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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.