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There was also a strange elf clad in green and brown...
Fellowship of the Ring,
J.R.R. Tolkien

 

I had a reputation among the elves of Mirkwood. I had always been aware; I saw how they raised their eyebrows, heard the whispers that tapered off as soon as I approached. “So curious!” they'd say. The words were the same used to praise children, but the tone was not. They thought me strange, didn't understand why I would long to see the world and to meet new people. In scornful tones, they said that my father's kingdom wasn't enough to satisfy one like me. They said I held myself too lofty to be content with a small holding in an ill forest, that I would leave one day and never return, seeking fortune and glory that I would probably never find.

They were mostly right.

My father, too, did not understand, but unlike the others, he loved me. So when an emissary was needed to give Lord Elrond the bad news of the attack on Laslagen and the escape of the creature Gollum, he gave the responsibility to his youngest son. Me. I knew he was afraid that, away from Mirkwood for the first time, I would shirk my duty and seek adventure on the road, but it seemed that my father had decided to trust me, instead. It was possibly for that reason alone that I did not abandon my task and made it all the way to Imladris.

And soon I was glad to have obeyed. Rivendell was serene and welcoming, dressed in the colors of autumn. The elves there were sharp and witty, the Half-Elf not the least. I particularly admired their songs and their lore, intrigued by these elves who were tied so closely with men. Elrond's libraries became my primary fascination, so when he suggested that we stay longer than planned so as to attend a council he had called to address the threat in the east, I was pleased. I spent hours among Elrond's books, gleefully poring through his manuscripts.

 

When I was not reading, I was most often in the kitchens, tasting everything and wondering at the exotic spices and brews.

“Legolas will eat absolutely anything,” Galadan told Elrond during our first meal there. He sniffed twice and put a small portion of a grazing mixture onto his plate. “On the road it was quite appalling, the things he put into his mouth.”

I grimaced. Galadan was my father's closest adviser – trusted with everything from organizing spider raids to keeping the king's affairs in some kind of harmonic balance. He'd always seen me as little more than a wayward child, but I had not expected him to undermine our diplomacy by sharing that opinion.

I was growing weary of his company.

“But this is, by far, the best I've tasted,” I told our host quickly as I scooped another helping of the nutty stew into my bowl. “Snakes and scorpions make for decent road food, but even the most exotic Elvish cuisine feels like being home again.”

 

There were fascinating people to meet in Imladris as well – Glorfindel the Balrog-Slayer, for one. He was as haughty and noble as I had expected, but also very patient. He answered as many questions as I could think to ask him, and just when I was beginning to suspect that I was becoming a nuisance, he introduced me to a most astounding person. His name was Bilbo Baggins, and he was a hobbit.

Even more astounding was that he claimed to have been to my home, claimed to have been part of that ill-fortuned company led by Thorin Oakenshield. “Of course I was with them!” he insisted when I pressed. “Who do you think sprang them from the Elf-king's dungeons?” His outrage made me laugh, and soon I did not doubt it, though my father had never said anything about being acquainted with a hobbit, of all things.

His stories were among the best I'd heard, and it took me no time to become firmly in the habit of visiting Bilbo's rooms each afternoon. We settled into a comfortable pattern, even as other guests arrived for Lord Elrond's council.

Mithrandir was the first to arrive – known to me if not by me – followed by a small party of dwarves. Soon after came another hobbit, Bilbo's nephew, in need of Elrond's healing and brought in haste by Glorfindel himself. The old hobbit told me that the boy had been wounded by a ring-wraith – though this seemed impossible. What business could the Nazgûl possibly have with a tiny little hobbit?

After that came Estel of the north, leading three more ragged hobbits – an overabundance of them, it seemed to me, for a war council. And unexpected but not unwelcomed, there arrived a lone man of Gondor – Boromir, the eldest son of the Steward himself.

Once all were assembled and Bilbo's nephew – Frodo, he called himself – was enough recovered, the council met to discuss the shocking revelation that the One Ring had been discovered. Even more, it had been in Bilbo Baggins's possession for decades! The ring-wraiths' attack on poor Frodo was explained, and a desperate plan to destroy the ring was concocted.

It was decided that I would journey with this fellowship, representing the elves. Gimli, one of the dwarves – the one with the dark, fierce eyes – was sent to represent his people. Added to that was Mithrandir, Estel – now called Aragorn, son of Arathorn – Boromir of Gondor, and four hobbits – Frodo, of course, and his manservant Samwise, as well as two of his kinfolk, lively lads called Merry and Pippin.

 

My heart had been gleeful at seeing Estel again and even more at the prospect of traveling with him. He had been to Mirkwood more than once in the past years – the ranger had been the one to deliver Gollum in the first place – and he and I had become friends, I thought. He greeted me fondly, if distractedly. It took me some weeks to discover the source of the distraction, but then, not long before we all left Imladris together, I happened upon him in a quiet room, kneeling at the feet of Lord Elrond's radiant daughter. All was immediately clear, and I slipped from the room, unnoticed.

Boromir chanced upon me as I made my way back to my rooms. “Only three more days!” he cried happily, clapping a hand onto my shoulder, touching me in the roughshod way of warrior men. His eagerness to leave was obvious – I thought he was not comfortable among the elves of Elrond's house – and I admit that I shared his enthusiasm. Galadan had become even more tiresome since the dwarves' arrival, and I was pleased to have been chosen for Elrond's fellowship in part because it meant leaving him behind.

As though summoned by my less-than generous thoughts, Galadan found me later, as I was leaving Boromir's rooms. “Sampling the variety of flavors available here in Rivendell?” he asked. His tone was perfectly courteous, but I could feel his scorn.

“Flavors of wine only,” I assured him coldly, brushing past as I headed out to the courtyard. Boromir and I had actually sampled several bottles of it, so my gait was not so steady as I would've liked. It was difficult to be aloof and superior when the room spun about you.

It was true that I had taken lovers. It was not unheard of among the wood elves of Mirkwood, though my father's people – and Elrond's people, and probably those who dwelt in the Golden Wood as well – frowned upon it. But for Galadan to suggest that I had engaged in such a thing with Boromir – no, that he felt he had the right to comment on it even if I had – was unacceptable. Boromir wouldn't have been the first man in my bed, if that was what he found so distasteful. I'd discovered long ago that elves were less inclined to play at love; they were more willing to wait for the real thing, though they never found it in me.

 

I spent the rest of the night beneath the stars. The fact of Estel's love made me gloomy, and the wine only added to the mood. I wasn't jealous – he and I had ever been friends only – but I felt somehow left behind. We would be traveling together for a long time, and I'd somehow expected that we would be matched in all things – unfettered warriors fighting not so much for those left behind, but because it was the right thing to do. I supposed I would now be alone in that.

Boromir had Gondor, more dear to him than any maid. Mithrandir's love was the world itself – he would never truly be free. The hobbits were deeply connected to their Shire, and I suspected that at least one had a lady-love back home. Estel loved Arwen. And the dwarf? Hardly worth giving thought to – the dwarf would never be my brother-in-arms.

I'd expected them to keep to themselves, those dwarves, but it seemed that the one called Glóin and Bilbo Baggins had history. Any friend of Bilbo's was friend to all in Imladris, apparently, and the entire dwarven group became a central part of most gatherings. I had no specific issue with dwarves – not like Galadan, whose words could be black and ugly – but after a few pointed comments from Glóin, it was clear they had no wish to be friendly with me, so I made myself scarce.

It was not until we had left Elrond's hospitality, until we were on the road for several hours, that the dwarf spoke to me. I had taken the rear guard, and he dropped back to walk near me – deliberately or because his short legs could not keep up, I did not know. “I did not expect the son of Thranduil to be so dark,” he said. My skin was as pale as moonlight, so I knew he spoke of my hair – brown almost to midnight and peppered with warriors' braids. “The blood does not run true, then.”

I did not look down at him, kept pace with the others. “Are you suggesting that I am a bastard?” I asked him, careful to keep my tone light, even careless.

From the corner of my eye I saw his face redden. “Not at all,” he insisted. “I only meant that your looks do not come from your father! Your mother must be striking, indeed.” He was not as mortified as I had expected, and his words were well-designed to smooth ruffled feathers. It was compliment, and I found myself smiling, almost believing it honest, so guileless and straightforward was his tone. But he was a dwarf. None were without deception.

 

I found it difficult to find my place in this fellowship. I had never been the only elf in any party, and while I would not say I was lonesome, exactly, I did miss the easy understanding of other elves. Nights were particularly quiet; Estel – Aragorn, as I needed to learn to call him – did not let me keep watch the whole night, as I wished. So I wandered some, spoke with trees. Shrubs, if there were no trees. And then, as we climbed up into the mountains, even the shrubs were gone and I could do no more than to watch the little ones slowly freeze.

And then Moria. I did not fear it as a warrior – there were few enough creatures that my bow could not fell – but the press of darkness and stone unnerved me. And something else lapped at the edges of my mind, something I had no name for.

Gimli looked at the damp stone and the soot and dirt and I-do-not-know what else that collected in the carved walls. He saw history and family there. He spoke passionately of the cavern's beauty.

“I suppose, if you are inclined to see beauty in mouldering things,” I offered. Mithrandir threw me a dark look. He had asked – more than once – that we be friends. I did not know why I continued to seek a rise from the dwarf. In fact, I did think that Moria had a kind of beauty. Beneath the slime and the stench of orcs, there was something that whispered of glory, and I found that whisper to be potent.

But other whispers overtook us. They were dark and hideous, and we had to fight our way out. Until even our enemies balked in their terror and we were free to run. Run and scream and cry.

When we again saw sunlight, we were one fewer. My heart was sore for it. The hobbits – perhaps for being so small – were overcome with grieving for their Gandalf, seemingly unable to hold any emotion but their pain. The dwarf openly wept – for the loss of kin as well as for the grey wanderer. Even Boromir and Aragorn had need to wipe eyes dry as we walked. I had not cried in years uncounted, and I envied them their ease; I had not realized how much this small fellowship had come to matter. I knew I would feel Mithrandir's loss for ages to come.

 

It was in Lórien that Gimli and I came together the first time. Grief and loneliness were soothed by rough hands. Words were scarce, our mouths occupied with comfort and pleasure, but I silently wondered that we fit so well, marveled at his muscled back and powerful shoulders. Before, dwarf bodies had seemed nothing to me but beards and chain mail. And after, as we lay on that mossy riverbank, neither reached for our clothes.

“Why me?” he asked quietly after our sweat was dried and our heartbeats returned to normal.

“I could ask you the same,” I countered.

To my surprise he answered. “You are not as I expected. I thought all from Mirkwood were like your father. Like your friend Galadan.”

“He is not my friend.” My nanny perhaps. My jailor.

“But you are different. I was curious.”

Curious. I almost smiled at that word. “I, too, was curious. And like me, you are alone here,” I told him then, my honesty a trade for his.

I did not expect his bark of laughter. “You are in a city filled with elves.”

I turned away to pull on my clothes. He did not understand.

 

It did not stop us from meeting again. Lothlórien kept us for weeks, and the dwarf and I slipped away from our party often – at first, meeting as though by coincidence, but soon the ruse was dropped. It meant little – a comfort only, the fulfillment of a need – and he was a skilled and ardent lover.

“Why not one of these other elves?” he asked at last, the night before we would depart.

I shook my head. “Most elves would not,” I told him. “It is considered a marriage act.”

Gimli blanched. “Was this a –” he paused long, as though steeling his resolve. “A marriage act?”

It was my turn to laugh. “We of Mirkwood are not like others,” I explained. “We have learned that we can choose whom we bond with, and when. This,” and I gestured to us both, still bare and close, “need not be so serious.”

He pushed a hand through my hair. “Are there other elves like you, Legolas? So light and strange?”

I could not know. But I had met none.

 

The quiet of Lórien could not last. Barely a week passed on the river before we were attacked in our boats – not able to fight but instead to flee downstream. And then, at Parth Galen, attacked again. This time we could defend ourselves, my arrows felling many orcs, but not enough. Boromir was lost. Merry and Pippin taken. And Frodo vanished, Sam at his heels.

I was brought low.

This odd little band, grim though it was, had become dear to me. I had hoped – genuinely hoped – that we might succeed, though without Mithrandir, such hope had waned. As we launched the man of Gondor toward his home, I longed for the oblivion of wine, for the solace of hands in my hair and heat on my skin. But there had been no wine since Rivendell, no privacy in the wild. And no time for either, even if I'd had an abundance of both.

The Three Hunters, Aragorn called us, determined to keep Merry and Pippin from ruin, if there were any chance of it. Such small hope to cling to, but cling we did.

 

I had never run so in all my long years, and I would have run farther and faster yet if not for the limits of the mortals I kept company with. We rested but one night, and I was certain it would be our undoing. If not for Éomer of Rohan and his riders, the little ones would have been lost to a bitter fate, though I found it hard to forgive their lack of sense about the hobbits' presence.

Also, the threat Éomer posed to Gimli, as rash words became threats and weapons drawn.

“He stands not alone!” I had not even chosen to act before my bow was pulled taut. My voice was made hard by emotion. “You would die before your stroke fell.” The instant my arrow trained on the vulnerable chink in his armor's neck, I knew I would follow through, no matter that we were outnumbered and surrounded.

My rage burned quick and hot; it puzzled me later, when I took the time to think on it. It puzzled Aragorn, who shot me a sharp glance before diffusing the tension, and Gimli, who has not looked on me in quite the same way since.

“He is a seasoned warrior,” Aragorn reminded me softly, much later when Gimli was not near. “He did not need your protection.”

Of course I knew that. I shook my head, no answer for him.

 

We tracked the hobbits into Fangorn, there finding not those we sought but he whom we thought lost forever. Mithrandir had come through fire and darkness to return to us, and for the first time since fleeing Moria, I felt that our quest might succeed. His promise that Merry and Pippin were in safe hands meant that, at last, we slept truly that night.

With Mithrandir on watch, Aragorn slept first – the deep sleep of deprivation and exhaustion. Gimli could not stay awake much longer, but before he closed his eyes he looked at me from his place by the fire. “Surely you are weary?”

From the deep of my bones, I was weary. “I barely know how to rest,” I told him. “And I would see Merry and Pippin with my own eyes.” I was uneasy, even in my relief.

He nodded, seeming to understand even what I did not say. We had moved so far from where we'd meant to be. I'd moved so far from who I'd been.

“Sleep, now, Legolas,” Gimli urged me softly. “We know not what the dawn will bring.”

I recognized wisdom when I heard it. I slept.

 

But at sunrise, it seemed our fates were no longer our own. We hastened to the home of the King of the Horse Lords, where we endured some insult in order to secure diplomacy. Mithrandir proved himself even more powerful than when last we knew him, filling the hall with his light and presence. “He truly is the White Wizard,” Aragorn breathed next to me.

I glanced back at the door, where they held our weapons – the bow given me by the Lady of the Wood. I would follow Aragorn now, to my own doom if that was where he led, but I longed for the ring quest once more, for the task of keeping Frodo and the others safe. Rohan's war was not my own, and though I feared no battle against man or beast, I wondered if we had wandered too far afield from our purpose.

I said as much to Gimli as I donned Rohirric mail in their armory. “My path is Aragorn's now, friend,” he said gruffly. “His fate – good or ill – will also be mine.” His devotion chafed, though it was, in truth, not unlike my own.

 

The battle for the Hornburg was brutal and hard. When I found myself alone on the battlements, having lost both Aragorn and Gimli to the throng of war, I missed the ordered camaraderie of elven armies. Around me were none but fair-haired strangers, and while I trusted them as soldiers at my back, I longed for a friend. I longed for Gimli, which made me wonder just when the dwarf had become my friend.

Dark magics were at work and after more than one near-miss, I wondered if I would survive the night. I wondered if any man there would. Then Aragorn returned to me and with him, much of my vigor. “Where is Gimli?” I yelled over the clash of swords and the roar of man and orc. I was out of arrows and fought instead with my knife – not so comfortable a distance between me and my foe.

The man shook his head. “I last saw him fighting on the ground behind the wall.”

I reminded myself that the earth was just the place for a fighter like Gimli, that none wielded an axe like him, that none had so much as touched him in any skirmish so far.

“He is stout and strong,” Aragorn continued, and then he spoke of caves beneath the keep.

Caves. Gimli would like that.

The bright yellow fletching of one of my arrows caught my attention as a man swung a lantern nearby. Perhaps it was still sound, if coated in disgusting orc flesh. Perhaps I could find more. In the lull of the battle, it was the one thing I could do.

 

The morning brought Mithrandir and Huorns and the final turning of the tide of battle. We found Gimli, safe if not unscathed, and it was just as Aragorn had predicted – he had discovered a great beauty in the caves behind the fortress. My relief was intense, and I wished to see to his wound, but he would endure no mothering.

The horse of Rohan – Arod was his name, and fond I had grown of him – then carried us, Gimli and me, to Isengard with Aragorn and King Théoden to call out the wizard who lived there. On that ride, Gimli spoke as he never had before, poetry of rock and gemstone. He even managed to call my father's home a hovel, though I was too amused to hold any grudge. A promise was extracted, though which gave and which received, I could not say. It was agreed that we would travel on together, after all was done with with this war and this dark enemy, to explore the caves of Helm's Deep together, and then to Fangorn, where I might make acquaintance with those even older than trees.

We continued on toward Isengard in silence, and if it seemed to me that Gimli's fingers tucked more securely through my belt-loops, I did my best not to linger on it.

 

We were greeted at the gates to Orthanc by two plump and tipsy hobbits. Merry gnawed the bone of a lamb and Pippin was puffing on a pipe, a tankard of what could only be ale on the stone wall beside him. They'd had quite an adventure of their own, but seemed none the worse for it. My happiness bubbled into a gleeful song, and soon even Gimli could parse out the Sindarin syllables with me.

We ate our fill of Saruman's confiscated stores and Gimli sat down with Mithrandir and the hobbits for a long smoke. They spoke of nothing unpleasant and I listened idly. Not since Rivendell had I seen the hobbits so carefree, and the look of satisfaction on Gimli's face – I had not seen such an expression since –

Since those long nights in Lórien.

I moved to speak with Eomer and King Theoden. The distraction was welcome, and the fevered memory of those nights slowly faded. I had never been so long on the road, I realized. Surely, that was all.

 

Some days later the mood was less cheery. We'd left the little ones behind – Pippin off with Gandalf, his punishment for looking into Saruman's palantir, no doubt, and Merry with the host of Rohan. Our road was certain to be grim and dangerous; Aragorn did not want to risk either of the small folk and I heartily agreed. Still, it was not a happy parting, and while we rode on, my thoughts lingered on them both for some time.

And later, in the privacy of our booth in Dunharrow, things became strange between Gimli and me. There had been no echo at all of our nights in Lórien, and I had been pleased that we could go on as we had, unencumbered by regret or lingering feeling. It was true that we had become close friends. It was also true that, once or twice during the nights since leaving the Golden Wood, unbidden thoughts of Gimli made it difficult to deny my body's stirrings. It was a natural urge, I'd assured myself; it meant little. But in that booth, the two of us alone for a moment in the dark and safety of the camp, I found I was not so unencumbered as I'd believed.

“Think he will be long out there?” Gimli asked, nodding toward where Aragorn argued in soft tones with the Lady Éowyn. His eyes shone in the darkness. Near enough that I could see the fringe of long lashes fanning out from them.

I could not answer. My words were swallowed before they could be fully formed. My mouth went dry. That night I had not the excuse of grief, nor the privacy needed even if I'd had the excuse. I curled my trembling hands into my tunic, appalled at how overcome I was. Over a dwarf.

No. Not just a dwarf. Gimli.

“I suppose we should take sleep as we can,” he continued, unaware or unconcerned with my struggle. “Our path from here will be grim, indeed.” I lay on my bed and studied the wooden beams across the ceiling as I listened to the clank and shuffle of his gear as he disrobed.

“Legolas?” he said after a time, when he was tucked into his bed and I was still dressed and shod, resting uneasily upon my own. His voice was soft. Gruff like Lothlórien. My pulse raced. He sat up, and I could see his chest, bared to the waist. “What's gotten you so queer and quiet tonight?”

“It is nothing.” Of course it was nothing. In all the long years of my life, I'd never wanted what I could not have. I would not start now.

I saw the look that crossed his face – irritation and impatience. He would've pressed further, and who could say what might've been said or done then, but Aragorn chose that moment to step into the booth. He flung himself onto his own bed with a dissatisfied sigh.

It seemed that none of us would sleep well that night.

 

Past Dimholt and the Dark Door that led us to the Paths of the Dead, I followed Aragorn. It was a brutal path, even for me, who had no fear of men long dead. My attention was given mostly to Arod, who was in such a state of panic that he could not even cry or kick. I gave no thought to Gimli – at least none but those I could not quell.

But my cold resolve to feel nothing melted into self-recrimination at the end of it, when Gimli finally mounted behind me and I could feel the frenzied pulse of his blood and hear the shallow terror in his breath.

We camped at last near the Stone of Erech, and passed an uneasy night there. I woke as the moon set, sharply aware of Gimli lying next to me. In sleeping, his hand had found its way to my hip, his face burrowed snug against my back. He had been so troubled by the shades of the dead that lingered at the outer edges of the camp that I was surprised he had succumbed to sleep at all. I lay still, unwilling to dislodge him. He was warm, and it was strangely comforting.

I looked up when Aragorn made a noise – barely that, really. He was watching us curiously.

“We are not bonded,” I explained hastily, desperate for him not to think I would bind myself to a dwarf. Immediately, though, shame filled me. Didn't I count that dwarf as my friend, possibly the dearest friend I'd ever had?

Aragorn was shocked. “Elves can...?” He could not meet my eyes.

Obviously. But then I remembered that he had grown up with Elrond, who had undoubtedly taught him that the act was the bond. And Arwen, with whom he certainly had not.

“Surely you have been told that I am a strange elf.”

“Indeed,” he answered hoarsely. And it was then I realized that it must have been sixty years or more he'd waited for Arwen – a normal betrothal for an elf, but a lifetime for a man.

“In Mirkwood, we are different,” I tried to explain. “Some say wild, others say careless – I know not what may be true except that we are different. To seek pleasure and to bond, these are not the same for us.” My face was warm, speaking of pleasure and bonding with Aragorn. Speaking of Gimli.

And I wanted to know how it was for him, as a mortal in love with an elf, but I could not bring myself to ask. Instead I shook my head. “Go back to sleep, if you can,” I told him gently. “I will watch till dawn.”

But I did not rise from where I lay, did not move at all for fear that Gimli would be disturbed. I owed him at least a sound sleep, after all, for all the times I'd wronged him – all the times I'd thought 'dwarf' when I should have been thinking 'Gimli.'

 

We were in the midst of battle when the cries of gulls altered me. I could not pull my bow, could not move at all, so transported was I by the sound of them. It was homesickness, but for a home I had never known. Longing for it, for the stories every elf knew from the cradle, engulfed me, pressing me nearly to tears.

“Legolas!” The voice came from far away, and I could not attend to it.

Beware the Sea! The Lady Galadriel had warned me, but I had minded it not. Why fear such a thing? Whether here or across the sea, I would still be Legolas. It mattered not at all to me. There was nothing here to hold me – not truly. I had sworn my bow to Aragorn, but after –

“Legolas! You fool elf!” I was jostled aside by a heavy blow – a shoulder in my side – and an axe hewed a Corsair not five paces before me. I blinked hard, the mist of longing lifting from my eyes. “Pay some mind to your own skin!” Gimli roared furiously as he twisted about, his axe finding another enemy. “You may not have a care what happens to you, but I do!”

Gimli. For another moment, I could only watch him. Watch the way he spun and ducked, destroying those who would have killed me, his eyes full of rage. We were too close for my bow, so I slung it over my shoulder, grasping my dagger instead.

The pair of us made short work of our enemies, fighting back-to-back and in perfect harmony. I could hear each of Gimli's breaths, read the effort or fear in each one, and adjust my fight accordingly. And when no more of the Haradrim charged us, when the land around us was clear of danger, I turned to him and he to me, breathless and thrumming with battle-fury.

“What were you thinking?” Gimli roared at me.

I could not answer. Another gull cried from far overhead and I looked for it, pained. For suddenly I realized the heart of Galadriel's warning. I was torn in two. I yearned to sail west with the whole of my self. And yet, I looked down at Gimli, spluttering his fury at my carelessness.

The whole of my self yearned for him, too.

 

There were more battles. After a day and a night spent on the black-sailed ships of the Corsairs, we arrived in time to fight in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But not in time to spare a good king his mortal destiny, if any of us could have prevented such an end. But not all is battle. Three restless days were spent in Minas Tirith as Mithrandir and the generals – Aragorn, Prince Imrahil of Ithilien, and Eomer, now king of Rohan – planned their next move.

I did my best to avoid being alone with Gimli – not an easy task, as I also did my best to stay by his side. We spent much time with Merry and Pippin, in Merry's room in the Houses of Healing. It did me good to sit with them again, helped me forget the worry and fear of those days running across the plains of Rohan.

“For my part, Merry,” Gimli said, after our story was told and the hobbits looked weary of talk, “I wish that with our victory the war was now over. Yet whatever is still to do, I hope to have a part in it, for the honor of the folk of the Lonely Mountain.”

I agreed, though my voice sounded thick to my ears. “And for the love of the Lord of the White Tree.”

And, be it my fanciful imagination or not, it seemed to me that Gimli looked sharply at those words. I gazed out the window toward the bustle of the city, hoping that he could not read in my features the true direction of my thoughts. Wherever thou goest, my heart goes with thee.

 

Twice before, on this journey, I had thought my days' number had reached its end. The first was beneath the mountain, when the dark fire woke and chased us in mortal terror from Moria. The second was at the Hornburg, where it seemed only an act of the Valar themselves would win the day. And now, at the Black Gate of Mordor, it seemed so for the third time. Events in threes always had magic in them, though I hoped it was the magic needed to spare us.

“Come forth!” Aragorn's heralds demanded, met only with grim silence.

Gimli, perched behind me on Arod's back, made a noise of frustration. “This isn't where I would choose to die,” he said softly.

“Indeed not,” I agreed, for it was a sick, sinister land. “But there is none I would rather have at my side.” The last was quieter, my voice shaking in spite of itself.

Gimli's breath hitched, and I knew not if it were due to my confession or to the sudden opening of the iron doors.

The battle that ensued was all madness and terror. But I would not lose him. Better I lose the horse, so I sprang from Arod's back and landed near where he swung his mighty axe. My knife flashed. Blood was shed. So long as it was not Gimli's, I was satisfied.

 

Later, when the day was won not by the might of armies and swords, but by the cunning and fortitude of two brave little hobbits, there was finally time. Time to breathe. Time to rest. Time to celebrate.

Gimli chose sleep as his reward, for three days stirring only when there was fresh news about the state of young Pippin, whom Gimli himself had discovered and saved on the field of battle. I was restless, instead filling those hours with drink and song with Elrond's sons. The wine recalled that early night spent drinking with Boromir, and I mourned him anew, even as I celebrated the survival of the rest of our fellowship.

On the fourth day, Gimli urged me into his tent, his voice all gruff concern over too much wine and too little rest. And while he separated me from my wine, there was scarcely any rest to be had that night.

It was as it had been in Lórien, fast and urgent, but it was also nothing like it. Before we had been near-strangers, seeking only comfort and release. This time we were friends, brothers-in-arms. More. We had peeled off mail and shirts, our mouths and hands seeking skin, before either of us spoke of it.

“You said that you can choose,” Gimli said suddenly. He pulled away just enough to look, fevered, into my eyes. “Who you bond with.”

My heart stuttered. “I can.”

He kissed me hard. “Choose me,” he demanded.

I already had. Without even realizing it, my choice had been made. “Tonight?” I asked. My mind raced with all the reasons why we should not. My lord father. Gimli's father. Elf and dwarf together would be seen as an insult to both.

I didn't care.

Gimli's dark eyes grew fierce once more. “Tonight.”

 

And hours later, after loving became promise-making and that changed into the soft warmth of sleep, I slipped outside. The moon was low and cold; twinkling stars were scattered like jewels in the dark sky. Aragorn stood by his own tent, smoking his pipe and looking off into the distance of the night.

He smiled when he saw me – no longer the king or the hero, but the ranger Estel once more. He nodded toward Gimli's tent, his eyebrows quirking up. “Still not bonded?” he asked.

I felt my ears color. It was rash, even for me, to wed like that, with no announcement or ceremony but what had passed between Gimli and me. But Aragorn's smile broadened as he read my reaction. “Congratulations,” he said, laughter in his voice.

The elf who returned to Mirkwood would not be the same elf who left it. I wondered what they'd say about me now.