Chapter One: Answering the Call for Aid
Chapter Two: The Tasting of Cider
Chapter Three: No Ordinary Reverie
Chapter Four: A Sense of Urgency
Chapter Five: A Strange Eventful Morning
Chapter Six: The Dawn of Understanding
Chapter Seven: A Cold Swim and Truths Revealed
Chapter Eight: The Heavy Weight of a Guilty Conscience
Chapter Nine: To Speak of Reason
Chapter Ten: A Turn for the Worse
Chapter Eleven: To See
Chapter Twelve: The Bond of Friendship
Chapter One: Answering the Call for Aid
Aragorn closed his eyes and inhaled deeply the crisp fall mountain air as he led a party of Gondorian relief workers up the mountain trail towards the small, secluded town of Cool Waters. They were on a disaster relief mission as the town was hit hardest during the war. Its strategic location along the mountain passes made the settlement an easy target for frequent orc raids, terrorizing the people with constant mayhem and destruction. Faramir came to the king one day describing Cool Waters' dismal state with hopes that the new ruler would send aid to the desolate people. The marauding orcs apparently left little hope for survival as they destroyed irrigation canals, burned crops and ravished anything and everything as they made their way to the White City. Although the citizens have made a valiant effort to recover what was lost, the coming winter would prove particularly harsh in their vulnerable state.
At this point, Aragorn was well aware of this type of tale as many towns and villages suffered hardships during the war. However, this specific account moved Aragorn's heart for reasons he himself did not quite understand. He did not hesitate to set up a humanitarian effort for Cool Waters going so far as to wish to lead the mission himself, much to the dismay of his advisors. It took quite a bit of convincing and compromise before he was able to leave the city-kingdom without half of the Gondorian army escorting him.
For honesty's sake, Aragorn had many reasons for wanting to travel to the small town ranging from personal to economical. As the Gondorian steward reminded him, Cool Waters' location on the mountain passes gave it potential to be an excellent trading post for surrounding towns and the White City, a fact the king did not fail to mention to his reluctant advisors. It was Aragorn's hope that he might be able to establish an arrangement that would be beneficial for both parties in regards to trade and commerce, one of the major obstacles he's faced as new king being the revitalization of the kingdom's financial system. He understood the people to be rather insular and suspicious of outsiders, he couldn't blame them considering all they've been through but he hoped that they saw his effort to personally come to their aid as a sign of good will and would be more open to implementing trade. All could benefit from such an agreement including the new elven colony in Ithilien, which is why he invited his friend Legolas to accompany him on the mission. It was important that they make a good impression or any chance of establishing a positive relationship may be ruined. So much depended on this one expedition and Aragorn at the thought of it began to feel the beginnings of the tension headache that has grown familiar to him during the past few months, leading to his more personal reason for traveling on this mission.
The demands of the new king were a huge adjustment for a man accustomed to roaming freely in the wild and blending into the background. Coordinating recovery efforts, long meetings with councilmen and reestablishing relations with neighboring towns and city-kingdoms stratified during the war required skill and time Aragorn was not completely comfortable with. Although he has long since accepted his destiny as king, the former ranger still had his occasional doubts. If it were not for Arwen's support, he feared what may have become of his state of mind during the most overwhelming of times. He found himself missing the freedom and seclusion of a ranger's life during those times. Perhaps that is why Cool Waters appealed to him so much; it was an opportunity to reclaim a small part of that life.
" Why such a glomy expression," a cheery elven voice questioned at his side. " We have yet to reach the town and begin negotiations!"
Aragorn broke his chain of thought and looked at the wood elf who looked as though he could barely contain his good humor. The king smiled apologetically before replying: "I'm sorry, Legolas. I let my mind wander thinking about the tasks ahead of us."
"A task I have no doubt you are more than prepared for," Legolas said, his eyes shining with happiness. "Besides, if you focus too much on the end of the journey you will miss the journey itself and that can be just as meaningful if not more so than the end. Look around you, Aragorn! Have you ever seen such colors?"
Aragorn looked around him and sighed in contentment as he admired the surrounding wood that was rich in the bright fall colors of red, gold brown and green. The trees, when teased gently by the autumn wind, would rain down leaves of brilliant colors along the path creating a scene of utter tranquility. Time seemed to slow to a lazy pace as Aragorn became lost in the detail of the magnificent forest smiling in a new state of gradual ease. Legolas was right. He would have surely missed this part of the journey and the entire basis for his desire to leave the White City.
At that moment the elf began to sing what Aragorn recognized as a Silvan song of nature, love and joy. He looked over at his long time comrade and watched how the elf openly admired the natural canvas of the forest, every once in a while caressing a falling leaf as it floated by. Aragorn was pleased to see Legolas returned to his happier self after suffering a severe bought of sea longing after the war. He had watched with concern, as the young elf grew more detached from his surroundings seeming to forget about everything related to Middle Earth. Aragorn never seen such a severe case and he feared the elf would either die from the shock of the onset or sail away to the Undying Lands to be rid of his grief. But the elf recovered, explaining to Aragorn that friendship and loyalty still bound him to Middle Earth and he had no intention of leaving any time soon. The king knew that Gimli was mainly responsible for the elf's recovery, the two forging an unbreakable bond of friendship during the war. Their friendship was a constant reminder to Aragorn of the new age settling upon Middle Earth where natural enemies can become the best of friends.
The king looked back and saw that the forest had the same enchanting affect on the relief workers, the combination of Legolas' song and the serene wood putting all in a light mood. Even the horses appeared to be at ease. When the recovery efforts are complete, Aragorn promised to bring the Queen to this mountain forest so that she too may bask in its beauty.
"We should be approaching the town of Cool Waters momentarily," Aragorn announced as Legolas concluded his song, the elf nodding in acknowledgement as he continued to give his attention to the peaceful forest. It was amazing that not too long ago this forest was ravished by the perils of war. Now it seemed well on its way to healing.
"Nature is quite resilient," Legolas said taking a more serious tone. "I hope that we may provide similar results to the poor townspeople."
"We will, my friend. We will," Aragorn replied reassuringly as they continued along the well-beaten path.
The town was not as horrible s Aragorn's imagination led him to believe but it was clear that the people were in need of aid. Leaving the forest and coming into the bleak region of the town proved jarring to the senses, especially for Legolas who was more in tuned with the surrounding nature. He involuntarily winced at the sight of patches of scorched earth visible from where the orcs burned acres of groves and houses that were gutted by the fire leaving only their skeletal remains scratching against the misty sky. Travel became more difficult on horseback as the roads closer to the town were torn and blocked by fallen dead trees. Aragorn's heart clenched painfully once again at the sight of war's cruelty. The innocent seem to suffer the most, he thought but while the sight of the town dismayed him, he was also encouraged for there was also evidence of the people's refusal to give up. Temporary shelters were being established, new crops being prepared for the next planting season, the land that was left for dead being tended with loving patient care so that it would continue to nurture life, efforts being made to overcome and survive thus Aragorn had an immediate respect for the people of Cool Waters. They had every reason to despair and yet they chose not to.
The townspeople were now giving the strangers curious wary looks, staring shamelessly at Legolas who was strange to their eyes. Aragorn glanced at his friend to see how he handled the scrutiny and found the elf with a warm open look on his face as he gazed intently about the town. He caught Aragorn's gaze and smiled, "It is probably best that we begin giving a good impression now, yes? Open and friendly?"
Aragorn nodded in agreement admiring the elf's open mindedness, a rare trait among elves. He dismounted, the others in his company following suit as a plump elderly man came towards them through the gathering crowd.
" Greetings visitors!" the old man called, hobbling awkwardly on a long wooden cane until he finally stood before them spreading his arms wide. "We welcome you to Cool Waters! I am Aaron, one of the town elders." He spoke with quickness, not giving Aragorn time to put forth his own greeting. He was clearly very excited about their arrival. With his full white beard, round belly and rapid bumbling speech, he reminded Aragorn of some of the other jolly old men he's met during his travels as a Ranger, quirky but harmless nevertheless. The king felt an instant fondness for the elder." When we called for aid we did not expect such a quick response," Aaron said excitedly looking approvingly over the men and supplies behind Aragorn. "We are most grateful."
Aragorn hesitated waiting to be certain that the elder finished his rapid fire speech, a little overwhelmed by the enthusiasm. "Gondor is always happy to help its neighbors," he began. "I am King Elessar and this is Legolas Greenleaf, lord of the woodland realm of Ithilien. We are here to offer whatever assistance we may."
Aaron's jaw dropped and a murmur of disbelief rippled through the crowd at the names of such important titles. Composing himself from his shock, the elderly man did a hasty bow urging the others behind him to do likewise with dramatic flailing of the arms.
" Oh, your majesty, forgive me! I did not recognize you. We are deeply humbled by your presence."
It was moments like these that the king had the most difficulty adjusting to, the effusive attention that his new title drew. During the journey to the town he dwelled over whether to use his royal name, already opting to travel in his ranger attire even though it did not take away from his kingly presence. At the last minute he decided it was best to be open and honest from the beginning not wanting to give the impression of deception, which would be devastating to any attempt at trade talks. The decision was not an easy one to make. He saw the slight smirk on Legolas' relatively stoic face who was well aware of the man's discomfort and had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. The elf would enjoy that too much.
"Do not bow before me," he called, the words sounding strange to his own ears. "I am here as a man who simply wants to help set things to right and possibly make things better for all our peoples." He stepped forward grasping the town elder's shoulders straightening him up so that they were eye level. He urged more quietly, "Let us put aside formalities for now so that we may focus on saving your beloved town."
" Most gracious leader," Aaron said reverently. He then turned his attention to Legolas, cocking his head to the side in scrutiny. "I must say, young sir, that you are by far the strangest looking man I've ever met. You're extremely pale and way too skinny. Are you well? This cold weather can be the death of you if you're not careful.
For a moment, Legolas looked at the old man in stunned disbelief. He was expecting many responses but not that one. He assumed most people at least heard of an elf. He glanced sideways at Aragorn who was now showing his own smirk at the elf's discomfort before replying cautiously: "Master Aaron, I am not a man but an elf. We tend to look different from Men physically but I assure you that I am quite healthy for elven standards."
Aaron appeared awe struck. "An elf!" he exclaimed clapping his hands in his joy. He turned to Aragorn, "I have heard stories since I was a wee babe but I always thought they were just fairy tales parents told their children when they wanted them to behave. Wait till my brother finds out that elves really do exist. Although," the old man studied the elf's features critically, "you do not look like a green plant to me. What kind of elf are you?"
Bewildered silence met the man's question as Legolas groped for the simple answer. "A wood elf," he said slowly not sure it was the answer the man was seeking. Legolas began to wonder if the elder was completely sound in mind.
"Hmmm," Aaron said contemplatively. "So wood elves aren't green, eh." He turned to face the crowd of people and announced, "Wood elves are not green!"
Laughter rippled throughout the crowd as men, women and children began to relax and smile more in the presence of the strangers. Whether it was the old man's intention, Aragorn thought, the tension had lessened considerably among the townspeople. Clever.
"Well, I suppose this old man will be learning a lot of new things during the next few weeks, " Aaron said smiling brightly. He looked about at the guests enthusiastically. "You all must be tired and hungry and cold! What kind of hosts would we be if we didn't take care of our guests? We may be a little rough around the edges but we still have our manners." He beckoned a small group of men and women forward who bowed before Aragorn when they stood before him, the king politely returning the gesture. "These men and women will see to your men, make sure they have everything they need," Aaron said beaming with pride.
"It is not our intention to impose any further on your people," Aragorn said. "We are here to help not add to the burden of your town."
"It is no burden at all to make the king welcome," the old man said with an air of disbelief. "We are happy to serve. Come! I'm anxious for you to meet my brother. We can talk restoration plans over a nice hot cup of cider and I can learn more about wood elves."
Aragorn and Legolas were soon following behind the hobbling old man as they made their way to one of the small houses that appeared to suffer the least amount of damage.
"Well, what do you think, Legolas?" Aragorn whispered quietly to the silent elf. He was still struggling to keep his mirth under control from Aaron's reaction to Legolas. He wasn't sure if the elf found the situation as humorous.
"I think," Legolas said as he looked about the damaged but surprisingly welcoming town, "that this stay in Cool Waters will be an interesting one indeed."
Aragorn nodded and smiled.
Chapter Two: The Tasting of Cider
The meeting room was much warmer than outside despite the structure's war damage and Aragorn found himself to be very much appreciative. He was loath to admit that his time as king had already begun to soften him to the elements. There was a blazing fire that snapped and crackled quietly filling the room with the gentle scent of hickory and a warm light. In the center of the space were floor pillows fashioned in a circular shape obviously for the purpose of meetings and discussion. It was quite a welcoming change from the formal rigors of Gondorian diplomacy.
Aaron ushered the king and elf into the room offering each a pillow to sit upon. Aragorn sat awkwardly feeling his joints groan against the unfamiliar movement. Legolas in typical elven fashion sat easily on the pillow with his legs folded beneath him.
"My brother should be with us momentarily," Aaron said a little breathlessly. "Probably out coordinating restoration efforts in the fields." The old man began to gingerly ease himself down on a pillow across from his guests, Legolas and Aragorn each rising simultaneously to offer assistance which Aaron happily waved off. "I assure you," he said, his voice straining against his effort, " sitting down is the easy part. Its getting up that will prove to be the challenge!" Finally settled he looked as though he would say more but he suddenly got a thoughtful look on his face as if he forgot something important. "Oh, dear," he said more to himself.
"Is everything alright, Master Aaron?" Aragorn asked with concern.
"Hmm? Oh, yes, yes. I just realized that I wanted to get the cider first before I sat down. Completely slipped my mind. Now I must go through the whole damn process of getting up." The elderly man then took his cane in his right hand and proceeded to lever himself up using the support of the cane. It was a slow and shaky process, Aragorn and Legolas on more than one occasion insisting upon helping the old man. Legolas looked discreetly to Aragorn in marked distress and the man could only shrug his shoulders at the elf's bafflement. It was most likely the first time the elf had such close contact with the advanced age of mortals.
As before, Aaron refused their aid with cheery indifference. "It's the cold really," he said standing at full height. "Makes my joints stiff. My brother insists on using this style of sitting arrangements, him being such a stickler for tradition and all. Sounded like a great idea in the spring!" Aaron walked stiffly over to a section of the house that looked to serve as a temporary kitchen, a thin cloth serving as a doorway. There was a series of cracking and popping as Aaron's joints made one final protest causing the old man to groan in annoyance. "Gods, I'd kill for a chair." He looked back over his shoulder smiling brightly at the man and elf still sitting on the pillows. "It'll just be a moment, good sirs. It'll all be worth it to see the looks on your faces when you try our renowned cider. Nothing else like it. Just wait and see!" Disappearing behind the curtain to attend to his culinary task, the old town leader left Aragorn and Legolas alone still attempting to figure out their eccentric host.
" Master Aaron is not what I expected," Legolas said as he listened inquisitively to the old man's singing and the clatter of cups and utensils in the other room. "From what you told me in Gondor I thought we would be dealing with a cold hard man."
"I am just as surprised as you, Legolas," Aragorn responded already going through a list of available herbs he could use to help the old man with his aching joints. He looked about the bare room taking in the scant decorating and the organized simplicity. It was clearly meant to serve one purpose and one purpose only. "Faramir explained to me that mountain people tend to be very independent and requesting aid from outsiders most likely required them to swallow quite a bit of their pride. I too expected resistance however, Aaron seems more than pleased to see us."
"Then establishing a relationship should not be as difficult as we anticipated." Legolas looked to Aragorn with hopeful eyes. "We help these people the best we can and then we suggest open trade so towns can help each other. Aaron strikes me as one who would be receptive to such an endeavor."
"Perhaps," Aragorn replied thoughtfully. "Although, I think we should wait and see what exactly we're dealing with. I'm curious about this brother he constantly speaks of. I wonder when he'll arrive."
Legolas' body stiffened as he became aware of a distant sound coming from outside. "I believe right now," he said turning to face the doorway.
Aragorn too turned and soon he could hear the thump of a cane against the wood boards and the low murmur of two deep voices in conversation. Aragorn stood in anticipation of the formal greeting, Legolas following his lead and as the door opened, the pair was met with another unexpected surprise. The old man at the doorway looked identical to Aaron except instead of the cane being in his right hand, it served him in his left. Where Aaron's hazel eyes were bright and warm, this old man's were sharp and cold. His mouth was pinched in a firm frown as he looked over the strangers critically. Standing next to him was a dwarf, his hair and beard dressed in traditional dwarven braids but instead of heavy armor, he was adorned in a simple wool shirt and work pants. He had a calm inquisitive look upon his face as he nodded graciously in greeting.
"So you must be the help from Gondor," the old man said, his familiar voice almost devoid of emotion. "I am Arik, town elder and this is Orin, our town's healer. I'm sure you already met my brother."
At that moment, Aaron pulled back the cloth doorway revealing his cheery face. "Ah, there you are! I was beginning to worry about you two. Now that you're here we can get started with this meeting. Orin, would you be so kind as to help me with the cider."
"Of course, Master Aaron," the dwarf said. He bowed politely to the guests before excusing himself; Legolas could not help the small smile that crept on his face as the dwarf vaguely reminded him of another.
"If you don't mind, gentlemen, I would like to sit first before you introduce yourselves," Arik said as he made his way to an available floor pillow. He made to sit in a similar manner as Aaron and Aragon concluded that he too suffered the ailment of stiff joints. When Legolas reached out his hand to offer assistance, Arik shot him such a scathing look that the elf quickly pulled the hand back as though it had been bitten. He held it like it had as he looked to Aragorn in confusion. Aragorn too was slightly taken back but for different reasons than the elf. The two elders looked so much alike it would be easy to get the two confused if one didn't know their personalities. They had been around Aaron's good nature long enough to be caught off guard by Arik's stern one. However, both expressed a strong desire for independence refusing help for the simple task of sitting and standing. Clearly, such a trait is highly valued within their group. Aragorn made a mental note to ponder over later.
Arik reminded the king of a captain he knew in the Gondorian army, serious to a fault. The man never cracked a smile or even laughed as far as Aragorn was aware of. He took to discipline and order like a duck to water and Aragorn believed Arik was similar in this manner. There will be no small talk with this one. He'll want to go straight to the point of business.
"Please take a seat, gentlemen," Arik offered extending his hand to the pillows. "When my brother and Orin return, we can begin."
They didn't have to wait long as Aaron, followed by Orin who held a tray with a clay pitcher and five small cups, pulled back the curtain. A fragrant scent of apples and cinnamon began to fill the room. Orin set the tray before Arik before taking the last remaining pillow. They all sat quietly for a moment regarding each other until Aaron finally broke the silence.
"Well, brother, I'm pleased to see that you were able to tear yourself away from the groves long enough to grace us with your presence. Have you been formally introduced to our esteemed guests?"
"No, I have not, brother," was Arik's tight response. He apparently was none too happy with Aaron's sarcasm. "I was waiting until we were all present to spare us the redundancy."
"Of course. Then may I have the honor, my lord?" Aaron asked excitedly turning to Aragorn who gave a curt nod, deciding there was no point in reminding Aaron about putting formalities aside.
Aaron appeared to jump up and down in his joy as he snuggled further into his pillow and flapped his arms vigorously as though trying to return feeling to them. He was clearly going to make a big show of this moment. Aragorn groaned inwardly as Arik groaned aloud.
"Aaron, please," he said imploringly. "Is all this necessary?"
"Absolutely, my frigid sibling!" Aaron exclaimed as he thrust a hand out towards Aragorn who widen his eyes in surprise at the sudden movement. "May I present King Elessar, war hero and ruler of Gondor and his companion, Legolas Greenleaf, lord of the woodland realm of Ithilien.
Orin's bushy eyebrows were raised in surprise and a smile graced his face. Arik however, arched an eyebrow and narrowed his eyes in suspicion.
"Not to worry, brother," Aaron said quickly nodding to Legolas. "He's an elf. He's supposed to look like that."
Aragorn cringed as he looked to Legolas who was wearing his best stoic royal façade although Aragorn noted a flicker of emotion in the elf's blue eyes.
"A wood elf if you can believe it," Aaron continued shaking his head, "not a twig on him."
Arik didn't seem as impressed as Aaron or Orin, choosing to remain reserved as he bowed respectfully. He decided to move things along. "Shall we begin with the traditional drink?" he replied as he began pouring the amber fluid into the cups, steam rising from the hot liquid.
"We begin each meeting with the sharing of our cider," Aaron offered in explanation as he handed Legolas a cup. "It is believed that the drink will bring clarity of mind to all participants so wise decisions can be made for everyone's benefit. However, I must warn you. To outsiders the cider may be a little strong. Its made with the bark of a tree that only grows on this mountain. It makes the cider quite potent."
"Only those strong in character can drink the cider," Arik said as he raised his cup. Aragorn sensed the challenge in the comment and raised his cup as well. When all cups were raised, Arik recited a short prayer and then proceeded to drink his cider. Despite Aaron's warning, Aragorn was still surprised by the bitterness of the liquid considering it had such a pleasant odor and made an effort not to show it on his face. When he finished he looked to Legolas and found the elf already finished his drink and was looking down into his empty cup, his face flushed and unreadable.
Aaron was looking expectantly at each guest, "Well, what do you think? I had to improvise a little since we didn't have all of the original ingredients but I don't think it took away from the taste."
"It is very good, Master Aaron," Aragorn replied trying to resist the urge to cough. Somehow he thought that would be perceived as a weakness in Arik's eyes.
Aaron leaned in conspiringly. "Puts hair on your chest, doesn't it," he said smiling. "Now that the ritual part is over we can drink this at our leisure. Master Wood elf! What say you?"
Legolas looked up from his empty cup and smiled at Aaron, Aragorn noting how his face was still flushed and his eyes now appeared darker. The king grew concerned. There were few things that had a lasting affect on elves yet this drink seemed to linger in Legolas. He made a point to inquire more about the bark used to make the cider but Legolas' reaction pushed his concerns aside as the elf thrust his cup forward towards Aaron replying:
"This is a good drink. My mind feels clearer already."
"Then I must say Master Elf, your Majesty, that you two are the first to take so well to Cool Waters' cider," Orin said with a laugh. "Most outsiders find the drink too strong for their taste."
Legolas lowered his eyes shyly.
"Yes, that is true, Master Orin," Aaron said he looked up at the ceiling in thought. "The last fellow who tried our cider fell flat on his back. Sick for days, poor fellow. I still feel guilty to this day. Perhaps if I..."
"Gentlemen, if we may!" Arik cut in impatiently before his brother became lost in his recollections. When all the cups were refilled the meeting went underway.
Dealing with Arik proved to be exactly what Aragorn and Legolas anticipated. Aaron's twin was the mirror image of not only his dexterity but also his personality. He was distrusting of outsiders, suspicious of motives and had very strict morals, which Aragorn soon came to believe, made the old man intolerable to almost anything outside his range of how one should live a moral life. A range that was fairly narrow and rigid. Dispersed among talks of assigning people to certain tasks and the drinking of more cider, Aragorn constantly reassured the elders of the honor and integrity of his men who would maintain the dignity and respect of the town while helping to rebuild it. Legolas did not say much but when he did, the king saw that the elf's natural radiance and grace had the desired effect. By time the talks were over, Aaron was smiling, Orin had an approving look on his face and even Arik seem to let his guard down, a little.
"Well, I must admit that the project sounds promising," Arik said cautiously. "Although I do not hold my brother's enthusiasm, I want what is best for our people. Your aid will be most appreciated."
Aragorn bowed respectfully. "This is a new age for Man, elders. It is a time to come together to heal old hurts and strengthen our bonds. It is a time to trust."
"Trust is something that must be earned, your Majesty," Arik said resolutely. "While I admire your vision, we cannot ignore the fact that the world has been and still is a dangerous place. We cannot afford to blindly trust anyone and everyone who speaks of things we would most like to hear. Our people are very vulnerable now."
Aragorn nodded in understanding, realizing at that moment the extent of Cool Waters' trauma and the delicacy of the situation. One misread action on either side could prove disastrous for relations. "I respect your need for caution," Aragorn said sincerely, "and I assure that we will not do anything to make you regret your decision to call for help."
The sun was setting over the mountain bringing forth soft hues of purple, orange and pale red. The chill in the wind turned into a biting cold as Cool Waters' inhabitants sought shelter from the cold elements. Inside one such shelter the elders sat cradled in the warmth of the fire after bidding good night to the king and his strange companion. One wore an expression of pure satisfaction while the other had a brooding look on his face.
"He is a good man," the healer Orin said well accustomed to each twin's state of mind and the proper course of action, one would need praise, the other reassurances. "He will stay true to his word. This is a wise decision."
"Yes, I suppose it is," Arik said contemplatively. "However, I fear that there are some things even the king cannot control."
"Oh, brother," Aaron chuckled as he drank more cider basking in his contentment. "You worry too much."
"And you, brother," Arik returned as he turned his gaze into the fire, "do not worry enough."
Chapter Three: No Ordinary Reverie
What started off as a friendly gesture of comfort quickly escalated into something beyond their control.
The people who grew very fond of the king's comrade during the city's recovery efforts marked Gimli's return to the White City with great joy. The dwarf was well remembered for his hard work, good nature and beautiful craftsmanship that helped restore the city to its past glory. Legolas, who arrived a few weeks earlier, was probably the most excited to see the dwarf's return. Their time apart proved to be most difficult for the young elf due to the mundane routine of home. He was anxious to return to the White City not only to fulfill his promise to the King but to also be reunited with his dwarven friend, much to his father's vexation.
"I do not understand this reckless compulsion of yours," the elven king had said as Legolas packed his belongings. It was a final attempt at speaking reason with his son. "Involving yourself in the affairs of mortals will only bring you pain and despair. Why not enjoy your final days on Middle Earth in peace? Have you not earned that privilege?"
Legolas sighed as he paused in his packing. He knew that no matter what he said, his father would not understand. He was rooted deep in the old ways.
"Father, this is something I must do," he finally responded. "Please try and understand. My friendships are very important to me and I will not know peace until I know their destiny is secure in this New Age. There is still much work left to be done and I would see it completed with them."
So with great reluctance, the great woodland king gave his blessing to his son reminding him that he would always be welcomed back home should he decide to change his mind and with his father's love, Legolas set off to rejoin his friends.
His heart pounded with happiness when he finally saw the dwarf's face and did his best to remain in control as Gimli made all the social courtesies he could bare in his travel fatigue. But when they were finally alone in Gimli's room, Legolas kissed the surprised dwarf with such enthusiasm that Gimli momentarily forgot his weariness in the rush of desire and joy for his beloved elf.
However, that feeling was short lived as the weariness returned during dinner and clashed oddly with the excitement of seeing friends again, making Gimli restless. Seeing his friend's discomfort, Legolas offered a means to help the dwarf relax he promised would be most effective after a warm bath.
Later that night, Gimli laid on his stomach, bathed and refreshed, across his bed as the elf began to massage his legs.
Pressure points, the elf had explained, are located throughout the body. Applied with the right amount of pressure, it can elicit a state of relaxation in the individual. This was a very old and practiced elvish skill.
"Why haven't you shared this elvish skill before?" Gimli asked jokingly. "It would have been useful during the Quest especially after hewing and chasing orcs all day. The hobbits would have really appreciated the comfort."
"The technique is only used between those who are intimate," Legolas answered blushing slightly although Gimli could not see from his position on the bed. "It would have been... strange to use it under different circumstances and therefore ineffective."
Gimli smiled and was about to raise another question when Legolas quickly cut him off. "Shush. Too many questions. You are becoming as bad as me. Besides, you are trying to enjoy this, remember." Gimli laughed quietly but said not another word.
At first, the practical dwarf was skeptical but he held his tongue and laid still as the elf pressed and kneaded along his tired muscles almost to the point of pain. But soon he began to feel a lightness to him as his muscles uncoiled in serene contentment. He'd never experienced such a thing and enjoyed it immensely.
Meanwhile, Legolas was enjoying a different type of pleasure. The texture of the dwarf's skin and muscles underneath his working hands was intoxicating to the elf. He slowly worked his way over the bulging calves to the hamstrings, in awe of the powerful muscles, feeling how they dipped and overlapped each other in perfect symmetry. He drew himself up following the pull of his hands, which seemed to act on their own accord as they flowed over the sloping backside hidden underneath the cotton towel to the muscular span to the dwarf's back. He sighed a shaky breath as his hands tingled with sensation, sending a rippling wave of arousal throughout his body. He sat on top of Gimli as he massaged his back up to the strong shoulders underneath the blanket of thick hair, his mouth opening slightly in wonder of the strength he felt.
He was aroused now and wondered if Gimli could feel him pressing against his backside. The dwarf had obediently remained quiet up to this point. Legolas began to lightly trace the inked runes and patterns on Gimli's left shoulder, the tattoo always being a fascination to him. He opened his mouth to let his desire known but no words came forth, the elf was so overcome with need.
Gimli now understood why this skill was shared only between intimates as he rolled over on his back, his hands coming to rest on slender thighs looking into the elf's darkening eyes. Legolas allowed his weight to completely rest on top of the dwarf's, feeling Gimli's desire pressed fully against him under towel and clothing respectively. He could not keep still as his hands squeezed and caressed shoulders rhythmically and their bodies responded earnestly to the pleasurable friction their movements created.
Gimli's hands, Legolas thought dazedly. That is what he missed the most, the feel of the dwarf's hands on his body. They had long since removed all forms of restraints and were joined together, top to bottom in desperate longing. They moved in a steady deliberate pace, drawing out each sensation to its completion. Gimli held Legolas fiercely and possessively, grasping hips, rubbing thighs, crushing the elf's body close as he found his way deeper inside the inviting warmth.
Legolas' mind knew nothing but infinite pleasure and the sense of belonging. He was Gimli's elf. The young elf felt such blissfully agonizing heat coursing throughout his body he thought he would burst into a flame of passion. He moved more frantically against the dwarf whom despite Legolas sitting astride him maintained much of the control in the lovemaking, clutching legs and hips with firm precision.
Legolas was getting close and he threw his head back and wailed at the sweet ecstasy. "Right there," he gasped and the dwarf obliged him. The heat was almost excruciating and his body sang with promised release as Gimli brought him closer to his peak...
Legolas awoke with a start gasping loudly into the cold night air. For a wild moment, the shock of his awakening disoriented him and he would have surely fallen had not the tree he was resting in cried out in warning. Legolas steadied and tried to ground his thoughts in the here and now, a difficult task as the dream clung stubbornly to his befuddled mind. His chest heaved and his body was damp with sweat as Legolas finally began to gain a sense of his whereabouts.
He had returned to the autumn trees along the mountain pass to rest, the bleakness of the town's destruction dampening his spirits. After leaving Aragorn at the camp he set out alone towards the wood thinking about the town elders and how the healer, Orin vaguely reminded him of Gimli. The healer had hair similar to Gimli's and during the meeting, Legolas noticed how the firelight danced over the dwarf's red hair distracting him. The cider seemed to enhance his senses, as the elf became acutely aware of everything and apparently the effect applied in his dream state as well. He had never had a dream like that in his life. Everything felt...beyond real, even for an elf.
With that thought, Legolas realized that he still felt out of sorts, his body responding to the nature of the dream in an expected manner. His skin was flushed with heat, his breathing rapid and there was a very uncomfortable strain in his leggings.
He breathed a quick prayer thanking the gods that he was alone in the woods in this adolescent state applying every possible method of bringing his body down from its almost painful arousal. The frustration was reaching the point of madness and in final desperation Legolas put matters into his own hands (his mind too distracted to note the irony in the choice of words) and completed what the dream started. He tried to stifle most of his moans but soon realized the futility of it as he cried out against the released pressure.
He sagged exhausted against the tree waiting for his heart and breathing to slow to normal as he tried to piece together what exactly happened. His body was no longer physically aroused but to his dismay he could still feel the nagging sexual frustration pressing persistently at his mind until it was almost all he could think about. He also felt a strange warmness that was out of place considering the chilled weather and reminded Legolas of how he felt when he first drank the cider. The cider! Oh course, why didn't he think of it sooner. The cider not only heightened sensory perception but apparently acted as an aphrodisiac, for elves at least. The men and dwarf did not seem to suffer the same problem Legolas was currently facing. If that's the case then no wonder the dream was so vivid. He must have drunk at least six cups, being unable to stop once he got started.
The elf sighed in relief. If it was indeed the cider then it is just a matter of waiting for it to work its way out of his system. The last thing this mission needed was for him to behave like an elfling who just discovered sex. Aaron would probably dismiss it as elven peculiarity but Arik would most likely take the moral high ground and cast the Gondorians out of town ending any possibility of establishing a working relationship. Aragorn would be devastated and it would not help his confidence as king, the elf being well aware of the man's occasional self-doubt.
Legolas stood on the branch trying to bring order back to his appearance. He had to figure out a way to distract his thoughts from the longing and frustration he still felt until the cider was completely out of his system. He dared not go back to elven sleep. He did not think his nerves could take another dream as intense as the previous one. Sing, he thought suddenly. Sing your heart out. Legolas tilted his head back and began to sing up to the treetops. He thought himself clever until he realized he unconsciously selected an intensely erotic song. Shaking his head vigorously, he selected another song and began jumping and running through the branches hoping the exercise will further serve as a distraction. There was only a few more hours until sunrise, the cider would be gone by then, he had nothing to worry about, he thought, ignoring the fact that he could still feel the burning caress of dwarven hands on his body.
Legolas ran faster and sang louder.
Chapter Four: A Sense of Urgency
In the city of Gondor, Gimli the dwarf was in a deep exhausted sleep. For the past few days he had been working with the city engineers on a wall's foundation that had grown unstable causing the wall to sink. Gimli was the first to notice the developing problem, his keen eye trained in observing the habits of stone. He assured the king, who was at the time busy trying to appease his advisors about his traveling to Cool Waters, that the problem at its current state was repairable and even volunteered to help with the project. He thought it would be a simple task of refortifying the foundation but as they worked he realized the complex nature of their task. He worked tirelessly but inevitably his trip to the mountain town with Aragorn had to be delayed, the engineering project still incomplete. He recalled clearly how displeased Legolas was about the change in plans.
"It seems we were just reunited and now we must be parted again," he had said with a hint of frustration. He lay across Gimli's bed watching the dwarf on the other side of the room totally engrossed in the plans spread before him on the table. "Why not leave the task to Aragorn's people and come with us. They are more than capable of tending to their own city."
"Because I've already committed to this project and it would be wrong to abandon it now when people rely on me to help see it completed," Gimli said not looking up from his plans. "I will not be delayed long, a week at the most and then things will go back on schedule, I promise."
"Then I shall wait and travel with you when you are ready," Legolas said as he sat up. He was pleased with the simple solution and wondered why he did not think of it sooner. He expected Gimli to share his joy but was mistaken.
"No, Legolas. You need to go with Aragorn."
Legolas blinked in surprise, staring at the dwarf whose eyes remained locked on the papers in utter disbelief. "You do not wish for me to stay with you?" he said sounding hurt.
The dwarf made a grunt in response as though half listening, his main focus still on the wall plans. He was getting close to finding a solution.
"Gimli, look at me!" the elf said, bringing a fist down on the bed in exasperation, his impatience getting the better of him. He didn't like the feeling of being ignored.
Gimli, although slightly surprised by the uncharacteristic display, gave a huff of frustration as he looked at Legolas with an irritated glare. Legolas was not at all intimidated and returned Gimli' s look with his own penetrating stare. There was a brief battle of wills as both warriors stared defiantly at each other, both conveying their aggravation over the situation. On any other day, under any other circumstances, Legolas would have easily won this contest, however Gimli could detect a brief flash of emotional pain in the cerulean eyes before the wood elf turned his gaze towards the window.
Gimli softened then. He looked down, hands on his hips and gave a long weary sigh expelling his anger. He couldn't blame the elf for feeling frustrated. They've only been in the city together for two weeks and most of that time Gimli spent repairing the wall. Now it looks as though they will be separated again and the elf's patience for the dwarf's inattentiveness these past weeks was worn thin, a frequent occurrence since they bonded. He didn't like the situation any more than the elf but what were they to do. Legolas' insistence on staying with Gimli would not make sense to Aragorn and he was not sure if he was ready to cross that line of telling the king of their intimate bond. There never seems to be a right way to say it.
He looked up at Legolas who was stubbornly gazing out the window with all the air of an affronted elf. Two things Gimli learned since being with Legolas was that one, elves, especially this elf, were quick to anger and two, one must tread softly when dealing with such an elf.
Gimli walked over to the bed and stood before the elf who still refused to meet his gaze. Gently, the dwarf took Legolas' hands in his own and waited patiently until the young elf turned to face him, his bright eyes brimming with an unreadable emotion.
"With all my heart, Legolas, you know that I would always have you by my side," Gimli began, " but we have duties to uphold that may separate us at times. Aragorn needs you with him just as I am needed here."
The anger wavered on the elf's face leaving his cheeks slightly flushed until the tenderness of Gimli's words soothed it away. Legolas lowered his eyes feeling slightly embarrassed for his adolescent behavior and nodded in understanding. "I know this. I just...forgive me. I know not why I behave in such a manner."
"I think it may be the bonding," Gimli said practically, lifting Legolas' head so that he may study his face for any signs. "You did not start acting this way until after Fangorn. Remember, this is a unique bond. We don't know all the effects."
"What do we do then?" Legolas asked worriedly.
"We carry on as normal," Gimli said reassuringly, "and be there for our friend. That's all we can do at this point." He brought his hands up to frame the elf's face tenderly. "We will get through this."
Legolas gave a small smile before leaning in to kiss Gimli softly on the lips, allowing the closeness of the dwarf to calm his emotions. "I love you," he whispered. "I just want us to be happy."
"And we will be," Gimli said returning the kiss. "Have faith, my dear Legolas."
Legolas nodded resting his forehead against Gimli's, his hands resting lightly against the dwarf's chest, tangling his fingers in the thick beard as he closed his eyes. They were quiet for a moment, enjoying each other's presence before Legolas gave a wearied sigh.
"I must pack," he said quietly. "We leave at first light tomorrow."
He stood and headed towards the door, one hand lingering on Gimli's shoulder as though reluctant to break contact. Gimli returned the sentiment lightly brushing his hand against the elf's hip as he walked by.
"Will you stay with me tonight?" Gimli asked before Legolas walked out the room.
"Will you not be busy with the city plans?"
"I'm never too busy for you," the dwarf replied turning to face the elf.
Legolas smiled, leaning against the door. The dwarf always had a way with words. "Then I shall return shortly," he answered before walking out the room.
Gimli remembered that night well, the panted endearments, the mingled breaths. They parted amicably with the promise of seeing each other again soon leaving Gimli free to turn all his energies to the building project. By the third day, the dwarf had a sense of satisfaction as the wall progressed along better than expected. He retired early for a much needed rest but found himself jolted suddenly awake some time later by a strong sense of urgency, a name falling unconsciously from his lips:
He couldn't explain it. One moment he was deep in a dreamless sleep, the next he was wide awake, heart racing with the strong desire to find Legolas. He had a feeling the elf needed him. He got out of bed and paced around the room trying to get rid of the nervous energy.
He'd never had such a strong compulsion seemingly from nowhere. It was highly uncharacteristic. His mind was preoccupied with nothing but the elf. He was suddenly reminded of his father's description of a dwarven love bond particularly its intensity. "In the beginning," he had said, "all you can think about is your mate, almost to the point of madness. Coupled with the strong desire, it can almost become violent but not to worry, it is usually short lived and passes after the first consummation."
Something must be wrong, Gimli thought anxiously. He and Legolas consummated their bond months ago in Fangorn and many times after that. He should not be feeling these initial feelings but he could not deny the strong pull he felt towards the elf at that moment. There was no question he was going through the initial stages of the dwarven love bond, delayed as it may be, and if he was experiencing it then so was Legolas. How strange that it would start now. What could have triggered it?
He looked out the window and watched the night sky yield to the rising sun welcoming a new day. He had intended on using the time to make final touches on the wall project but now he had a change in plans. In the distance he could see the outline of the mountains beautifully stenciled against the morning sky, a sight he was well used to, however, this particular morning the mountains appeared alluringly inviting to the dwarf who knew his elf was somewhere within its peaks and valleys, a treasure waiting to be found.
With renewed purpose, Gimli strode to the bedroom door flinging it open quickly, startling a servant girl who happened to be walking by performing her duties. She did not expect anyone to be awake so early in the day. He gave the girl an apologetic look before replying: "Inform the steward that I will be leaving for Cool Waters today. I shall leave as soon as I'm packed." The girl recovered her composure quickly before bowing hastily, walking off quickly to rely the message. She could sense the urgency in the dwarf's request.
Gimli closed the door and began to pack. He wasn't expected in the town for another four days but he could no longer afford to delay. The pull was getting stronger. He had to go to Cool Waters. He had to find Legolas.
Chapter Five: A Strange Eventful Morning
Aragorn greeted the day refreshed and invigorated. He could honestly not remember the last time he'd slept so soundly. He felt motivated and prepared to take on the tasks set before him and for once he didn't feel the gnawing tension headache that preceded his more demanding duties as king. Perhaps this is a sign of good things for Gondor and Cool Waters, he thought good naturedly.
He stepped out of his tent and gave a long relaxing stretch; reaching his arms high into the autumn air as he felt his muscles lengthen and become loose. He breathed in deeply and the cold air was like a pleasant jolt to his system, making him feel vitalized by the invisible energy. Once again he longed for his days as a ranger, roaming the terrain, communing with the natural world. How simple it was back then, he thought, realizing that he took those days for granted. He must be mindful not to let such a thing happen again. The war, his ascension to the throne, his marriage to his beloved Arwen and many other events in his life taught him that life was too precious to allow it to pass by unnoticed. His duties as king caused him to lose sight of that goal but standing in front of his tent greeting the new day with a sense of ease and contentment, Aragorn felt he has rediscovered his focus.
Admittedly, he attributed his current state to the cider he drank last night at the elder's meeting; he could think of no other explanation. Almost immediately after leaving Legolas, he felt a pleasant euphoria that lasted well into his sleep. He sensed he had contented dreams but at the moment couldn't remember them. Although he believed he suffered no ill effects from the cider, he thought it best to use caution until he understood more about the potent drink. The last thing he wanted was to become ill.
His thoughts turned to Legolas at that moment, remembering clearly how the elf appeared visibly affected by the drink's contents, something that doesn't occur too often in the First Born. The twin elders and Orin didn't even seem fazed by the cider but this didn't surprise the experienced healer. If they have been drinking the cider every day for years, as Aaron implied when he described the ritual aspect of the drink, then their bodies were well adapted to the cider's potency in comparison to one not familiar with the bitter drink. An interesting way to test one's character, the king thought remembering Arik's comment during the ritual.
He was confident he and Legolas passed their test although he did not believe Arik's suspicions were completely put at ease. Aragorn had the feeling he would be walking on eggshells concerning this old man. The cold elder seemed ready to find fault at a moment's notice. Aragorn's high spirits told him that the rigid elder would be hard pressed to find any fault with this relief effort.
He walked around the camp, greeting those who were up early making last minute preparations. He had divided up the relief workers into three groups based on what was discussed in the meeting. The largest group would focus on building sturdy shelters to protect the townspeople from the coming winter. He wanted to build at least five shelters by the end of their stay; his head contractor assuring him that such a task could be done. The next group would be committed to agriculture, strengthening the crops so that they could survive the cold weather. Legolas had suggested setting up a nursery so that the seedlings could be spared the harsh conditions of winter and be ready for planting in the spring. The elders were impressed with the elf's idea, particularly Arik who appeared very passionate about the agriculture, especially the apple orchard, which is the foundation of the town's economy. Many of the trees were destroyed by fire and Legolas' idea of a nursery was received well by the stern elder. The final group would assist the healer Orin with the sick and injured as well as other miscellaneous things that may come up suddenly. Aragorn would, of course, be taking part in each of the groups' activities but would spend the majority of his time with Orin where his healing skills would be most useful.
Aragorn blew out a breath forming a white vapor in the cold air. He thought of having one more meeting with the workers before heading into town going over last minute details and reemphasizing the need for proper conduct. It was not that he was worried about his men, he had strong faith in their honor, he just wanted to make sure nothing would go wrong on their part. He didn't want to give Arik any ammunition.
The king informed his group leaders of the impending meeting that would take place within the next hour, sending them off to relay it to the others. Legolas should be back in the camp by then, he thought. He saw how enchanted the wood elf was with the forest as they came into town and Aragorn suspected Legolas was having a difficult time tearing himself away. Probably spent the entire night singing to the treetops, he thought with a smile. Elves!
It was quite some time before Legolas finally returned to the camp, moments before Aragorn's scheduled meeting. Aragorn was just becoming concerned about the elf's absence when he saw Legolas wandering amongst the tents looking quite odd. The elf's tunic was torn on his right sleeve as though caught in branches, his hair, usually perfect and in place no matter what activity, was marred by a single small twig sticking haphazardly in the golden tresses. Aragorn was even more baffled by the fact that Legolas looked completely oblivious to his appearance, his eyes downcast, his brow furrowed in worried agitation as he chewed on his lower lip distractedly as though lost in deep thought.
Some of the workers were starting to give the elf curious glances and Aragorn decided it was time he sought out the cause of his friend's condition. The king walked cautiously over towards Legolas, noting how a variety of naked emotions crossed the pale face when Legolas finally took notice of his surroundings and the king's approach. Belatedly, he made a hasty effort to put his appearance in order. Running his fingers through his hair he found the twig and clumsily pulled it out, putting his hair in even more disarray. By time Aragorn stood before him, Legolas was quite a sight although he put on an air of typical elven composure as though nothing was unusual. "Legolas," Aragorn began, not sure how to address this situation. "How are you this morning?"
Legolas forced a smile. "I am fine. Well." He spoke hurriedly. "You?"
"I'm well," Aragorn answered slowly eyeing the elf critically. Legolas seemed to grow more agitated under the scrutiny, shifting his body uneasily with nervous energy.
"What?" he finally asked defensively.
"Legolas, are you sure you're alright? You don't seem to be yourself this morning."
"I assure you, I am fine," the elf replied with a hint of exasperation. "What has you so...oh, you mean this," and Legolas held up the small twig in his hand shrugging his shoulders dismissively. "I was so moved by the forest's beauty I decided to run through its branches. Spur of the moment, really. I suppose I got carried away."
Aragorn made to say more, wishing to comment on the elf's agitation but one of his group leaders came at that moment to inform him the men were assembled for the morning's meeting.
"Meeting?" Legolas said with exaggerated interest. "You failed to inform me of a meeting." And the elf brushed past Aragorn to join the assembly, effectively ending the king's line of questions. Aragorn sighed in frustration but decided to pursue the matter at another time given that his friend did not appear to be in immediate danger.
He kept the meeting short not wanting to be redundant with issues he'd brought up before. When he felt everyone was on the same page, he concluded the meeting by asking if there were any questions, not really expecting any, which is why he was caught off guard when Legolas raised a question.
"Do you think Gimli will find the detour we had to take to get to the town? He tends to lose his sense of direction in the forest."
Confused silence answered the question as everyone attempted but failed miserably to make sense of the elf's question. Given the topics of the meeting, the question came completely out of nowhere. It was as if Legolas was not paying any attention to what was said. In fact, the elf did not even look at Aragorn as he asked the question, his attention fixed on the mountain trail as if waiting for someone to appear.
"Gimli is more than capable of taking care of himself," Aragorn finally replied completely bewildered now by the elf. Legolas seemed totally disinterested in what was going on around him. "His help will be most appreciated when he arrives but for now we must do...what we can...Legolas!" he said sharply realizing the elf was no longer listening to him. The elf jumped slightly tearing his eyes away from the trail and looking about him as if noticing the band of relief workers for the first time. He looked frustrated and confused.
"Can you help with the nursery?" Aragorn asked softly with concern.
Legolas nodded with assurance, shifting uncomfortably under the unwelcome attention. Aragorn dismissed the men to their tasks, once again approaching the elf when they were left alone.
"Legolas, I need you to be honest with me. Are you well?"
Legolas gave Aragorn a nervous side ways glance as though debating whether to reveal his problem. "I will be," he finally replied quietly. "Last night I ...I had difficulty finding rest."
"You were unable to walk in your elven dreams?" Aragorn asked anxiously his concern even more piqued by this admission. He learned early on as a novice healer under Lord Elrond's tutelage that elven dreams were a strong indicator of an elf's general health, especially their mental well-being. Anything that interfered with the natural flow of the dreams would require serious attention and care.
"No," the elf answered slowly, distractedly, looking even more uncomfortable. His eyes drifted back to the mountain trail and he began to unconsciously trace his collarbone, shifting about in building agitation. "I dreamed... Are you certain Gimli will find the detour?" he quickly turned back to Aragorn a little impatiently. "We almost missed it ourselves. Perhaps someone should go meet him halfway to assure he does not get lost."
"Gimli will be fine," Aragorn said completely exasperated by the elf's fixation on the dwarf's welfare. "It's you that I'm concerned about. You..." and here he stopped suddenly remembering his thoughts last night at the elders' meeting and this morning. "Do you think the cider is affecting you this way?"
Legolas' eyes widened at the mention of the cider. "Affecting me in what way?" he said in panic becoming defensive once again.
The king started back a little at the elf's intensity. "You seem on edge," he said reasonably taking on his healer role. "I was thinking the cider may have had unexpected effects on you."
Legolas brought his hand up to his head in an effort to gather himself. He felt he was flying in different directions at once. "I considered the same thought myself," the elf admitted wearily. "Forgive me if I do not appear to be myself. Although I do not believe there is a reason for alarm, the cider's effects make me ... uncomfortable."
"Uncomfortable?" Aragorn repeated thoughtfully. "Could you be more specific?"
Legolas looked at Aragorn then quickly averted his gaze, a faint blush forming in his cheeks. "I would prefer not to," he said thickly. He began walking towards the town hoping his friend would drop the matter but he was not that fortunate. Aragorn strolled along with him persistent as ever.
"Legolas, I understand you are not comfortable with facing the possibility that you might not be in perfect condition but I only want to help you. Please talk to me. You mentioned difficulty resting. Tell me of your dreams. Do they seem different to you in some way?
He could have sworn the elf stopped breathing at that moment becoming even more flushed than before. This only convinced Aragorn he was on the right track.
"Legolas?" Aragorn asked determined to get to the root of his friend's problem. He turned Legolas to face him. "The dreams are different aren't they? Tell me about them. They may be a clue to what the cider is doing to you."
Legolas knew exactly what the cider was doing to him, but he didn't want to share it with Aragorn. Thinking about it brought back vivid sensations; panted breaths, the feel of hot skin pressed together, dwarven hands roaming all over his body leaving fiery trails of pleasure.
Legolas blinked and shook himself trying to focus his mind elsewhere. He could feel his body responding to the vivid memories. It was suddenly becoming very hot to the elf. He had to find a way to distract himself or he would go insane.
Aragorn was watching the elf closely with growing concern. "Legolas, perhaps you should stay at the camp until we figure out what is wrong."
"No!" Legolas cried out. Sitting around with nothing to occupy his mind was the last situation he wanted to find himself in. "No, I must work. Work on the nursery. I cannot stay in the camp. I will..." Legolas stopped himself realizing that he was borderline hysterical. He was having a considerably difficult time keeping his emotions under control. He was becoming easy to provoke.
He closed his eyes and took a calming breath before regarding Aragorn who was still stunned by the elf's earlier outburst.
"Aragorn, please trust me. I will be well."
The king looked as though he would argue and Legolas mentally prepared himself for another line of questions and reasons for him to stay but Aragorn merely sighed and gave a nod of consent not wanting to agitate his friend anymore than he already appeared to be. He could only hope that whatever was bothering the elf, he would figure out a way to manage it himself.
Legolas smiled in relief as he resumed his walk to the town heading towards the orchards. Aragorn remained thinking of the strangeness of the elf's behavior and the connection to the cider.
"Aragorn?" Legolas asked tentatively, pulling the king from his inner thoughts.
"Yes, Legolas," the king replied turning to face the elf who was even more flushed as though the question he was about to ask embarrassed him somehow.
"When Gimli arrives, you will inform me, yes?"
Aragorn sighed and resisted the urge to throw his hands up in disbelief. He greatly admired the elf and dwarf's friendship but this was ridiculous. He can't get the elf to talk about his own ailments but he probably could get him to speak all day of Gimli without nearly as much hassle.
"Yes, Legolas. You'll be one of the first to know."
Legolas nodded appreciatively, turning to continue his walk in a more leisure manner as though lost in his thoughts. Happy thoughts by the way the elf smiled to himself, his fingers once again lightly tracing his collarbone.
Aragorn shook his head at the peculiarity of the entire morning. Things had started off so well and ended with him being totally perplexed by his friend's odd behavior. The king prided himself on being one of the few mortals who had an intimate understanding of elven ways but he could not even begin to formulate a rationale explanation for Legolas' behavior. Clearly, the cider was affecting Legolas more than he was willing to admit, Aragorn concluded, and as king, it was up to him to figure out exactly how. It was time to see the elders.
Aragorn tugged his cloak closer around his body in irritation as he made his way to the town, frustrated that his friend refused to confide in him and put him in such a position of having to confront the elders about their beloved cider. How was he to bring up the issue without offending the town leaders or appearing weak in their eyes?
The morning that had greeted him with the promise of good fortune now mocked him with stress and duty as Aragorn crossed the war-ravaged terrain heading towards the small town. He sighed inwardly as he felt the beginnings of a wearisome tension headache.
Chapter Six: The Dawn of Understanding
The people of Cool Waters loved to gossip; in such a small town it was easy for one to know the business of all. Ladies chatted in the market place, men talked on the porch or in the fields. Even the children had their source of information and with the arrival of the king, the small town was in a buzz.
"He's such a handsome man," the ladies would say. "I hear he is married to one of the fair folk."
"He looks to be a man of honor," some of the men said rationally over smoking pipes, "a good head on his shoulders."
Although the king and his organized and well-disciplined group of relief workers delighted the townspeople with their novelty, nothing fascinated them more than the strange ally that accompanied the king, the one Elder Aaron called a Wood Elf.
The people were eager to share their thoughts and offer tales of what they heard about the mysterious elves. His strange beauty captivated them and his graceful movements left them in awe. He looked delicate to the sturdy citizens, like spun glass, and yet as the elf worked along side the relief workers, the people saw within the fair being a quiet strength.
By noon, the entire town spoke of the elf who worked with unerring focus and fast precision, his zeal never failing as he worked as if it were his way of life he was trying to restore and not that of strangers. The elf moved about constantly, rarely stopping, always with a project in mind. He worked vigorously and the people were impressed with this strong work ethic.
But Legolas was hardly aware of the townspeople, totally engrossed in distracting himself from the lingering intensity of last night's dream. Whenever he became aware of a thought or sensation, he worked even harder on the tasks assigned to him. Initially, it worked. Legolas' fascination with the unique genus of apple tree was enough to divert his attention away from the more sensual of thoughts and his desire to help the unfortunate townspeople proved to overshadow his more erotic ones.
But it did not last.
Very soon the idlest of comments or actions reminded Legolas intensely of Gimli and he found himself longing for the dwarf's company. His mind drifted back to the last night he spent with Gimli before leaving on the relief mission. He reminisced happily on how Gimli took him slowly and deliberately, pressing him back into the bed, surrounding him possessively with his love, until he was left breathless in the pleasure, yielding himself to Gimli's touch. Afterwards, Legolas would feel an odd but pleasant sense of pride in belonging to Gimli, wrapping his long, limber body over the stout, strong body of his lover.
Making love with Gimli was never the same twice. The dwarf was so varied in his method of seduction and Legolas could not decide which he liked best. Some nights, like the night before they parted, Gimli was an attentive, patient lover, taking his time to appreciate every texture and marvel at the changes the elf went through as he writhed under the dwarf's tender touch. Other nights, the passion seemed to come to the dwarf suddenly, like a flame doused with oil and Legolas was gladly consumed in this fire as he was tossed and used until both collapsed in divine exhaustion, clinging to each other with shaking limbs and sweat.
Unimaginable bliss. Those moments when he was too tired to move or make a coherent thought, Legolas knew what it meant to have a dwarven lover.
Standing on the roof of the new nursery, Legolas yearned for such passion as he helped put the finishing touches on the structure. He made small mistakes but hardly noticed them, his mind becoming more preoccupied with the feel of the dwarf's weight on top of him, the touch of a large calloused hand in the most intimate of places. He wanted to be taken in such a manner that left little doubt as to who was his mate.
His body burned with sensual heat, his eyes growing dark, his breath gradually increasing as his mind played with sexual urges. He was losing his ability to focus on his tasks but he was becoming more unconcerned with that matter. His thoughts at the moment were only for Gimli.
So absorbed in these thoughts, he failed to heed the warning cry of one of the workers and he uncharacteristically stumbled on a slight imperfection in the roof, crashing painfully onto his left shoulder as he began to slide rapidly towards the cold hard ground below. Reflexively, he reached out and grabbed for anything that might stop his descent and his hand wrapped around the rough ledge of the roof, leaving him dangling precariously from the edge.
Everyone within the vicinity was in a state of panic, seeing the usually graceful elf in such a careless, vulnerable state. The workers rushed to help the elf out of the nearly disastrous situation. If he were a mortal, Legolas would have surely crashed to the unforgiving ground, breaking a limb or two.
However, being an elf, Legolas managed to regain some sense of composure as he swung himself safely back on the roof, cringing in pain as his battered shoulder protested against the movement. His face had a subtle color of embarrassment and his heart, fueled by adrenaline, pounded in his chest.
His shoulder throbbed painfully and he suspected that he had done serious damage. However, it did not completely take his mind away from sexual heat within him and he recognized the danger in letting his mind wander again.
He made his way down gingerly with the use of the ladder, dismayed by how easily distracted he had become. This fixation on Gimli was not natural, he thought with concern. He began to wonder if there was something more than the cider causing such behavior in him.
Perhaps Aragorn was right in wanting him to stay behind in the camp. He was becoming a liability here at the work site. His next lapse could result in the injury of one of the workers and Legolas would not be able to forgive himself if a tragedy were to occur because of his carelessness.
Waving off questions of concern from the workers, Legolas made his way off to a secluded spot so he could take a better look at his shoulder. Since the war, the elf was very particular about showing any signs of injury in front of Men. Only Aragorn and Gimli have ever seen him in such a state. He didn't quite understand this need. Gimli had called it elven vanity and perhaps he was right. Being the sole representative of elven kind during the war, Legolas had felt an obligation to live up to the high expectations of Men's fables.
He tested the shoulder hesitantly, wincing in pain as the shoulder strained against the movement. It felt tender to his touch and he could feel a bruise forming under the skin.
Damn it all, he thought irritably. There is no excuse for such carelessness. What is wrong with me?
He began to pace, holding his shoulder absently as he pondered how to proceed. He could not continue to work, at least not today. Tomorrow, most definitely, after the shoulder has healed. But that meant having to return to the camp and Aragorn, of course, would wish to see the injury, which would invariably led to questions regarding how he got the injury in the first place. Those were questions he did not want to discuss with his friend and yet it looked as though he would be forced to do so. Aragorn would not be so easy to brush off now that he has managed to hurt himself.
This is all Gimli's fault, he surmised tetchily, conveniently ignoring the irrational logic behind the thought. If the dwarf were here, then I would not have this frustration. We could simply find an isolated spot in the woods and be hot and sweaty in a matter of minutes but no...
Legolas jumped slightly in surprise, realizing once again that his concentration slipped. He whirled around and saw Orin standing before him wearing an expression of concern. The elf however was rooted in dumb shock for a moment as his mind saw Gimli and not the dwarven healer, the two sharing enough of a resemblance.
Orin turned his head to the side thoughtfully as he studied the elf, noting the distant look in his eyes and the flush in his face. "Are you alright? That fall looked serious."
The elf blinked in a moment of incomprehension, still seeing visions of his beloved dwarf before his mind snapped back to reality with a jolt.
"Fall?" he said a little loudly, finally understanding the question. "Yes, the fall did look serious."
Orin nodded slowly in agreement a little confused by the elf's response. To his experienced observation, the elf appeared to be having difficulty concentrating. He glanced at the shoulder Legolas still favored. "Let me take a look at your shoulder. You seem to be in a lot of pain."
Legolas hesitated. He didn't know if he would be able to handle being in such close proximity to a dwarf that reminded him so much of Gimli. He stalled. "I do not believe that will be necessary," he said tentatively. "Elves heal quickly. I will be well by morning if not sooner."
"Yes, yes, I'm aware of the healing powers of elves," Orin replied dismissively as he guided the reluctant elf to a nearby log. "All the same there is no reason for you to be in pain if something can be done about it. Now sit here. I'll have no more arguments."
Before Legolas could fully grasp what was happening, he found himself seated cross-legged on the ground with Orin seated behind him on the fallen log already beginning his examination of the injured shoulder. Mindful of the cold, the healer only removed enough of the elf's clothing to reveal the injury. Legolas froze under the healer's gentle touch, looking at everything around him in an effort to distract his mind from the sensuous thoughts bubbling to the surface
This is not good, he thought anxiously as he felt his body begin to respond to the innocent contact. The heat pooled in his stomach and diffused throughout the rest of his body making him giddy and light headed. He could not help the slow smile that caressed his lips as his eyes fluttered shut at the growing pleasure.
A sensible part of his mind managed to break through the euphoria and compel him to regain some sense of control before he embarrassed himself. He shifted about awkwardly as he tried to remind himself that Orin, not Gimli, was simply doing a routine check on his shoulder and nothing more. Unfortunately, the added friction seemed to magnify the pleasure in Legolas, making his plight much worse.
"Am I hurting you?" Orin asked, thinking the elf's movements indicated discomfort. He stopped his examination not wanting to cause more pain, resting his hands lightly over the heated flesh of the shoulder.
Legolas breath caught in his throat. "Not at all," he sighed, releasing his breath slowly. He was beginning to realize he was quickly losing the battle. He was practically panting in desire.
Orin nodded and dutifully turned his attention back to the shoulder. "You have a nice bruise forming here," he said, resuming his ministrations. He then paused noting something odd. "Legolas, are you sure you're feeling well? You feel quite warm considering the cold weather. Legolas?"
But Legolas did not hear the healer's query. In his mind there was the intense sensations of being taken urgently, being possessed and filled fiercely as his hands clutched desperately to thick, wool-like hair and strong back, feeling the muscles tighten and tense under the force of the primal act. In this strange dream, Legolas felt his head fall back in abandon as the raw passion tore through him. His body moved of its own accord and he was aware of nothing but the promised pleasure dancing beyond his grasp. He urged his partner on wantonly, needing him inside even as he felt he would go mad with the desire. He needed it. He had to have him.
"Please," he moaned softly. "Gimli, please."
"Gimli?" The odd voice shattered his visions and he wiped around suddenly startled by the intrusion. He remained crouched down low like a tight spring ready to strike at the slightest provocation as he stared at the stunned healer as though he did not recognize him. He was aware of only one thing: finding Gimli and purging this fire within him.
Orin raised his hands slowly, palms out in a non-threatening manner. No one else around them appeared to notice the tense situation developing away from the work site. The healer remained calm as he spoke, feeling an odd sense of familiarity in the elf's behavior.
"Legolas, its alright," Orin said calmly. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Legolas eyes were dark as he scanned the terrain anxiously; his breathes forming rapid white clouds in the cold air. "Where is Gimli?" he asked desperately.
"Gimli, of the Nine Walkers?" Orin asked.
The elf became more agitated. "I must find him! Where is he?"
"Are you and Gimli close, Legolas?" the healer asked, although the notion seemed obvious by the elf's desperate need. His suspicions were rapidly growing. He never considered the possibility but he suppose such a thing could happen between a dwarf and elf.
Legolas looked at the dwarf, confused by the questions. The two stared at each other for what seemed like minutes, each waiting for the action of the other, but Legolas suddenly found a sense of clarity, becoming drastically aware of his behavior, his body already beginning to show the physical signs of his arousal.
Orin also noticed the return to normalcy, as he finally understood what was happening to the distraught elf. He studied the elf's face carefully. "Legolas, let me..."
But the elf turned and ran swiftly towards the river with Orin calling out after him to no avail. Some of the workers turned curiously at his call, wondering what prompted the elf to leave so suddenly.
Orin stood pondering what just occurred. It has been many years since he last had to deal with the issue of bonding. His own personal experience had shown him that the bonding can occur with non-dwarves and yet he never in his life thought he would have to deal with it concerning an elf but the behavior was hard to ignore. Clearly, Legolas was going through the final stages of the bond and Gimli was nowhere around to complete it. Not good. The bond became dangerous in its prolonged state.
Orin composed himself, wishing to be as discreet as possible around the workers, mindful of the delicate nature of the elf's condition. He made his way towards the direction Legolas ran with calm urgency. As a dwarf he was well aware of what Legolas was going through, sympathizing with his feelings of frustration and need. However, as a healer, he had a responsibility to see that no harm came to the elf in his irrational state.
With this last thought in mind, Orin broke into a brisk jog, propelled by his concern and sense of duty.
Chapter Seven: A Cold Swim and Truths Revealed
Aragorn found the elders walking slowly but purposefully through the town, greeting passers by and occasionally stopping to ask in more detail of the welfare of various people. The king could clearly see in their interactions that the elders deeply cared about the people in their charge. Their duel personalities suited them well as leaders in a time of crisis.
Aaron was jovial, always smiling, talking with loud enthusiasm. The children upon seeing the happy elder would run to him, eagerly throwing their tiny arms around him in a hug, speaking rapidly of their day as they tried to talk over one another. There were times when Aragorn had seen the old man weighed down by at least five children in what looked to be a battle of wills; who is going to relinquish their hold first? If Aaron was uncomfortable with the little ones hanging off of his body it didn't show on his face. He laughed happily, returning as many hugs as possible before parents urged their children to release the kind elder, dismayed by their child's behavior.
Arik was more reserved and related much better with the adults. He rarely smiled but there was no coldness about him, only the serious, no nonsense attentiveness one gives to a task as daunting as restoring the livelihood of an entire town. He spoke with quiet directness and reason, and although the children did not flock to him as quickly as they did for his brother, they all held a tremendous respect for the old man.
They were so different in their approach and yet the twins had a wise nature about them. Obviously, they had seen and learned much in their lifetimes. Leadership seemed to come naturally to them. Aragorn wasn't confident enough to say the same for himself.
Such a notion made Aragorn wish they'd met under less dire circumstances. It also made him more reluctant to broach the issue of the cider. The last thing he wanted to do was offend the elders but he had no choice. He had a responsibility for the people under his command, including a particularly difficult elf.
The king strode towards the small group of people surrounding the elders, rubbing his hands together vigorously to bring warmth back to them. It was late afternoon and the wind still had a biting cold that seemed to easily penetrate the king's heavy clothing. No matter how he arranged his cloak, he could not shield his vulnerable skin from the persistent cold. The sun, when it was not hiding behind a cumulus cloud, was his only salvation, its warm rays thawing out the weather-bruised skin of his face and hands.
Soft, he thought unhappily. Court life has made you soft, Aragorn.
Aaron was the first to see him as the king made his way down the dirt path that bisected the small town. He could already see the big smile on the always-optimistic elder and he braced himself for another off beat conversation.
"Greetings, your Majesty!" came the loud call. "It's so good to see you this fine morning. I trust you and your men rested comfortably last night?"
"Yes. Yes, we did. Thank you for your kindness." Aragorn had given a mental sigh of relief that the elder did not make a big show over his title. No sweeping bows or over-the-top greetings. Just a simple gesture between two men, nothing...
"Children! Children, gather around quickly. There is someone I want you to meet!"
Aragorn was stunned momentarily by the complete contradiction of thought to action as a sudden influx of young children, no older than eight, gathered around him and stared with wide, curious eyes. Aragorn stared back, feeling quite uncertain about the situation. He was accustomed to dealing with warriors and he was just beginning to learn how to work with diplomats and politicians, but children...the king found himself in new territory.
Aragorn gave a hesitant smile, waving a hand tentatively in greeting as Aaron leaned heavily on his cane so he was level with the children. "Children, do you remember my stories about faraway kingdoms, brave knights and wise kings?" the old man asked.
The children nodded their heads.
"Well," the elder continued, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "this man before you is King Elessar, a real, live king!"
The children gasped dramatically, looking at Aragorn with renewed fascination. He could not help but smile at the reaction and his anxiety dissipated quickly. Around him, he could see the adults grinning with amusement over the children's wonderment. Even Arik wore a small smile.
Then the questions came: " Do you were a crown? Did you slay a dragon? Is your castle big?"
"Now children," Aaron admonished lightly sparing Aragorn some embarrassment, "remember your manners. He is a king. So my little gentlemen will bow and my little ladies will curtsey, right? Let us show our honored guest how well mannered we are."
The jolly elder winked at Aragorn conspiringly and the king's smile grew wider with his merriment, watching the antics; the boys bowing lower than necessary and some more than once and the girls taking the hem of their dresses as they try to curtsey as gracefully as possible.
Aragorn was moved by the gestures. He made a grand bow to the children in return. "What graceful and polite children you are. I am honored to be in your presence."
Many of the children were struck dumb by the concept of a great king being honored to be in their presence and they could not hide their glee.
Aragorn spent more time talking with the children, learning their names and finding out more of how they've coped with the sacking of their small town. Many were orphaned or homeless and Aragorn's heart went out to them. His thoughts went to his own people in the White City who suffered similar misfortune. Perhaps we can help each other heal, Aragorn thought, a vague idea forming in his mind.
Finally, one of the elders announced the time to depart and the children groaned in disappointment. The king promised to visit again at the school and this seemed to lift the spirits of the most forlorn in the group of little ones. With final goodbyes, the twin elders and Aragorn began making their way towards the orchards.
The three men walked together in silence, each lost in his thoughts. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud, shifting the shadows slowly and warming the air but not so much as to serve any other purpose than to remind the men how truly cold they were. Finally, Arik broke the silence with a simple statement. "The people speak highly of your relief workers, especially Lord Legolas."
Aaron brightened at the mention of the elf. "Oh, most certainly! Your elven friend is the hottest topic in town as of late." Aaron made a teasing grin. "And how the ladies swoon over him! There will be many of tears shed the day he leaves town. It must be the ears." He said this last point more to himself as if he were trying to solve one of the greatest mysteries of the known world. "Tell me, your Majesty, is he married?"
Aragorn chuckled softly to himself, shaking his head. "No, I'm afraid Legolas has not found one worthy to be his mate."
"What?" Aaron sounded incredulous. "With looks like that I'm surprised he's not beating the she-elves off with a stick."
The king could not help a short laugh at the image of the brave archer brandishing a stick to hold over-amorous she-elves at bay. He was glad his friend was not present to hear this conversation. "Legolas is considered young by elven standards and perhaps have yet to reach the point of interest in finding a mate."
"Are you sure about that?" Aaron baited, raising an eyebrow playfully.
"Oh yes, quite sure," Aragorn replied without a second thought. "Legolas and I are good friends. He would tell me if someone has managed to capture his heart in such a manner."
"Well that should make some of our young ladies quite happy," Aaron said. Then he narrowed his eyes suspiciously and added, "and some of our young men, strangely enough."
Arik huffed in disbelief, horrified by his brother's crassness but chose not to say anything of the matter, much to Aragorn's relief.
They arrived at the orchard where the workers were putting the final touches on the nursery. Aragorn looked about approvingly. The structure was completed ahead of schedule and blended well with the natural environment, no doubt thanks to Legolas' influence. The king breathed a sigh of relief that something was going right today.
"Ha!" Aaron exclaimed happily, his face beaming, "a fine piece of craftsmanship. Brother, what say you?"
Arik glanced about speculatively. "It appears to be good work although I would like to get a closer look before passing a final judgment."
"Of course," the king replied, extending a hand. "Follow me. Let us find Legolas so he can tell you all they have done."
But they did not find the elf anywhere within the vicinity. Instead the Head Contractor greeted them, a tall, lean man who served the steward before Aragorn became king. He bowed respectfully. "Your Majesty, Elders, how good it is to see you."
Aragorn gave curt nod in acknowledgement. "Bowen, I must commend you and your men on your fine work. The nursery looks outstanding."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," the contractor replied, beaming with pride, "although we cannot take all the credit. We would not have finished as quickly without the aid of Lord Legolas."
"Yes, we were hoping for the chance to speak with him but cannot seem to find him. Is he around?" Aragorn's gaze swept the area expecting to see the elf at any moment.
Bowen gave a deep sigh, suddenly looking very nervous. "He's...not here. I believe he may have injured himself when he fell earlier today."
"He fell?" Aragorn asked in shock, hoping that he misheard. At the same time, a bewildered Aaron added, "Elves fall?"
"It didn't appear too serious," Bowen quickly continued wanting to put the king at ease. He looked decidedly uncomfortable relaying the bad news, finding it difficult to explain considering he did not completely understand what happened. "He just appeared distracted and...the healer was with him but then he ran off," he pointed towards the forest, "over there, towards the river. He must not be too injured for he was moving rather quickly. The healer had a hard time keeping up with him."
"How long ago was this?" Aragorn asked.
"Not long ago, my lord."
"Why would he go to the river?" Arik asked. " Would he not want to stay with a healer if he were truly injured."
The contractor shrugged his shoulders helplessly, unable to find a reasonable explanation and Aragorn could hear a hint of suspicion in the elder's question.
"I'm sure Legolas has his reasons and they will all become clear as soon as I find him. Bowen, would you be so kind as to show the elders the nursery while I go seek out Lord Legolas?"
"Yes, my lord."
Aragorn left quickly, excusing himself politely from the elders' company. Aaron showed great concern for the elf's welfare while Arik wore an unreadable expression. The king didn't even bother to worry over the elder's thoughts; his main concern was for Legolas. The combination of the strange behavior earlier and now the fall had Aragorn truly worried. He took some comfort in the knowledge that Orin was now involved. Perhaps the healer could provide insight into why the cider would affect Legolas so strongly. He did have more experience with the drink and it would probably be easier to question him rather than the twin elders.
He soon emerged from the trees and found himself facing the river. The water made a quiet soothing noise as it flowed down the mountain at a meandering pace. Aragorn looked about and found Orin standing on the riverside looking out into the waters. The elf was nowhere in sight.
"Orin," the king said with authority as he approached the dwarf. The healer jumped, startled by the man's sudden appearance. "Where is Legolas?"
Before the dwarf could answer, the sound of splashing water directed the two's attention back to the river where Legolas was just breaking the surface. Orin gave a heavy sigh and Aragorn stood dumbstruck. The water must be freezing. Aragorn was well aware that the cold did not affect elves as it did mortals but that didn't mean that they do not feel it. If exposed for too long, the cold could have damaging affects. What would possess the elf to commit such a foolish act? Aragorn felt his patience snap like over-stretched twine.
"Legolas!" he roared. "What are you doing?"
The elf whipped around suddenly at the call, a bewildered look on his face as he gazed at the dwarf and man standing on the riverside as though surprised to see them there. He blinked his wide blue eyes, wiping water away from his face before slowly making his way out of the water.
Aragorn turned on Orin. "You have some explaining to do."
"Me?" Orin looked genuinely surprised by that reaction. "What did I do?"
"The cider." As Legolas finally climbed out the water, Aragorn took his cloak and flung it around the elf's shivering body. He stood for a moment, too angry and frustrated to speak, shaking his head in disbelief. Legolas seemed to recognize this and remained quiet not wishing to provoke the man's anger any further. Finally, the king gave an exasperated huff before facing the healer again. "What is in that cider?"
"The cider has nothing to do with this," Orin said defensively.
"Legolas started acting strangely soon after he had the cider last night. I demand to know what is in it."
"Water, apples, cinnamon and extract made from the bark. It's harmless. Trust me, your Majesty. The cider is strong but it wouldn't do this. This is something far more serious."
"What is more serious?" the king demanded, growing frustrated that he was finding more questions than answers.
Orin paused. "You mean...you don't know?"
The healer glanced briefly at Legolas realizing that he has to take a more direct approach. "Your Majesty, We don't have a lot of time. We need to find Gimli as soon as possible."
"What does Gimli have to do with Legolas jumping into freezing waters?"
"He was...Legolas is..." Orin didn't know exactly how to tell Aragorn of the circumstances related to Legolas' behavior. Clearly, the man was unaware of the relationship. He took a deep breath and started over in a calm, deliberate tone. "This is going to be difficult to understand but I believe Legolas and Gimli are...bond mates."
Aragorn stared silently at the healer, his brow furrowed in concentration as his mind tried to process the words, 'bond mates.' "What?"
"They're lovers," Orin blurted out quickly, feeling the urgency of the situation. They didn't have time for all of this. "They probably tried to initiate a dwarven love bond but given that Legolas is not a dwarf, it takes longer to complete. We need to find Gimli so they can...consummate...their bond. I know this is difficult to accept but you have to believe me. Their lives could be in danger."
"You're mistaken," Aragorn said finally, trying to get a grasp on the situation. "Legolas and Gimli are not lovers. They are my friends. They would not keep something like that from me. They..." but as he spoke he began to think back on times he had seen the elf and dwarf together, constantly together, extending gestures and comments that seemed so harmless back then but now carried great significance. Aragorn was speechless.
"Ask him," Orin said quietly, reading the confusion and hurt on the man's face.
Aragorn turned slowly back towards the elf, forgotten during his argument with Orin, and regarded him with a questioning look. Legolas had stood quietly, unable to get a word in as the two healers argued over his welfare. He looked at Aragorn with wide eyes full of guilt, shivering pitifully. The cold and the effects of the bond made him feel absolutely wretched but nothing compared to what he felt when he saw the look on his friend's face. His heart clenched at the sight of it. He said the only thing that could come to his troubled mind, wishing he were back in the river instead of facing his friend's hurt.
"We were going to tell you."
Chapter Eight: The Heavy Weight of a Guilty Conscience
The sun was setting on another day and the mountain forest prepared for the coming of night. The day was like any other; the trees continued to grow beneath the sun's rays as moisture and nutrients rose within their roots. The animals, from the tiniest ant to the largest bear, worked instinctually in anticipation of the cold winter, her sharp, invigorating scent they could smell riding on the northern winds. Busy was the essence of life and it did not rest. The night would bring the owl, the field mouse, and all other forms of life whose circadian rhythms were governed by the passing of the moon.
The setting sun casts a cloak of cold gray over the forest, and a calm settles amongst the trees. But the scene of tranquility was broken suddenly by the loud sounds of tramping footfalls within the bush. Animals scattered. And the forest became tense in silent wariness of the unfamiliar visitor.
Gimli stepped into the clearing completely unaware of his startling impact. His mind was beset with worry and guilt. He could feel the impulses of the bond growing stronger and he could only imagine what Legolas endured alone, without him. Two days since he left Gondor with a small group of relief workers (at Faramir's insistence) and he felt no closer to his goal. Gimli's urgency set a punishing, almost frantic pace and the men struggled to keep up. They did not understand the dwarf's sudden compulsion. No message of distress came from the king. All appeared well yet Gimli marched as though life depended on his timely arrival. He took little rest and hardly any sustenance. To linger too long in one place would leave the dwarf restless, impatient, and ever ready to resume their trek even as the men thought they would drop from exhaustion. Loyal to their king and his friends, the men followed as best they could, trusting that the dwarf's urgency was for a valid reason and worthy of their effort. Unfortunately, even the hardiest, most stout of Man would be hard pressed to keep up with a determined dwarf, uphill no less, and the men lagged.
Finally, they stopped out of necessity but Gimli did not wish to stay. He encouraged the men to rest and informed them he would travel ahead alone. It was imperative he made it to the town as soon as possible.
Disappointment and shame were familiar allies that day and the head of the small party pulled the dwarf aside to speak so he may placate his own concerns.
"My Lord Gimli," he began earnestly, "Is there something I am not aware of? Is our king in danger and in need of our aid?"
"No, no," Gimli said reassuringly, feeling a twang of guilt for the man's concern and confusion. "As far as I know, the king is well. There is no need to fear."
"Then why do we march with such zeal? Why are you so compelled to make it to Cool Waters so quickly?"
Gimli hesitated. "It is of a...personal matter, " he answered slowly. "I shall go alone and impose on you no further. Feel neither shame nor disappointment for your men. They carried themselves honorably."
The leader nodded in gratitude, uncertainty still in his eyes, but when he saw the dwarf was determined to press on without them, he placed extra provisions into his hands. "Safe travel to you, Lord Gimli," he said quietly.
A day later, Gimli stood in the clearing, the baser need of hunger forcing him to finally take rest. He sat and ate his rations, although it could have been dirt for all Gimli was aware of. He chewed absently while he mentally berated himself for what he perceived as carelessness on his part.
I should have paid more attention.
The elf's unusual behavior was indication enough that something was amiss; how he was easily frustrated and prone to jealousy. Even his desire to stay with Gimli in the White City was a reason for concern. One of the things Gimli loved about Legolas was his independent spirit yet Gimli had dismissed the changes in behavior as more elven peculiarities, not wishing to draw his attention away from the building project that delayed his travel in the first place.
But it was by my choice that I remained. No one forced me to stay.
In hindsight, the dwarf now realizes Legolas' desire to stay with him may have been an instinctual reaction to the growing, but delayed, bond and his ignorance may have put them both in danger.
You pushed him away when he reached out to you.
Gimli ignored the fact that he didn't have much experience with the bond and there was no way for him to know how it would affect them considering Legolas was an elf. However, being a dwarf, he placed all the responsibility upon himself to anticipate and address matters that may arise and Legolas trusted in him completely. Now seeing the error in allowing Legolas and he to separate during this critical time, Gimli bore all the blame as well.
If anything happens to Legolas, I will never forgive myself.
It was that last thought that brought the dwarf quickly to his feet and he tore through the forest again, ever desperate to reach the small town. A foreboding was growing in his heart and Gimli was sincerely afraid. Night fell about him and he knew soon he would be forced to stop for the remainder of the night, fearful of losing the trail in the dark, unfamiliar land. In fact, it probably made more sense to go ahead and make camp now while there was still light but an irrational urge coursed through his body and mind, compelling him to cover as much ground as possible.
In his mind, he prayed. He prayed that Legolas was well, that he was not sick or injured from the bond. He prayed that the elf did not regret his decision to be Gimli's bond mate or was angry with him for abandoning him during his time of need. Gimli prayed that Legolas still loved him and was waiting for him.
Back in the small town, Aragorn sat quietly in Orin's small cabin while the healer tended to Legolas' needs. Orin had suggested taking the elf back to his home as discreetly as possible given that it would be difficult to explain why Legolas was soaked through during the cold months of early winter. Aragorn agreed with the sensible suggestion but said very little on the way back. He could see Legolas glancing in his direction with wide, questioning eyes but Aragorn made a point not to look at him. He was still trying to come to terms with what the healer told him at the river.
Legolas and Gimli are lovers? A part of him wasn't too surprised by the news. His friends have always been close, having more in common than both thought possible. If they shared their bodies for a brief moment of solace during the perils of the war, Aragorn would not have even hesitated to believe that. It was a common occurrence amongst warriors. But clearly this was more than just a desire to scratch a lustful itch; this was love. Why else would Legolas put himself at risk?
But why would they not tell me?
That was the question that gnawed persistently in Aragorn's mind more than any other. He always considered himself an open-minded man. Being raised by elves, he couldn't help but be tolerate to most of the nuances of Middle Earth. And he thought Gimli, Legolas and he shared enough hardships and triumphs not to have secrets between them. So why would they hide something so important from him?
"Here Legolas. Drink this. It will help ease the symptoms of the bond."
The healer's quiet voice pulled Aragorn from his thoughts and he looked up to see Orin standing next to Legolas, who was seated on a low cot with his head in his hands looking miserable. When they had returned to the warmth of the cabin, they dried Legolas and put him in warm clothing as quickly as possible, but the elf's body continued to shake slightly. When Aragorn commented on it, Orin informed him the shakes were not due to the cold but to the bond. As the night fell, Aragorn later assumed that the flush in the elf's face, the light perspiration and the distracted look were all symptoms of the bond as well.
Legolas looked up at the dwarf worriedly before reaching out to take the cup.
Orin nodded encouragingly. "It will taste a little bitter but I assure you it will help. Drink all of it."
Legolas mumbled his thanks before draining the cup completely of its contents, his face scrunching up slightly at the bitterness. He returned the empty cup to its owner and Orin urged the elf to lie down. Legolas was all too willing to comply and he stretched out on the cot, facing the wall where he quickly fell into an elvish sleep.
"Rest is what he needs for now," Orin commented quietly, taking a seat across from the king.
Aragorn nodded absently still looking at the still form of the elf on the other side of the room. "Will he be alright?" he asked with concern.
"For now. The medicine I gave him will ease some of his discomfort but it won't take away the symptoms. He needs his bonded."
Aragorn shifted uneasily in his chair, his face reflecting a mixture of confusion and disbelief, but he nodded in acknowledgement of the information. He knew he should be concentrating on how to get Gimli to Legolas or vise versa but his mind was elsewhere.
Orin studied the king's worrisome pose. "You wonder why they didn't tell you."
Aragorn looked at the healer with eyes full of shame for thinking of himself during such a desperate time but the healer's expression was only that of patient understanding. "It is none of my concern," Aragorn began, diverting his eyes, "what they do with their private lives. They are under no obligation to share anything with me they do not wish to be revealed."
"But you wish they did," the healer added knowingly.
Aragorn met the healer's eyes briefly before bowing his head, looking intently at his hands. "Yes...I wish they did. It was obviously significant to them..." Aragorn stopped, at a loss for words. He looked up at the dwarf as if in search of answers. "How long has this been going on?"
"I don't know," Orin answered. "For some time, I imagine."
Aragorn shook his head. "Why didn't they tell me? I know their bond would have been viewed as strange or unwelcome by some but surely they didn't think I would have been one of those people. I would have protected them if need be."
"Perhaps they didn't want to worry you," Orin suggested. "Your responsibilities as king are great and your time is precious."
"I would have made time for them!" Aragorn shot up out of his chair and began to pace in the small room, feeling very frustrated. "Had I have known, I would not have insisted on Legolas coming with me or Gimli staying behind to finish the city wall. They would have been together and not in danger."
"They probably didn't know this would occur," Orin replied, trying to ease the king's guilt. "The bond between a dwarf and another race is strange and rare. Gimli and Legolas' bond is only the second case I've seen in my long life."
"What was the first?" Aragorn asked, wishing to understand more about this mysterious bond.
"Orin sighed deeply. "My own."
For a moment, the king's faced showed surprise but then it dissipated to a newfound understanding. "That is why you're here," he said quietly. "You bonded with someone here in the village."
Orin nodded gravely. "She was the daughter of a woodcutter, fiercely independent...and difficult to get along with," he added with a small smile.
Aragorn sat back down in his chair slowly, sensing there was more to tell. "So her people accepted you and your love for her?"
"Not initially," Orin began, poking randomly into the fire. "They tolerated my presence more out of necessity. You see, when I first came to Cool Waters, ten years ago, the town was beset with plague. The healer at the time was one of the first victims. When the elders learned of my skills, they asked that I might stay until the replacement healer arrived from Gondor. Toya had volunteered to assist me in the healing rooms...she was a very compassionate woman." Orin lowered his eyes and his voice became almost a whisper as he looked back on the memory. Aragorn, sensing the dwarf's sense of loss, said nothing but waited for the dwarf to continue. "Eventually, our working relationship began to change into something more and I found myself falling in love with her. I was terrified. I didn't think anything like that was possible and I surely didn't think she could return my love, but wonders of wonders...she did."
A small noise from the other side of the room drew away their attention and they looked upon the sleeping elf to determine if all was well. Legolas shifted slightly, mumbling in his sleep (Aragorn never knowing of the elf ever having such a fitful rest) before he became still again.
The healers looked back at each other, sharing equal concern for the elf. Aragorn sighed anxiously.
"We bonded by way of my people," the dwarf resumed, "and all appeared well until many months later. I came home one day and she did not seem herself. She said she was feeling strange all day and by her actions I quickly realized what was happening."
Orin sighed and looked at the king. "A dwarf's bond is intense, consuming. There are even some dwarves who cannot withstand the emotions that come with it. They become irrational, violent, especially if they believe their mate to be threatened. She experienced the symptoms for only the short time it took me to make my rounds and yet she thought she would go insane."
Aragorn sat disbelieving, becoming even more fearful for his friends. "What a strange and terrifying phenomenon." The king hesitated, knowing his next question was a very personal but necessary one. "Did the bond...was Toya...did the bond kill her?"
There was a long silence and Aragorn thought he would have to repeat the question but Orin answered, "No, it did not. Long distances, like your friends, did not separate us. She was cured within the day and our bond was much stronger." Then he bowed his head. "It was the last orc raid that killed her," he added more quietly.
"My sincerest apologies," Aragorn began. "I..."
But Orin waved him off. "There is no need to apologize. I understand your need to ask and yes, your friends' lives are in danger, especially Legolas'. He's already losing control and in such a state, he can become very unstable. He could destroy himself."
Aragorn began pacing the room again in frustration. His first thought was to simply take Legolas back to the White City but he did not know for certain if Gimli would still be there. There was the possibility that the dwarf already left and the king's unexpected return would only exacerbate the situation. He could not risk missing Gimli on the mountain trails. Besides, if Orin was right, Legolas would not be the most cooperative traveling companion and the forest was the last place he wanted to lose a wood elf. Any forced action on his part would be seen as a threat to the elf's irrational mind.
The king felt stuck between a rock and a hard place.
"Is there no other way to stop the bond?" he asked finally.
Orin sat quietly; studying the floor in consideration but eventually just shook his head. "I wish there was, your Majesty. Aule created the bond to bring mates together and to help procreate our race, in most instances. There's no way around it. The only thing we can hope to do is delay the worst of it."
"For how long?" Aragorn demanded, irritated at his own sense of helplessness. "By our original plans, if all went well in the city, Gimli is not expected to arrive for another two days. Can Legolas last until then?"
Orin looked doubtful.
"I didn't think so." Aragorn resumed his pace for a short moment then came to a final decision. "We have no other options. I will go in search of Gimli and hope I can meet him halfway while you stay here with Legolas."
It was not the best plan but it was the only plan he could come up with and the king felt he had to do something, being a man of action.
Orin looked as if he would raise a point when a knock on the door ended their conversation. Orin hastened to the door not wishing to disturb Legolas and revealed Bowen standing on the other side.
"My lord," the head contractor bowed respectfully but urgently. "Master Orin. I was told I would find you here. Is everything well?"
"Yes," Aragorn answered promptly, positioning himself so that he blocked the man's view inside the healing room. "What brings you here?"
"The Elders, my lord. They wish to speak with you. They say they have concerns."
Concerns? No doubt it was Arik with the concerns. Aragorn found it hard to believe that Aaron would have a problem with the relief effort. His brother however was a different matter and the king found himself in no mood to accommodate the strict, almost unreasonable standards of the stoic elder. In fact, he quickly realized, he had some 'concerns' of his own he'd like to discuss.
"Very well," he said aloud. "Tell the Elders I'll be with them shortly."
"They said they wish to see you now, my lord," Bowen said reluctantly, clearly repeating what was told to him.
Aragorn's anger boiled. 'Tell the Elders I will see them when I am able! I will not jump and run at their beckoning call!" He had no intention of taking his frustration out on the startled man and felt almost sorry seeing him nervously bow and beg pardon, but the well being of his friends took priority. Anything else proved only to get in his way.
Bowen left quickly and Aragorn took a moment to quell his anger before regarding Orin. "I will go see the Elders," he said in a much calmer tone, although his body was still rigid, "and hear their...concerns. It will give me the opportunity to tell them of my impending departure. Will you please stay with Legolas?"
"Of course, your Majesty."
"My thanks to you, Orin. I will return shortly."
Orin bowed and watched as the king left the small home, unintentionally slamming the door in his mounting anger. Orin sighed heavily, looking back at the elf, still asleep on the cot, despite all the noise made, then back to the door, shaking his head.
"Aaron, Arik," he said wearily. "This is not the time for your games."
Chapter Nine: To Speak of Reason
Aragorn vainly tried to remember the last time he felt so frustrated. Helm's Deep, perhaps, but that was different. He had the task of killing orcs as a means of venting his aggravation and the tangible goal of surviving to sunrise. Here, however, in the battle-worn yet oddly pleasant town of Cool Waters, Aragorn had neither. So his frustration and anger grew as he made his way to the Elders.
There were still a few people about in the late night tending to small tasks before settling into the warmth of their shelters. The air had become considerably colder and the king was thankful there was no wind to add to the chill. He looked up and saw the black sky speckled with stars as a full moon cast its light upon the earth.
Peaceful, but Aragorn was too angry to enjoy it.
The king stalked his way across the town silently fuming. Those who saw him knew better than to say anything to him for it was obvious he was in no friendly mood. For the first time since his arrival, Aragorn radiated unquestionable royal authority. There was no reluctance, no uncertainty, only the set determination of a ruler on a mission. This struck such an impression, some bowed with more formal grace than necessary as the king passed.
'How dare the elders make demands of me!' But he could not solely place the blame on them alone. His compliance must have given the older men reason to believe they could get away with such requests. The mistake was his but he planned to rectify it, just as he was determined to tell them of his departure.
His mind kept turning back to the image of his friend, lying on the cot in discomfort, his condition becoming steadily worse with no way to alleviate it. Orin's words rang persistently in his mind:
"There is no way around it."
"We can only hope to delay the worst of it."
"He needs his bond mate."
Aragorn still did not completely understand this dwarven bond but he knew enough to understand his friends' lives were in danger. He couldn't bear the thought of losing them. Not like this, not after all they've been through together.
Aragorn soon found himself standing on the porch of the Elders' home. He took a moment to take deep, cleansing breaths in an effort to quell most of the anger that accumulated during the time it took him to reach his destination.
He knocked on the wooden door, with a little more force than he intended, and waited for the summons, which didn't take long. Obviously, the Elders were waiting for him and by the look on Arik's face as he sat on the pillows with his brother, he didn't appreciate the wait.
But Aragorn couldn't care less. He seated himself across from the identical men, studying each in turn. Aaron looked nervous and tense, as if he was expecting and preparing for a fight. Arik wore his usual stern visage but it was harder, if that was possible, and his eyes bore into the king with the same intensity Aragorn extended towards him. After a moment, Arik finally broke the electrifying silence with a low, tight voice.
"We were expecting you much sooner than this, your Majesty."
"I had other matters that required my immediate attention," the king returned unapologetically.
"More important than the welfare of our town?"
"The welfare of all people within Gordor's lands is important to me. I have no need to choose one over the other."
Arik seemed to have no response for this so he sat quietly studying the king openly. Aragorn did not flinch under the scrutiny but he was anxious. He wasted precious time here.
"You had concerns," the king resumed sharply, directing the conversation to the matter at hand. "Speak of them quickly."
Aaron gave a tentative, nervous glance towards his brother before he answered the king. "It is not that we have concerns. We merely wish..."
"Why are you here?" Arik interrupted, ignoring his brother's look of dismay.
"Arik, please, you promised," the twin whispered pleadingly. Arik shook his head, his anger growing now that the question was asked. "Answer the question."
Aragorn recovered quickly from his surprise. "Explain your question," he returned sharply.
"Why are you, Gondor, here now after all of these years? Why is it that you can answer our call for aid now and not ten years ago when we desperately needed you?"
The king sat in silence, unable to answer right away, his momentum taken abruptly away. Arik seemed to bristle in his suppressed anger while Aaron sat in resignation, his head bowed as if in grief.
"I suspect it's because you want something from us," Arik continued bitterly. "Tell me, your Majesty, what does the great Gondor want from our small town? I'll tell you now we are not for sale!"
Aragorn recalled then Orin's story of his arrival into the small town during the devastating plague. How it was arranged that he serve as healer until the replacement arrived from Gondor. Aragorn assumed that the dwarf remained because of love but in this, the king found he was mistaken. After all, there was never a mention of a replacement healer ever arriving from Gondor.
"Gondor never answered your call for help," Aragorn said in realization.
"We lost many lives. Lives that could have been saved," Arik said, his voice breaking with angry tears as he turned towards his brother. "Including our own; my nephew and sister-in-law."
Aragorn regarded Aaron sadly. The elder sat quietly with bowed head before meeting the king's eyes. Aragorn gasped at the heavy despair in those eyes and marveled how a man appearing so jovial and carefree could carry such grief in his heart and sit quietly while his brother brought down accusation and blame.
"We begged for help," Arik exclaimed. "We went down to the White City ourselves seeking an audience with the steward but he would not even see us; turned away before we were able to plead our case. He could not be bothered with the affairs of mountain folk."
"The steward's youngest however, did lend us a sympathetic ear," Aaron added quietly as if in defense. "But he was powerless against his father."
"And now you come to us with hundreds of workers and supplies, parading into town as if you were saviors. WHERE WAS YOUR HELP THEN!" Arik shook, his face red with emotion, acting as though he wanted to rise but couldn't because of his aged joints. "Where was it?" he demanded in a strained voice that made Aragorn's heart throb with guilt.
"It's not his fault, brother, he did not rule then," Aaron said sadly but with determination. "Nor is it ours. We did what we could. We must let it go and move on."
Arik shook his head over and over again, and for a long moment could not speak. Aragorn sat with a heavy heart, the history between Cool Waters and Gondor grieving him deeply. The Elders had a right to be angry, to ask questions. He knew he would have demanded the same if he faced what they endured. He could not imagine losing Arwen because help, for whatever reason, was denied, yet the king had no words for the answers they sought. Words sounded so empty in light of all that has happened.
Arik finally found his voice although it was heavy with years of grief. "How can you ask this of me, Aaron? How can you ask me to forget? I do not understand you. You lost so much yet you would not be angry with the steward, you would not blame me. Is there no one responsible for this atrocity? Who shall hold the blame for this?"
"I will," Aragorn said firmly.
The twins looked at him with a mixture of awe and disbelief. "You will?" Arik repeated skeptically.
"Gondor has failed you," the king replied simply with remorse. "Although I did not rule during your time of crisis, I rule now and Gondor's actions, past or present, fall on my shoulders. Aid should have come to you then and it grieves my heart that it did not. If blaming me will help you heal, to move on, then I gladly accept it."
"It won't be that easy."
"And I do not expect it to be," Aragorn added quickly. "I fear I have failed to see how deep your people's wounds truly lie and Gondor's role in inflicting them." He sighed thoughtfully and regarded Arik and Aaron with such earnest resolve that the twins could not help but be moved by the sincerity. "I remember your words at our first meeting, Arik. Trust must be earned and my vow to you still holds, although I now hold a new perspective on the matter."
The leaders sat silently, allowing the king's pledge to ingrain into their minds. Neither could deny the young man's sincerity and both admired his steadfastness. A lesser man would have shirked away from bad deeds of old yet he took them up willingly, facing whatever consequences may follow.
For the first time since the meeting began, Aaron gave a small smile, the warmth returning to his eyes. "The effort to heal must come from both sides," he said as he turned his gaze towards his brother, who remained in quiet thought, his eyes cast down towards the floor. The anger appeared to have left him, leaving behind an old man full of uncertainty and tentative hope. " I am not asking you to forget, dear brother, only to forgive. For the sake of our people, I beg this of you."
"Forgive," Arik said softly to himself as he lifted his gaze towards the king. Aragorn met his gaze and held it, allowing the elder to take whatever reassurances he needed. He apparently found what he sought for the elder gave a slow nod as if giving consent. "Although trust is long to be earned, my heart tells me there is hope in you, your Majesty. Forgive me for my harsh words. I feel shame now for my behavior, especially in light of all you have done for us thus far."
Aragorn gently waved off the apology. "From this moment on, let us agree to start our new beginning here and move beyond past hurts."
Arik smiled and lowered his eyes in respect to the king's graciousness. Aaron gave a short laugh of glee. "A new beginning! Oh, how it fills my heart with joy that I may live to see such a thing." He laughed again, sounding more like the enthusiastic elder Aragorn meet his first day in the town and looked from the king to his brother happily. "Too bad Lord Legolas is not here to witness this moment. I hear wood elves love..." but he stopped short upon seeing the color drain from the king's face, a look of fear in the dark eyes. Arik noticed the change as well.
'By the god, Legolas! How could I have forgotten? I have lingered here too long,' Aragorn thought fretfully.
"Your Majesty, is everything well?" Arik asked with concern.
Aragorn hesitated in his answer, wondering how much he should reveal but decided that in light of their new understanding, it would be best not to have secrets between them. Besides, he may need their help in the end. "No, my friends, all is not well. Legolas is very ill," he answered as he made to rise.
"Very ill?" Aaron said in astonishment. "What ails him?"
"I am not exactly certain, myself but Orin is deeply concerned and believes Legolas' life to be in danger. I intend to return to my city and find one who may be able to help him."
Arik was the first to recover from the shock of the news. "Orin is a good healer. He will help your friend to the best of his abilities," the elder said confidently as Aaron nodded earnestly in agreement. "We will have provisions ready for your departure. The resources of our town are at your disposal."
"Yes," Aaron added worriedly. "It would be a shame if something were to happen to Lord Legolas. The people are quite fond of him."
Aragorn bowed in gratitude, touched that the elders' past experience with betrayal did not turn their hearts away from offering aid to others. "My thanks to you. I shall confer with Orin before I depart but now I must make haste. Farewell, my friends."
The king left and the elders sat in silence, wearied by the intensity of the meeting and now worry for the wood elf who helped their town in so many ways. Aaron looked sideways to his brother and saw the same concern and weariness he felt in his own heart. Arik had come a long way tonight, he thought, confronting his grief and guilt. Now perhaps he is finally ready to let go and forgive himself. Aaron was encouraged that his brother extended aid without hesitation, without thought of his own hurts.
Aaron reached over and squeezed Arik's hand that rested limply on his knee and said sincerely, "I am proud of you, my brother."
Arik said nothing but returned his brother's gesture with a tiny squeeze of his own.
Chapter Ten: A Turn for the Worse
While Aragorn and the Elders confronted past hurts and forged new ties, Legolas slept in Orin's cabin, deep in disturbing dreams:
The dream was as vivid as before and he had long since lost himself in the erotic sensations that assailed him from all directions. He could feel the sweat pouring freely from his body and the unnatural heat radiating within him like an unquenchable fire. A more desperate one followed each kiss and caress and he found he could not satisfy his lust. He pulled Gimli forcibly to him in a hungry kiss, moaning at the feel of firm, bearded lips upon his.
He was not himself, a small part of his mind determined amidst the lustful haze but he was too absorbed in his desire to care. It consumed him, taking away reason and leaving nothing but pure instinct. He felt a thrill course through his body as Gimli returned the intensity of his kiss and he sighed and smiled deliciously at the pleasure of it.
He liked this loss of control, the release of a primitive force within him that had been lying dormant for years, suppressed by the centuries of training and discipline a Mirkwood warrior must endure. Such a force lies within all elves as it fuels their passion but their long lives taught them to control it since feeling too much of this yearning was detrimental to their well-being. Legolas, however, was quickly becoming addicted to this liberation and no longer heeded any sense of wrong or alarm.
The elf arched his back and gasped on the humid air as Gimli nuzzled and kissed the soft skin of his throat. Legolas' chest heaved with the effort to breath as the sensations overwhelmed him. It left him light-headed, disoriented and impatient. He began to kiss Gimli again in a hard, frantic manner, surprising the dwarf with his aggression while his hands searched feverishly for the opening of Gimli's shirt. Legolas felt more of his control wane as instead of gently undressing his lover, he ripped the material viciously in two, scattering buttons everywhere. Gimli looked at him in mute shock at the uncharacteristic display but had no time to respond as he was violently shoved against the wall and set upon again.
Something had changed. As he crushed Gimli between the wall and himself, a small part of Legolas was terrified by what was happening. It wasn't right. But the larger part of him was reveling in the sense of power this domination gave him, blocking out all thoughts of reason. A low animalistic growl emanated from deep within his throat and the intense lovemaking turned into an attack. He could feel Gimli protesting but this only made him want more, to lose what was left of his control.
Gimli shoved him away and the elf looked at him with eyes black with lust and something more frightening. He no longer appeared as a beautiful elven warrior but as a predator, terrible and proud. With unimaginable speed, he shot out his hands and wrapped them around the dwarf's throat, squeezing with unyielding strength. He felt a different kind of thrill as his hands closed off Gimli's airway and he enjoyed it no less as the dwarf's struggles weakened. He could feel the life crushing beneath his hands and it excited him.
But deep inside the recesses of his mind, a sane, desperate voice cried out frantically, "Stop, Stop, Stop, STOP..."
"Stop!" Legolas cried out as he woke from his dream, his body shaking, his face drenched in sweat and tears. He gasped and heaved wretchedly as he wrung his hands as though trying to wipe away the feel of his lover's neck. He felt dizzy and sick as the heat diffused from his body. Falling back onto the cot, he curled in on himself, a wave of nausea washing over him like a sickening tide. He closed his eyes, trying to center himself but could not.
He despaired over his dream, the monster he had become. He would never intentionally hurt his beloved yet in his dream, he did. 'Where is Gimli?' he suddenly thought anxiously. He opened his eyes dazedly and searched the room seeing no sign of his dwarf and he despaired even more. His body trembled violently and he breathed heavily as if he over-exerted himself. Tendrils of panic began to form in his stomach making him feel more ill. 'I must find Gimli,' he thought, rolling weakly off the cot but he simply fell to the floor on his hands and knees, too disoriented to stand.
The sound of his name startled him and he looked up to see Orin standing before him with a cup in his hands and a worried look in his eyes. "Legolas," the healer began as he placed the cup down on a nearby table, "let me help you." He made to go to the elf but Legolas' eyes widen in panic and he backed away quickly until he was pressed against the wall.
Orin stopped instantly. "Legolas, I'm not going to hurt you." Orin spoke in a soft, calm voice. "You know me. I only want to help."
But Legolas shook his head defiantly, clearly not recognizing the dwarf for who he was, his mind muddled with thoughts of guilt, despair and longing. "Where is Gimli?" he demanded.
"He is not here," Orin reasoned, "but the king has gone to find him. You must be patient, Legolas. He is coming."
Legolas continued to look at the healer critically, the light of the fire giving him a ghastly appearance as it reflected off the sheen on his skin. He gingerly picked himself up with the support of the wall and slowly made his way to the door, his eyes never leaving Orin. "What is happening to me?"
"The bond is doing this to you, Legolas, remember? You must focus past it." Orin was afraid to move, not wanting to provoke Legolas into taking rash action but he also didn't want Legolas to leave the cabin, which looked to be the elf's intent. Orin racked his brain, trying to think of something that would calm the delusional elf. The bond was progressing faster than he anticipated, leaving him unprepared.
Legolas reached the door, keeping his eyes locked suspiciously on the dwarf as he blindly fumbled for the doorknob. Then a flash of confusion came over his face and his brow furrowed slightly. "This is not right," the elf said vaguely and Orin wasn't sure if the elf spoke to him, but he took advantage of the opportunity.
"Legolas don't leave. Deep down you know what I say is true. You know you can trust me. Please, come away from the door."
Legolas hesitated as uncertainty danced across his face and his hand wavered over the doorknob. "I...I have to find Gimli. I have to see...if he is alright." He shook his head as if shaking off sleep, opened the door and stepped out into the cold night.
Orin swore passionately under his breath and went out after him.
The night air was freezing but Legolas seemed oblivious to the temperature as he walked along the dirt road towards the forest. His eyes constantly roamed the sleeping town, hoping to see Gimli. "I am sorry," he whispered painfully. "I am so sorry, Gimli."
"Legolas!" Orin called out urgently, trying to keep his jaw from shaking. In his haste to stay with the elf, he did not have time to grab his cloak. He called out to the elf again, mindful of the volume for he had no desire to add more to the unraveling situation by waking up half the town with his shouts. The elf looked back at him fearfully but ignored him, continuing to make his way towards the mountain forest.
Orin was still reluctant to use force so he continued to follow behind Legolas trying desperately to reason with him but as they drew closer to the forest, Orin realized he had no choice but to take action or he would lose Legolas amongst the trees.
"Legolas, you must come back," he said as he jogged up next to the elf. Legolas continued to ignore him, his eyes fixed on the woods before him. "You are not safe here. We must leave now." The healer reached out and grabbed Legolas' arm and then immediately realized his mistake. Legolas looked at him with wide, penetrative eyes full of fear and anger. Orin flinched but did not release his hold.
"Legolas, you have to come back with me," Orin began as the elf proceeded to pull away from him. He soon found himself struggling against a fighting wood elf. "I don't want to hurt you! Legolas, stop!"
Legolas continued to fight but because of his weakened state, Orin was able to maintain his grip and keep the elf from fleeing into the woods. They struggled for some time until Orin, in a desperate move, used the weight of his body to knock the elf off balance and they collapsed on the ground with the healer pinning Legolas down. Legolas cried out in pain as his injured shoulder took the brunt of the fall. Orin pulled away quickly. "Your shoulder," Orin exclaimed, scolding himself for forgetting. "Legolas, I'm sorry. I..."
Suddenly, someone roughly grabbed his shoulder and pulled the unsuspecting healer forcibly off the elf, sending him dizzyingly through the air before landing ruthlessly on the ground. It took a moment for him to regain his senses but when he did, he looked up to see a dwarf, eyes bright with rage, battle axe in hand, standing protectively in front of the elf who looked too disoriented and unsteady to realize what was happening around him.
"HE IS MY ELF!"
It took no real guessing to figure out whom this was but Orin continued to lay sprawled on the ground in surprise. "Gimli! We didn't expect you here for another day or two," he began, trying to sound as casual as possible. He recognized the danger he was in. It was one thing to deal with a confused elf. It's an entirely different matter when dealing with a confused dwarf who thinks you're claiming his bonded. "How did you get here so fast?"
Gimli growled. "It doesn't matter. Apparently, I got here just in time." He took a step forward and Orin instinctively crawled back. He tried reason once more.
"My name is Orin, Gimli. I am the town healer. Legolas is under the influence of the bond...you're both under the influence of the bond. I'm only trying to help. What you saw...it's not what you think."
"I grow weary of your voice, healer," Gimli said the last word with disdain as he drew himself closer to the prone dwarf. He said a few choice words in dwarfish that made Orin's eyes widen with fear for his life. He had to think fast. Orin directed his gaze towards Legolas who was still on the ground but had managed to get to his hands and knees. His head was bowed, however, as if he were still struggling to regain himself.
"Legolas, tell him who I am," Orin said, fear lacing his calm voice. Legolas merely blinked his eyes, still unaware of the situation but Gimli became incensed.
"Your insolence dies here!" he cried and he brought his axe down heavily towards Orin's head.
The healer was barely able to dodge the blow and he felt the ground rumble with the impact. "Legolas!" he cried in panic, struggling to rise to his feet but he had no time before Gimli was upon him again, bringing down his axe. He dodged this blow as well but it was close. "Tell him who I am!"
The bond was affecting the dwarf differently than the elf, the healer realized with terror. Where Legolas was slower and unsettled, Gimli was more alert and quicker. With one swift kick to the midsection, he had Orin doubled over and on the ground, gasping for air.
Blackness rimmed the edges of his eyesight as consciousness began to slip away but a heavy boot planted on his chest brought Orin quickly back to awareness. Gimli stood over him, the determination to kill in his eyes, his face feverish with the bond, the leather of his gloves creaking as he tightened his grip on his axe.
Orin knew he was about to die. He thought of seeing Toya again, the color of her hair, the softness of her skin, her gentle smiles. Oh, how he missed her. But soon they would be together again thanks to a bond-crazed dwarf. His only regret was that once again, Cool Waters would be without a healer.
Bringing his axe up, Gimli made a loud battle cry, sounding the end of Orin's life and the healer laid resignedly waiting for the final blow.
The axe stops in midair and both dwarves turn to the forgotten elf, dazed but determined as he stood shakily on his feet.
"He is not our enemy," Legolas' voice was barely above a whisper but it sounded loud in the silent night. He reached for Gimli with a trembling hand. "He is not our enemy. His words are true," and with that, the elf began to sink to the ground but Gimli was immediately at his side to catch him, axe and healer forgotten.
He held the elf as the lithe body sagged in his arms, his anger replaced by a deep concern as he called to his love. "Legolas? Legolas, are you alright?"
The sound of worry in the dwarf's voice seemed to bring Legolas more to himself and he brought his head up wearily to look at his beloved's face. They looked at each other eye-to-eye, Legolas on his knees as Gimli stood before him, both looking as if they had seen better days but they were together and they were happy in that.
Legolas smiled tiredly. "You are late, my friend."
"Crazy elf. I am early. I wasn't expected for another two days."
"Ah! You are right. So you missed me that much, hmm?"
"Hardly. Someone had to make sure you weren't getting into trouble up here."
Legolas laughed and Gimli smiled tenderly at their bantering, both feeling immense relief over what was once a terrifying situation. Finally, the elf brought his head down wearily to rest on Gimli's shoulder while the dwarf held him in his strong embrace.
A little ways off, Orin was still on the ground watching the reunion and feeling immense relief of his own. He looked over to his right where the axe was discarded in Gimli's haste to get to the elf, seeing the heavy weapon planted in the earth blade first, handle still vibrating in the air. Then he looked over to the loving pair, holding each other in a tender embrace.
Orin shook his head, exasperated and fell back to the ground, staring up at the starry night. "I am getting too old for this," he said to himself, thinking that his wife, rest her soul, would have handled the situation much better than he.
Chapter Eleven: To See
Aragorn raced back to the healer's home, anxious to hear news but fearing the worse. He could not believe how much time passed while he was with the Elders. True, it was time well spent with both sides reaching a new understanding but at what cost? Legolas was not faring well when he left so he was extremely worried about what state he would find the elf in now that precious hours past with nothing accomplished.
It was still dark outside and the town was silent as its people slumbered within their shelters. Aragorn heard his hurried footfalls grate rudely against the peaceful night but he was too afraid to be concerned about stealth. An ominous feeling weighed heavily on his heart. He sensed something happened in his absence and the stillness of the night served only to embellish on the worst of the possible outcomes rushing through his mind.
His worried stride turned into a desperate sprint as he agonized over the unknown. It starkly reminded him of how he did the same for Boromir, racing to his aid only to hear the man's dying words on bloodied lips. Aragorn despaired as he realized that he had not spoken directly to Legolas ever since the nature of his condition was revealed. Too wrapped up in his own anger and sense of slight, he failed to notice that his friend was suffering and in need of support. Were his last words to his friend going to be those of anger and frustration? Would seeing the elf resting fitfully on the cot, looking more alone because Gimli was not there and he would not go to him, be the last time he saw Legolas alive?
He would do better, he prayed, pleaded to whomever was listening. He would be a better friend if Legolas recovered whole. His thoughts then turned to Gimli; his whereabouts, his condition. Was he suffering as greatly as Legolas? Would his plan still work? Has too much time passed? Aragorn never felt more helpless.
In the distance, he could see the healer's shelter and by the flickering light of a well-controlled fire, he could just make out the form of Orin sitting with head bowed. Aragon's heart lurched in fear at the sight of remorse. 'Oh, gods!' he thought, fearing he was too late. 'Please, gods, no!'
He closed the distance between himself and the healer in a blur, startling Orin as he looked up from his small plate of food.
Aragorn spoke in a torrent. "Legolas...what happened...is he...Am I too late?"
"Peace, peace, your Majesty!" Orin beckoned in a loud whisper as if not wanting to upset the delicate night. He glanced quickly at the closed door a few yards behind him before addressing the king again. "All is well, your Majesty. Legolas is out of danger."
Aragorn blinked in dumb astonishment, his rattled mind slow to process the unexpected news. "What? How? Did you find a way to stop the bond?"
There was a shocked pause. "Gimli's here," Aragorn repeated incredulously.
Orin nodded as he began fixing another plate of food. "He arrived not but a few hours ago."
"Are you sure it was him?" Aragorn asked still finding it difficult to believe the crisis was over so simply.
Orin gave Aragorn a level look. "Positive." And he grimaced slightly as shifted stiffly in his chair in search of a spare cup. For the first time, Aragorn noticed the healing solution and the familiar scent of cleaning salve. Orin wore a bandage on his hand and his clothing was arranged in such a fashion that made Aragorn believe his ribs were tightly bandaged as well.
"Do I want to know what happened?"
Orin looked at him as if accessing the man's current mental state. "Not yet."
Aragorn nodded, trusting in the healer's judgment. He made a gesture towards the bandages. "Would you like me to take a look at those?"
"Maybe later," Orin replied, extending a plate to the king. "For now, just sit here with me and enjoy some food and drink. You look like you could use a rest."
Aragorn then realized that Orin had made himself a little camp, moving most of the essential things outside. The fire was warm and inviting and the dwarf was bundled up in layers of warm clothes with a bedroll and items for cooking. Clearly, Orin intended to be outside for a while and it quickly occurred to Aragorn why the healer would need to make such arrangements. "Where are Legolas and Gimli?" he asked hesitantly.
Orin gestured with his head back towards the closed door of his shelter.
"I see," Aragorn said, still struggling to grasp the concept. "And have they...you know..." Aragorn quickly interlaced his fingers to illustrate his point.
"Oh, yes," Orin answered, finally understanding Aragorn's question. "Yes, I imagine so. They've been in there for quite some time. Although, I wouldn't expect to see them again until about mid-morning."
"Oh," was all Aragorn could think to say, his face turning pale as he sat heavily on the ground next to Orin who pushed the plate of food into his hand. The king looked beyond exhausted.
"It's probably best you don't try to think about it too much," the healer added sympathetically.
Aragorn nodded, looking down at his plate of food; toasted bread, fried sausages, it pleasantly reminded him of simpler days. He knew Orin's advice not to dwell on current matters to be sound but he found he could not let the issue rest just yet.
"What will this bond mean for them in the future," he asked seriously. "Will they forever be burdened by this need of close proximity?"
"No," Orin answered truthfully. "The bond is a union of souls more so than bodies. Now that the physical aspect of it is complete, they can and will live out their lives as normal. They will simply have a deeper connection than most, be more in harmony with each other."
"So this will never happen again," the king pressed.
Orin shook his head slowly. "Never again in Gimli's lifetime. After all, a dwarf loves only once. He has made his choice tonight."
Aragorn found himself torn between relief and sadness. Surely Legolas and Gimli were aware of the consequences of such a choice. Gimli is mortal and Legolas will one day sail to the Undying Lands. Destined to be parted and yet they chose to be together despite the fact that they will suffer broken hearts.
"I can't help but feel it will be all for naught," he said quietly, giving voice to his dismal thoughts.
Orin raised his bushy eyebrows in confusion. "Your Majesty?"
"They are bonded but it seems it will bring them more pain and sorrow than happiness. The elves are leaving Middle Earth and Gimli is mortal. They will one day be parted by death or by sea."
"I believe they have considered those things."
"Perhaps they did," the king responded softly as if he was speaking more to himself. "But is it worth the consequences that will result?"
Orin sat back thoughtfully, wishing to say the right words for this moment. The king seemed to be speaking of something beyond Legolas and Gimli. "Toya grappled with that same question when we bonded," he began and Aragorn looked up at him earnestly at the mentioned name. "It terrified her that I would out live her by so many years. Dwarves do not typically die of grief but she knew that when she died, I would live out the remainder of my fifty or hundred years alone and that she had a hard time accepting."
Orin looked at Aragorn with an open expression and it touched something deep within the king's soul as he found they shared more in common than the ability and desire to help others. "Some nights, particularly after being reminded of her mortality, like the death of a patient or a near accident or illness, she would try and make me promise that I would find someone else after she died. Someone that I could be happy with but I could never do it, I wouldn't. I told her that I would rather spend what little time we had together loving her with all of my being than waste all of my years with a lesser love."
"And what did she say to that?" Aragorn asked.
"Nothing. She wept but she stopped trying to make me promise. Instead our love became richer, fuller, we decided to stop fretting over the future and enjoy our love in the now because in the end, there was no one else I wanted to spend my life with."
Aragorn then thought of his own bond with Arwen, a bond that brought them great joy but a deep sadness in that his death will inevitably bring about her unnatural one. It was a choice that constantly weighed heavily on his heart and yet, as Orin said, he could not imagine his life without her.
"I am not worried about Legolas and Gimli," Orin said confidently. "They will find a way."
"What makes you say that," the king asked, surprised out of his musings by the weight of confidence in the healer's statement.
"Look at the odds that had to overcome," the healer replied matter-of-factly. "Gimli crossed long distances in an impossibly short amount of time and Legolas, despite his delirium, sought out his friend with all the determination of a warrior. They were going to find each other and I believe that even without our help they would have. That is more than just the urges of the bond at work. Legolas and Gimli will always find a way to be together."
Aragorn smiled. "I would have never thought I would meet a dwarf who believes so passionately in love."
Orin shrugged his shoulders innocently. "I merely believe that there is a match for every soul and if one is so lucky as to find that match then they should not question it. Simply let it be."
Aragorn smiled softly to himself, finding and appreciating the wisdom in the healer's words. "I hope they are happy."
"I believe they are," Orin replied thoughtfully as he poured himself another drink, then he added more sensibly, "If anything, they will be much easier to get along with from this point on."
Inside the small shelter, there was a scene of quiet comfort. The fire crackled softly in its place, casting a gentle light and pleasant warmth. The room was bare save for the essential items Orin needed to perform his duties as healer; glass jars full of herbs and liquids, spare bandages and gauze neatly categorized and on shelves made precisely so every item would be in easy access to the healer. The worktable was clean with eyedroppers, mixing bowls, mortar and pestle all lined and ready for use exactly where Orin left them.
Three cots lined perpendicularly to the wall dressed with crisp, white bed sheets, tucked and folded with orderly fashion added to the overall efficiency of the room, save for the farthest cot nestled intimately in the corner. Its sheets were crumbled and tangled, most of cloth cascading carelessly to the floor, which was littered with various items of elven and dwarven clothing. Comparatively speaking, it was a scene of chaos but it was pleasing in that the two occupants of the cot laid together in tender bliss.
Gimli laid awake, staring up at the ceiling as he absently stroked the hair falling down Legolas' back who rested completely on top of him like a living blanket Gimli took the time to enjoy the closeness of his lover in that moment; the boneless weight, the cooling skin pressed against his own, the feel of the elf's chest expanding as he took in a breath and the slightest movement of the dwarf's beard tickled by the exhalation. Legolas seemed to be more at ease than earlier, so satiated, his eyes closed to mere white slits of white, and for that Gimli felt lightheaded with relief.
The concerned dwarf reached up and gently placed his hand on Legolas' head and the elf stirred at the contact. Slowly, he lifted up his head and Gimli saw his beautiful pale face, slightly flushed with dark eyes, smiling down sleepily at him. Gimli's hand came to frame the face tenderly, his thumb caressing a high cheekbone and Legolas turned into the palm bestowing small lingering kisses into it.
"How do you feel?" the dwarf asked, trying to ignore the thrill coursing through his body at the feel of the elf's lips.
"M'better," came the muffled reply from somewhere inside the large hand. Legolas then looked at him with a mischievous glint in his eye and a playful smile before he leaned in to kiss Gimli dreamily on the lips. "And you?" he asked softly between kisses.
"Hmm um," was all Gimli could manage in confirmation as the elf continued to kiss him. The kiss deepened and Gimli thought that their conversation would be momentarily stalled but Legolas pulled away, a smile still on his face as he playfully arched an eyebrow.
"And to think you ran all this way just to 'feel better.' It is good to know that I have the right form of motivation to get you to cross great distances. I shall remember that in the future," and he rocked his hips against Gimli slowly.
Gimli sobered immediately, taking on a serious tone. "I would have been here sooner had I not the heavy weight of guilt upon me."
Legolas stopped his game, looking at Gimli in dismayed puzzlement. "Gimli, I was only speaking in jest. What is this talk of guilt?"
"I should have listened to you," Gimli said with such remorse that Legolas' heart ached with empathy. "When you asked to stay with me, I should not have pushed you away. If anything had happened to you..."
Legolas quickly hushed Gimli's words with gentle fingers on his lips. "But nothing happened, beloved. Release this weight upon your heart. We are together and out of danger."
"I made you doubt."
Legolas knew exactly what made the dwarf think in such a way and he felt his own sense of guilt at the recollection. The nightmare still fresh in his mind, he had shied away from Gimli's initial advances fearing the dream was actually an omen and not just the bond playing tricks with his mind. Gimli took his time with him, as much time as the bond would allow, and Legolas could see the confusion and guilt in his lover's eyes at his behavior. He let Gimli take control, not quite ready to trust himself and although their lovemaking served its purpose in relieving them of the bond's affects, it was tentative and did not hold their usual enthusiasm.
Legolas averted his eyes; suddenly unable to endure the anguish he saw blazing in the dwarf's eyes. Gimli deserved an explanation. "I held fears, Gimli," he confessed in a low voice. "But you were not the cause of them, at least, not in the manner you believe."
"What kind of fears?"
Legolas looked deep into his lover's eyes, his own pain shining bright in his eyes. "I fear hurting you. I fear what you must endure bonding yourself to one such as I."
"You fear for me?" Gimli asked, truly perplexed by the elf's admission. He always thought of Legolas making the larger sacrifice in bonding himself to a mortal. "I don't understand, Legolas."
"I am an elf," Legolas began sorrowfully, "a wood elf to be more exact. I do not like caves, my people will be slow to accept you, if they accept you at all, and I constantly pine for the sea, sometimes losing myself in my longing. You cannot deny that there is a better choice for a companion than I."
"And I am immortal," Legolas rushed on, unable to stop. "I will not change. I cannot grow old with you; experience the passing time as you do. It must be so bland and tiresome." Legolas spoke bitterly as if angry at himself for inflicting this wound upon his dearest friend. "I feel as if something has been taken away from you in your binding to me. Something precious and irreplaceable."
Gimli laid in stunned silence, unable to think of any form of proper response. Legolas looked down, his hair hiding his face from the dwarf's view but he could hear the sadness in the elf's voice when he spoke.
"I love you, Gimli. I always will but I fear my love will bring harm to the one I least wish to hurt."
"Do you regret your choice then?" Gimli asked with a voice soft and thick with emotion. Legolas looked up at him with wide, clear eyes and they studied each other, mere inches apart, breaths mingling, their hearts beating in broken staccato with each other.
"No," Legolas breathed out in a compassionate whisper. "Do you forgive me? That I would rather spend my years with you, my love inflicting whatever wounds, than walk life's roads without you by my side."
Gimli had to take a deep breath to reign in his tumultuous emotions but tears already began to leak from his eyes. "Only if you forgive me for asking an immortal to bind his life to a mortal's. Your love humbles me, Legolas. I accept whatever it offers, good or bad."
Gimli thought he saw relief pass over Legolas face before he leaned close and took him in a deep kiss. A new sense of peace seemed to wash over them in that moment. Acknowledging their fears, their love felt as though it became stronger, a foundation on which to stand on when faced with challenges.
Legolas pulled away breathlessly, his face becoming flushed with new desire. "So we agree that this bond will not be an easy one."
Gimli nodded. "Yes, but we love each other and will face whatever comes together. This I promise to you, Legolas Greenleaf."
Legolas sighed happily, gifting small kisses on Gimli's face. "Good because I believe we will be facing a challenge very soon."
"What is that?" the dwarf asked worriedly.
Legolas looked at him with a serious expression but his eyes were alight with playfulness and desire. "In the morning, we will have to face Aragorn and I can assure you he will want an explanation for why we did not tell him of our relationship. You know how he hates to be the last to know," and he broke out into an uncontainable smile.
Gimli looked at Legolas perplexed for a moment but slowly, a smile formed on his face that broke out into laugh that he shared with his lover. Legolas smiled down at him tenderly, lightly tracing lines of care on the dwarf's face. The look in his eyes told Gimli he was through talking for now and so, Gimli realized, was he.
With a quick movement of muscle, he had Legolas on his back and Gimli began to kiss his way down the long, strong body. He could feel the muscles twitch and jump under his lips and shiver throughout the body as his beard tickled the sensitive skin. He could hear Legolas' breath catch and his slim fingers weave their way into his hair as he kissed his taunt belly and caressed a hipbone. The soft skin underneath his hand began to grow warm and turn a rosy color all while Legolas sighed and moaned with need.
Gimli loved the sounds of Legolas' soft cries of pleasure during their lovemaking and he suspected that he would never grow tired of hearing them. He sincerely counted himself a blessed dwarf that one as fair as his lover would chose to be with him. He vowed every day of his life never to give Legolas reason to doubt. Tonight would be a start.
Moving lower, his mouth reached familiar territory and descended on his bonded with sensuous ease. He could hear his lover gasp and then give in to the sensations surrounding him and Gimli felt the weight of their intense conversation melt away in fluid warmth.
In that moment, Gimli decided that tomorrow's challenges could wait as he felt a sense of pride and love at Legolas' sighed words:
Chapter Twelve: The Bond of Friendship
Gimli was the first to awaken, the cool air from a far, open window rolling over his bare skin like an invisible wave. It felt good, like a long awaited reprieve. The dwarf was surprised to see that Legolas did not awaken at his stirring. The elf's eyes were closed in deep sleep while his body was nestled close to his companion's. Gimli took the rare opportunity to watch Legolas in what looked to be a mortal's rest. The elf looked beautiful with his golden hair disheveled, his face relaxed with a hint of vulnerability and the faint steady sounds of breaths that escaped through slightly parted lips. Although Gimli always thought of Legolas as breath-taking, he never looked more so than at that moment. However, the dwarf was mindful enough to know that the elf's deep slumber was in fact a sign of how close to danger they truly were.
Dwarven bonds, he reflected thoughtfully, were such strange things, putting loved ones and friends at risk. It made no sense. Why would a race of people evolve such a destructive phenomenon? This was not the first time Gimli wondered at the eccentricities of dwarven love. When he had watched friends and family members caught in the throes of it, he had wondered about its purpose then but found no satisfactory answer. Even now after experiencing the heat and primal urges first hand did he find himself no closer to an understanding. It was simply bizarre.
Looking down at Legolas, he gently brushed loose locks aside and sighed in relief. The elf was looking much better this morning. Whatever the dwarven bond was, it seemed to have passed through Legolas without any residual harm. Gimli thanked Aule for that.
Carefully, Gimli removed his arm that was draped protectively over his elf and climbed out of bed. Still Legolas did not wake but sighed and rolled languidly onto his back. Gimli dressed quickly, realizing as he did a scan about the room that they made quite a mess of things in their little corner. He would have to apologize to Orin later, in addition to the many other apologies owed to the old healer.
Gimli felt his face grow hot with shame as he recalled the night before. No reason, no rationale could enter his mind once he saw Legolas on the ground and Orin standing over him. His vision was a red haze of rage as he charged the dwarf, intent on killing him. If Legolas had not spoken when he did, he was confident he would have and the guilt, the tragedy of it all would have been too much to bear.
Now that the whole ordeal with the dwarven bond was over, Gimli was very curious to hear Orin's story of how he came to settle with these townspeople. Deep down Gimli felt a sense of kinship with this unusual dwarf and he hoped there was opportunity yet to start anew and forge a bond of friendship.
As he made his way to the cottage door, he pushed the curtains aside on some of the windows thinking the morning sun would rouse Legolas gently. Gimli could already hear the town's activity outside the door and he braced himself for what the day would bring him.
The town looked different in broad daylight and Gimli could see clearly the damage inflicted upon the settlement. He winced at the worst of it but had to give Aragorn's men credit. Despite their short stay, they had made considerable progress in the restoration efforts. He saw areas that would need his special attention and he made mental notes as he made his way through the town in search of the king.
Perhaps it was because they were accustomed to having a dwarf among them or maybe it was because Gimli was renowned as a member of the famous Nine, whatever the reason, the people of Cool Waters greeted him with warm, courteous respect, not the suspicious glares he had received in the past when he visited other small, secluded towns in his travels. Gimli wondered if it had always been so. His thoughts went back to Orin. Were the people this friendly towards the old dwarf when he first came to town? Gimli wanted to be optimistic, like Legolas, and see the good in people but his skeptical side won the battle. Probably not, he concluded as he glanced about at the townspeople working side-by-side with the relief workers. He imagined most of these people never went beyond the boundaries of the forest surrounding them and their only knowledge of the world beyond them was stories heard from passing travelers. It was a simple life but a narrow one. Orin's arrival no doubt caused a stir amongst the insular people.
Gimli shook his head and banished the cynical thoughts from his mind. Obviously there was a reason for Orin to stay. A dwarf typically did not stay where he was not wanted and the people seemed to have a good impression of dwarves given the way they acknowledged Gimli, so he concluded was something that bound the people and dwarf together regardless of how unusual it was.
Trust. The word popped into his head in answer to his unasked question. The people trusted Orin, looked to him when they were sick or injured. If he was anything like the healers in Gimli's home, he was also their counsel, their confidante, and one whom they could go to with their problems without fears of being judged. Again, a second pang of shame struck Gimli squarely in the chest as his thoughts turned to Aragorn. Although, they made light of it the night before in their warm embrace, Gimli was actually quite anxious about confronting the former ranger now that the true nature of their relationship was revealed. Of all the many roles he had played in his life, Aragorn identified most with being a healer and without question the fact that his closest friends' lives were in danger without his knowledge would weigh heavily on his conscience. The king would have every right to be angry with him and Legolas. After all they've been through together, this is what they hide from him, a moment that in dwarven tradition would have been celebrated openly and with joy. Aragorn should have been one of the first to know and Gimli would not blame the king if he had questioned the sincerity of the friendship.
On his honor as a dwarf, Gimli swore he never intended to make Aragorn doubt and he was ready to prove it. If, that is, he could ever find the blasted man!
Gimli stopped his purposeful stride, hands on his hips in a show of typical dwarven impatience. He was weary of his inept attempts at finding the king and decided the best way to make some progress was to simply ask for directions (much as it grated on his pride).
At this point, Gimli found himself near the section of the town where the women did their daily wash. Several women stood around large bins full of soapy water washing large sheets and various clothing while catching up on the latest town gossip. It was hard work but the time seemed to go by faster with the company of neighbors and friends.
Gimli couldn't help but feel like an intruder as he made his way over to the loud, talkative group. It always astounded the dwarf how females regardless of race seemed capable of having three different conversations at once and manage to follow every single one. It seemed like such an ineffective, never mind frustrating form of communication yet when it came to finding information, he learned that the best bet was to ask a female.
The sound of laughter met his ears as he drew closer and he could catch pieces of an ongoing conversation. When he stood before them, he bowed low in respect and introduced himself.
The women, of course, knew who Gimli was from the rumors of the dwarf's sudden arrival into town during the night and were quite astonished that one of such import stood in their midst asking for their assistance. They were very much eager to help.
"Lord Gimli, I believe I saw the king early this morning with the Elders," one of the women offered, taking advantage of the distraction to take a break from the strenuous task of scrubbing large bed sheets. "I imagine he is still with them."
"I see," said Gimli. "And where might I find the Elders?"
Here the women had to debate amongst themselves on the possibilities, the Elders apparently not staying in one place for very long. But fortunately, like many people in the age of their seniority, Aaron and Arik had a routine they adhered to strictly; therefore it was only a matter of determining the time of day.
"It is almost mid morn. They would have finished their morning cider by now. And as long as Elder Aaron didn't get anyone sick by shoving too much of that cider down some poor person's throat, they should have went on to the school."
The other women nodded and murmured in sage concurrence, knowing well Elder Aaron's fondness for their local cider and his eager insistence on sharing it with every visitor who came to Cool Waters. Gimli, however, did not know this and he looked on with a look of confusion on his face. One of the women, a middle aged lady with brown, stringy hair peeking out from beneath a red head rag offered an explanation.
"The Elders, especially Elder Aaron, love our local cider," she clarified as she scrubbed vigorously on a resilient stain. "It's a strong drink that I swear gets people in more trouble than it is worth but the men in this town have the idea that to drink it without becoming horribly ill is a sign of masculinity or something like that." The woman shook her head at the absurdity of the idea while the other women tisked and rolled their eyes in agreement. Gimli couldn't help but smile. He honestly couldn't say anything against such a ritual; dwarves have been known to partake in such contests. Besides, he was now curious to try this cider himself.
"Well, all the more reason for me to find the king to make sure he hasn't gotten himself into any trouble," Gimli said good naturedly. "If you ladies would be so kind as to tell me where I can find the school, I will stop pestering you with my silly questions."
But before the women could offer an answer, a soft, musical voice cut in from behind the dwarf. "I would be happy to show you the way, Gimli. There is no need to further keep these kind ladies from their task."
Gimli jumped ever so slightly before he turned around to see Legolas smiling warmly at him in greeting. He was very pleased to see the elf as he had always known him, strong, whole and a little mischievous. "Nice of you to join the world of the living," Gimli said in a gruff voice, the sternness of it marred by the warmth in his eyes. Legolas' smile seemed to brighten.
Gimli turned and bowed low. "Thank you, ladies but I think my friend and I will manage to find our way to the school on our own." He then realized that none of the women were paying him any bit of attention but were staring awe struck at the glowing elf standing before them. The dwarf sighed in resignation and a little annoyance. He supposed he should be used to this. The elf attracted attention almost everywhere they went. Legolas was usually oblivious but Gimli was a dwarf through and through and typically such attentions brought out his possessive nature.
With as much politeness as he could muster, he wished the women a good day and turned Legolas resolutely towards the direction he hoped he would find the school. If Legolas noticed his subtle show of jealousy, he did not comment on it. Instead he walked along side the dwarf in silence, guiding Gimli towards the school with a discreet point of his finger.
A moment later he broke the silence. "Why didn't you wake me this morning?"
Gimli looked at the elf seriously." Because you looked like you needed the rest. How are you feeling?"
Legolas nodded and ran a hand over his hair in a thoughtful manner. "Fine. Mortal's sleep is strange...but peaceful...I think I like it." He imagined he would find it easier now that he bonded himself to a mortal lover. "All the same, I wished you would have awoken me, regardless of how much I needed the sleep as you say."
"I needed time to think. I'm worried about Aragorn."
"Ah," Legolas replied with understanding. "You are anxious about his reaction to us. It has weighed heavily on my mind as well."
Gimli looked at the elf squarely. "If he is angry, I will not fault him."
Legolas shook his head. "Nor will I but I believe we should not over think this. Let us first talk to him."
Gimli did not argue with this logic and soon the companions found themselves at what appeared to be the school. The structure itself was no different from the other houses within the settlement except that several young children were running around playing games and other various child-like activities while adults watched on attentively.
Gimli did not find the scene to be an extraordinary thing but Legolas was completely captivated by the children's antics. Elves had long ago stopped bearing children of their own, Legolas being one the last elves naturally born, so there were no children in his woodland realm. Before the Quest, his only exposure to children was from his occasional visits to Lake Town and even then did he not see so many together at once. He was truly delighted. He was curious about one of the games a group of children played in which one child ran around chasing the others who fled gleefully from his touch so that they would not become 'It.' Legolas smiled with enchanted joy. The children appeared so carefree despite the hardships they no doubt faced when their town was sacked by orcs but they are resilient in spirit.
"Ah, there he is!" Gimli's exclamation interrupted the elf's pleasant musings and he followed the dwarf's pointed finger to where the king was standing off to the side talking quietly with the Elders.
Aragorn saw their coming, giving them the briefest look as they made their way towards them but kept most of his attention on something Arik was saying about the security of the town. The king had spoke at length earlier about possibly establishing a military post near the town so that it would no longer be left defenseless but the Elders were slow to warm to the idea. Therefore, Aragorn had been arguing his case all morning and although it was difficult for the twins to break away from habit, they were slowly starting to see the wisdom in the king's plan. In the end, the welfare of their people took priority over tradition.
Aragorn, for his part, was relieved to see Legolas and Gimli looking well but he kept his face neutral. He had a few choice words for them but now wasn't the time. At the moment, he was happy to see they made it out of the situation unscathed. He did however, note Gimli's uneasiness and although Legolas did a wonderful job concealing it, Aragorn knew he was as nervous as his dwarven friend. 'Good,' he thought smugly. 'Let them squirm.'
Aaron looked up to see the odd pair coming towards them and gave a huge smile and a booming greeting. "Legolas! Good morning to you! We were wondering where you were. And this must be Gimli. The king has spoken highly of you." The happy elder gave a slight bow over his cane. "Welcome to Cool Waters."
Gimli returned the greeting with a deep bow of his own and accepted Arik's more subdued but friendly greeting. Aragorn acknowledged them but gave no indication of his inner thoughts. Legolas and Gimli gave each other a nervous glance, uncertain how to interpret the king's behavior.
Arik studied the elf intently then said, "Lord Legolas, I'm happy to see you have not fallen ill after falling into the river."
Legolas looked at the Elder with a blank look, completely unprepared for such a comment while Gimli's eyebrows shot up in disbelief. He looked over to the elf standing next to him. "You fell?"
"No, of course not," Legolas responded defensively, and then realized he had to come up with a plausible explanation. He could tell Aragorn was going to be no help. The king was looking at him silently with the smallest hint of a smile on his face. Aragorn was also surprised by the comment. He thought he and Orin did well in hiding Legolas' illness but somehow the Elders found out. Nevertheless, he liked how things turned out and decided to wait and see how the elf handled the situation. Besides, this was much better than what he was going to do.
Arik furrowed his brow in confusion. "That's odd. We've heard from various people that you fell into the river yesterday. We assumed that was why we didn't see you for the rest of the day. The water gets quite cold around this time of year and people tend to get seriously ill."
"But no one was more surprised than me," Aaron said sincerely. "I would have never have thought elves were so clumsy when it came to water given that they are born there. Did you know that, brother? Wood elves spring straight out of the streams of their homeland like fish! I imagine it's quite a sight!"
Aragorn could barely suppress a snicker and Gimli wisely turned away so the elf wouldn't see the large smile on his face. Legolas remained speechless.
"Aaron," Arik began tiredly. "Where do you hear these ridiculous stories?"
"They are hardly ridiculous. They're the truth as far as I know. Lord Legolas has yet to correct me."
All eyes turned to the elf who looked decidedly uncomfortable with having to come up with a creative lie. He wasn't very good at lying and the words stuck on his tongue like a thick paste.
"Well, elf, we're waiting on an explanation," Gimli said with a huge grin, relishing the extremely rare occurrence of Legolas having a lack of words.
The prince narrowed his eyes in irritation. "Well, that's funny how you are so eager to hear this explanation since the matter involved you," and he gave Gimli a glaring look. Suddenly the dwarf understood and was left equally speechless.
The past couple of days had not see the elf and dwarf at their best and they had hoped to put the strange, intimate incident discreetly behind them but now it looked as though all in Cool Waters would discover exact nature of a dwarven bond.
But Aragorn decided to step in and spare his two friends the embarrassment. "I'm afraid Legolas' going into the river was my fault. You see I have heard talks of the stones at the bottom of the river being of high quality for the building of the irrigation canal. I thought it would be something Gimli would like to determine for himself so I asked Legolas to go into the river and collect some of the stones given that elves are not as affected by cold as mortals. Unfortunately, I fear Legolas may have spent too much time in the water for he was in a weaken state for the remainder of the day. But not to worry, Orin assures us he's in perfect health."
"I see," Arik said slowly. He looked first to his brother and then to the elf and dwarf who nodded to him in eager confirmation. "And will the stones be of some use?"
Legolas said yes at the same time Gimli said no. Both then turned sharply to each other annoyed at the other's lack of cooperation. "No," Gimli repeated firmly keeping his eyes on Legolas. "The elf and king may have many talents but they should leave stone masonry to the skills of the dwarves."
There was a span of silence that seemed to linger in the space between them as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli waited to see if their story worked. Then to their relief and the delight of Aaron, Arik began to laugh softly, a low rumble from his belly.
"Indeed, Lord Gimli. I have always told my brother that people should stick to what they know best and not dabble in matters they know nothing about. Saves you a lot of trouble in the end." Arik continued to laugh as if in relief at finding someone who understood his way of thinking. "You have a sharp one with this here dwarf," the Elder said happily to the king. "He strikes me as one who knows how to get things done!" He gave a slight bow to the dwarf. "Lord Gimli, it would be an honor if you would join me at the end of the day for a drink. We can discuss your plans for the irrigation system."
Gimli bowed low in return. "The honor would be mine, kind sir."
"Well, I for one am relieved you still remember how to smile, dear brother," Aaron piped in, making Aragorn smile at his humor. "Lord Gimli, you must truly have good character if you can make this old bat loosen up!" Arik looked as though he would protest but Aaron cut him off seeing the children start making their way into the school. "But I'm afraid we have to excuse ourselves. The children are getting ready for their lesson and it will not do for their teachers to be late."
A smile warmed Legolas' face as he gazed at the Elders in a new light. "Teachers?"
"Yes, well, only when it comes to the town's history," Aaron said sheepishly. "The rest of it, as my brother would say, we leave to those who know best. This is merely an excuse for us to sit around and listen to the sound of our own voices."
Arik rolled his eyes and shook his head while the others laughed quietly. The twins were quite a pair.
"Good day, gentlemen," they said in parting. "We'll see you at the end of the day."
The three watched the Elders make their way towards the school, canes in opposite hands, walking with the same gait. Today they would talk to the children about past hurts, forgiveness and renewal. Some of the children saw their coming and waved excitedly in greeting.
Aragorn stood for a moment longer watching the children and the Elders enter the school before turning to face the elf and dwarf who watched him with open gazes. They seemed to wait for his angered words but Aragorn no longer felt anger, only contented relief. No one was harmed in this ordeal and all were recovered or on the path towards being so.
"Thank you," Legolas said softly, "for speaking up for us. We know we do not deserve it."
"Aragorn," Gimli began awkwardly, "we did not intend to...we apologize for..."
The king gave a small wave of his hand indicating a wish for silence. His face was calm with a contented smile. "I am happy that my friends are safe," he said softly, watching the look of wonder on each of their faces, "and that they have found love in each other."
Legolas smiled and laughed happily, tears of joy springing in his eyes. Gimli blushed and muttered something under his breath but the elf's joy was contagious and he too broke into a modest smile. "Thank you," they said almost shyly.
Aragorn nodded in acknowledgement, thinking life would be a lot more interesting with these two as lovers. It certainly was when they were just friends. "I must leave you for now," he said as he began to make his way to the school. "I was invited to sit in on today's lesson."
The elf and dwarf watched as the king entered the school, and then Legolas draped an arm across Gimli's shoulder in silent companionship. They turned and gazed intently at each other, feeling a heavy burden lifted from their hearts. They were free to love each other now with no fear of rejection from the ones close to them. Gimli smiled as he admired Legolas' beautiful face, thinking of the joyful future ahead of them and then asked, "Did you really fall into the river?"
Legolas rolled his eyes, the moment ruined, and turned away heading back into town. "Oh, Gimli."
"What? It's just a simple question. Did you or did you not fall into the river?" Gimli followed behind not bothering to hide the huge, teasing smile on his face.
"I fail to see what this has to do with anything."
"There is nothing to be ashamed of, Legolas if you did. I'm sure there are plenty of people who fall into rivers everyday. Not many elves, mind you..."
The two continued to banter all the way back into town and as the days passed, the town and land restored to its former beauty, the people of Cool Waters always remembered the kindness of the king and the strange but loving friendship between the wood elf and the noble dwarf.
He found him where the Elders said he would be, out on a small hill on the outskirts of town amongst numerous graves. The old healer's attention was focused on one as he tended to its general upkeep, unable to do so before due to the tasks that could not be put aside even for grief. He sang softly to himself, a song of loss and mourning as he worked with purpose to bring beauty back to the lonely place.
Gimli slowed his footsteps and then paused completely, uncertain about what he should do. It now seemed horribly inappropriate to come to the dwarf when he was mourning his dead wife. He was ready to turn around and head back but Orin called to him without pause in his activities.
Gimli stood still, wavering between heeding the healer's request or continuing back down the hill. Dwarves tended to grieve alone with family and instincts told him to give the healer his solitude yet Gimli had not imagined Orin's soft command.
"Come. Join me, Gimli," Orin turned slightly and offered the dwarf a gentle smile. "It's alright."
That broke the warrior's stalemate and he walked over and kneeled beside Orin facing the grave with a haggard tombstone. It was a stone put up in haste when time would not allow for a proper one worthy of the one buried beneath it.
"I have not had a chance to come up here as often as I would have liked," Orin said without preamble as he pulled up the remaining weeds. He sat back and looked at the battered tombstone. "When there is more time, I will find her a stone that is more fitting."
Gimli thought that the kind healer would have a tombstone fit for a queen by his hand and he already began making mental plans for such a project. "I wanted to come and thank you," Gimli said sincerely. "You saved our lives."
Orin shrugged and reached out and touched the tombstone gently over his wife's name. "She would not have forgiven me if I looked the other way. Tanya was a strong believer in love. Nothing else mattered." The healer then laughed as if at himself. "She was a terrible romantic. Could not convince her otherwise. Can you imagine?"
Gimli snorted, shaking his head in understanding. "Sounds like someone I know."
"Ah," Orin laughed again. "Surprises me not."
The two dwarves laughed together gently a moment longer before falling into a thoughtful yet comfortable silence. Orin stared at the tombstone with a wistful smile on his face as though remembering a peaceful time. "I miss her every day."
Gimli could think of nothing to say so he placed a heavy hand on the healer's shoulder in a gesture of comfort. Orin turned to him and stared deep into his eyes as if searching. Then he said, "Cherish each day with him. No matter what hardships may come, each day with your love is a blessing. Let no one tell you otherwise."
Gimli nodded solemnly.
Then Orin leaned over quickly and placed a gentle kiss on the name chiseled into the stone and rested his cheek on the cool surface. He closed his eyes to savor the feel and to hold back the tears. "Until we meet again, beloved."
The healer recovered himself quickly, standing so he could dust off the grass and dirt clinging to his pants. Gimli stood as well, waiting.
"Well, my friend," Orin said clapping Gimli on the shoulder. "I think there are those in town who will be missing us. Let us head back before they start organizing search parties."
Gimli smiled and returned the gesture in kind and the two dwarves, new allies in the strange world of love, walked back down the hill to the people waiting to see them.