After the funeral feast of King Théoden, Aragorn left Edoras behind and rode for Helm’s Deep. With him went his knights, and the people of Lórien and of Rivendell, and all the remaining eight of the Nine Walkers.
Frodo and Samwise rode at Aragorn's side, and Pippin and Merry rode beside Gandalf upon their stout ponies; and Legolas and Gimli as ever rode together upon Arod.
When the company came to Helm’s Deep, they found the tables laid in the main hall of the Hornburg, and a great supper awaiting them. Even the hobbits were able to eat their fill, though the speed with which they emptied their plates made some of the men of Gondor stretch their eyes.
“How long will we stay here?” asked Pippin, waving the leg of a honey-glazed fowl. His eyes were very bright, for the wine was excellent, and it did not come in hobbit-sized cups.
“Two days, to rest the horses,” said Gandalf, “or until all the stores that have been laid up here in the course of years are gone.” He shot Pippin a pointed look from beneath his bristling brows. “Which may well be sooner.”
Gimli, upon hearing this, gave a rumbling sigh that only those sitting closest to him could hear.
“Two days,” he said, staring into his wine with a frown. “Two days will not be enough for the caverns of Aglarond. I would not leave them so soon, but neither do I wish to part from my friends before I must.”
Across the table, Pippin was busy forking a massive quantity of roast potatoes onto his plate, but he looked up again when he heard Gimli’s words and the sigh that accompanied them. “Those caves must be a sight to see,” he said. “Why should we stay in this dusty old fortress? Let’s all go and—”
Here, Pippin’s words broke off with a yelp.
Merry leaned back in his chair, his face the picture of innocence, while Pippin rubbed his calf and glared at him.
“It’s a very fine old fortress,” Merry said. He poured himself more wine, but pointedly ignored Pippin’s cup. “And there are sights to see here, too: the Horn of Helm Hammerhand, all kinds of marvels. You won’t be bored, Pip.”
Pippin looked at him with a wounded air, then at Gimli, who was staring morosely at his plate, and finally at Legolas, who was sitting beside the dwarf and looking at him with a faintly wistful expression. “Oh, of course,” Pippin said hastily. “Yes, I daresay you’re right. Pass me the pigeon pie, would you, Merry?”
Meanwhile, Legolas bent closer to Gimli. “You will promise to let me out again, after those two days of wandering underground?” He laughed when Gimli turned his head and glared at him. “Peace, Master Dwarf! I will go with you and repay my promise, and you will teach me the error of my ways.”
“Two days will not be enough for that, either,” Gimli said, and he took a long swallow of wine.
The men of Gondor rose very early, but Gimli and Legolas rose earlier still, and they made their way down to the cave entrance unaccompanied, walking swift-footed down the long stairs to the Deeping Wall in the grey hour just before dawn, and carrying their well-worn packs upon their shoulders.
Gimli nodded to himself when he saw the work that had been done there in the Deep. There was no trace of orc-bodies or any of the usual debris left after battle, and repairs had begun on the Deeping Wall itself.
He knocked on the new-laid stone with his mailed fist, nodding again when he heard the solid thump.
“Not bad,” he said. “But one day we will show them how to lay stone without relying so much on mortar.”
The entrance to the caves was just tall and wide enough to admit a man, hidden from plain view by a screen of gnarled bushes. Gimli thrust the bushes aside, and Legolas slipped between them as silently as a deer.
Broad steps carved into the stone led the way up, into the slopes of the White Mountains, and there were unlit lamps hanging from the ceiling on iron hooks. Reaching up, Legolas took two of the lamps. He gave them to Gimli, who lit them with flint and tinder and handed one back to Legolas.
They were lanterns of pierced iron lined with mirrored glass, and the candles inside them burned very slowly, with a bright yellowish light. Gimli turned his lantern this way and that, admiring the subtly angled mirrors that increased the candle’s light: an innovation he would gladly carry back to Erebor.
“I only wish we had a week to explore all the wonders that await us,” Gimli said, beginning to ascend the steps. “And perhaps—ah, perhaps I wish for the great mine-lamps of Erebor, to hang upon the ceilings like a field of stars!”
Legolas hastened after him, holding his lantern high.
The first chambers were rough-hewn, the work of men who had come here long ago, judging from the traces their stone axes had left upon the rock. Gimli inspected them, then shook his head and moved on, entering the narrow corridor that led further up into the mountain, with rooms on either side.
Here the elderly folk and the children of Rohan had found shelter during the battle, and some traces of their presence still remained: childish chalk drawings covered the walls, and unlit lamps hung from the ceilings.
Still further, and the rooms became storage sheds and animal shelters. There was little to see here but dusty casks and urns, rotting straw, and animal dung. The perishable stores that were kept here during the siege had been moved back to the Hornburg, and the animals had returned to their own fields.
The smell, however, lingered.
“Like a dung heap upon the very steps of a palace,” Gimli said, grumbling in his beard as a piece of sheep-dung stuck to his boot.
Legolas bent his head against the low ceiling. “Already I feel the weight of stone pressing down upon me,” he said. “But I am eager nonetheless to see your palace, my friend.”
Gimli looked up at him sharply, to see if there was mockery in Legolas’s face; but the dim light showed only a faint, fond smile, and Gimli turned away hastily.
The corridor narrowed even further, forcing them to walk single file, and Gimli went ahead, holding up his lantern to light the way.
One day Aglarond would be a palace in truth; he could see it in his mind’s eye, and he could almost hear the hammering and the singing as his kinfolk crafted it into a true dwarvenhome, a place of light and glory.
But would Legolas be there to see it?
That was the thought that would not leave his heart; ever since the Bay of Belfalas it had settled there like a splinter, gnawing itself ever deeper. For Legolas had said that he would have no peace again under beech or under elm; and for a wood-elf to say such a thing…
And then the Lady—his Lady, so wise and so fair—had said the same; and her words had never failed to come true. Your heart will then dwell in the forest no more. She had said it, and her words weighed upon Gimli like no mountain could.
Behind him, the elf’s footfalls fell lightly upon the stone, so lightly that at times Gimli was tempted to look back and see if he was still there.
Foolish, very foolish; but then elves inspired foolishness.
The corridor became steeper, became a stairway that was little used and old, and the steps carved into the stone crumbled under his feet.
He remembered this path well. He had been the only one to take it; the warriors of Rohan, forced back by the orcs, had stayed in the first chambers. Some of them had even cautioned him against getting lost.
“The mountain is riddled with holes, like a cheese,” they said, “and if you should lose your way, you would be lost forever; we could search for years and never find you. Take care!”
Gimli had duly thanked them, knowing they meant no insult, not even to themselves.
Ah yes, there was the gap in the stone stairs.
He stopped, and heard Legolas stop behind him almost in the same instant.
Any dwarf who had not undergone long, arduous years of schooling in the mines would have barreled into Gimli, and cursed him for giving no warning. And Gimli would be the one at fault: he should have held up his hand and given a clear sign in iglishmek. But Legolas was as fast as thought itself, and Gimli had become so used to that speed that he would no more stop to warn him than he would warn his own shadow.
The gap was wide and deep, a crack in the stone that had widened over the centuries. Easier for a spindly-legged elf to jump than for a dwarf.
When he turned, Legolas had already flattened himself against the corridor’s rough wall, giving him what space there was.
Gimli stepped back several paces and then stormed forward, bunching his legs to increase his spring. The last time his boots had scraped the edge; this time, with the elf watching, he would make the leap clean and true.
He landed well, took two steps forward, and then Legolas landed behind him. The impact was soft and muffled, like snow falling from a tree.
“Here the stairway ends, and we enter the true caves,” Gimli told him, holding up his lantern to show the chamber ahead of them. It was old and unused, and the ceiling had collapsed in one corner, covering half the floor in rubble. At the other end of the chamber, a dark crack in the stone showed a deeper gloom within.
Legolas eyed the crack dubiously; it was just about Gimli’s height, and perhaps he wondered if Gimli meant to have him crawl through the caves on his knees.
“It widens further on,” Gimli said, and he stepped forward eagerly.
Ah, the first chamber! Some of the folk of Rohan must have visited it at least once—there were traces of tool-use upon the walls, and a streak of soot in one corner where a torch must have guttered—but they had not marred its beauty.
He had tentatively named the first chamber Kibil-zarâm, or Silvermere. It was small, compared to the greater marvels that yet awaited them, but it had a pure beauty all its own. The vaulted ceiling was a dark expanse above their heads, and a sandy path led around a lake of clear still water, cupped in a limestone basin that was a delicate white and half-translucent, like eggshell.
When Gimli lifted the lantern, slowly enough that the flame did not waver, its light spilled into the pool; fragments of rock crystal embedded in the limestone caught the light and threw it back, splintering it into a shower of silver stars.
“Oh,” said Legolas, very faintly, and nothing else.
Gimli did not look round. He would not importune Legolas: he would not insist the elf share his delight, or force polite words from him; he would be true to his dwarvish nature, and wait.
He watched their reflections in the pool, where both their heads seemed crowned with stars. Legolas’s eyes were wide and dark, and his hand stroked the rounded lip of the pool, his long fingers lingering on the smooth stone.
“I begin to see,” Legolas said then. His voice was quiet and full of wonder, and an hour-long elvish ode of praise could not have given Gimli half the joy.
“Wisdom will come even to elves, they say,” Gimli said, deliberately gruff. He turned his back on Legolas’s mirror image and walked on, with Legolas chuckling softly behind him.
Further on, the path narrowed and became more like a narrow chasm, leading ever upward. There were no steps carved here, no smooth bridges from one chamber to the next; they were walking along the path a long-ago river had carved through the rock, and they had to place their feet with care.
Gimli walked slowly upward, counting his steps; when they had reached eighteen, he stopped again and lifted his lantern high. Behind him, Legolas did the same.
They stood at the opening of a long gallery with walls that rippled in white and soft dawn-rose, as delicate-looking as silk. A ceiling of translucent rose quartz rose above, glittering in the light of their lanterns.
Legolas did not speak, but he laid a hand on Gimli’s shoulder. The gallery was broad enough that they could walk side by side, and Legolas’s hand rested on Gimli’s shoulder as long as they traversed it.
Then, to Gimli’s regret, they were forced apart once more, by a narrow, convoluted passage that required Gimli to turn sideways; his shoulders were too broad to meet the passage head-on.
Legolas had no such trouble, though he did have to bend himself at a strangle angle to slip through. Yet even that contortion looked oddly graceful, Gimli noticed with fond exasperation.
The next chamber was one of Gimli’s greatest delights, and one that he wanted to explore at length. When they entered it, he heard Legolas gasp, and that sound, too, was music to his ears.
This chamber was vast, an echoing vault filled with a labyrinth of twisted and fluted pillars, their shapes dreamlike and strange. The pillars were many-coloured, from smooth white to bright red or saffron—iron deposits in the stone, Gimli thought—and they sprang from the delicately rippled floor to meet the arching roof, so high over their heads that the tops of the pillars could not be seen, no matter how high Gimli and Legolas lifted their lanterns.
“A palace,” Legolas murmured, “shaped without tools or hands.”
He tilted his head to the side, his long silvery hair sweeping over one shoulder, and gave Gimli a look of wonder mingled with amusement. “No elf would entertain an answer to such a riddle that did not involve trees.”
Gimli laughed, and his laughter echoed back from half a dozen unseen sound chambers. “Well, if you have found a new answer to that riddle here, then I am content,” he told his friend.
Legolas nodded, and his hand came to rest upon Gimli’s shoulder again.
Gimli would not think of it as more than a friend’s clasp; that was folly. He would keep his feet firmly planted on the ground, as a dwarf should, and not imagine impossible things. Yet it felt so right that he could not muster the will to shake off his friend’s hand.
Later, there would be time enough to mourn the loss of that warm weight.
“If you wish it, we could roam here for a while,” Gimli said cautiously. “There are side passages here, winding paths through the pillars that I have not yet explored, and who knows to what new wonders they may lead?”
“I am yours to command,” Legolas said, smiling faintly, “and where you go, I will go, even into the heart of the mountain.”
Earlier in their acquaintance, Gimli would have mistrusted such a declaration. To elves, words came easily, and must surely be as easily discarded, thrown away like leaves on the wind.
These days, he knew better. Legolas’s tone might be light, but his words were mithril-true, as true as the firm weight of his hand on Gimli’s armoured shoulder. He was no grîmazd , no lightfoot, this elf, for all that his feet barely seemed to touch the ground sometimes. “Light of foot, light of faith—light of heart, light of honour,” ran the dwarvish saying, but Gimli no longer believed it.
But where you will go, I cannot follow, came the thought, and a swell of bitter grief came with it that Gimli tried hard to suppress. Why spoil the wonder of the caves with regret, or what brief time they had left with the knowledge of what would come after?
Gimli cleared his throat and tugged his pack higher, trying to distract himself. But as he moved, Legolas’s hand slipped off his shoulder again.
With a soundless sigh, Gimli looked around for some better distraction. A fluted white pillar caught his eye, shaped like a sheet of falling water that had frozen into stone. Behind it, darkness beckoned, and a new scent: fresh and moist, laden with minerals.
Gimli stepped forward into the darkness, light blooming from his lantern. There was a gleam near his feet: the underground river that led to the Deeping stream came to the surface here, running swiftly and silently in a deep limestone channel.
“Ah,” Gimli said with some satisfaction. “There is the stream, the little sister to the great lake below. I wondered if we should find it today.”
“Another lake?” Legolas dipped a hand into the stream, cupping it to drink, and his eyes widened in surprise. “Ai, so cold!”
“Fresh-melted ice,” Gimli said. “Even an elf might not wish to bathe in such a stream.”
“Indeed,” Legolas laughed. “But I do wish to see this lake. If it is as beautiful as the last—”
“You will see it tomorrow,” Gimli said, smiling a little when the elf looked disappointed.
He would save the best for last. Earlier, he had spoken of the glories of Aglarond; now, he would say less and let the elf discover them for himself. As Legolas had said, it would not do to spoil the wonder with haste.
They followed the river upstream to where it spilled from a dark, narrow opening in the rock, droplets glistening in the air. Gimli paused there, gently knocking his fist against the wall to listen to the echoes.
There were several openings in front of them, some narrow, some broad, and one half-choked with fallen rock.
“There is another chamber here,” he said at length, “one I have not yet seen. Will you wait here while I scout the way?”
Legolas nodded. He did not look as if the weight of the mountain was pressing on him; he seemed perfectly at ease, but Gimli wondered if he missed the daylight. Here in the depths of Aglarond, the air was a delight to Gimli’s nose, with its rich promise of mineral wealth and cool, untouched stone; but perhaps Legolas would prefer the cold mountain air, or the scent of pine and resin.
Or the scent of the sea: brine, seaweed, and salt-washed shells.
Gimli shoved the thought away forcibly as he clambered into the lefthand passage, ducking his head to avoid a hanging curtain of stone. The passage was low and unpromising, the ceiling studded with sharp spears that threatened to catch at his hair and his pack, but he could feel the echo of something much larger behind it, if only they could get through. Legolas would have to crawl here; whatever lay behind must be worth the effort.
The passage narrowed even further, and Gimli had no hands to spare for the lantern. Quickly he knotted it into the main braid of his beard, so that it swung there by its iron ring.
For a moment, all of their long arduous journey fell away, and he could feel himself back at Erebor, with a mining lantern’s familiar weight swinging from his beard, a pick over his shoulder, and a line of fellow dwarves behind him, all advancing cautiously into a new and untried shaft.
Gimli had always taken pride in being gunakhnazil, or line-leader, during his stint in the mines. It was the most dangerous work, and the most rewarding; a line-leader got double share of the day’s profits, and never had to buy his own beer. On the other hand, in the years when no war assailed the kingdom, the line-leaders were the ones who most often died young, sometimes before they had even earned their first shadowmarks.
Ducking his head under a low shelf of rock, Gimli inched forward. Ahead of him, he felt cooler air, and the rock spoke of old tremors and fissures half-healed. There was some danger here, but not immediate; the rock might not shift for a thousand years.
A remark was on the tip of his tongue, before he remembered that there was no line of dwarves behind him, waiting for his findings. Only Legolas was behind him, waiting patiently by the crossroads.
He crawled on, cautious and slow.
The darkness seemed to hang heavy here, undisturbed for centuries. Yet ahead, there was a glimmer that might be the reflection of Gimli’s own lantern…or might not.
Gimli paused to listen, but there was no sound but his own breathing.
Don’t be a fool , he told himself. This comes of riding horses and keeping company with elves! You have lost your own dark-sense.
Another low shelf to duck under, and then the passage opened up at last.
Gimli stopped, the breath caught in his throat.
Ahead of him, a great chamber glittered, the light of his lantern reflected and augmented by faceted crystals.
High above, a crack in the mountainside had opened up, wide enough to let sunlight in, as well as rain water and fresh air. There was a clear pool shaped like a cup, perched on a pedestal of limestone, and plants had sprung up around it: verdant ferns, mosses, even a small birch tree that had somehow found a foothold. The chamber had a fresh green scent. Its walls were agate and jasper veined with silver, and from far above came the sound of birdsong.
A bower fit for an elf, Gimli thought, and his heart lightened.
In unspoken accord, they dropped their packs by the pool, where the ground was flat and a little sandy. As soon as his pack was laid out, Legolas sat down on top of it, his long legs folded under him, and bent forward to shake out his long pale hair. Clouds of limestone dust drifted up, and Legolas sneezed.
Gimli had never heard such a sound from an elf before. He chuckled. “Did you sweep the ceiling with your hair?”
Legolas parted the curtain of hair with his hand, just enough to shoot Gimli a dark look. “The ceiling, or the floor; who could tell? They were so close together!”
Gimli nodded gravely. “When I return here with my kin, we will enlarge the passage,” he promised. “It will be high enough even for an overgrown elfling to pass through, without needing to dust his knees afterward.”
“How kind,” Legolas said. After a pause in which he rebound his braids, long fingers flying among the pale hair, he added, “And the gap up there, will you close it?” He nodded at the patch of sky, visible through the long crack in the ceiling. The sun had set, and his eyes lingered upon the faint white pinpricks of stars emerging in the twilight sky.
“Of course not,” Gimli said, with an indignation that was not wholly feigned. “It is a—well, I suppose I should not teach you the dwarvish word, but we prize such skylights.” He stroked his beard, considering. “We might place mirrors, angled like the little ones in this lantern, to bring the sunlight even deeper into this room. That would allow the plants to thrive and grow.”
He did not mention that he had never seen such a thing done before. What mattered was that he believed it could be done; and Legolas’s delight in the greenery was obvious.
Legolas smiled. “If we continue like this, I shall learn not be surprised at anything you say ever again. Already I have learned that dwarves may burst into poetry at any moment, and now I find that they love to have sunlight and green growing things in the middle of their caves.”
“Perhaps an elf could teach us what greenery would grow best here,” Gimli said. He unknotted the lantern from his beard and set it by the rim of the pool, where its light was mirrored in the water. “For in that skill, I must admit, we dwarves have gained no mastery.”
Legolas clasped his knees, leaning back against a shelf of rock overhung by tiny, feathery ferns. He stroked one of the ferns with a finger, coiling it back, then letting it spring away. “Then I shall admit something in return,” he said softly.
Gimli’s heart leapt despite himself, and he held his breath.
“The halls where my lord father dwells do not compare to what you have shown me here,” Legolas said. “When you and your kinfolk have hung your lamps and placed your mirrors, it will be a wondrous place indeed.”
Gimli bit down on his tongue. Foolish, foolish dwarf, to think it would be anything else!
He could not ask the question that burned in his mind: And will you come back, if we make it fair enough? Or will you sail ere we have begun work on your bower?
There was no point in asking. Gimli had seen the look of longing on Legolas’s face, and heard the catch in his voice when he sang of the sea. He would not try to keep Legolas from his heart’s desire; no friend should do that.
Legolas opened his pack, and set down some leaf-wrapped packages that Gimli recognized with the ease of long acquaintance.
“Lembas,” Gimli said, blowing out his breath. He sat down upon a mossy boulder, and let his shoulders slump. “I suppose we could make do with that.”
Legolas raised his narrow brows. “Why, I thought these were to your taste! What else did you have in mind for our supper, my friend? I suppose some of these ferns might prove edible—”
“Ferns!” Gimli said, as to another dwarf he might have said “Scree!”
He opened the top of his own pack and brought forth a large, well-wrapped basket with a flourish. “I had in mind to see what the hobbits provided for us.”
Legolas sniffed the air, and his eyes widened. “Is that—”
“The honey-roast quail from last night’s banquet?” Gimli said, unpacking the basket. “I believe so. And here are meat pies, a flask of ale, another of wine, some pickled green things, boiled eggs, a jar of honey, berries, apples, a crock of butter, a loaf of bread—”
Legolas fell into a fit of laughter, his eyes wide and shining with mirth. “The Hornburg would not last another day of siege,” he said at last, as Gimli kept unpacking his treasure trove. “Not if there were hobbits penned up inside! I can only hope the rest of our company will dine as well as this.”
“I am sure they will,” Gimli said absently as he poked through his bulging pack. Pippin had been very insistent that he should take the basket, which had obviously been intended for some private hobbit revelry; apparently the young Took felt that he had something to apologise for. “I had a knife somewhere—if not a fork—ah, here we are.” He dug up a wooden-handled clasp knife and handed it to Legolas. “A little awkward, perhaps, but better than cutting bread with an axe!”
Legolas smiled. “You are singularly well-prepared for this expedition,” he said merrily, and uncorked the flask of wine. “Did you bring a full set of plates and cups, too, or may we share and eat with our fingers?”
Gimli snorted. “I certainly hope we may!”
Legolas took a long drink of wine. “Ah, that is good.” He lowered the flask with a sigh of pleasure, and handed it to Gimli.
With amusement, Gimli noted that there was a slight flush rising upon Legolas’s cheekbones and even the delicate tips of his ears, as if the wine had gone straight up instead of down.
Then Gimli drank too, and he could not resist setting his lips to the very place that was warm from Legolas’s mouth.
They ate with relish, using slices of bread for plates and passing the flask of wine back and forth. It was a young, fiery wine from Gondor, heady and strong, and it went down gratefully.
After a while, Legolas put down the flask and stretched his arms over his head, as slowly and sinuously as a cat. He stood up and began to wander along the edges of their chamber, trailing his hand along the jewelled walls.
“Will you name this stone for me?” he asked, looking back over his shoulder. Sheltered by his hand, the lantern gave a rosy glow, making his long fingers appear translucent.
Gimli chewed industriously for a while longer, until the roast quail was nothing but a heap of tiny bones. Then he rose to join his friend.
“This is jasper, in the shade we call earth-born,” he began, tracing the dappled red and grey wall with his fingertips much as Legolas had done. “We do not use it for jewelry, but it is quite hard, and can be made into cups and plates if there is enough of it. Jasper comes in many colours; you may have seen it before in another guise.”
Legolas nodded. “I believe my father owns a clasp made of green jasper.” For a moment, his eyes grew unfocused, and his mouth tightened. Whatever memory had sprung to life for him, it did not seem to be a happy one. Gimli would not inquire further; he did not want to bring Legolas’s thoughts back to the elf-lord who was no friend to dwarves.
“And here—” Gimli bent low, sweeping his hand along a ridge of lighter colour, hoping to distract him, “—this is another jasper, flecked with green, that we call cat’s eye. And a third, the dark bronze with the golden stripe: sand-streak.”
He paused, then took a step back to examine the whole. The jasper spoke to him, and the longer he looked, the more he could see new shapes there. “This wants to be carved,” he said thoughtfully, more to himself than to Legolas. “A shallow carving, to bring out the different colours and form a greater whole. There are those in Erebor with skill at this; I would bring them here. It is said of them that they can paint with stone.”
“Whereas you must content yourself with words,” Legolas said, smiling. “But would dwarves truly want to live in a chamber like this, so open to rain and wind?”
“Would elves?” Gimli countered. He looked intently at the wall, not at Legolas, so that he might not appear too interested in his friend’s answer. It was foolish to even ask, but he could not stop himself from letting a little hope into his heart, just as the chamber’s broken roof let in air.
He felt Legolas’s curious gaze on him, like a weight pressing him down.
“Why do you ask?” Legolas said at last.
Silence hung heavy on Gimli’s shoulders. He could break that silence, aye, and break other things besides. Or he could keep it—like a coward , he thought. Am I a coward, not to face my doom once and for all?
“I would not have this place become a dwarven realm only,” he said at last, seeking refuge in truth. “Elves, men, dwarves and hobbits—if this last war has taught us anything, it is that we are stronger as allies. And allies should visit each other in comfort.”
“Ah,” Legolas breathed, and Gimli could not read his expression. It was distant, and perhaps a little wistful. “You see far, Gimli. Further, I think, than most of our kin—yours and mine both. It is meet that you should build a new home here; you have grown too great for your father’s halls.”
At this, Gimli eyed him sharply, but there was still no mockery in the elf’s eyes. He was trailing his hand along the wall of jasper again, following a tiny glittering vein of gold. “Yes, I think a visiting elf would find comfort here,” he said at last.
“That is well,” Gimli said hoarsely. Then he moved away, striding back to the pool, so that he would not give in to the impulse to insert himself between the wall and that caressing hand.
The next morning, Gimli woke alone. During the night, he had been half-aware of the elf moving about and singing up at the stars in a low clear voice; now, there was no sign of him.
Gimli shook back his tangled hair, washed his face with fresh cold water from the pool, yawned, and looked about him while he braided his beard.
Had Legolas gone back through the low passage, to explore the caverns on his own? That would not be wise, and Legolas might not have the stone-sense of a dwarf, but neither was he a fool.
Then Gimli looked up, and the mystery was solved.
The elf was perched on top of a tall narrow pillar, his hands clasped about his knees, looking up at the pointed spars embedded in the ceiling.
Gimli choked back a warning cry. Instead, he stared up at the elf, clenching his fists until the chainmail links dug into his skin.
Legolas looked as comfortable as if he were sitting on the ground, yet he was so high up that Gimli could barely see him. His clothes blended with the walls, but his hair was a patch of moon-gold in the gloom of early morning.
As if sensing his gaze, Legolas turned his head and looked down.
He smiled—and then, in one of those displays of elven dexterity that sent Gimli’s heart leaping into his throat, he sprang down from the pillar. He caught himself on an outcropping of rock, where he swung for a moment before he launched himself into the air again, tumbling head over heel, and landed an arm’s length away from Gimli.
“Good morning,” Legolas said, while Gimli took a long breath and tried to slow the drumming in his chest. “Did you sleep well, my friend?”
“Aye, only to wake to see you risk your neck!” Gimli barked.
He turned away sharply, his shoulders high and tense. Fool, he told himself , softheaded fool. But his heart was still beating at a galloping pace, and would not slow down.
Behind him, he heard a sharp intake of breath, but the equally sharp remark he expected did not come. Instead, Legolas silently followed him back to the pool.
Gimli sat down heavily and sorted through the basket of provisions to find something that would appeal to an elf’s idea of breakfast. He did not look up, but some other sense told him that Legolas was watching him narrowly.
Finally he set out a leaf packet filled with berries. The berries were a little crushed, and the leaf was red with their juice, but their scent was sweet.
Legolas did not take the berries, and for a moment Gimli’s heart sank.
But then Legolas reached out and laid his slender hand on Gimli’s half-clenched fist, a glancing touch.
“I did not intend to alarm you,” Legolas said.
Gimli sighed, a long drawn-out sigh that felt like it came all the way from his toes. “I know.” He pushed the leaf closer to Legolas. “Eat them, they will not keep.”
Slowly, Legolas began to eat the berries, and Gimli cut some bread for himself with the clasp knife.
“There is a fault here,” he said then, feeling for the words; it was difficult to discuss these matters without using dwarvish speech. “I can feel it. Not in the ceiling—that crack will remain stable, as long as nothing falls on it from above—but in the rock beneath our feet. It will shift one day. Not for a thousand years, perhaps, but it will move. And that pillar will fall, and so will the ceiling, and this chamber will be a ruin.”
“And you can see it,” Legolas said thoughtfully. “You saw it happen, even when I was sitting there.”
Gimli did not deny it, though it was not sight, exactly; but how to describe stone-sense to one who did not possess it?
“Then the future is not a closed book to you, as it is to men and hobbits,” Legolas continued, his brows rising.
The elf seemed much struck by this, but Gimli could not see why. He picked up an apple and began to eat it with great snapping bites. “I do not see the future,” he countered. “I merely sense what the stone tells me.”
Legolas smiled. “Keen are the senses of dwarves,” he said. “At least underground, and in the dark!”
“And fierce is their vengeance,” Gimli retorted.
His hand shot out, and an apple core struck Legolas in the chest.
Legolas fell back against the stone shelf, laughing. After a while, he sat up and buried the apple core beneath some loose scree and a handful of dirt. His hand smoothed over the dirt, pressing it down with a firm touch.
Gimli pictured an apple tree growing here, unseen and alone. Would the tree grow better, for the touch of an elvish hand?
After breakfast, they packed up their belongings and left the elf-bower, as Gimli would now always name it in his heart.
Their path wound deeper into the mountain, and Gimli took care to show Legolas all the marvels he had seen on his earlier visit. All but the lake that lay below. That, he would save for last.
They visited chambers hung with living stars, where tiny creatures had made themselves into glowing lights, each hanging from an almost invisible thread; they walked over an endless rolling wave of flowstone, left by long-ago floods; they descended a stairway so studded with precious gems that there was barely room for their feet.
And then, finally, they reached the deepest part of the caverns, and came to the hall of the great lake.
Here, Gimli let Legolas enter first.
The elf made no sound, but he walked on with halting feet and slow, looking all around him.
This hall was the greatest that Gimli had ever known: greater than the Hall of Feasts in Erebor, greater than the Long Gallery in Khazad-Dûm. Its ceiling could not be seen, but for the huge pillars that hung down from those unguessable heights. Forests of crystal sprang up from the ground, each perfectly formed and taller than a man, reflecting and augmenting the light of the lanterns.
Every now and then, a drop of water fell into the echoing silence and made little ripples upon the glass-smooth lake that lay at the mountain’s heart. Here, all the rains of centuries past were collected into one basin.
It was a place of great age and such tranquil beauty that Gimli could not speak for a long while. He could only plant his feet against the rock and stare, his breathing and his heartbeat slowing into a rhythm that matched the falling drops of water.
Thousands upon thousands of years of such falling drops had made this lake. No dwarf would use this water for common purposes; it would be kept preserved, untouched except at deepest need. And they would hang great lamps from that unseen ceiling on long chains, lamps that would be mirrored in the deep dark water, fountains of light above and below…
Not until Legolas touched his shoulder did he stir from his reverie, and even then Gimli did not know how much time had passed.
He gave the elf a rueful look, but Legolas was smiling. “I begin to see, indeed,” he said softly. “This is a place of wonder, Gimli.”
Gimli nodded, and so discovered his neck was stiff. Had he been standing there for hours, lost in visions?
He shook himself all over, to loosen the muscles and dispel the dream, and then he followed Legolas to the edge of the great lake, where the water was shallow.
“Oh, look,” Legolas breathed. “What are those?” He knelt by the water and reached out a hand, but then stopped, looking at Gimli over his shoulder. “Are they eggs?”
Gimli looked down, past his own reflection, and saw what had caught Legolas’s attention.
In a little hollow of limestone just below the water’s surface lay a handful of perfectly round, gleaming, smooth spheres. They were the size of walnuts, but coloured a rosy white.
“Ah,” Gimli said, smiling into his beard. How like a wood-elf, to think of eggs even in these surroundings! “We call them cave-pearls.”
He reached down into the water and carefully selected the most flawlessly beautiful of the lot, bringing it up in the hollow of his hand. It shone there like a true pearl, though not with the oily gleam of shell, but with the opaque solidity of stone.
“How are they made?” Legolas asked him, gazing down at the cave-pearl with bright and wondering eyes.
“With time,” Gimli said. “A little bit of grit, perhaps, too small to be seen—and a drop of water, falling over and over again through the long years, coating it with the thinnest layer of stone, and moving it just enough to create a sphere.” He gave Legolas a sardonic look. “If I did not have an elf with me to disturb the peace of my thoughts, I might turn into one of these myself, given ten thousand years or so. And a fine pearl I would make, too.”
Legolas laughed. “Your pardon, then, for interrupting the process! Yet I find that I prefer the living dwarf above the priceless pearl.”
It was said so lightly, but Gimli felt himself colour up until the very tips of his ears flamed. He would not acknowledge it, or the warmth that spread somewhere beneath his breastbone. And yet—perhaps there was something he could do. Something he could give.
Before he could talk himself out of it, he said, “Why choose?” and tipped the cave-pearl into Legolas’s hand.
Legolas’s eyes were very bright, and yet he did not look at the pearl in his hand but at Gimli. He was still kneeling, and their heads were on a level and too close, far too close.
For a long moment they sat together like this, but then Gimli could not bear it any longer.
Legolas did not know what it meant for a dwarf to give a rare gem of this kind to one who was not his kin, and there was no way to tell him; not without laying a burden on him that would weigh him down in his flight across the seas. Legolas treasured him more than the pearl. That was enough.
That had to be enough, to content Gimli through all the long years. And if the thought gave him no joy, merely a dull stab of pain, then that was doubtless something he would become used to. Dwarves were made to bear burdens, after all.
“Take it,” Gimli said abruptly, stepping back, “and show it to the Greenwood elves, and tell them of the wonders you have seen here. Perhaps one or two will dare to venture forth into the depths of the Glittering Caves, without clamouring to be let out again!”
Legolas rolled the cave-pearl in his hand, and then he tucked it away in an inner pocket of his jerkin.
Seeing him put his slender hand to his breast, Gimli was reminded of the three golden strands that lay against his own heart. But of that strange coincidence he said nothing.
It was late in the day when the Elf and Dwarf returned from the Glittering Caves. Merry and Pippin waited for them on the Deeping Wall, waving and smiling.
“How was it?” Merry cried, his high clear voice audible from afar. “What did you see?”
Legolas only waved at them in return, and Gimli was silent.
When they met at the top of the stairs, the hobbits demanded the story of their journey underground, with all the exhaustive detail that hobbits loved, but Legolas would not give it to them.
“Gimli alone could find fit words to speak of the Glittering Caves,” Legolas said with a smile that seemed a little strained. “And never before has a Dwarf claimed a victory over an Elf in a contest of words. Now therefore let us go to Fangorn and set the score right!”
Gimli only nodded glumly, as one who was bound to an unpleasant duty.
The hobbits looked from one to the other, disappointment clear in their faces.
“How you do dash our hopes for entertainment, the both of you,” Pippin complained. “And for your information, this is indeed a dusty old fortress, and it has very little to recommend it.”
“Perhaps you would like it better if ten thousand orcs were still screaming for our blood at the foot of the wall,” Gimli said, sounding more dour and dwarvish than ever. Merry blinked at him.
“Well, it would be more exciting,” Pippin agreed, and then he passed a hand over his face and sighed. “No, no, I didn’t mean that. I’ve seen enough orcs to last me till the end of my days. And smelled them, too.”
“At least we’ll see Treebeard again, when we ride to Isengard,” Merry said, apparently at random, but Pippin’s face brightened as if a light had turned on behind his eyes.
“So we will! I wish we could take him to the Shire with us. No one at home will ever believe our stories, otherwise.”
Merry laughed, and they all went into the Hornburg together.
At Isengard, the Fellowship of the Ring was disbanded at last; and Legolas and Gimli were left standing side by side, under the eaves of Fangorn Forest.
Legolas spoke softly to Arod, entreating him to wait for their return, and rubbing behind his ears in a comforting manner. “There is good grass here, and no harm will come to you while the Ents watch over Isengard,” Legolas said coaxingly. “The tangled depths of the forest are no place for you, my friend.”
Arod whickered and shook his head, stamping his foot, and Gimli smiled. Despite his great size, Arod looked for all the world like a small child throwing a tantrum.
So many miles had they travelled together, and ere they set off, Gimli would never have believed he could come to grow fond of such a beast.
Gimli sighed. Too many farewells, too many partings. Did Arod know that they were coming back? “He might follow us, if we cannot ride him.”
“There is no path wide enough for him, and there will be no grass under these broad trees,” Legolas said. “I wish to make him understand that he must stay.”
Gimli looked at the baleful eye of the horse, and shrugged. “I daresay he understands well enough,” he said, and reached up to stroke Arod’s velvet nose. “He simply does not wish us to go.”
Arod snorted as if in agreement. Then he began to nibble upon Gimli’s hair, until Gimli shoved him away with an oath.
Legolas looked from Gimli to Arod, and a slow smile curved his lips. “There is a saying among the Elves,” he said, “that the longer they ride together, the more horse and rider will grow alike. I am beginning to believe it.”
Gimli stroked his beard, pretending to consider this preposterous idea. “He’s certainly as capricious as any elf,” he said at last, and gave Arod a last handful of oats from his pocket before resolutely turning his back.
Soon after they entered Fangorn, Gimli lost all trace of time.
It might be twilight; it might be dawn; it might be midday. Filtered by a carpet of leaves far overhead, the light that reached the forest floor was pale and diffuse, more greenish shadow than light, and there was no wind to stir the trees.
Gimli stumped forward, trying to follow a straight path, even though there was none. The trees grew too close together, and he had to keep skirting around huge roots and gnarled old shrubs, many of them covered in thorns.
“This is not a friendly forest, for all that we were bid welcome,” he muttered to himself. “It does not want us here.”
There was not the same palpable sense of anger from the ancient trees looming overhead, but what Gimli felt from them now was wariness and distrust, and he had to admit that the feeling was mutual.
Legolas was ahead of him, a glimpse of green and tan, flitting among the trees like a strange low-flying bird. Half the time he was in the air, flinging himself from one tree-branch to another, sometimes turning head over heels for no apparent reason but the sheer joy of flying.
Gimli found the elf’s antics much less disturbing to watch, now that they were away from the hard rock and sharp crystal spears of Aglarond. Here, the leaf mold was so thick that at times he sank into it up to his knees, and all the trees were covered with moss and lichen, great shrouds and festoons of it. Even the most reckless elf would have to work at it to crack his head open.
It was a little lonely, though. Gimli could not speak to the trees, or at least not so that they would answer; and Legolas was too full of delight and high spirits to travel at Gimli’s steady pace for long.
Now and then, Legolas bounded back to him, bringing news of sorts.
“There are cloudfingers here!” he would cry, smiling from ear to ear. “I have not seen these in an age!”
Gimli would nod back at him, even though he did not know what cloudfingers were, or if they were dangerous.
He walked on, looking up now and then at the trees rising all round him like pillars. They were taller than any trees he had seen before, and much wider than the mallorns of Lothlórien; they were also much more gnarled and twisted, and the bark seemed to be falling off some of them in long dangling strips.
Gimli had brought his axe, sheathed in soft leather. Yet he was resolved to cut no firewood here, nor even peel off the loose bark, though it looked as if it would go up like straw.
It was not as if they needed a fire, after all. If this forest seemed to be seasonless, at least the warm, close air told Gimli it was summer.
At times the air felt a little too close. Then he began to wish he could climb up hand over hand, like Legolas, and breathe the fresh air at the tops of the trees.
From a distance, he could hear Legolas singing. His voice cut through the heavy haze, bright and clear as birdsong, and Gimli smiled to hear it.
He shouldered his pack higher and strode on, waiting for Legolas to return to him.
Late that night, they sat together under a tree as broad as a house, and its faint moon-shadow fell over them like a gossamer blanket. It was a bright clear night, and Legolas was looking up at those stars that could be glimpsed between the boughs.
Gimli was content to look at Legolas, instead: at the long line of his throat, and the luminous gleam of his pale skin.
The elf shone brighter here, in the woods, than he had done underground. Whether that was because there was more light here for him to reflect, or whether it was something to do with his moods, Gimli knew not; but the effect was enchanting.
Finally Legolas lowered his head, and then he laid a hand against the bark of the tree. “He is talking to me,” he said softly. “I think he hasn’t spoken to anyone in a long age, and it is a little—overwhelming.”
Gimli swallowed laughter. He didn’t want the garrulous tree to hear and maybe drop a branch on his head. “What does it talk of?”
“Of the coldest winters he has seen, and the spring rains of two hundred years,” Legolas said. “Of the Ents, and their ways. They are the only ones who come here, in the depths of the forest, and he likes their talk. Though he thinks he saw another elf, once, from far away.” His lips twitched. “The tree would like to know what you are, for he never saw anything like you; and so I told him.”
It was peculiar to think of trees as male or female, but Gimli didn’t comment on that. “Perhaps you can return the favour,” he said instead. “I don’t know what—he—is either.”
Legolas’s eyes opened wide. “Truly?” he cried, as if this was astonishing news. “You must have seen trees like these before.”
Gimli shrugged. “Well, and maybe I have. And I am sure you have seen sand-streak jasper before, too, in all your long years and travels; but that does not mean you would know its name, or its uses, or its true nature.”
“Well argued, Master Dwarf,” Legolas said, and he made a sardonic little half-bow that Gimli returned with one hand over his heart. “I concede. Well then, this is an ash tree; there are many kinds, but this one we call—” and he produced a sibilant elvish word that Gimli could not have repeated for the life of him, “—or black-crowned ash, perhaps, in Westron, for its jet-black buds.”
Gimli nodded. “I would like to know more,” he said, thinking of all the wonders he had shown Legolas in the caves, and the pleasure of having such an attentive listener. “All these trees, even the few flowers that grow here—I know none of their names, and without a name, there is less for memory to hold on to. Tomorrow, will you teach me?”
Legolas smiled, looking so pleased that Gimli felt a little jab of remorse. He hadn’t thought that Legolas would need to be asked; but then Legolas was quick to pick up on Gimli’s moods, quicker perhaps than Gimli himself sometimes, and it was possible he had feared to be rebuffed.
“I will name all that we pass,” Legolas promised. “Or at least, all that I know. There are trees here unlike any I have ever seen, and they are thousands of years old. They were here digging into the earth and drinking the sun and rain long before I was born, and may have been friends to Elves long gone.”
“Tell them who and what I am, as we go,” Gimli said. “Then one day, when they meet another dwarf, they may not be so wary of him.”
Legolas gave him a sharp look. “Does the forest feel wary to you?”
“Aye,” Gimli said. “It is not as angry as before, but it mislikes my being here. Do you not feel it?”
Legolas shook his head. “It feels different to me. Old, very old, and strange, and more than a little sleepy; but not unfriendly. The trees that are awake enough to speak seem to wish us no harm.”
Gimli yawned, casting about for some way to change the topic. He regretted having brought it up; why spoil Legolas’s pleasure? Of course the forest would welcome a wood-elf and know him as kindred, without extending that courtesy to a strange dwarf.
But Legolas was smiling again, watching him as he stretched and yawned. “You need not keep elvish hours,” he said softly. “Rest, my friend, and I will walk about and tell the trees of your deeds, that they may be more welcoming tomorrow.”
Every day, they moved deeper into the forest, and Gimli could no longer keep track of the days and nights. Time seemed to pass more slowly here. It was measured not in days but in summers and winters, in the falling of leaves and the growth of new buds. The air hung heavy and unmoving, smelling of damp and green growing things, and it seemed as though Gimli would turn into a tree himself, if only he stood still long enough to grow roots.
Always Legolas flitted ahead of him, though now he doubled back more often, pausing to name the trees they passed, the bushes, the small flowers, even the toadstools.
Gimli doubted that he could keep hold of all the names, but he worked at it, repeating them to himself as he walked steadily onward.
“Thornless crown-of-gold,” he said to himself, picturing the yellow flowers, the spiky leaves, and the bulbous roots of that particular plant. It resembled a crown not at all, except perhaps to elves, who would rather put leaves in their hair than gold.
In the distance, there was a new sound, a low gurgle that Gimli recognized: water falling over stones.
“The Entwash,” Legolas called to him from far overhead. “Shall we go see it?”
“More than see it,” Gimli called back. “Wet our feet in it!” In the muggy haze beneath the trees, the thought of cool water was more tempting than a hot bath.
Legolas laughed. “Very well. I will meet you at the riverbank.” And with that he swung off, barely stirring a leaf as he sprang from one branch to the next.
Gimli watched after him for a moment, and then set off for the river. His progress was rather more difficult. There were thorny bushes in the way, and tree-roots that seemed to thrust up beneath his foot, trying to trip him.
“Easy, easy,” he muttered under his breath, almost as though he was speaking to a nervous horse.
The great grey-skinned trees that stood here felt older and yet more wakeful than the others, though he could not have said how he came by that impression. Little grew under them, and the ground was prickly with hard old nut-shells that crunched under his feet. It felt as though the trees were watching him, and rustling and creaking to each other in warning.
Gimli pushed between two thornbushes and found himself standing on a smooth shelf of rock, where the Entwash came clattering down a narrow gorge and sent up great sprays of foam into a deep pool below the rock.
A perfect place to bathe one’s feet, Gimli decided. He dropped his pack, then sat down and began to unlace his boots. There was no sign of Legolas, but he had no doubt that the elf would find him.
“Ahh,” Gimli sighed as he dipped his bare feet into the water. “That’s better.”
There was a gnarled old tree growing just behind the rocky shelf, and its many moss-covered roots trailed down over the rock and into the water. Gimli leaned back against the tree’s rough bark and closed his eyes, enjoying the cool water playing about his toes and the dappled sunlight on his face. The air was fresher here, and he breathed great lungfuls of it, letting his breathing slow until he was nearly asleep.
After a while, he heard Legolas singing from somewhere overhead. The song was in Elvish, and Gimli could make no sense of it, but the sound was sweet, though mournful; it seemed to be one of those endless laments that Elves were so fond of.
“Such noise,” said someone from behind him. “Hah.”
For a moment Gimli thought it was another dwarf. That voice sounded just like some of his older relatives—he had not heard such deep voices since leaving Erebor. Men did not sound like this, let alone hobbits and elves.
But even before he leapt to his feet and turned, one hand scrabbling for his pack and the axe strapped to it, he knew this was no dwarf he was facing.
The gnarled old tree had opened two knot-holes in its broad, scarred trunk, and was glaring down at him. “Elves,” it said. “Hrrm. Always singing.”
The words came very slowly, and Gimli found himself holding his breath at the pauses between them.
Moving carefully, he laid down his pack again, to show himself unarmed. He stood there, his bare feet dripping upon the rock, and waited.
The Ent measured him with its ancient eyes. They were strange eyes, and Gimli found that he could not look away. Dark, so dark that they looked almost hollow, but for their inner green-blue fire, like the glint of opals set in ebony.
“What are you?” said the Ent, in slow rolling words like thunder over the mountains.
Gimli made his best bow. “Gimli, son of Gloin, a dwarf of Erebor,” he said. “At your service.”
The Ent stared at him for what felt like an age.
Gimli wondered if Legolas was hearing all this, and had decided to wait and see what would happen before interfering. The song floating down from above had ceased.
“At my service?” said the Ent. “A dwarf? Hoom. Hah. Well.”
There was a pause, in which Gimli craned cautiously back to see if he could catch a glimpse of a Lorien cloak or silvery hair, but there was nothing.
“A dwarf of Erebor,” said the Ent, in even slower tones, as if he was thinking it over. “Dwarf the delver, dark are his houses; but many bright young trees grew on the sides of Erebor before the dragon came. Felyafelufirië, rámalocë ránërína, hrumaltahloima!* So they say.” Then the somber glow of his eyes changed, and the blue became brighter. “But you were not burned by the dragon.”
“I—no,” Gimli managed. “That was—a little before my time.”
“Ah, hrrm,” said the Ent, and the bright glow in his eyes faded a little, as if his thoughts were sinking back down into an endless well. “Before your time, you say? And is it your time now?”
Gimli found no ready answer to that. He dug his fingers into his beard, an old bad habit, as he considered the matter, and the Ent watched him.
“They say it is now the time of men,” Gimli said at last. “A new age has come, and the elves are leaving. They are sailing West.” The words sounded so bare and cold that it made him shiver a little. “But the dwarves—the dwarves are still here.”
The Ent stretched a little, his many roots moving restlessly over the stone. Then he made a tremendous creaking sound, and Gimli wondered if he were yawning. It was hard to tell. The Ent’s mouth, if he had one, was invisible beneath a great beard of lichen.
“Come out, little elf,” the Ent called then, his great deep voice echoing under the trees like a horn blast. “I see you sitting there behind my old friend the mossback, curled up like a squirrel. Do not be thinking you can hide from me!”
With a rustling of leaves, Legolas slid down the trunk of a nearby tree and leaped to the ground, then slowly came closer. Gimli could see his wariness in the way he held himself, and the proud carriage of his head.
Legolas came to stand behind Gimli and a little to the side, where he would not impede Gimli’s movement if he should reach for his axe, and from the corner of his eye Gimli saw that the bow hanging on the elf’s back was strung and ready.
So. The elf wasn’t all too sure of his welcome from this Ent, either. In some obscure way, that was a relief.
“Long has it been since I heard elf-song beneath these skies,” said the Ent, slowly moving his fathomless gaze away from Gimli and toward Legolas, though he managed this without turning his head. “Why do you sing of Finduilas Faelivrin? Her fate was unhappy, and her love fell on fallow ground. Yet you are surely too young to remember her, little elf.”
Legolas gave Gimli a swift, astonished look; then, bending low before the broad bulk of the Ent, he made his bow. “If another song would please you better, Master Onod, I shall change my tune.”
“Hah,” said the Ent. “How like an elf. Birds do not change their songs to please me; why should you? But you may call me Hoarfrost. That is not my name, of course, but it will do well enough for you short-spoken folk. And what are you called?”
“I am Legolas of the Woodland Realm,” said Legolas, “and my friend here is Gimli—”
“He knows,” Gimli muttered.
“Hoom, ho, I did not ask to know your true names!” said the Ent, and the green-blue gleam in his eyes became pinprick bright. “Even now that the Shadow has lifted—for a little while, at least— you should not be giving your true names to strangers.”
“I didn’t,” Gimli said gruffly. “Have no fear.”
Beside him, he heard Legolas’s swift intake of breath. This was coming a little too close to revealing a secret, but the Ent’s peculiar eyes were boring into his, and Gimli could not avoid the truth.
“Good,” the Ent said ponderously. “Well. You have offered me your service. Let me think.”
They stood there for some time, while the Ent’s eyes slowly slid shut.
Asleep? Gimli wondered.
Legolas shifted from one foot to the other, then began to unstring his bow with quick, sharp movements, and Gimli felt the gathering tension in him.
He shot Legolas a sharp look, and made a motion with his hand, palm flat to the ground: Wait.
At last, Hoarfrost’s eyes opened again. “Hmmm. Hah,” he rumbled. “Well. If you have drunk your fill, Gimli son of Gloin, then we can go.”
Gimli blinked up at him, surprised. “I was cooling my feet, not drinking the water,” he admitted. “Though I will do so now, by your leave.”
“Hoom,” said Hoarfrost. “There, now, I was forgetting you are no Ent. Drink, then, if you wish.”
Gimli padded over to the edge of the rock shelf and lay down to dip his cupped hands into the flowing water. The water tasted faintly of earth and minerals, but it was fresh and cool.
“We should refill our water bags, too,” he said, pushing himself up on his hands in one easy motion. Then he found that Legolas was already beside him, with a leather bag in each hand.
“Not your true name? What did you mean by that?” Legolas whispered almost soundlessly, leaning into Gimli’s shoulder as he dipped the water bags into the river.
“Hush,” Gimli said in return, very low. “That is something dwarves do not speak of.”
Legolas looked as if he very much wanted to protest, but he said nothing more. He busied himself with filling each bag to the brim, while Gimli sat down and laced up his boots again.
When they were ready, the Ent bent one of its huge branches down to their level, and said, “Sit here, and I will carry you.”
Legolas nodded, but Gimli drew back. “No, thank you. I will walk to wherever you wish us to go.”
Hoarfrost gave him a long, slow look until Gimli felt he was close to drowning in the uncanny depths of those eyes.
Beside him, Legolas stirred again impatiently. “Did you not hear the hobbits’ tales of their journeys with Treebeard?” he asked in a sibilant whisper. “They rode on his shoulders, and came to no harm!”
“Yes, that’s all very well, but I am no hobbit,” Gimli protested. “Frodo and Sam flew on the back of an eagle, too, but I still prefer to walk!”
Legolas looked as if he were torn between laughter and irritation, but his eyes were dancing. “Think of the tales you could tell your kin,” he urged.
Gimli snorted. “After I tell my father I befriended the elf who jailed him, he should be ready to believe anything. And yet I would be even more reluctant to tell anyone I was carried—like a child!—by a great walking tree. Your pardon,” he added, nodding to Hoarfrost, who was still giving him that thoughtful stare. “An ent, I should say; but there is no word for your kind in dwarvish that I know of.”
“Indeed?” said the Ent, rolling out the word in his peculiar fashion. “You should remedy that. For if there is no name for us, then who will know us and tell our story in the days to come?”
Gimli rubbed his chin, struck by this; it felt like an echo of his own melancholy thoughts. For who will know what elves or ents were like, when the last of them is gone? “I will ask the elders to find a name for you,” he promised. “It will not be done soon, though—our language is not one that is altered easily. But I think they will consider it.”
“Soon? What is soon?” said the Ent. “If it be done in your time, as you call it, I will be content.”
Gimli nodded, and added this promise to the running tally. New gates and walls for King Elessar, new stonework for Helm’s Deep, a name for the Ents, a trading route to the Shire, and a setting of everlasting crystal for the Lady’s gift...at least his hands would be busy in the coming years. Busy enough to satisfy any dwarf, if the dwarf was one of those who were satisfied with their craft alone.
“You wish us to perform some service?” Legolas said.
“Hoom,” said Hoarfrost. “I said so, yes. And I would think you had forgotten my words already, and wonder at your short memory, had I not met Elves before. What you mean is…” he paused, while the strange light in his eyes waxed and waned, and Gimli had a sudden sneaking suspicion that the Ent was drawing out the moment on purpose, “…that you are tired of our conversation, and wish to be up and doing. Why is it that young elves have so little patience, when they have all the time in the world, I wonder?”
Legolas was holding himself very straight, like a prince should, and his chin was tilted high, but he gave no answer. Gimli gave him a sidelong look; clearly the Ent’s jest—if jest it was—was not to his taste.
“Well,” Gimli said, and paused much like the Ent had. “I will go with you, Hoarfrost, provided that I may keep my feet on the ground.”
“I have known oaks less stubborn,” Legolas muttered, but Hoarfrost seemed pleased, if anything.
“The ground, yes,” Hoarfrost mused in a voice like far-off thunder. “I understand. Dwarves are a sensible folk, it seems. If you will follow the Entwash upstream, I will meet you by the stand of spice trees to your left.”
“Spice trees?” Gimli said to Legolas in a half-whisper.
Legolas gave him a swift nod.
“Very well,” Gimli said.
Without another word, the Ent lifted his many roots from the stone ledge, turned slowly around, and walked away.
It was a startling sight. His gnarled legs did not bend, but his toes sank into the earth with each long stride, and then lifted again and flung themselves forward. The Ent looked as if he would take root with every step he took, and yet he was moving fast: one step, two, three, and then he was gone from their sight, with only a faint rustling to mark his passing.
After several hours of walking by the swift stream, it became clear that they were nearing the place where the spice trees grew, for their scent hung on the breeze.
It was powerful enough to make Gimli sneeze. “Spice indeed,” he said, his voice rasping. “Do they taste as fiery as they smell?”
Legolas smiled, though it seemed a little forced. “Even more so! Though I have never tasted the flowers or berries fresh from the tree; they do not grow in the Greenwood.”
Gimli nodded. “So what do you think the Ent would have us do?” he asked, trying to draw Legolas out.
Legolas’s lips thinned. “It is kind of you to say ‘we’, but he did not ask my help, only yours. And I have no idea.”
Gimli tilted his head, looking up at his fair friend. “Not what you expected an Ent to be like?”
For a moment, Legolas was silent, and then he sighed. “Imagine that in the deepest cavern of Aglarond, we met a creature made of stone, a legend from your father’s fathers that you long dreamed of meeting, and that it opened its eyes and spoke to you.”
Gimli blinked, since no such dwarvish legend existed that he could recall, but he willingly let himself be drawn into the fantasy. “And so?”
“And so the stone-creature spoke to you,” Legolas went on as they climbed up a steep slope, “but only rarely and mockingly, while it fell into instant accord with—well, with me. With an Elf.”
Gimli tried to picture this. “That would be—strange, I suppose,” he ventured. “Though if the Elf were you, I do not think that I would mind if you made friends underground. And that is what is bothering you?”
“I did not think an Ent would look at me and find me wanting,” Legolas said, with a bitterness that Gimli found surprising. “It would be easier if I thought that—no.”
For a moment Legolas looked away and down to where the Entwash flowed smoothly around a huge round boulder. Then he looked back at Gimli, and waved his own words away with a ripple of his fingers that looked as if it was part of some dance. “Never mind; you are right. I should not let it bother me, and truly, I do not mind that you have—made friends—with this Ent. I should not be surprised; you have much in common.”
Gimli huffed a breath. “A hard head and a short temper, you mean. Well, I do not deny it. But I think he has not yet taken your measure, Legolas. If we are so alike, then you already know that it will take him an unconscionably long time to do so.”
At this, Legolas smiled faintly, but that shadow of bitterness still clung to him. “And have you taken my measure, then?”
“Of course,” Gimli said, keeping his tone light. “Were it not that you are far too tall, I would have taken it much sooner.” It sounded off-key, somehow. Perhaps the mockery that was such a stalwart of their friendship might not be welcome, not now. What was this strange new mood Legolas was in?
“Yet despite the long list of your faults, I would not change you,” Gimli added. Not for his own weight in mithril, or cave-pearls, but he did not say that out loud.
Legolas flushed a little at this, almost unnoticeably, had Gimli not been watching him so closely. As they neared the hilltop, he bent closer to Gimli to say something.
But whatever he meant to say went unsaid and unheard, for in the next moment they crested the top of the hill, and Hoarfrost greeted them with a ringing shout from the valley below, where he towered above a grove of smaller trees.
“Look!” he called. “Do you see now why I need your aid, Gimli Gloin’s son?”
Gimli looked hard, but all he saw was that the trees were blooming in great sprays of scarlet flowers. The spicy scent was even stronger here.
He shot Legolas a baleful look. “I was hoping for a band of marauding orcs,” he muttered. “This is a sad deception. What does he want us to do, pick flowers?”
Legolas laughed. “I must admit that, like Pippin, I have seen enough orcs to last me a lifetime, even if they offered us a chance to renew our game.” He clasped Gimli’s shoulder comfortingly. “Let us go down and see what must be done. Perhaps there is a great spider for you to slay.”
“Ah, that would be a fine thing. Yet one spider would not be enough; we would need a score, to set us a proper challenge!”
“Sometimes pruning is not enough,” Hoarfrost said when they reached him, as if he were continuing a conversation with himself. “Sometimes the evil must be torn out, aye, root and branch and bud. Beware his song!”
He looked somber and half-asleep, and would not answer any of their questions. He kept muttering to himself in Ent-language, and his great arms stretched out sideways above the ground, twitching a little, as if he were dowsing for water.
Gimli looked around, then cast a perplexed look at Legolas.
The elf was standing very still, listening to something.
Gimli listened too, but he heard nothing but the wind in the trees, a bird singing far overhead, and the Entwash clattering down into its stony bed.
“There is something here,” Legolas said at last, very softly. “It sings of blood and rending and crushing. No, do not draw your axe, not yet!” He made the same sign that Gimli had made before: wait . “I think this must be one of the huorns who came to Helm’s Deep. But this one is even older than the others, and its heart is darker. Its hatred does not stop at orcs; I think it hates all life, or at least all that is not tree-life.”
“Where is it?” Gimli breathed.
Legolas turned slowly around, his eyes unfocused. “Its song seems to be all around us. I cannot—”
The wind blew a great waft of scent into Gimli’s face, and his eyes began to water. “We would do better upwind of these trees,” Gimli said.
Legolas nodded, and they began to make their way across the valley of the spice trees, to the higher ground ahead of them. Hoarfrost still stood behind them with his arms outstretched, humming something Entish under his breath.
It was surprisingly dark under the blooming trees, and the wind picked up, blowing the peppery flower dust into their faces.
At first it was only an itch, an irritation, an irrepressible desire to sneeze. Then the itch grew stronger, and sneezing was no longer enough. The spice seemed to crawl into skin, into eyes, into nose and ears, and wherever it went, it burned.
Gimli whirled around, shaking his head wildly, sneezing violently, but the spice was all around him, and it felt as alive and hostile as a cloud of wasps. It wanted to hurt him. It was invading every breath he took, burning into his throat, his eyes, his lungs.
Coughing, sneezing, his eyes streaming, he tried to find Legolas, but he was reaching out blindly, his hands grasping empty air.
“Legolas!” he called, hoarse and racked with coughing.
At last he heard Legolas speaking to him. Very faint it seemed, like a voice in a dream.
“The huorn is singing to the spice trees,” Legolas said. “It’s asking them to blind us, hurt us. Gimli, follow my voice—”
“Aye,” Gimli said, then coughed again, a painful racking cough that would not let up. The spice still burned in his eyes and mouth, and breathing was difficult.
He did not dare use his axe, not when he could not see, not when he might hurt his dearest friend or even a blameless tree. Instead, he ignored his other senses as far as he was able and listened with all his might.
Legolas was singing, too. Not a lament, not a liquid meandering elf-song of the kind Gimli knew, but something altogether stranger and fiercer. It was not a friendly song. And even though Gimli knew none of the words, he thought he could recognize the intent behind them: challenge and defiance.
It made his heart leap and his hands ache for his axe. He longed for a foe to slay. But all he could do was listen and move closer, step by careful step, reaching out to fend off tree branches that whipped in the wind.
Finally he touched something soft and a little ragged: the edge of Legolas’s sleeve.
In another moment, a slender hand clasped his and drew him closer.
“Can you see?” Legolas said. His voice was still strangely faint, though they were close enough that Gimli could hear his breathing.
Gimli shook his head, and then almost doubled over in another fit of coughing. When he could breathe again, he squeezed Legolas’s hand. “No,” he croaked.
Softly, Legolas said, “I will lead you. The trees are not many, and soon we will be upwind. But beware—” Legolas made a stifled sound, like a hurried, gasping breath, and Gimli wondered how on earth the elf was keeping himself from coughing his lungs out—“the huorn is there, uphill, singing threats to us. Hoarfrost is keeping him bespelled somehow, so that he cannot move. But the huorn’s voice is—compelling.”
Gimli nodded, since he had no voice left to speak. He wiped his other hand across his aching eyes, trying to see, but everything was a blur. He could not hear the huorn’s song, but there was little advantage in that when he could not see.
This was a battle unlike any he had ever experienced: a battle in which he was blind, weaponless, and breathless. All he had for guidance was Legolas’s hand in his.
Slowly they made their way across the flower-strewn floor of the valley. Gimli stumbled over a tree root once or twice, but always Legolas was there to catch him and lead him onward, singing snatches of his battle-song.
The darkness lingered even when they left the shadow of the spice trees. Gimli felt the earth under his feet grow soft, and then softer still, until mud clung to his boots in heavy clumps that made the going even more difficult. It was no season for mud; it had not rained in a week or more. There was some foul trickery in all this.
“The huorn stands halfway up the hill, hidden behind a boulder,” Legolas said. “I can barely see the black crown of him, but his roots reach far, and his voice farther. Hoarfrost is keeping him bound, but he may be overmatched. If the huorn moves—”
“If he moves,” Gimli croaked, dashing a hand over his wet eyes again, “leave me and run!” His breath was coming a little easier, but he could still see nothing but a blur.
He was a hindrance like this, a danger to Legolas instead of a help, and his heart burned with it. They had witnessed huorns tear a thousand orcs apart. Arrows would be no use against them.
“Such foolish talk does not suit you,” Legolas said, but his voice hitched, and then he made another stifled sound.
“Are you well?” Gimli whispered hoarsely. “Legolas?”
It was a moment before Legolas answered, and in that moment Gimli heard nothing but the sound of his own heartbeat.
“Well enough,” Legolas said, but it was clearly but a half-truth, and Gimli could feel the other half in the faint trembling of his long fingers. “The huorn’s song—it is—”
The hill’s incline seemed to grow steeper with every step, and the mud grew heavier, but heaviest was the weight of Legolas’s hand in his, gripping hard.
“It’s hurting you,” Gimli whispered. He could hear nothing of the huorn’s song, but he felt its power with every laboured breath Legolas took. He clasped his friend’s hand with care, trying to bring him comfort.
The hillside was black with mud, and only a few straggling knee-height bushes grew here. There was no path, nothing to hold onto as they struggled up the steep slope, and ahead of them loomed the large boulder that hid the huorn.
Gimli blinked until his eyes were streaming with tears—he felt like a mole—and tried to find their enemy, but all he could make out was a blurred shadow to the left of the boulder.
Then the boulder began to move.
Gimli cried out in alarm. He shoved Legolas to the right, putting all his weight behind the shove, then flung himself after his friend.
He landed face-down in the mud. The ground shook and heaved beneath him.
There was a roar, and a rushing wind in his ears. He felt the weight of the boulder displace the mud as it rolled past him, close by—very close, perhaps a handsbreath away.
“Gimli!” Legolas was calling him, tugging at his shoulder.
Dazed, Gimli sat up, mud dripping from his beard.
“Draw your axe, son of Durin!” Legolas cried, a fierceness in his voice that Gimli had only heard at the height of battle.
Gimli sprang up and unsheathed his axe with a battle-cry.
Then he stopped, though his axe rested comfortably in his hand, and his feet were planted as firmly as possible. Uphill, the huorn’s roots were moving in the ground, coiling and uncoiling like a nest of snakes, with the great dark shape of the tree looming above them, but it was all a blur.
Gimli wiped his face with one hand, clearing the mud away, but he still could not see clearly. “Legolas—I cannot see well enough to be sure—”
“I will direct you,” Legolas called from some distance away. “Follow my voice!”
“Aye,” Gimli muttered, and he began to stump up the hill.
“At your left,” Legolas called. “Aim low and find its roots. Beware the branches.”
Gimli brought his axe round, swinging it in a gleaming arc, and hit a knot of roots with a force that almost staggered him backward. The roots bled a sticky sap, but they twisted in the air, as if trying to avoid his axe.
“This was my father’s axe!” Gimli complained, trusting Legolas to track his voice and stay well out of reach. “Made for battle, not for woodcraft. I’ll never get a proper edge back on the blade!”
Something came rushing down and hit his shoulder with a solid thump, but Gimli was wearing his mail shirt and heavy armour over that, and he shook off the impact easily. It was a branch, one of the huorn’s many arms, and when another came swinging at his head he ducked and evaded the blow.
His axe bit into the writhing wood again and again, but it grew duller with every blow, and the roots were harder than ironwood.
Gimli blinked away sweat that was running into his eyes, and at last the blur cleared and became shapes that he recognized. He whipped around, looking for Legolas, and was just in time to see the elf gather himself for a leap, then spring high into the huorns’s swinging branches.
Gimli growled under his breath.
What was the elf doing? Those branches could crush even a hardy elven warrior, and it wasn’t as if Legolas could somehow subdue the huorn by sitting on it.
Now that Gimli could see better, it was clear that the huorn was not like an ent—it had no face or eyes in its jagged bark. Nothing to aim for. And what weak spots could a tree have?
Hacking at the roots, blow after fierce blow, didn’t even seem to slow the huorn down, though tree-sap bled from the wounds.
Fire might do it, but there was no time to sit down and start a blaze. And Hoarfrost might object, at that.
Still Gimli kept striking at the huorn’s roots. He looked up now and then to see what Legolas was doing, but he couldn’t make sense of what he saw.
Legolas hung precariously by one arm, his foot braced against the huorn’s thick bark, and he had drawn his long knife. He was carving into the bark, long precise strokes, parallel to the ground.
“This is not the time to carve your name into a tree, elf!” Gimli called.
From high above, he heard the liquid sound of Legolas’s laughter, and it warmed him. This elf knew the battle-joy as well as any dwarf.
“Would you like me to carve yours?” Legolas called as he swung to another branch and began to slice the bark again.
Gimli snorted loudly. “I’d like to see you try!”
The huorn reared back suddenly, its branches moving fast as whips, and Legolas lost his foothold and slammed into the huorn’s trunk head-first.
Gimli watched him, barely breathing, while he swept his axe around himself in tight circles to keep from being snagged by one of the roots.
Legolas hung by one hand, swaying there, his hair hanging over his face.
Gimli could not see if his eyes were open.
A heavy top branch bent down from the huorn’s crown, slowly, the thick wood creaking. If it could reach Legolas, it would crush him against the jagged trunk. Some of the smaller side branches looked sharp as spears.
Fear gripped Gimli by the throat.
“Legolas!” he yelled, in a voice that cracked.
Legolas shook his head, as if dazed, and then he let go of the branch he was hanging from.
“No—” Gimli croaked, watching him fall. He struggled to reach the elf, to catch him, but a tangle of roots snaked toward him out of the mud, tripping him and shaking him with whiplike blows.
Legolas’s hand slapped around another branch, lower down, and he caught himself. He hung there, still looking dazed, but he twisted out of the way of the top branch bending toward him. Then he looked down.
Gimli stared up at him, teeth bared. “Fool of an elf!”
Legolas gave him a rueful smile that was far too understanding. Then his eyes widened. “Gimli, your left!”
Gimli whirled, bringing his axe up to shield himself.
A heavy root smashed straight into the edge of his blade and split neatly in two. The divided roots immediately twined around his legs, bleeding sticky sap onto his boots.
Gimli cursed and began to hack himself free again. He no longer had the leisure to watch what Legolas was about; it was all he could do to keep from being strangled by the huorn.
His axe swung in gleaming arcs, though the dulled blade made the cuts less deadly than before.
Then Legolas called down, “Lend me your strength, Gimli!”
“Always,” Gimli called back, startled. He risked a fast glance upward.
Legolas had climbed back to where he was before, and had finished carving two sinuous lines around the huorn’s trunk with his long knife. Now he swung upside down, his hands hanging free, his legs locked tightly around a branch that was trying to shake him off, and called, “Climb up to me!”
Gimli threw back his head and glared. “Do you take me for a tree-ape?”
Legolas only laughed as merrily as if they were playing some silly wood-elf game, and stretched out his hands down to Gimli, though there was a dizzying empty space between them.
The huorn was still moving, the roots whipping into the air, and the thin lines carved into its trunk didn’t seem to have hurt it at all. Gimli had no idea what Legolas planned to do, but Legolas was reaching out to him, and that spurred him up into the tree.
He climbed awkwardly, his axe on his back, his hands gripping the jagged bark. It was sharp as volcanic rock, and branches smashed against his back, trying to dislodge him.
But no mere tree-bark could be permitted to cut a dwarf’s skin, and no damned walking tree was going to get the better of Gimli, by the Seven Kings!
The climbing was slow and difficult, but at least the huorn was standing still. Whatever Hoarfrost was doing over there, it was keeping the huorn bound to this place.
Finally Gimli reached Legolas’s perch, a heavy branch that looked like it would hold his weight, and he sat down with a sigh of relief and wrapped his legs around the branch where it was thickest. It moved immediately, trying to crush him against the trunk, but clearly the huorn had not dealt with dwarves before.
“Hah!” Gimli said, and squeezed the branch in return, tightening his powerful legs until the wood creaked. “Try to squash me, and I’ll turn you into kindling, do you hear me?”
Legolas swung himself back upright and said urgently, “Take hold of the edge there, and if you can—tear the bark away from the trunk. All the way around. I will watch your back.”
“If I can?” Gimli repeated, lifting his brows.
He reached forward and took the strip of jagged bark in one mailed fist, then tugged. It came away from the tree a little, showing bare white wood beneath, but it did not come easy. It stuck to the tree like tar.
Gimli tugged harder.
The huorn shook and shivered, and branches whipped toward Gimli’s face, but Legolas fended them off with fast jabs of his hands and feet. “Hurry!” he called.
Gimli grunted assent. He had no intention of letting the elf shield him for long. Legolas wore no armour, and his fighting style relied on speed and grace, not on the ability to withstand heavy blows.
Still, the bark was giving him trouble. It fought him every inch, and the huorn tried to shake him off with renewed vigour.
With an oath, Gimli wrapped the loosened strip of bark around his fist and put his back into the work, tensing his legs and opening up his shoulders.
The bark ripped free, slowly but surely, until nearly half the circle was done and a long strip of bark dangled loose.
Gimli could not reach the back of the huorn’s broad trunk, and he was loath to move from his steady perch. Instead he began on the other half of the circle, ripping the bark away with all his strength until only a handwidth remained at the back of the tree.
“Nearly done!” he called.
Legolas gave a whoop of delight. “Praise to your arm, Gimli! Here—”
With one smooth movement, the elf swung himself halfway around the tree, where he hung upside down again and stretched out his hands. “Jump! Then we will finish this.”
Gimli had some trouble untangling his legs from their tight clamp upon the branch, but as soon as he was ready, he took a deep breath and launched himself at Legolas.
For a moment, he flew.
Then his hands smacked into Legolas’s, with a sureness that made his heart leap.
“Hold on to me,” Legolas said. “Can you manage with one hand?”
Gimli didn’t waste breath on speech. Instead, he freed his right hand and braced himself against the tree with both feet. Then he tore away the strip of bark in one mighty pull, revealing a circle of bare white wood.
Gimli had not formed any idea of what would happen after that—he had not thought at all beyond doing what Legolas asked of him—but the effect was more than he would have guessed.
There was a great rending, cracking sound, and the huorn’s branches began to move wildly, no longer aiming blows at Legolas or Gimli, just stabbing at thin air, while the entire trunk of the tree shook convulsively.
Legolas grabbed hold of both Gimli’s hands again, and Gimli tried to find some purchase with his feet, but the tree was now shaking so hard that he could find nowhere to stand.
Above him, he heard Legolas give a soft grunt of effort, and he knew that the elf could not hold his weight much longer.
“Let me go,” Gimli yelled. Climbing down wasn’t possible now, not with the tree shaking so hard that it felt like an earthquake.
Legolas shook his head, his long hair flying. “It’s too high!”
It was, but that was hardly the point. If the huorn fell, it would crush them both. Yet Legolas’s fingers tightened around his wrists. Stubborn, obstinate, idiot elf—he would let Gimli’s weight rip him from the tree, rather than let go.
Gimli twisted, trying to free himself without hurting Legolas.
“Stop,” Legolas gasped. “I can’t hold you—”
“That— would be—why,” Gimli retorted, and wrenched himself out of Legolas’s grasp.
Bark and branches rushed past him.
He slammed into the tree once, twice, and then into the ground.
“Gimli,” someone called, far away.
It didn’t sound right. It was a voice Gimli knew, but low and shaken.
There was a weight pressing on his chest, and he couldn’t move. His arms and legs felt powerless and heavy, as if they were staked to the ground, or chained.
“Gimli, my dear—” said the voice, closer by.
Gimli felt something moving through his hair, and he tried to shake the intruder off, but he still couldn’t move.
Those were fingers, stirring through his hair. When had he taken off his helm?
“Gimli, please,” said the voice. “I believe it’s my turn to call you a fool, and I will do so gladly, if you will only wake up.”
Gimli tried to growl under his breath, but no sound came from his throat.
He felt dizzy and strange, and the world seemed to whirl about him like a spinning disc. He could not be sure if he was on the ground or in the air. Were his hands buried in the dirt, or clamped around a tree branch? He couldn’t feel them.
He could feel the other’s fingers in his hair, though, ghosting over his skin.
“Would that Elessar were here,” said the voice. “What do I know of dwarven hurts, or healing?”
The hand moved down to Gimli’s neck, feeling for the bones there. It tickled. Then the hand moved back to his hair again, stroking gently.
“Would that I had not dragged you into Fangorn, when you had no wish to come,” said the voice, sounding a little hoarse. “But I was selfish, and I did not want to go home, not yet—not when I could have you with me a while longer—Gimli, please wake up. I doubt you would want an elf to weep over you, but if you do not wake—”
An elf…of course. The knowledge landed as softly as if it had never been gone: it was Legolas talking to him, and Legolas’s long fingers were in his hair.
Gimli tried to take a breath, and found that he could. His lungs burned with the fresh air.
The world spun slower; the spinning disc was wobbling to the floor. Up and down were still uncertain, but there was relief in knowing that wherever he was, Legolas was with him.
He tried to speak, to move his fingers, but it seemed too great an effort. Breathing, though, he could do that.
“Gimli? Are you waking?”
Gimli groaned. It wasn’t the sound he had meant to make, but his body had ideas of its own—it groaned, and stirred, and suddenly he could feel more: moss under his cheek, and fresh air brushing past the other side of his face.
Legolas’s long fingers slipped from his hair, leaving a prickly ghost of sensation behind.
Gimli tried to sit up, and fell back with another groan as the world rushed past his ears again. It felt as though he were falling still, but there was solid earth under his hands, and Legolas sitting still beside him, crosslegged and looking pale, though a little colour came back into his face when Gimli’s eyes found his.
“How do you feel?” Legolas said. “That was quite a fall.” His fingers were twined tightly together in his lap.
“Dizzy,” Gimli admitted. “Still—” he tried to move his arms and legs, and they obeyed, though they still felt heavy as lead, “—no bones broken. Don’t look so worried.”
Legolas’s fine brows lifted, and he shifted a little as if he would deny it, but he said nothing, and his hands were pressed so tightly together that the fingernails looked white.
“You can go ahead and call me a fool if you like,” Gimli said comfortingly.
Legolas blinked. “I—were you awake that long?”
Gimli shook his head, then winced at the rush of dizziness. “No, I was—” Then recollection hit him right between the eyes, and he sat up; successfully this time, though he swayed a little. “The huorn, where—?”
“We felled it,” Legolas said simply. “Behold!”
He pointed, and Gimli saw a huge hole in the hillside, and a tremendous tangle of roots beside it. The huorn had fallen down across the Entwash, a natural bridge, and it lay there unmoving. It looked like an ordinary tree, if rather jagged and dark and unwholesome.
“Is it dead?” Gimli asked.
Legolas nodded soberly. “Yes, I think so. Its song has ceased.” He looked at the fallen huorn and gave a small sigh. “I could not devise a method that would have kept it alive and harmless.”
Gimli nodded. He couldn’t think of it as a great loss, though clearly Legolas felt otherwise. “Well,” he said, scratching dried mud from his beard. “It was more interesting than giant spiders, I suppose. Though when I tell the tale of our victory over the evil walking tree, it will not end with me falling on my head and missing the end of the battle.”
Legolas nearly choked, looking as if his own laughter surprised him, and Gimli saw with satisfaction that his pale, strained look was fading away.
Then Gimli shook his head again, testing himself, and found that the rush of dizziness was less this time. He placed one hand flat against the ground, to keep himself upright in case the ground should suddenly decide to take a leap at his face.
“Perhaps you should lie down again,” Legolas said tentatively.
“Blood and bone, Legolas!” Gimli protested. “Do you think so little of me? I am a dwarf of Erebor, and our heads are harder than most.”
“Well do I know it,” said Legolas, with a twist of his mouth that looked too unhappy for jest. “But—no, don’t get up yet, please. Will you sit, just for a while?”
Gimli crossed his arms and sat, pointedly. In truth, it still felt as though the earth beneath him was spinning, and he did not relish the thought of getting up just yet.
Instead he looked around, turning his head slowly and carefully. He was sitting on a bed of moss, underneath a spice tree that had already lost most of its blossoms. The scent of the spice did not hurt now; there was less wind to carry it, and perhaps the trees, also, were less hostile.
Of Hoarfrost, there was no sign, but he might very well be standing somewhere nearby, pretending to be a tree. Or not pretending, Gimli amended. What did he know of Ents, after all?
“The more I begin to know of dwarves,” Legolas said suddenly, as if catching his thought from the air, “the more I find out there is to know, and I do not think I will ever come to the end of it.”
“That is very likely,” Gimli agreed with a complacent nod.
Legolas blew out a long breath in a way that reminded Gimli strongly of Arod. “On this matter of names,” he began.
Gimli gave him a suspicious look. “What of them?”
“You have many names already,” Legolas said. “Gimli Elvellon, Lockbearer, the Lady’s Champion; one of the Three Hunters, one of the Nine Walkers, Lord of the Glittering Caves—”
Gimli made a warding gesture. “That is not my title!” The praise warmed him, but he could not let that warmth settle inside him. There was some purpose to Legolas’s litany, and he feared where it would end.
“But it will be,” Legolas said.
There was a pause.
“And yet, this other name—” Legolas’s voice was soft. “I find myself eager to know that, too. What was it you said? ‘Without a name, there is less for memory to hold on to.’ ”
“I thought Elvish memory was perfect and neverending,” Gimli said, thrusting out his chin so that his beard bristled. “Are you planning to forget me so soon, then?”
Legolas gave him a long look, and it became difficult to meet his eyes. There was a weight to that look that Gimli could feel, a weight like that of Legolas’s hand on his shoulder.
“I will never forget you,” Legolas said in that soft, serious voice.
Gimli closed his eyes for a moment and breathed deeply. It was no small thing, to be told that Legolas would remember him forever, even in the ageless lands across the sea. It was no small thing, and it was almost, almost enough.
But could he trade that gift for his name? It was a thing unheard of. Legolas wanted his name, to carry away with him like spoils of war, just like he would carry Gimli’s heart across the sea.
Did he even know what he was asking?
But then, after the long years of enmity between elves and dwarves, how could he know?
Gimli swallowed. It was as though he could feel his doom rushing to meet him on great black wings. “I told you, this is not something I may speak of. All my ancestors would cry out against it!”
“You have done many things that your ancestors would cry out against, since you left the Lonely Mountain,” Legolas said. “You befriended an elf and championed another; and worse, you rode a horse and sailed a boat, and lived to tell the tale!”
“That is not of the same import,” Gimli grumbled. He could not look at Legolas. This was delicate ground, and growing ever more delicate under his feet, like a bridge made of blown glass.
“Importunate elf!” he muttered.
Swiftly Legolas bit back, “Stubborn dwarf!”
For a moment, they glared at each other in a perfect imitation of their old hostility.
Then Gimli looked away again, drawing his knees up and wrapping his arms around them. “We Dwarves were not sung into being like the Elves,” he said slowly. “We were stone, until we were given a word—a name. With that name came life, breath, and fear; yet we clung to that life. And so, what we make, we will not unmake, not once it is named. And we do not share the language of our making with others, for fear that we may yet be unmade.”
Legolas’s eyes were wide, and he barely seemed to be breathing. “And your name—”
“My true name is in that language,” Gimli admitted, though he could almost feel the entire line of Durin rising up to shout at him for his treachery. “It may never be written down, not even on my tombstone.”
Legolas flinched as if Gimli had struck him. “I see.”
“And it may not be spoken,” Gimli said, though he felt the syllables trembling on his tongue. “Not unless—not until—” he broke off, glaring at his boots.
And yet he kept hearing the ghost-echo of Legolas’s soft voice saying, my dear.
How like an elf, to draw such secrets from him—to charm him, beguile him, snare him into betraying what should be kept safe and hidden. Legolas would steal Gimli’s name from him, and leave him nameless and bereft on the shore while he sailed away into the sunlit lands.
Gimli could hear Legolas breathing beside him, swift and light in the way of elves. Why was the urge to say his name so strong? Did he have no pride left, no self-regard? Why surrender everything he was, only to watch it blow away in the wind?
“You asked if I think so little of you,” Legolas said then, slowly. He looked at Gimli, then away again, as if the sight was burning him. “I— do not.”
Almost, almost enough.
It was an enormous effort to muster a glare, draw back his shoulders proudly, and put the right note of affront into his voice. “If that was an attempt to mock my height, I’ll have you know—”
Two spots of colour began to burn in Legolas’s cheeks. “It was an attempt to—you idiot dwarf, must you misunderstand everything I say?”
Gimli frowned so fiercely that he could barely see. “What’s there to misunderstand, when you never say anything worth understanding?” he shot back.
Legolas’s chin tilted up. Then he unfolded himself in one smooth movement and stood over Gimli, very straight and tall, managing to look like a proud elf-lord despite the mud stains on his knees. “I will go hunting for a while,” he announced to the air. “When you feel ready to resume our journey, I will return.”
“Try not to catch any more trees!” Gimli yelled after him as Legolas strode off, his back a long stiff line. “They might fight back this time!”
When Aragorn saw them coming out from under the eaves of Fangorn forest, the elf’s long stride checked only slightly by the dwarf’s heavy tread, his first thought was that they were handfasted at last.
Then, as his friends came closer, he changed his mind: they were walking a little too far apart, and that constraint between them that had become noticeable after Helm’s Deep was still present. But Aragorn could not divine where its origins lay. With Gimli, with Legolas, or with both?
Aragorn signalled to his guards. They moved out to meet Gimli and Legolas halfway, leading Arod, but apparently Arod did not wish to wait that long.
The horse broke away, tearing himself from the hands of an astonished guard, and galloped to Legolas and Gimli, kicking up his rear feet in sheer exuberance. He butted Gimli in the chest with his head—the dwarf did not move an inch—then pranced around Legolas in circles, nickering enthusiastically.
Aragorn laughed, watching his friends’ reunion with their horse, and was content to wait for his own greeting.
“Hail, King Elessar,” called Legolas as soon as they were in speaking distance. “Is all well in Gondor?”
“All is well,” Aragorn called back. “Arwen sends her greetings.”
Beside him, Gimli inspected Aragorn’s escort with a frown. “You’re one man short,” he rumbled before Aragorn could speak to him.
“And how did you find that out, Gimli?” Aragorn said, smiling a little.
The dwarf shrugged. “The men of Gondor have their ways. They organize their armies in even numbers, down to the smallest company. You are here with three guards; therefore one is missing.”
Aragorn nodded. “Well reasoned,” he said, and saw Gimli aim a triumphant look at Legolas. “My fourth man, Geraint, was hurt, though not gravely. I sent him back to the City with our news.”
“And perhaps you will share this news with us, ere my beard grows much longer,” Gimli said. “For as much as I appreciate the royal welcome, I doubt that you are here merely to smoke a pipe with us and listen to our tale of fighting a walking tree!”
Aragorn blinked. It had been a while since anyone had spoken to him so bluntly. “No, that is not why we are here. But I would gladly hear that tale another time.” He drew back his shoulders and felt the cares of the kingdom settle there anew. For a moment it had been easy to forget them and think himself a Ranger again. “We came to take possession of Orthanc, but though its former occupant is gone, he left something of himself behind.”
Gimli’s eyebrows flew up. “A trap?”
Aragorn nodded ruefully. “Geraint tried to open the door and burned his hands, though there was no fire that we could see, and the door was cold to the touch. Then Hildor took the keys, and they were cold as ice. He was nearly frostbitten, though he was wearing gloves. And then—”
“It is a wonder you have any escort left!” Gimli said.
“And then,” Aragorn said, “I tried the door myself, but it would not open. Then I thought to meet you both on your return and ask for your assistance. The men who built Orthanc are long gone, and they took their secrets with them, but Saruman was a wizard of devices as well as magic.”
“Our assistance, eh?” Gimli said. He shot a wry look up at Legolas. “Well, we did not do so badly the last time, all told. Do you agree, or would you rather leave for home?”
The tone was light, but the dwarf’s shoulders tightened as if ready to receive a blow.
Legolas’s gaze flicked to Gimli’s stern features for a moment, then away again. “Of course not,” he said then, a little too curtly, and he stepped forward and clasped Aragorn’s arm in a belated greeting. “We will do what we may.”
Aragorn returned the clasp, smiling. “I could not ask for more.”
They climbed the twenty-seven steps to Orthanc together. Aragorn went up first, and then Legolas and Gimli side by side, neither of them looking at the other. Aragorn’s men kept guard below, their weapons at the ready.
“Let me see the keys,” Gimli said as soon as they reached the topmost step.
Aragorn handed them to him carefully, touching only the ring of steel they hung from. They were two great black keys of intricate shape, and Gimli examined them both.
They were indeed cold to the touch, but Gimli wore mailed gloves, and no ice could freeze dwarvish steel. The wards were strangely shaped, each different to the other. As he turned them in his hand, the keys seemed to resent his attention, writhing and twisting like snakes; though only from the corner of his eye, for he could not see them move when he looked at them full-on. The longer he looked at them, the more he wondered.
“We know that Saruman gave these keys to Treebeard,” Gimli said slowly. “Did Treebeard see him leave the tower and lock the door, I wonder?”
Aragorn raised his brows. “What are you thinking, Gimli?”
Gimli shook his head. “I cannot say yet—but there is something about these keys that troubles me.”
“I will go,” Legolas said quickly, “I will find Treebeard and ask him what he remembers.”
And how eager Legolas looked to be gone; he was almost standing on tiptoe, like a runner at the starting line.
“Very well,” Aragorn agreed. “Take Hildor with you.”
Legolas did not look pleased, but he nodded. Then he shot downstairs like an arrow from the bow, leaving the men of Gondor looking startled for a moment. Hildor caught Aragorn’s signal and ran after him, catching up with Legolas ere he reached the horses.
Gimli turned away. He did not want to see Legolas riding Arod alone and away from him.
Aragorn gave him a long, thoughtful look, but said nothing. Instead he stood quietly, waiting, while Gimli turned the keys over in his hand once more.
It was a relief to give his mind to a problem this tangible. Solid steel in his hand, though it reeked of sorcery, and a very solid stone door in front of him: these were easier problems to solve than an elf’s moods and fancies.
Gimli knelt down, looking at the door and the almost invisible gap where it met the stone sill. For a long time he knelt there; then he got up, his knees creaking just a little, and examined the keyholes, which were set close together, one above the other. Peering inside, he could see only darkness, and the faint glint of metal. He tried the keys, one after the other, just to make certain, but though they moved in the locks, the door did not open, and the keys grew freezing cold in his hand.
Then he stood back, considering the matter.
Above the dark door was the balcony where Saruman had stood and looked down upon them all, and above that were the many windows of Orthanc, where Wormtongue had hurled the palantír at their heads.
Gimli tilted his head back, looking up at the great forked pinnacle of Orthanc. A forbidding fortress; a place made to freeze men’s hearts and leach the bravery from their bones. A rock hard enough to withstand even the power of Ents enraged.
And yet, this tower of strength could be opened with a single set of keys. They only seemed complex because their shape was strange, and some concealing magic hung about them, but Gimli had seen dwarven keys of cunning subtlety that no forger could have duplicated. These, he thought he could copy in an afternoon, with the use of a good forge and the right tools for fine work.
“Who lived here, ere Saruman came?” Gimli asked.
Aragorn stood a while in thought, and Gimli watched the morning sun rise over the plain of Isengard. It was a much greener place than before, a grove of young trees, and the water that ran in the many streams was bright and clear.
“A small company of guards of Gondor kept the Tower in readiness, in the old days,” Aragorn said then. “And the Stewards of Gondor kept the keys. But the Tower was forsaken when the strength of Gondor began to fail; it was taken by the Dunlendings, who kept it as their stronghold until they were starved out of it in the Long Winter. After that, Beren the Steward willingly gave Saruman the keys, so that he might take possession of the Tower.”
Gimli stroked his beard. “The Stewards kept the keys,” he repeated slowly. “Yet the guardsmen must surely have gone in and out of the Tower without appealing to their Steward every time they needed to bring in fresh victuals. And then the Dunlendings took over the Tower. There is some incongruity here. I doubt the Dunlendings could have forced the door, when even Ents could not make a dent upon the stone.”
“Perhaps the Tower was betrayed, and opened from the inside,” Aragorn said. “There is no written history that covers those days in detail, and the men who lived it are dead.”
“Perhaps,” Gimli said, looking up at the tower again. The narrow windows seemed to stare down at him tauntingly, and he suppressed a shiver. The keys were very cold in his hand. “Or perhaps these keys are not what is needed to open the door at all.”
Aragorn gave him a keen glance. “Are you thinking of the secret doors that led us to Moria?”
Gimli shook his head. “Not exactly. I doubt that this is dwarf-work, or that we can open it by saying ‘mellon.’” Still, he looked up at the tall black door as he said it, but the door remained stubbornly shut. “And this door is not secret,” Gimli continued. “It is visible from leagues away. It is the only entrance, and these keys are clearly the only keys. Such answers make me uneasy, given what I have seen of wizards. Would that Gandalf were here!”
Aragorn smiled a little wryly and clapped Gimli on the shoulder. “We must do without him henceforth,” he said. “But I am glad to have you here, Gimli. Even a wizard’s concealments may be no match for dwarven ingenuity.”
“Well, that goes without saying,” Gimli grumbled, bending his head to hide his pleased smile. He peered again into the locks, then looked closely at the dark smooth stone of the door itself.
“Ah,” Aragorn said, shading his eyes with one hand as he looked out over the plain. “Legolas returns.”
Gimli blew out a breath. “For all the good he will do us.”
“What is this quarrel between you, Gimli?” Aragorn asked, and his tone was gentle, but Gimli could hear the steel beneath it. “I thought you would both return from Fangorn in better spirits—yes, even you, though you do not delight in trees.”
Gimli shook his head. “The trees at least are quiet,” he said. “But an elf will ask ceaseless questions, without answering any that are put to him, and give one no peace by night or by day.” Then he remembered whom he was speaking to, and clapped a hand to his forehead in chagrin. “Forgive me, Aragorn! I am not myself,” he said in a low voice.
For a while they both stood in silence, watching Legolas swing himself off Arod’s back and leap lightly to the ground.
“No offense between friends,” Aragorn said. “It is not always easy to deal with elves—and I say so, who was raised by them!—but I think you would agree that the rewards are worth the effort.”
“I thought so once,” Gimli said, and his voice sounded hollow to himself. “Before I knew that they were leaving us.”
For a while Aragorn was silent, then he said, “Elves do not reckon time as mortal men do.”
Gimli gave a great huff of breath. “They do not reckon anything! They live by moods and whims, and change with the wind—”
He could feel Aragorn’s gaze boring into the back of his head, but he would not look around. Instead he watched Legolas climb the twenty-seven steps with his usual effortless grace.
Legolas’s fair head lifted long before he reached the top step, and their eyes met.
Gimli fell back a step, as breathless as if someone had punched him in the stomach. The black keys trembled in his fist.
Legolas, too, seemed strangely agitated as he took the final step, and he looked at Aragorn almost desperately, as if hoping to take some calm and strength from him. “Treebeard saw Saruman leave,” he reported, speaking just a little too quickly. “But he did not see the wizard lock the door. Saruman was already halfway down the steps when Treebeard took the keys from him.”
“Ah hah,” said Gimli, stroking his beard.
In that moment, the almost tangible tension fell away; there was only the problem, and a possible solution.
“Stand back,” he ordered.
Then he lifted the heavy, freezingly cold keys in his right hand and hurled them down the steps.
The keys shattered against the stone. They did not break like metal: they splintered like glass, and then the sharp splinters melted away into thin air like smoke.
One of the guards gasped, but the others stood frozen, staring at the bare stone steps.
“Well,” Aragorn said at last. “Shall we go in?”
Behind them, unnoticed by everyone except the King, the heavy black door had swung wide open.
Gimli shouldered forward. “Let me go first,” he demanded. “Who knows what other tricks Saruman has prepared for us?”
Legolas walked quietly forward until he stood at Gimli’s side. “Let us go first,” he said to Aragorn over Gimli’s head. After a moment of consideration, Aragorn nodded.
“My Lord—” one of the guards began, protesting, but Aragorn hushed him with a wave of his hand. “Stand watch by the door,” he commanded, and the guards ranged themselves on either side.
Together, Legolas and Gimli went through the doorway and climbed the steps that led up to Saruman’s chambers in the heart of Orthanc.
A great glass globe hung over the stairway, and it filled with a green fire as they approached, lighting their way. Gimli eyed it warily, in case it came loose from its moorings or proved poisonous, but nothing happened.
“How did you divine the door’s secret?” Legolas asked in an under-voice. He sounded constrained, and it was painful to hear; it was a long time since either of them had bothered to make polite conversation with the other.
Gimli gave a one-shouldered shrug. “I’m not sure that I did; it was an attempt merely.” Once he would not have said that; once he would have wanted to impress Legolas, or at least to mystify him. That dwarf he had once been seemed so very proud and foolish to him now. “If the keys had not shattered, I would have had to try something else,” he went on. “But the keys—were wrong. They looked very impressive, certainly, but their weight in the hand was wrong. The wards were ensorceled to make them difficult to see, and yet too simple. There were no scratches upon the metal, as you might expect to see upon the keys to a tower that has stood for three thousand years.” He dug his fingers in his beard. “I expect the keys were part of some spell; that the door could not have been opened by any means, not while they were whole, and that they were intended to do slow harm to anyone who tried. If Aragorn had been so unwise as to touch them barehanded—”
Legolas gave him a quick, concerned glance. “Did you?”
“Of course not,” Gimli said.
They climbed the last step, and then they stood in Saruman’s chambers. There was another glass globe hanging over their heads, and it shed a yellowish glow as they looked around.
“Ah,” Gimli said with satisfaction. He pointed to a hook by the door, where another ring of keys hung. They were less ornate, and when he lifted them in his hand, they were neither cold nor sorcerous, just heavy, with scratched and tarnished wards. “These will be of more use to Aragorn, I expect.”
Legolas nodded absently. His eyes were wide as he looked around. “This is not what I expected to see,” he said. “Where did it all come from?”
All around them were shelves and cabinets, overflowing with books, crystals, strange instruments, maps, scrolls, dried herbs, and many other things that Gimli could not even name. He turned around, looking for any menace, any threat to themselves or to Aragorn, but nothing moved. There was a layer of dust over everything, and all that stirred in the air were the dust motes disturbed by their entrance.
“Indeed,” Gimli said slowly. “Is this a wizard’s lair, or a jackdaw’s nest?”
Gimli went toward a dark wooden cabinet where something gleamed in the soft yellow light, catching his eye. It was a sword, he saw as he came closer: old, engraved, in a sheath made of chased metalwork and leather.
“That belongs to the House of Éorl,” Aragorn said. He had come up the stairs behind Legolas and Gimli, and now he stood in the middle of the chamber, looking stern. “I have seen it in a tapestry hanging from the rafters of Meduseld—it is the sword of Morwen Steelsheen, mother of Théoden, and it is said to sing curses against any who draw it, unless they are the rightful owner.”
Gimli hastily dropped the sheathed sword back onto its shelf. “There!” he said, dusting his hands. “There let it lie in peace until Éomer comes to collect it. But how came such a thing here, to Isengard?”
Aragorn gave him a dark look. “Wormtongue, I deem,” he said. “He coveted many treasures, and it seems that Saruman encouraged him to steal them for his own purposes.”
“This, also, must belong to Éomer and his heirs,” Legolas said. In his hands lay an ivory horn, finely carved with a troop of horsemen carrying pennants in a field of tall grass.
Aragorn took it from him, examining it closely. “Indeed, this may even be the Horn of Everholt,” he said, turning it over and holding it up against the light. “It was carved from the tusk of that great boar that slew Folca the Hunter, long ago. I will bring scholars and archivists here, to take inventory of all this stolen treasure.” He laid it back gently upon the shelf, then looked around, his gaze travelling slowly across the many crowded cabinets and tables.
“First let us make doubly sure that it is safe for them to come,” Gimli said. “What is it you are looking for, Aragorn?”
Aragorn turned to him with a wry smile. “The jewel of the hoard,” he said. “The story may seem familiar to you. We are come to another dragon’s lair, searching for the jewel that he guarded most closely.”
“Another Arkenstone?” Gimli asked, with a dubious look. “I trust there will not be five armies besieging us as soon as we leave this tower.”
Aragorn laughed. “I trust so, too. And not an Arkenstone, no; not a dwarvish treasure this time, but one of Númenor. A heirloom of my house.” He turned to Legolas, who stood silently beneath the yellow globe of light. “A treasure that was lost when Isildur fled.”
Legolas’s fine brows rose. “The Elendilmir— in Saruman’s hands?”
“It was long lost, as was everything Isildur had on him,” Aragorn said, and for a moment there was a silence that hung heavy, as they thought of what else Isildur had carried. “But Saruman made close study of Isildur’s history, as we know, hoping to find the whereabouts of the Ring. It may be that he found Isildur’s other belongings when they washed upon the shore, or so Mithrandir thought. But if it were here, we would see it, shining brightly amid all these dusty relics.” To Gimli, he said, “It was a jewel bright as starlight, bound upon a fillet of mithril. Even if it were hid inside a casket, that would not be enough to obscure its radiance.”
Gimli looked round again, wondering at himself. As a dwarf, he should be eager to hunt for this treasure, but that was not what his heart told him.
This was Aragorn’s to find. There were other treasures Gimli’s heart yearned after; he wanted Legolas to smile at him without effort, and he wanted to feel the weight of Legolas’s hand upon his shoulder again. He did not know what to say, or what to do, to bring back the ease of their friendship. But he felt he had to make the attempt, and soon. What if Legolas were to ride away alone?
Aragorn walked round the chamber, throwing open the metal shutters to the many windows until light flooded the room. Legolas went with him, pausing each time when another shutter was flung open to look out over the orchards of Isengard. He was very quiet, and it was clear that this dusty room full of old memories held nothing for him; that he was longing to be outside, breathing the free air and walking under the green young trees.
Gimli, too, walked the perimeter of the room counter-clockwise, looking not at the furnishings but at the stone walls and wooden rafters.
A dragon would keep his greatest treasure close; a wizard might be more cunning. Hide it in plain sight, perhaps. Gimli looked up at the glass globe, but the light was still soft and yellow, not bright and starlike, and the glass was too clear to hide anything.
As Gimli walked round the chamber, he built a map of it in his head, looking out of the windows now and then to align the outer walls with the inner. It was surprisingly difficult; the many cabinets obscured the line of the stone, and the rafters were strangely placed.
At last he wound up in front of an enormous ebony cabinet full of overstuffed little drawers, muttering to himself. His companions came to stand beside him, trading amused glances over his head.
“Well, Gimli?” said Aragorn. “Would you like to be one of my archivists, and bring some order into this clutter? You look as if it offends you greatly.” There was laughter in his voice, but his eyes were keen as he glanced between Gimli and the cabinet.
“Aye,” Gimli said. “It does. Would you mind if I took out all these drawers?”
Aragorn raised his brows. “Not at all.”
Gimli began the work, and after a moment Legolas came forward to help him. Together, working in silence, they stacked the drawers on the floor, with Legolas taking the highest drawers that Gimli could not reach. Neither spared more than a glance for the cabinet’s contents: mummified bats, dried flowers, little sacks of gems and ore, jewelled rings and necklaces, ragged patches of embroidery made with gold and silver thread, and a great assortment of dusty phials, mostly empty.
At last they were done, and the cabinet stood bare. Gimli pressed his hands against the ornate black wood, searching, but there were no springs, no hidden catches, and no false panels.
“I suppose that would be too easy,” Gimli muttered. He eyed the wall behind the cabinet again, hoping he was not making a fool of himself. “Aragorn, we must move this cabinet.”
“I hear and obey,” said the High King of Gondor and Arnor, laughing. “May I call in my men to assist?”
Gimli nodded absently, and then he sneezed. The dust was getting in his eyes, and it reminded him unpleasantly of the spice trees. “I will make way for them, and get some air,” he said. “Move the cabinet to the other side of the room, and pray do not touch the wall until I return.”
He turned and ascended the stairs that led to the terrace high above. After a moment he heard the soft, barely audible footfall that he knew so well, coming up the stairs behind him.
Legolas was following him.
The stairs seemed endless, winding upward forever, and Gimli feared again that if he turned, he would find that the elf had vanished and that his footsteps were merely an echo.
Finally he reached a tall stone door, and easily lifted the three heavy bars that held it shut. It swung open without a sound.
Gimli stepped out onto the terrace. It was a square of polished stone between the four black pinnacles of Orthanc, and there was no fence or railing. On all four sides, the empty sky beckoned, and far below, the orchards looked like swathes of green velvet against the silver ribbon of the Isen.
The air was fresh and cold, and he breathed it in gratefully, but the height made his stomach lurch. “I should not have come so high,” he muttered. “What need has a dwarf to be climbing towers?”
Legolas came up and stood beside him, shading his eyes with his hand. “Oh, but this is marvellous,” he said, a little too brightly, looking at the mountain peaks standing guard around the plain, then up at the pale blue sky, where a few birds circled high overhead. “Such a view!”
“At least we are not imprisoned here as Gandalf was, forced to enjoy the marvellous view for many long days,” Gimli said. He took a step backward, wanting to feel the solid stone of the door behind him.
Legolas looked down at him at last. “Why did you come up here, then? You have no head for heights.”
Gimli glared. “I wanted to speak to you. Would you prefer that we be overheard by all those mighty men of Gondor?”
There was a pause in which Legolas looked blank, and Gimli felt his heart sink down into his boots.
Then Legolas said, “We shall be traveling together for many days still, before we reach our homelands. What is this urgency?”
Gimli blew out a breath and clasped his hands behind his back, trying not to look as relieved as he felt. “So you still intend to travel with me?”
“Of course I do,” Legolas said, now looking bewildered and more than a little hurt. “Did we not say so, ere the Fellowship was dissolved at last?”
“We said many things,” Gimli muttered into his beard. “No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm, you said. I know it is not the Greenwood that you long for.” He shot Legolas a stern look from underneath his brows.
Legolas gasped and fell back half a pace, a movement that looked awkward and not graceful at all, then turned pale.
“Take care!” Gimli said, alarmed, reaching for him instinctively. “This is no talan you are dancing about in, and there are no elf-ropes to catch you if you fall.”
Legolas took his outstretched hand, and then to Gimli’s utter surprise and dismay he knelt, bringing his other hand up to lie over Gimli’s.
They were of a height now, and Legolas’s eyes met his with a fierce and almost fey expression. “You knew,” he said, lower and rougher than Gimli had ever heard an elf speak before. “I did not think it could be so, but you knew, and yet you did not speak of it, and would not let me have my say. Is there no hope for me at all, then?”
Gimli stared at him, aware of nothing but the pressure of Legolas’s hand on his and the thundering of his heart. “Why should I speak to you of the sea-longing?” he said at last. “I do not understand it, and if I could I would wage war against it, to keep you by my side; but even a dwarf is not so great a fool as to try and battle the sea itself.”
There was colour coming back into Legolas’s face now, and his grip on Gimli’s hand was so tight that it was becoming uncomfortable.
“So you say,” Legolas said slowly. “But I say that you are the greatest fool I have ever known. Oh, Gimli!” He shook his head, laughing wildly all of a sudden. “It is not the Greenwood that I long for; yet there is more in my heart than the sea and the cry of the gulls. You have been so clever today—is there no other answer to this riddle? Can you not guess?”
Gimli shook with long-stifled fear and hope. It sounded as though Legolas were toying with him, but Legolas would not be so cruel.
“You said that you would sail,” Gimli said, and it sounded more plaintive than he had intended, and more raw. It was like tearing a bandage off a wound that had never healed. “You—whatever it is you would offer me—I thank you, but I cannot—you will sail, and for me there will never be another—”
He tried to turn away, then, as the words caught in his throat. He had not meant to say so much, to reveal so much, and he would rather hurl himself off the tower than face Legolas again and see a look of pity in his eye.
But Legolas was still holding his right hand in a hard grip, and he would not let go.
Reluctantly, Gimli mustered what was left of his courage and turned to face Legolas again. They were so close he could feel Legolas’s breath on his cheek, but it was not pity he saw in Legolas’s expression.
“I will not sail without you,” Legolas said in that low, fierce voice. “Do you hear me? If you would hear my avowal at last, then here it is. I have no secret name to give you, and no heirlooms to bestow, though you are welcome to any and all of my jewels, if you care for them. But when the time comes, I will sail to the Undying Lands with you beside me, or not at all.”
For a long moment, Gimli could not speak. He stared, stricken with a hope sharper than any blade, and his hand trembled in Legolas’s grasp. “How could I sail with you?” he said at last, but he could not erase that hope from his voice. “Where you go, I may not go—”
“The Lady Galadriel’s light is upon you, and her grace goes with you, wherever you may go,” Legolas said, with a confidence that Gimli found staggering. “But if you would rather stay upon these shores until—until the end, I would stay with you for all your days. And if you feel it is your turn to call me a fool, you may do so now,” he took a deep, shaky breath, “and we will never speak of it again.”
“Oh, we will speak of it,” Gimli said. “We will speak of it many times.”
He leaned forward, and in what might well be the bravest act of his life, he claimed Legolas’s mouth with his own.
They clung together upon the polished stone floor of Orthanc, kissing until their breath ran out, then pausing, and laughing, and kissing again. Gimli’s arms were around Legolas’s shoulders, and Legolas’s hands were in Gimli’s hair.
“All of my days?” Gimli said at last, though he stole another kiss at the end of the sentence. “My days are not all that many, you know. An oak would be less stubborn, and live longer.”
“And if I could give you mine, I would,” Legolas said, sounding so determined that it made Gimli shiver. “But—I will not have another, either, Gimli.”
At this, Gimli had to kiss him again. His mouth was fresh and cool as a river, and his long fingers were wound in Gimli’s braids, and they fit together so well—so strangely, but so well.
Gimli bent his head to catch the scent of Legolas’s skin, a warm grassy scent that was so familiar from all his days upon Arod, and yet he had never let himself enjoy it as much as he did now. “I have no heirlooms to bestow, either,” he said. “Except my axe, and that would not suit you as well as the bow.”
“You gave me the cave-pearl,” Legolas said with a fond smile, and his hand stole to his breast. “It is older than most treasures, and crafted with greater care.”
Gimli smiled back, knowing he must look hopelessly besotted, and not caring in the least. “Are you sure you were not born a dwarf? It is not natural for an elf to understand these things so well—”
Legolas stopped his mouth with another kiss. “If all you will do is insult me,” he said with a wicked smile, “then I will be forced to show you that it is not only the dwarves who are fierce in their vengeance.”
“Oh, indeed?” said Gimli, vaguely, because it was difficult to think of a proper comeback when Legolas was stroking his shoulders like that. “I will look forward to that, but—oh, my love—”
There was more kissing, until Gimli could feel his blood beat in his ears.
He gathered himself and gripped Legolas’s shoulders. “There is one thing I must bestow on you,” he said, and saw Legolas’s eyes widen at his tone. “And then we must go down these endless stairs again, or I will forget myself entirely, and Aragorn will find us here and laugh at us.”
“He would not dare laugh,” said Legolas darkly. “There are tales I could tell you of a young Estel that—but no, go on.”
“Listen,” Gimli said. Then he bent close to Legolas’s ear and spoke the seven syllables of his name.
When Legolas and Gimli came down the stairs at last, Gimli’s boots ringing against the stone, Aragorn looked up to greet them, and found himself riveted by what he saw.
One of Gimli’s braids was half undone, there was a rosy flush in Legolas’s cheeks, and they were holding hands.
Handfasted indeed, Aragorn thought, smiling.
Out loud he said, “Did we follow your orders properly, Master Dwarf?”
Gimli was all business at once, bustling over to the empty corner where the cabinet had stood. The three guards watched him from a safe distance, while surreptitiously wiping sweat from their brows—the cabinet had been very heavy and awkward to move—and Legolas watched him also, smiling faintly.
The wall that faced them was dark smooth stone, with no seam or crack, and Gimli stood for a long moment merely staring at it.
“It was well done,” he said then, seemingly to himself. “Oh, yes, it was well done indeed, but—” He raised his fist and knocked it against the wall, and lifted his heavy brows at the muffled thump.
“It does not sound hollow,” said Legolas.
Gimli nodded, then turned his head and smiled at him. “Solid as oak, in fact. But that does not change the fact that this wall is two feet thicker than it should be, though you would hardly think it to look at it.” He was already exploring the wall, pressing at various points with his broad fingers. “If this requires a magic spell or a secret word, then we are sunk,” he muttered. “For we have no wizard with us, or even an impatient hobbit who could supply the word when wiser heads have failed.”
“Yet Saruman did not build the tower,” Legolas said thoughtfully. “He may have improved upon it, but—”
“But his works were still crude,” Gimli finished. “Rough-hewn, orc-made, a mere imitation of the works of the Enemy in the East.”
They smiled at each other again, and Aragorn bit back a smile of his own. Finishing each other’s sentences already, were they? He would speak to Arwen of this; it would please her to hear it.
“Then, supposing that it is not magic we are dealing with…” Gimli mused, and he knocked his fist against the wall again. He seemed a little distracted, and Aragorn noticed with delight that his ears were red as autumn leaves. “Supposing that—ah! Here, Legolas, will you push against this part of the wall?”
Legolas did as he was asked, and Gimli flattened his broad hands close beside Legolas’s narrow ones, and together they shoved against the wall.
Aragorn watched, wondering if he should remind Gimli that he had several strong men of Gondor at his disposal. In the end he decided not to interfere, for it would doubtless mean another diatribe on the strength of dwarves versus that of men, or even elves.
For a long moment, nothing happened, and Gimli said something under his breath that was not Westron and did not sound polite at all.
Then a thin line appeared in the middle of the dark stone wall, exactly between Gimli and Legolas. It widened as they pushed, and then the wall seemed to cave in. It swung soundlessly inward on both sides, and then out again and to the side, like a folding door, though no hinges could be seen. Behind it was a narrow space, like a second cabinet but made of steel, and it was filled with an unearthly light.
“There,” said Gimli, sounding satisfied. Then he stepped away from the opening and turned to Aragorn with a brief half-bow. “Take back what is yours, King Elessar.”
Legolas, too, made room for him with a courteous nod, and Aragorn stepped forward, transfixed by that light.
“Elendil’s star,” he said softly, and then he reached into the narrow, metal-clad space and took the Elendilmir into his hands.
The mithril was untarnished, and the jewel was a pure white fire. It shone like the light from long ages ago, when all the world was new and the bright stars were unsullied by shadow. The chamber glowed, and everything that had looked old and dusty before took on a new splendour.
“A treasure without price,” Gimli said, though he was stealing a glance at Legolas when he said it.
With reverence, Aragorn placed the Elendilmir upon a velvet cushion, where it lay glimmering as if alive, almost too bright to bear.
“And here, what’s this?” said Gimli, and he reached into the narrow space and brought out something that had lain hidden behind the Elendilmir’s fire. It was a small case of gold, attached to a fine chain. When Gimli touched the hinges, it fell open, and they saw that it was empty.
“This must have been the source of all Saruman’s hopes,” Aragorn said. “Once, Isildur bore this casket around his neck, and kept his greatest treasure in it—until it betrayed him, as it did all its bearers.”
They stood for a moment in silence, until Aragorn put the casket back into the hidden cabinet. “There let it lie,” he said. “But I will take the Elendilmir home to Minas Tirith.”
Then Gimli drew a deep breath, and reached up as if to clap Aragorn on the shoulder, but he drew back his hand half-way when two of the guards frowned at him. “Well, my friend, I wish you joy of your heirloom,” he said.
“I wish you joy, also,” Aragorn said, and took Gimli’s hand in a warrior’s grip. “And I thank you both.”
Gimli’s eyes crinkled up at the corners, and his clasp was firm. “Bring my greetings and good wishes to the Evenstar,” he said. Then he paused. “Pray do not repeat to her what I said at the door—”
“What did you say?” said Legolas, lifting his fine brows.
“I cannot remember a word,” Aragorn said.
Legolas turned to Gimli, but Gimli was already shaking his head and folding his massive arms, the very picture of dwarven immovability.
“Will you tell me when we get home?” Legolas said, a soft coaxing note in his voice, and Aragorn watched Gimli’s resolve slowly melt into a puddle.
“What home would that be?” the dwarf said. He sounded stern, and almost looked it, too, but for the fondness of his smile and the redness of his ears. “Yours, or mine?”
“Whichever is closest,” Legolas said.
They traded a long look, until one of the guards coughed, and another shuffled his feet.
“Travel safely, my friends,” said Aragorn.
As he turned away, he kept his smile to himself, but he found himself smiling at odd moments all the rest of his journey.