“I think you need a break.”
The king of Gondor lifted his head from the missive he had been reading and looked at his wife.
The queen of Gondor, in turn, took a sip from her teacup and watched him pensively. They were alone, for once, not a given as their brothers upheld their father’s tradition of sharing the morning meal with family and close friends.
“A break. A holiday. I think it’s high time that you got away a bit from your responsibilities. Even here at Imladris there’s always some message or other needing your attention, or some issue or other to discuss. How long since you did something just for your own pleasure, without any duties tied to it? Five years? Ten?”
Aragorn put his parchment down and reached for his teacup. He frowned at its cold contents and pushed it away.
“Fourteen. The year before Folcred was born, and he was been accepted as a squire last year.”
Arwen smiled in fond memory at her husband’s pride about this important event in the life of their first grandson, but raised a questioning eyebrow.
“So you agree with me, then? The realm is well-settled, you’ve got a host of experienced officials to take care of everything, not to mention your son and heir who already proved that he can represent you very well, and who in turn has provided you with his own son and heir as well as a spare. There’s no reason at all why you shouldn’t take a leave of absence for a couple of weeks, or months, and go travelling.”
Aragorn sighed. “Yes, of course. You are right as always, meleth.” He gifted her with one of the impish grins she loved, as they always reminded her of the carefree boy she fell in love with all those years back.
“It is just -” he hesitated.
He sighed again. “I can’t just stop being the king of Gondor. No matter how much I want it, something’s bound to come up eventually demanding my attention or intervention. Even if I were to go travelling without any given itinerary or duties, there’s at least my body guard tagging along, and very likely also the king’s guard complete with stable hands, servants, a cook, and who knows else bending over backwards to appease my slightest whim.”
Arwen gave one of her clear, silvery, laughs. “Oh dear, is it really this bad?”
She laughed again, but took his hand in hers.
“You miss being Strider, don’t you?”
Aragorn grinned sheepishly. “You have no idea.”
“Actually, I have. It was Strider I fell in love with, after all, and I confess that sometimes, I miss him a bit.”
She leaned over and gave him a peck on the lips. With a mischievous grin, she said:
“Let’s make sure, then, that Strider can get away by himself and go on a journey again. It’s from here that he started all his adventures, after all, so why not do it again?”
“So which route do we take? Northwards up the east bank of the Anduin, crossing the river somewhere north of the Gladden Fields? Or we could turn eastwards after crossing the Entwash, pass the Wold, and travel up alongside that forest of yours?”
“It is not my forest any longer,” Legolas said with a faint smile, pondering the question.
Gimli took a hearty sip of the spicy cocoa in his mug, furtively licking some cream off his whiskers while he watched his guest.
Legolas had arrived already a sennight ago for his annual visit to Aglarond, but this time, they had yet to fall into the easy camaraderie which usually marked their relationship. Something clearly was amiss, and it had taken a couple of days for Gimli to coax his friend into admitting that his sea-longing had become nearly unbearable. The loss of their last Hobbit companion a couple of years ago had increased Legolas’ sadness, and it broke Gimli’s heart to see his dear friend so despondent. But he knew just the thing to cure it - all right, all right, not to cure it, Elves weren’t Dwarves, after all, which was evident by the simple fact alone that a perfectly-cooked, hearty meal and the best ale south of the Erebor hadn’t helped in the least. But something to give Legolas something else to think about, and hopefully lift his mood in the process. After all, who could resist the beauty and splendour that was Erebor, and the hospitality of its inhabitants?
“Northwards,” Legolas’ voice now interrupted Gimli’s musings. “I want to see the Golden Wood again, or rather what has become of it.”
Darn. The plan was to take his friend on a journey to show him his own former home, not to revisited places that were falling into decay and would only add to the Elf’s misery and gloom, and -
“What now?” Gimli frowned at the intruder, a young dwarf with a carefully trimmed and curled bead, standing inside the open door.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, Master Gimli, but there’s a messenger just come in from the keep, insisting to see you in person.”
“A messenger? Now? Most unusual. Can’t be helped, though, I suppose. Let him in.”
The dwarf stepped aside, revealing a cloaked figure the size of a Man, which now swiftly entered.
“Forgive me,” the stranger said, pushing back his hood and grinning from ear to ear. “I couldn’t resist.”
Legolas jumped up and drew the king of Gondor into a bear hug, which was returned with enthusiasm.
Gimli stared in astonishment at the man who looked anything but kingly, but rather like the unkempt ranger he had first met at Rivendell so many years ago. Then his face split into a huge smile, and he held out his arms for his own share of welcome.
“Aragorn! How good to see you! But what brings you here, and without any notice, too?”
Legolas was looking Aragorn over with a tilted head, grinning. “You look - unusual,” he stated.
Aragorn grinned. “I imagine I do. But say, don’t you have a bite to eat for a starved traveller? I’ll tell you everything once my stomach stops rumbling.”
Laughing, Legolas followed Aragorn to the table and helped him fill a plate.
Gimli beamed. For the change in the Elf’s mood alone he was grateful for this unexpected visit, although he was rather curious about the reason for it. He followed them to the table, preparing a mug of cocoa-and-cream for Aragorn, which was accepted with a grateful smile, and then sat down, listening and finishing his own mug. Seeing Legolas suddenly in so much better spirits gladdened Gimli, but at the same time it stung that nothing Gimli had tried had had a similar effect, whereas the Man obviously just had to appear to make the Elf happy. Speaking of appearing -
“… and then she said what I need is to be Strider again for a while. Which was an excellent suggestion, and I took her up on it, for it won’t do to not do as my lady suggests, will it now?”
Gimli joined in their laughter, for he could just imagine the queen of Gondor’s expression at saying something like this.
“So you’re Strider, for now, and not the king?” he asked.
Aragorn drew the cocoa jug towards him and topped up his mug a third time. “This is awesome, Gimli. Yes, I’m taking a break, I’m going away for a bit to just be Strider again.”
Gimli nodded. Sensible idea, that. He’d always wondered how Aragorn had managed to adapt to court life so easily. Seemed he hadn’t, after all.
“And what brings you to Aglarond?” he repeated his earlier question.
“Pure chance, or rather mishap. My horse lost a shoe and slipped in a ditch. My saddle-bags were soaked and some of my provisions spoiled, so I went to the next village for a blacksmith and some bread. There, I heard that Legolas was visiting, so I decided to join you and see if you’d be interested on going on a short trip with me.”
Legolas’ eyes lit up. “Actually, we were just planning a trip ourselves, to Erebor. Gimli wants to show me the home of his youth.”
“Oh, marvellous! Why don’t we go together, then?”
Both turned to Gimli, who had a hard time not to show his disappointment. As much as he liked Aragorn, he wanted to travel with Legolas, and with Legolas alone. He knew the Man and the Elf were close friends and had been on adventures together before they even knew him; and whenever the three of them had been together, they'd taken great care to include Gimli in an equal manner all the time. But with Aragorn’s intense personality and Gimli’s own reserve, Legolas and Aragorn focussed on themselves more often than not, while Gimli was rather prone to listen. He was sure it wouldn’t be any different this time, no matter that they all no longer were the care-free, unencumbered whippersnappers from thence (well, relatively speaking, but you can’t count that in years for an Elf anyway). But no matter his feelings, this was about helping Legolas out of his sadness, and to make the sea-longing easier to bear. And having Aragorn come with them would definitely cheer Legolas up, Gimli was sure.
He sighed inwardly. “Yeah, sure, why not?”
Revisiting the Golden Wood turned out to be a good idea after all. They had been careful to skirt what used to be Caras Galadhon, or any other former elven settlements, and, after crossing the Celebrant, kept mainly to the edge of the woods.
Legolas walked silently, grateful for the distance his companions kept with the horses, to give him room for communing with the trees. But the trees were silent, drowsing in the passing of time, and Legolas felt a strange emptiness at the lack of their response. Still, it was not a bad feeling, for any tree would become silent when they were reaching the end of their life-cycle, falling asleep before entering the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth that was nature.
A soft call from Aragorn made Legolas aware of his surroundings again. He stopped, waiting for the others to catch up.
“We’re looking for a place to make camp,” Aragorn explained. “Soon it’ll be too dark for us.”
“I believe we are close to the old bathing pools,” Legolas said. “The clearings there might be still be usable.”
Aragorn said something to Gimli Legolas could not hear, and then nodded at him to proceed.
Not long after, they had reached one of the less-overgrown clearings, bordering one of the larger pools. Camp was set up quickly, although they needed to clear a space for their fire and sleeping rolls first, and soon a brace of ducks caught earlier in the day was sizzling over the flames. Gimli and Aragorn were talking quietly at the fire, giving Legolas as much space as he needed. He was more than grateful for their consideration, and his heart went out to his two unlike friends who were each so dear to him in their own way.
A splashing sound drew Legolas’ attention, and he decided to take a stroll along to the pool. The birds would take some time anyway, and he knew he would not be missed.
Only a few steps onwards the dense under-brush encircled him, and any sound coming from their camp seemed cancelled out by the soft sounds of the wood around him. Here, at the water, the trees were younger, and a bit more alert, and if he concentrated he could just hear their whispering. None were open for communication, though, so he walked on, allowing all his senses to take in his surroundings.
Something was off, though, something he could not place, although he knew he should be able to. Then, a sense of strong familiarity came over him. Legolas stopped.
“Good evening, son,” a familiar voice said, and Legolas turned towards his father who had suddenly appeared out of thin air.
“Adar! What are you doing here?”
“I could ask the same of you. Or perhaps you are doing the same?”
A mischievous grin lay on Thranduil’s face, and Legolas rejoiced in seeing his father so obviously well and in high spirits. They had not seen each other for a couple of years, and letters would only convey so much.
“I am travelling, with my old friends,” he explained. “Gimli wants to show me Erebor. I used the opportunity to visit these woods again, to say my good-byes.”
Thranduil’s face shadowed. “Nothing has changed, then?”
“No. The sea-longing has grown steadily worse, I cannot hold it off forever.”
“But I'm leaving neither this year nor the next, so rather tell me what brings you here.”
Thranduil chuckled. “The same as you, in a way; I am travelling with an old friend. Celeborn invited me to join him on a trip to Imladris, and we are making camp here before taking the Caradhras route.”
“That is a happy coincidence, then; queen Arwen still dwells with her brothers as far as I know.”
“She does; this is the reason for Celeborn’s journey.”
“Ah.” Legolas had forgotten that the former lord of Lothlórien was as skilled at far-speaking as his wife, and used this means of communication also regularly with his grand-children.
“Have you already made camp? If not, please join us at our fire and for some roast duck, there is enough for all of us.”
“Thank you, I gladly accept also on Celeborn’s behalf.”
They both stood watching each other, then Thranduil stepped forward, taking his son into a firm embrace. Legolas did not resist, but let himself be held like a child, drawing strength from the comfort his father’s arms still gave.
Thranduil buried his head in Legolas’ hair, nuzzling it a bit like he had always done. “My leaf, my little green leaf,” he murmured. “I would give everything to spare you this pain.”
The newcomers were welcomed with open arms, and, after more greetings and embraces, settled around the fire. Gimli set out to disperse their joint provisions in a fair manner, the roast ducks now completed by a wineskin of Thranduil’s famous Dorwinion, and some mushroom-and-greens-pasties from Celeborn’s folks. News was exchanged while they ate, and if Gimli noted Thranduil and Celeborn being surprisingly unsurprised about their meeting, he kept it to himself.
He was content, no, more than content; things had developed much better than he'd anticipated. True, the journey with just Legolas wasn’t happening as he’d wanted. But they were going to Erebor, and he’d still be able to show Legolas the Mountain to his heart’s content. Aragorn might not even stay with them so far, he’d never said how far or long he’d be travelling with them. But even so - things had been different this time. Gimli didn’t know what had brought the change about, but this time, Aragorn had taken great care to not let his exuberance get the better of him, and made sure that Gimli never felt excluded or overrun. Their journey had been pleasant so far, and, most importantly, his plan of cheering up the Elf had come nicely together.
Said Elf was now laughing out loud at something his father said, and Gimli turned his attention back towards the party.
“And I said to him, if they fly and swim, they are ducks, if they only fly, they are chickens. He looked at me like a calf in the moonlight, probably wondering how a forest-dweller like me would know anything about poultry in the first place, and stated firmly that chickens do not fly. Not those in your coops, I replied, but ours do.”
Gimli joined in the laughter, although he had missed the beginning of Thranduil's story and had no idea what the joke was.
“That duck is superb, Master Dwarf,” the other elven lord now said, and Gimli felt himself blush slightly. The husband of the Lady intimidated him somewhat, even if he looked much less imposing in the simple hunting gear he wore.
“It’s my pleasure.” Gimli tilted his head in lieu of a bow.
Now Legolas jumped up. “Anybody coming to the pool with me? I want to bathe, the water is so inviting!”
Aragorn got up, as did Thranduil. “Starlight bathing?” the latter asked, casting a speaking glance at Aragorn.
Legolas chuckled. “Why not? What do you say, Estel?”
Aragorn blushed but nodded, and took the hand Legolas extended to him.
Gimli frowned, following his departing companions with his eyes.
“If I may be so bold to ask, my lord Elf, what is this starlight bathing?”
Celeborn stood to refill both of their mugs with tea, before settling again, a bit closer to Gimli.
“I am surprised you do not know yet, seeing as you are such close friends with Legolas. But considering the nature of your relationship, it is perhaps not so surprising after all.”
Gimli frowned at the circumspect words but kept silent, knowing it was the way of the elves to never get to the point right away.
“Elves do bathe both for cleanliness and for pleasure. If it is for pleasure, it is called starlight bathing, and can be everything from washing each other’s hair to much more. While bathing for cleanliness can happen at all times, starlight bathing usually takes place in the evening or at night, and thus, happening by the light of the stars. Hence the name.”
It took a moment for Celeborn’s word to sink in, until Gimli fully understood what Celeborn meant. So this was why Legolas had held his hand out to Aragorn!
“But that's wrong! How can they do that, with Aragorn being a married man and everything?” He had jumped up, staring at the elf with a thunderous expression.
Celeborn held his hand up, looking unperturbed at Gimli’s outburst.
“It would be wrong if they engaged in such activities in secret, or without the knowledge and consent of their spouses or partners. But it is not so. Please do not forget that we are talking here also about my own grand-daughter. Do you think I would sit here so calmly if any wrong was done to her?”
Gimli sat back down heavily, frowning, anything but convinced.
“There is more than one form of love, and more than one reason to share pleasures,” Celeborn said softly. “I know that these concepts are not shared by Dwarves and most Men, but they are common among our people. We do believe that it is not wrong to share pleasures among consenting adults, no matter their relationship to each other or to yet other people, although people bound to each other rarely engage in such activities elsewhere. Mostly, it only happens when they live apart from each other for a long time. Sometimes, two people might also just seek comfort or closeness with each other, and simply share a bed or sleeping space to this purpose, or go bathing together for some physical contact without much else happening.
The key is mindfulness, and making sure that everybody involved is understanding at all time what is happening, and is consenting.”
From the pool, laughter and the sounds of frolicking could be heard. At least they were not doing something indecent, then, Gimli thought. Or were they? Would they? And what about Legolas’ father?
His head spun. Celeborn had opened a world of new ideas to him, ideas Gimli wasn’t sure he could condone. But they were not talking about just some elves here, were they, but about the kings of Gondor and the Greenwood and the lord of Eryn Lasgalen, who had been the Lord of Lothlórien before - a new thought brought his thoughts to a halt. Legolas was not married, nor betrothed or otherwise engaged, Gimli knew as much, and his mother had died centuries ago, so it was perhaps different for his father. But the lord Celeborn -
He found that the elf in question was watching him attentively, and seemed to guess his thoughts. He said nothing, though, leaving it to Gimli to ask the question if he wanted to know.
Gimli cleared his throat. “So, by what you’ve told me, are you and Thranduil -?”
Celeborn chuckled. “We sometimes go starlight bathing together, yes, or might share pleasures of some kind. My lady knows and consents. She and I both have enjoyed pleasures with other people during most of our life together, and I sincerely hope that she is living her life to the fullest also while we are separated. This does not change the love we bear to each other, or that we are bound. And while I do not know details of my grand-daughter and her husband’s marriage, I know that they have a similar understanding. Aragorn would never have accepted Legolas’ invitation if Arwen was unaware, or would not consent to him doing so.”
“But Aragorn is not an elf!”
“No, but he grew up among elves, and knows these things since his childhood.”
Gimli thought about Celeborn’s words, absently noticing that his cup was filled up another time. It was hard to accept, but if what Celeborn had said was true, and Gimli had no reason to believe differently, then this was something common for all elves, and had worked for thousands of years. Who was he to find fault at it, then, even if it went completely against his own customs and beliefs?
Thranduil returned, naked and wet, and, after having dried himself off and dressed again, sat in front of Celeborn who started to re-braid the other’s hair. It looked perfectly normal, not in any way improper or something. Nor had anything he had observed between them, Gimli realised.
“This is not common knowledge to non-elves, isn’t it?” Gimli now asked. “I’m wondering why I never heard of this before, and why I’m told now of all times.”
Thranduil chuckled, but it was Celeborn who answered. “Indeed, we do not usually share this, as it is difficult to understand for many others, as you have seen.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, which might have been a wink or not.
“Legolas wants you to know and understand this, in preparation for life in Valinor, when you are sailing there with him.”
So Legolas wanted him to come with him to the Undying Lands? And wanted him to be prepared for such things, so he'd not be shocked?
A small, hot, fire started to bloom in his chest, and Gimli suddenly felt giddily happy. There was no longer any room for doubt about the nature of Legolas’ friendship, or the intensity. It didn’t matter any longer that Legolas shared a similar, close, friendship to Aragorn, one that was more intense in another regard, as he’d just learned, than what he and Legolas ever would share. It did not touch what he shared with Legolas, and he didn’t have less of Legolas because of this. And he wouldn’t lose Legolas, sea-longing or not - they could stay together, for the rest of his life.
“Any of the Dorwinion left?” he asked, grinning at the two elves who were smiling at him. “I’ll have another cup!”