwarf, white-haired but still sturdy and hale, waited to meet them when they alit at the river's edge in the town of Dale. The Mannish town looked much as it had many years ago when Legolas had visited before Smaug had come. Gimli gripped the other dwarf's forearms for a moment and then let himself be drawn into a fierce embrace. Seeing their two faces so close Legolas could not doubt the relationship and felt a spurt of envy: not for Gimli the formal audience in the Elven-king's great hall.
Gloin--for so it must be--relaxed his embrace and pushed Gimli back so he could see his face. "Welcome home, my son! We have heard many--" He broke off for no reason Legolas could see, searching his son's face with surprise and dawning wonder. "Well." Gloin drew his son back to him for a brief hug before releasing him and turning to stand before Legolas. "Well," he repeated. He surveyed Legolas for a long moment before holding out his arms. "I suppose I should welcome my other son." His voice was tentative but held true welcome.
Legolas knelt and gripped his outstretched arms, but Gloin was not content with such a formal greeting, pulling him into a gingerly hug instead. "I am grateful for your welcome, Master Gloin," he said when the elderly dwarf released him.
"Father," Gimli said, "this is Legolas, son of Thranduil. My beloved."
Legolas waited apprehensively to learn Gloin's reaction to his father's name, but once again the old dwarf surprised him. "Well." He hesitated only a moment. "Welcome, Legolas! We have heard almost as much of your deeds as we have my son's. You two have represented our little corner of Middle-Earth well. Thank you for keeping my foolish son safe."
Gimli rolled his eyes. "I," he said distinctly, "am going to see to finding Legolas a horse. Unless you have brought one, Father?"
Gloin shook his head. "I brought an extra pony for you, but I was not expecting--company." He smiled at Legolas, though seeming not at his ease. "The ravens said Gimli had elvish escort on this last stage of the journey, but I thought that the Elven-king's courtesy, not the Elven-king's son."
Legolas laughed, more in relief that Gimli's father could find humor than at the substance of the jest.
Gimli did not laugh, nor did he smile, seeming still ill at ease. "I will go and see if King Brand can spare us a horse. Expect a beast much more placid than that to which you are accustomed, Master Elf."
Legolas followed Gimli with his eyes until he disappeared around a corner. "I thank you, Master Gloin, for your welcome of me. Your acceptance means much to me," he said to the old dwarf when Gimli was safely gone.
Gloin looked as if he wished an axe to lay his hand on, not in threat, but as Gimli did when he spoke of serious matters. "If we are speaking plain, sir, I will say that you are not what I would have chosen for my son. But neither would I have him walk the rest of his life alone. As those are the options given him, I will accept the choice he made. Know that I welcome you for his sake, son of Thranduil, not your own."
"Then we two shall deal well together," Legolas said softly. "For I too want his happiness above all else."
"See that it remains so," Gloin said gruffly, though he seemed almost pleased.
When Gimli returned--no horse in sight--Gloin was telling him of the northern battles the dwarves fought beside the Men of Dale. The litany of those dead or injured or even victorious whirled about Legolas's head until he could not tell one from another, save to know that the battle had been grievous hard. Gloin broke off mid-skirmish when he saw Gimli, looking a question at his son's empty hands.
Gimli shook his head. "There is nothing fit to ride left in the king's stable," he said. "A large hunting party left this morning to scour out any orcs that might have fled the main battle. The only beasts left are plow horses and the lame."
Legolas could not ride one of the dwarven ponies; his legs would nearly drag the ground. "If I recall, the gates of the mountain are but a mile or two distant. I would as soon walk," he said.
"You have traveled far," Gloin protested. "It is hardly courtesy to make the visitor walk the last mile!"
Legolas smiled at the stubborn old dwarf. "I have chased orcs on foot across half of Rohan. A mile of good road in fair weather and pleasant company will not trouble me."
"Very well, we shall walk!" Gloin conceded with apparent cheer. Legolas caught Gimli's troubled look and realized the old dwarf was not as strong as Legolas had first thought.
"You need not walk with me, Master Gloin. It is foolish to let the ponies walk idle since they are here."
He might have remembered the mulishness of a dwarf and saved his breath. "A host cannot ride while his guest walks," Gloin stated with no hint at compromise.
"A father may ride while his son walks, may he not? For you yourself named me son." The argument had already consumed more time than the journey would have.
Gloin stared and then roared with laughter. "I like this one," he said, clapping Gimli on the shoulder. "He argues like a dwarf!"
"I like him too," Gimli said with a small smile for Legolas.
"Very well, Master Elf, if you will have it so. We shall ride and you may eat our ponies' dust."
The distance was nearer two miles than one, but it felt good to walk after kneeling in the boat to paddle up the Running River, truly as pleasant as he had claimed to Gloin. He would have sung if he had not wished to listen to Gimli, who was telling his father of their journey. He had not realized that his walking across the snow had made such an impression on Gimli, nor that it would embarrass him so to listen to Gimli's account of his efforts against the attacking wolves. Gimli seemed to enjoy his discomfort, lauding him in ever more effusive terms when Legolas tried to interject his own version of events.
"We had no choice then, Father, but to travel through Khazad-dum," Gimli's voice lost all of its mischief and much of its animation. "We found out what happened to Oin and Balin and the others." He took a breath. "There is a thing--a foul thing--" His voice cracked and Legolas put a hand on his thigh to steady him. "The Gate Stream has been dammed--the water rises almost to the great door--and there is a thing that lives in the water. The Book of Mazarbul we found called it the Watcher in the Water and said it killed Oin." Gloin said nothing, only pulling his hood forward to shade his face despite the pleasant weather. After a quick glance Gimli did not look in his father's direction. "We encountered the foul creature ourselves, it nearly took the ring-bearer. We could not kill it and fled into the mines."
"And the others?" Gloin asked in a low voice.
"Balin was killed by an orc in the fifth year of the colony. I do not know how long the rest lasted, but I fear not long. Gandalf perhaps could say. Durin's Bane--was their bane as well."
Gloin looked up at the mention of Durin's Bane, pushing back his hood. Wet tracks marked his cheeks.
"A balrog," Legolas explained. "Mithrandir--Gandalf--destroyed it, but not before we believed that it had destroyed him as well."
"Durin's Bane--destroyed?" A gleam came into Gloin's eye for a moment before he shook his head. "No." He sighed, looking up at the peak of the mountain, but seeing, Legolas suspected, something much more distant: the past. "Oin never believed in Durin's Bane, or never believed it still existed. If only Thorin had lived! Oin and Balin were discontented with Dain's rule over the Mountain. And indeed!" Gloin exclaimed with sudden heat. "He was never a dwarf of the Mountain. He never mined coal in the Blue Mountains or saw most of his family disappear in a day into a dragon's maw! He was safe in the Iron Hills!"
"Father--" Gimli's voice carried both weariness and warning.
Legolas's own father was right: a dwarf would carry a grudge past all reason or sense.
"Still," Gloin continued, heat turned to melancholy. "I should have stopped Oin. It was madness to think they could retake Khazad-dum with so few."
Legolas kept a careful eye on Gimli, afraid that if he lost him among so many dwarves he would never find him again. So many dwarves.... He had been to Erebor before, but only to the old market at the mountain's gate, never inside the mountain itself. He had imagined a hall the size of his father's, not a dwarven city that seemed to rival Moria in size and bewildering complexity. And the dwarves--so many dwarves!--each of whom wanted to speak to Gimli, greet him, hear his news.
They were rescued at last by another dwarf, more richly dressed than most, who announced a feast for that night and shooed everyone else away.
"Thorin," Gimli greeted him with a bow followed by an arm clasp. "This is Legolas, son of Thranduil. Legolas, this is Thorin, son of Dain, King under the Mountain."
Legolas bowed in the dwarven manner as he had seen Gimli do on various occasions. "At your service."
Thorin nodded but did not bow. Kings, it appeared, neither bowed nor offered service to an elf's family. "Welcome, Legolas, son of Thranduil. We thank you for escorting--" He broke off, staring at Legolas in disbelief, and then turning to look at Gimli in equal surprise. "Gimli?"
"He is my beloved," Gimli confirmed, chin raised at a stubborn angle.
"I see." The king glanced quickly at Gloin as if to see how he was reacting. Gloin gazed back with bland calmness. "I see," he repeated, more softly, any formal speech of thanks and dismissal for a presumed elvish messenger clearly forgotten. After a moment he gave a small snort of laughter. "I think your account of your recent journey will be even more interesting than I had thought," he told Gimli. "Unless you are much weary from traveling I think you should come to my study and tell me what has occurred this past year." Before Legolas could ask if he was included in this command invitation the king spoke again to Gloin. "Perhaps you could show...your new son to Gimli's quarters?" He gave Legolas a courteous nod, but there was no doubt of the command behind his next words. "I am sure, son of Thranduil, that you will wish to rest before tonight's welcoming feast."
Legolas did not allow himself to look back as Gloin led him away from Gimli. He tried instead to learn their route, but the twists and turns and featureless corridors defeated him. Gloin brought him to an unmarked door, indistinguishable from any of a dozen they had passed. Lighting a splinter from a nearby lamp he opened the door and lit several lamps about the room.
"We gave the place a cleaning--filled the lamps and what not--when the ravens said Gimli was coming," Gloin explained. "I think you will find it comfortable enough." His tone was doubtful, as if he were wondering what an elf--or a son-in-law--would make of it.
"I am sure it will be," Legolas assured him. Gloin hesitated.
"Well, I--should leave you to rest, then," he said at last.
As soon as he left Legolas wished he had kept him. Gimli's chamber was a large, well-appointed room, but windowless. He grew up in Thranduil's halls, being underground did not discomfort him, but the weight of the mountain above him was oppressive. The walls here were not the white-washed limestone he knew, nor even the glitter-flecked stone of Aglarond, but a dark stone, almost black, quite unadorned save for the occasional wall-hanging.
There was no fire, not even a hearth, but the room was pleasantly warm. A metal box, firmly fixed to the floor near the bed, radiated a gentle warmth. The bed was nearly a foot too short to be of any use to Legolas. Near the bed, beside the box thing, was a cluttered work table. Legolas drifted over to the table and sat on the too-short--of course!--chair.
The table was not cluttered, only crowded. Everything on it was arranged in precise but mysterious arrays. In the center on a piece of felt lay what looked like an armguard such as an archer might wear, but not made of leather or metal, rather a soft, waxy-looking material. The armguard was intricately carved, or--Legolas smiled--half-carved. Part of a piece was covered with stylized patterns of vines, the rest bare, awaiting the craftsman's touch. This, then, Gimli had been working on before the needs of Elrond's council called him away.
The armguard when it was finished would be too short and too wide for an elvish arm. Clearly it was intended for a dwarf to wear, not a commission for some elf in Rivendell or his father's realm, nor even for a Man in Dale. Did dwarves use bows, or was there some other purpose for the armguard?
A bow hanging on the wall nearest the door answered that question. Legolas abandoned the table and armguard to examine it. It was shorter than any bow he had seen save a child's, and looked too frail for a warrior of Gimli's known strength. The arrows in the quiver beside the bow were all hunting points, ill-suited for war, but much too heavy for the bow unless it was stronger than it looked. The bow did not appear to be made of wood as he would have expected; perhaps it was stronger than it looked. It would be discourteous to take the bow down and test its strength without Gimli's leave.
After a cursory glance at the axes hanging beside the bow and quiver Legolas turned away. Gimli would be some time; much had happened this past year that he would wish to tell his king. He was stuck in this room, with its too-low ceiling and too-small furniture, until Gimli returned. Even if the king had not made it clear that he did not wish an elf to wander his city, Legolas had no idea how to return to the entrance hall nor any other place in the warren of tunnels. He would be lost until some dwarf took pity on him and led him back to this room.
Gimli was gone for several hours, though with no clock or sun to see Legolas could only guess at the passing time. He had laid their bedrolls out on the floor and tried to rest, but succeeded only in staring at the ceiling and worrying. What if the king did not accept their union? What if he thought Legolas had somehow ensnared, ensorcelled Gimli? Legolas did not wish to be the instrument of separating Gimli from his people, but nor did he wish them to separate Gimli from him.
The dwarven halls were quiet, the thick stone absorbing all sound. He might have been alone in the all the world. Even the pillows he stole off the bed did not retain Gimli's scent after nearly a year. The opening door sounded like the horn of Helm's Deep and was nearly as welcome as the army of huorns Mithrandir had brought to their aid there. "Gimli," he breathed.
"Legolas!" Gimli laughed and dropped onto the bedroll beside him.
"You are drunk!" Legolas exclaimed with something between surprise and anger. He had worried what the king had said to Gimli and instead they had been drinking?
"A little," Gimli admitted. "Thorin prefers to speak with a goblet to hand." He grimaced. "Some of his questions I doubt I could have answered without the wine's help."
"My own interview with my father and king would have been the easier for a cup of wine or three," Legolas admitted. "How did your Thorin take the news?"
"My king," Gimli said with more than a trace of bitterness, "thinks me mad. He pities me, for loving an elf, as I might pity one for loving a--a liar or a fool!"
Legolas's heart froze. "I am sorry," he whispered.
"No!" Gimli roared. "Never regret our love, never regret that you are an elf!"
Legolas gave him a lopsided smile. "I regret only that your king has caused you pain. Nothing more."
"I regret it too," Gimli admitted, "but it is Thorin's loss, not mine." He fell silent, lying so still that Legolas thought him asleep until he remembered that dwarves could not sleep with their eyes open. Finally Gimli focused again on Legolas. "Aragorn said that we are married by elvish custom," he said thoughtfully. Legolas nodded, though it had not been a question. "Yet we exchanged no vows such as Aragorn and Lady Arwen did."
It felt sometime as if Legolas had known and loved Gimli all his life, yet at other times, like this, he was reminded that by the sun's reckoning it had been less than a year since they met, less than a year since they began to learn of each other's people. "When two wish it, the act of love iself consumates a marriage. The giving of vows is a Mannish custom." Gimli nodded in turn, still looking thoughtful. "And what of dwarves?" Legolas asked. "Is there some ritual yet that we must fulfill?"
Gimli shook his head, but slowly. "Dwarves are more like elves than Men, it would seem, save that it is not the act of love but the months leading up to it that makes the marriage."
There was more to the matter than that, if Legolas was any judge. He remained silent, waiting for Gimli to continue.
"There is another way, a deeper way," Gimli continued. "The two speak their names to each other before the anvil, binding themselves beyond even death itself. Not all dwarves--even those who take this step often wait. I was five years old before my parents did." He smiled as if at some sweet memory.
In the way of the elves they were already so bound. "Do you wish this?"
Gimli nodded, eyes shining.
"What must we do?"
Gimli led Legolas down a maze of twisting corridors until he began to wonder if he would ever learn his way through Erebor. At last they stopped before a heavy wooden door standing open at the mouth of yet another tunnel.
"Are you certain you wish to do this?" Gimli asked, tension painting lines of strain across his body.
Legolas reached out and smoothed one of those lines from Gimli's brow with his thumb. "I would marry you by the custom of the orcs if those fell creatures had such rites and you wished it," he assured. "Do you doubt that I would marry you as a dwarf?" Gimli shook his head jerkily and started to enter through the door. Legolas stopped him with the hand that still rested against his face. "Are you certain?" he asked, wondering if Gimli was having second thoughts.
Gimli's answer was to pull Legolas's head down in a hard and desperate kiss. "As certain as I am that I wish to continue breathing," he said after releasing Legolas, looking calmer now. Tugging Legolas's hand he pulled him through the open door and then let go to push the door shut and slide a formidable bar through iron brackets, to secure it as if against siege. Legolas began to wonder what they would find at the end of the corridor.
What they found first was another door, built to the same measure as the first, also standing open. They passed through and at a nod from Gimli Legolas closed it. The bar was even heavier than it looked. What was so valuable that two such doors were required to guard it, and why had the doors stood open?
Gimli misunderstood his uncertainty. "We have at least an hour before the air grows stale," he assured Legolas. Raising his lantern high he continued down the corridor, scanning the smooth walls and ceiling as if looking for something. He never stopped or showed any sign that he had found what he sought, though he did not look dissatisfied at the lack. After a short while and a few curves the corridor ended in a small, round chamber, bare of anything but a hook on the wall and an iron anvil in the center of the room.
Gimli hung the lantern on the hook and knelt beside the anvil, gesturing Legolas to the other side. The rock was dished and polished smooth by generations of dwarven knees. "Durin's anvil," he said, placing his hands on it palm down. "Brought here from Khazad-dum itself."
There were two worn and polished spots on Legolas's side of the anvil, so he placed his own hands there. He really should have asked Gimli for instructions before they came.
Gimli locked gazes with him. "I am called Gimli, son of Gloin, son of Groin," he said and then paused and waited for Legolas.
"I am L--" Gimli gave a quick shake of his head. How had he phrased it? "I am called Legolas, son of Thranduil, son of Oropher."
Gimli gave an approving nod and took a quick breath. "My name is Ogonyok."
Legolas had heard rumors of the secret names of dwarves, but had not realized-- The doors, this chamber, all were designed to ensure that none would overhear this secret, steal this most precious of gifts. "I--" His voice cracked. "My name is Legolas. I have no secret name to give you."
Gimli's initial flash of anger was easier to bear than the shock and despair that replaced it as he realized that Legolas was not attempting to deny him, but truly had no name to give. Gimli slumped, bowing his head until his forehead rested on the anvil, shoulders shaking as if he wept.
"I am sorry," Legolas whispered.
Gimli seemed not to hear, remaining bowed over the anvil. When at last he raised his head his face was streaked with tears, yet suffused with wonder and dawning hope. "I--Mahal gives me leave to name you. If you will."
Aule--who the dwarves called Mahal--spoke to him? Yet if Ulmo could speak through water, why not the smith-god through an anvil? "I would be honored." If it erased that horrible despair from Gimli's face Legolas was prepared to accept far worse than a new name.
Gimli took Legolas's hands and placed them on top of the anvil, higher than they had been, and then covered them with his own. Gimli laughed, a joyous sound, yet with a hint of hysteria underneath. "If you were an infant your mother and I would lay you on the anvil."
He spoke then in a strange language, words the sound of which Legolas could not catch, save that they seemed to have too many consonants. It was an oddly musical language, for all that it should have sounded harsh. "By the grace of him who we call Mahal," Gimli changed to the Common Tongue, "he who created us all--" Gimli gave a small snort of laughter, "--all dwarves, at least--I name you Leskamen."
"Leskamen." The name sounded different in his mouth than it had in Gimli's, yet it fit in some way he could not name.
"Leskamen," Gimli repeated, the name like a caress against his ears. He held up a hand, "The air will grow stale if we do not move apace. If you were a dwarf-lad I would bring you back here when you were forty and remind you of your name." He chuckled. "I will spare you the wise words on adulthood's responsibility that my parents gave me, but I must warn you: guard your name well. Do not speak it--or mine!--outside an anvil-room such as this. Our names--our true names--guard us against subordination to another's will, but only while they remain secret. If known they are a great danger."
The dwarves had resisted Sauron's domination through the Seven rings, was this perhaps how? "I understand." Legolas moved his hands back to their original position on the anvil. "I am called Legolas," he said. "Son of Thranduil, son of Oropher."
"I am called Gimli, son of Gloin, son of Groin!" Gimli nearly sangthe words.
"My name is Leskamen."
"My name is Ogonyok!"
Legolas paused to let Gimli take the lead, as he no longer knew what he was supposed to say.
"You are known to me, Leskamen," Gimli said, the name once more a caress. "By this name I will ever find you, in this world and the next."
"You are known to me, Ogonyok," Legolas followed his example. Gimli's eyes blazed with joy and something akin to hunger at the use of his true name. Legolas nearly forgot the rest of the line. "I will--By this name I will ever find you, in this world and the next."
Gimli stood, pushing himself off the ground with his hands against the anvil. "It is done," he said, smiling down on Legolas and offering an unnecessary hand to help him to his feet. "None may deny our union now, and--" His smile cracked, "--and we cannot be parted, not forever. Sooner or later even an elf--" His voice cracked as well and Legolas folded him into his arms.
At length Gimli drew away again. "I do not fear my own death," he said quietly. "Only leaving you. If--Dwarves believe-- In Mandos all bear their true names openly, leaving their use-names behind. Only if one knows another's true name can one be assured of finding that other."
"And even an elf shall die at last," Legolas said softly, feeling a burden lift from his shoulders. No matter how many weary years he must wait, they would be reunited in the end. "I thought that fear mine alone," he confessed, yawning in sudden sleepiness at the release of tension.
Gimli chuckled. "And I thought it mine."
"Indeed." Legolas yawned again. Gimli looked at the lamp, frowning.
"Shlak," Gimli swore. Legolas did not know the word, but did not doubt it to be a curse. Gimli pulled him to his feet and took the lamp from its hook. "Come. We have tarried too long," he explained. "The air grows stale and make you sleepy, though I do not think it will affect a dwarf for yet awhile."
They quickly found themselves back at the door. Legolas stopped Gimli when he would have drawn the bar.
Gimli's smile was the most beautiful thing Legolas had ever seen. "Leskamen." He tilted his head in inquiry.
Legolas shook his head. "I only wished to speak your name once more while there were still two doors between us and the rest of the world." He could see why the name must be kept secret: in Gimli's mouth it was a caress against his very soul, but a malicious or even careless use would be a violation too painful to imagine. He wanted to lie with Gimli here, so he could shout out Gimli's name when he flew, but the air was already close and stale. He laid his hand on the bar to help Gimli lift it out of its brackets.
Gimli shook his head. "Let me open this one," he said, suiting actions to words. "You open the next. Tradition."
The air between the doors was fresher than in the chamber they had left, but it still was heavy with the burden of stone overhead. He wanted to breathe the free air under the stars. "I--" He could not find his own way to the surface, nor had King Thorin given him leave to walk his halls unescorted. "Will you take me where I may see the stars when we leave this place?" he asked, setting his hand to open the final door. Never since he had been a child had he had to depend on another's will in such a matter.
"You need only ask," Gimli said. Legolas turned to look at him and so saw his sudden smile. "I know just the place."
Thorin stood waiting for them in the passageway outside when Legolas opened the door. The king's arms were folded over his chest, his mouth thin and set with anger. "I did not wish to believe it when I was told you had been seen leading this...elf...here," he said without preamble or greeting.
"This elf," Gimli said with equal lack of courtesy, "is my beloved and my husband, by the customs of both elves and dwarves."
"He is an elf," Thorin said as if Gimli might have failed to notice. "He has no name!" He took at step closer to Gimli, stretching out one hand to him. "I do not know what he might have told you--"
Only Thorin's obvious distress for Gimli prevented Legolas from taking offense at the suggestion. Gimli had no such compunction. As Gimli's face darkened with rage Legolas laid a restraining--and hopefully calming--hand on his shoulder.
"Legolas has as much honor as any dwarf," he spat. "More than most! He told no lies, cast no spells, did naught but love me!" He took a calming breath, and another. "As I knelt by the anvil Mahal spoke to me." Something of the wonder of that moment echoed in his voice, softened it. "He gave me leave to name Legolas."
"To which I gladly assented," Legolas interjected.
Thorin stood with his mouth agape, look as if he had been struck with a heavy object. "But that would make him a dwarf!"
Gimli gave Legolas a worried look. "In some measure, yes, I suppose." Legolas gave him back a smile and a shrug. He did not feel like a dwarf, but if it eased Gimli's way and made his king happy Legolas would not protest.
Thorin gave Legolas a long, appraising look, pinching the bridge of his nose as if his head ached. Finally he shook his head. "Be welcome in Erebor, Legolas son of Thranduil," he said with a shallow bow. "I wish you well in your marriage and in all your life." The words seemed sincere despite his reluctance.
"I thank you, my lord," Legolas replied.
"A dwarf, no matter how tall or how born, is always welcome in these halls." With that Thorin turned on his heel and stalked away.
Legolas stifled a laugh. "Gimli?" he asked, wondering if Gimli now thought him changed.
"It may ease Thorin's mind to think you a dwarf," Gimli said with a trace of a growl. "But to me you will always be an elf, my elf, my Legolas, and that is all I would ever ask of you. I do not ask you to change who you are."
Gimli led him back through the maze of tunnels. Legolas thought he remembered the last turn and corridor a few moments before they reached the door of Gimli's chamber. Legolas stopped in the doorway, wondering if Gimli had forgotten the plan to go outside.
"Only long enough to reclaim our cloaks," Gimli assured him when the dwarf turned and saw him standing there. Draping both cloaks over his arm he returned to the door.
"I should not doubt you," Legolas said, taking his own cloak but not bothering to don it in the warm passageway.
Gimli smiled. "No, you should not. I have not forgotten that you are an elf and need the open air as I need stone under my feet."
A few turns and a short walk brought them to the entrance of a great chamber, bustling with activity as long tables were set for a meal.
"Ai! The feast! I had forgotten." Legolas could have sworn, wanting nothing more than a quiet evening under the stars with Gimli.
"We have a few hours yet." Donning his cloak, Gimli held his finger to his lips and then pulled the hood forward to cover his face. Clad in the cloaks of Lorien they skirted the edge of the feasting hall unseen, until they reached a small, almost hidden passageway that sloped steeply upwards.
"Once a dragon laired in that hall," Gimli said once they had passed into the tunnel. It was dark and they had no lantern, but Gimli walked with an ease the had never shown in Mirkwood. "Once a burglar crept down this tunnel to spy on the dragon, thus learning its secret weakness that allowed Brand to slay it. Since then the way has been no secret, but few come here, since the path down the mountain is long and difficult."
The tunnel ended in a door that Gimli pushed open. "Mind the door," he warned, propping it open with a stone. "If it shuts we shall have a weary scramble around the mountain to the front gate."
They stood in a small sheltered valley that ended in a rock face in which was set the door from which they had exited. The other end of the valley looked to the west and the setting sun. The sun had only recently set, leaving dark purple streaks across the sky. Even elvish eyes could not see over the mountains and the many miles to the sea, but Legolas knew it was there, waiting, ever calling to him.
Gimli's arm snaked around his waist, his body a warm presence against his side. Legolas looked down at his lover's face, bathed in the light of the emerging stars, and knew that all would be well.
Somehow, all would be well in the end.