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Gimli poked the sullen little fire, carefully fed it a few more sticks, and mumbled a few encouraging words in his own language. "It's not going to become a roaring blaze," he said gruffly, "but it should do for now.

Legolas spread his hands out to the fire's warmth and smiled. "You do yourself a disservice, Master Dwarf," he said. "Few would have the skill to coax any sort of flame from these meager materials. I, for one, am grateful."

Gimli acknowledged the compliment with a nod. "Had I known that it would snow in late spring in these parts, Master Elf, I might have turned down this daft quest. I could be safe and snug in Aglarond even as we speak."

"Oh yes, safe and snug," Legolas agreed. "Telling the tale of the overthrow of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring for the five hundredth time to all the little dwarfkins who crawl up on you and pull on your beard after dinner, crying 'Uncle Gimli! Uncle Gimli!'"

"It's a good story," Gimli insisted, trying to sound serious and offended, though his eyes crinkled with mirth. "And they are good children." He stroked his beard thoughtfully. "But you are right; it is good to have a little time away." He took out his pipe and busied himself for a few minutes filling and tamping and fussing and finally lighting it. Exhaling a long plume of smoke, he sighed with satisfaction and said, "It's still a daft quest. Did it not come directly from Aragorn, I would be tempted to call it a fool's errand."

They had had this argument so many times that it was worn smooth. Legolas said placidly, "It will be of great benefit to the King to have complete, up-to-date maps of his kingdom, as has not been done in many generations of human reckoning."

"Yet we are not surveyors or map-makers," Gimli replied, puffing on his pipe.

"The Royal Cartographer in Gondor is bent with age, and his apprentice is twelve," Legolas pointed out. "Neither of them knows how to handle a weapon. For all we know, these uncharted regions may harbor foul and deadly creatures. So this first expedition requires skilled warriors."

A light kindled in Gimli's eyes at the words "foul and deadly." "Aye, he admitted. "Indeed, were we to encounter orcs or wargs, you and I would make short work of them." He snorted. "I would almost look forward to such an encounter. The leopard we met with a fortnight ago was our greatest danger to date." He remembered with amusement how the startled wildcat, while fierce enough as a predator of smaller animals, had shown no stomach for a fight with the elf and dwarf. It had bared its teeth at them in a low growl, then suddenly hissed, turned tail, and scampered away.

At this point in the argument, it was Legolas' turn to concede Gimli's point, and then point out that it was best to be prepared for danger even if it never materialized. Instead the elf was silent, staring into the fire for long minutes. Finally he turned to Gimli. "The greatest danger we have met so far, Gimli, is this bitter cold. If it keeps up, we shall need to find better shelter soon." He shivered despite the fire's warmth. "Yet in doing so, I fear we may fall into greater danger yet." His voice was low, and his eyes seemed to stare through the flames to some vision beyond it.

Gimli moved toward the elf and laid a hand on his arm. "Legolas, what do you mean? Your words are dire."

Legolas turned to look at him. "I don't know," he said, his voice back to normal. He reached over and clasped the dwarf's hand on his arm. "For a moment there, it seemed ..." He was clearly struggling to put words to some inchoate impression. "It seemed as though all light were drained out of the world, and everything had become hollow, without substance. It slips away even as I try to describe it." He looked back in the direction of the fire as if trying to recapture the vision. "It's gone now. Perhaps it was merely a fancy, nothing more."

"Perhaps," Gimli agreed. Legolas' last sentences, spoken in his customary light tone, might almost have convinced him--except that the elf's hand, gripping Gimli's tightly, was ice cold.

Gimli opened his eyes the next morning when Legolas shook him awake. It was still dark outside. "I believe this is dawn," the elf said, "or as much of it as we will be honored to enjoy."

Gimli looked around. The sky was so overcast that only the barest hint of light could penetrate. The very air seemed gray and heavy. The damp chill seemed to penetrate his bones; he felt as if he would never be warm again.

Legolas was looking around, his forehead creased in thought. "We have reports from peddlers and other wanderers that there is a village not far from here."

"Perhaps 'not all who wander are lost,' but quite a few of them often are," Gimli said. "Can these stories be believed?"

Legolas gave him a wry smile. "For our sakes, let us hope so." He leaned against a tree and closed his eyes in concentration.

After a few minutes, Gimli grew impatient. "What song is the tree singing? Does it sing of happy villagers and warm hearths?" he asked.

"There is no song," Legolas said, removing his hand from the trunk. "If it sings at all, I cannot hear it." His voice was troubled.

"Perhaps the tree is too cold to sing," Gimli said, hoping to cheer his companion. "Perhaps it hibernates."

"Perhaps," Legolas said, but he did not look convinced. "Let us put out the remains of the fire and go forward. My best guess places the village in this direction."

They trudged on through the dark-gray day for several hours. Finally Gimli lifted his face and sniffed the air. "Do you smell that, Master Elf?" he asked. "A wood fire!" They hastened their steps, and soon came to the edge of the forested area. Looking down, they saw open fields gently sloping away from the trees, and a village nestled in their midst. It was small and unadorned, but at that moment it was the loveliest settlement they had ever seen.

"Is that an inn I see?!" Legolas exclaimed, pointing to a sprawling brick building, somewhat apart from the rest and closer to the travelers. Its chimney was sending out a steady stream of smoke.

"Whatever it is, it's obviously warm," Gimli said. "Let's go!" They headed directly toward it.

As they drew nearer, a sign came into view over the door. "Welcome to Harbinger," it read in crude but recognizable Mannish letters. "Harbinger," said Gimli. "You'll have to make a note of that on your map."

"First my ink will have to thaw," Legolas answered. "And then, my hands!"

They reached the door and knocked. Sounds of running feet came from within, and a woman pulled the door open. She stood there a moment, staring at them agape.

"May we come in, Mistress?" Legolas asked politely. "We have traveled far."

"Oh my goodness, yes!" she said hastily. "We so seldom see outsiders here, I can't believe I kept you standing on the doorstep. On such a cold day, too! Come in, come in!" She spoke in the common language used by most humans, though with a strong accent. She stood back and ushered them in, then closed the door behind them. "Come into the eating hall and make yourselves warm. You are welcome here." She led them down a small corridor to a great room with a roaring hearth at one end. A long table, flanked by benches, stood a little distance from the fire, and several people were sitting there, eating a meal. They looked up as the visitors entered.

"Kustaa!" the woman who had welcomed them called. A young man jumped up from the table and came over to them. "See to our guests," she ordered him, then turned to Legolas and Gimli. "I am Kielo, the innkeeper. This is my son, Kustaa. He will take your burdens and bring you some food."

They allowed Kustaa to take their packs and outer garments, and then went over to stand by the fire. The warmth was invigorating; the light it shed was welcome. Welcome too were the steaming bowls of stew that Kustaa brought them, and the tankards of good ale.

"Please, won't you join us?" asked a burly, bearded man from the group at the table. He stood and gestured to two open places. "My name is Jalmari. I am the headman of this village." He pointed to another man, clean-shaven, and wiry. "This is our blacksmith Aimo." The man half-rose and nodded, and Jalmari went on, pointing to a pretty woman beside Aimo. "Aimo's wife Esteri, our horse-doctor." He went around the table, introducing each villager as Legolas and Gimli took their seats.

"I am Legolas Greenleaf of Ithilien," Legolas said, "and this is my friend Gimli, Gloin's son, of Aglarond."

"Glad to have you with us," said Jalmari. "What brings you to our distant corner of the land?"

The stew was hot and savory, and Gimli found himself finishing it quickly and letting Legolas do most of the talking. It was becoming an effort to follow the conversation; the warmth of the room and the pleasant fullness in his belly somehow conspired to make Gimli's eyelids very heavy. Looking at his companion, he saw that Legolas was looking sleepy as well.

Kielo bustled up to the table. "Our guests are exhausted, Jalmari, just look at them!" she scolded. "I have that lovely suite open upstairs. Why don't we let them rest for now and you can quiz them some more at supper." The headman acquiesced with good grace.

"We are not sure that we have the kind of money you use," Gimli began to protest. "We should discuss terms--"

"Nonsense," she said. "We'll talk about that later. I'm sure there will be no difficulty." Her tone brooked no discussion. They followed her meekly up the stairs to a large room where Kustaa had just finished lighting a fire. Two sleeping alcoves led off the main room, one on either side. The room was furnished plainly but well. "Kustaa will bring you water for washing up. I'll send someone to wake you for supper in a few hours," she said, closing the door behind them.

Once she was out of earshot, Gimli turned to the closed door and said, "Yes, Mother." He and Legolas shared a grin.

Supper was similar to their earlier meal, but much more crowded. Gimli guessed that the entire village had heard about the newcomers and come to see them. No one badgered them during the meal, however. Not until it was over did their hosts begin to ask questions.

"So you have come here from Gondor! We heard from a trader a few years ago that there was a new King in Gondor, of the line of Isildur," said Jalmari. "But he knew nothing else."

"It would be more than sufficient payment for your food and lodging if you would tell us how this came to pass," added Kielo. "We get so little news here."

"We should be glad to oblige," said Legolas with a slight bow. "Shall I begin, Gimli?"

Gimli nodded, raising the mug of hot mulled wine in one hand in a brief salute.

Legolas looked around the room to be sure he had the full attention of his audience, and then began. "Like so many other tales, the tale of the accession of Aragorn, son of Arathorn, to the throne of Gondor is subsumed under the larger story of the One Ring and its destruction. For our purposes, however, let us begin with the finding of the One Ring of Power by Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire." As the elf began to unfold the story, Gimli noticed that Legolas, in the way of elves and men in telling tales to strangers, referred to himself in the third person merely as "an elf," without identifying himself as the character. Likewise he did not name Gimli in the course of the tale. This seemed wise, and when Legolas ceded the narration to him, at the point where the Fellowship departed from Rivendell, Gimli chose to maintain the same discretion.

As he related the dreadful events that befell the company in Moria, Gimli realized that something was strange about his audience. They were listening as if he were telling a story of an adventure in the distant past, or even a made-up story for children, not as if he were relating events that had happened recently. Perhaps, he thought, as he sought to put words to beauty of Lothlorien, their manners and customs are simply different, and I am misreading their expressions. He handed the story back over to Legolas after the battle of the Hornburg, and listened with amusement to the elf's retelling of the orc-killing contest.

When at last they came to recount the final battle at the Black Gate of Mordor and the destruction of the Ring, Gimli could tell the listeners were enthralled. When he described Aragorn's coronation, the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen, the festivities and the attendees, the political appointments and the territorial divisions, however, they leaned forward with eager expressions, seeming to pay closer attention.

"So, kind hosts," Legolas said at last, "we are here at the request of King Aragorn to visit this portion of his kingdom and report to him on its settlements and inhabitants." With this conclusion, both travelers bowed and sat down, whereupon the audience did the most surprising thing of all. They applauded.

As the applause died down, Jalmari and a few others came over to where the elf and the dwarf still sat stunned by the response. "A tale well told!" he said enthusiastically. "Isn't it amazing how these embellishments spring up just a few years after the events!"

Gimli's hand crept toward his dagger. "Are you attempting to suggest," he asked slowly, "that we invented this story?" He felt Legolas touch his arm in warning.

"Of course not!" said Aimo quickly. "We did not mean to insult you. Certainly you told the story exactly as you heard it, with both veracity and skill!"

Jalmari nodded. "But you know how stories are like rivers, that gather up additional material as they flow along. Clearly by the time the story reached you, it had gathered many strange and beautiful additions. Wizards, hobbits, elves, dwarves, talking trees, magical rings ... absolutely marvelous!"

"You don't believe those things exist?" Legolas asked. Unlike Gimli, who had been angry, he sounded puzzled. "But then, what do you think we--" Gimli kicked him surreptitiously and he finished awkwardly, "I mean, where do you think those elements came from?"

"Now that," said Kustaa, "is an excellent question for a long night's discussion over several well-filled tankards, if you know what I mean."

"But not tonight," Kielo said firmly. "It's been a long day, and some of us have another long day tomorrow!"

When Gimli awoke the next morning, the suite was chilly and he saw that the fire had burned very low. He heaved himself out of bed and stumped across the cold tiled floor to the fireplace. Looking around for the poker, he mumbled a few words in Khuzdul, just to encourage the dying embers.

Nothing happened.

Gimli looked around. Legolas was curled up on the bed in the other alcove, apparently still asleep, and there was no one else in the room. Gimli leaned closer to the fireplace and spoke more slowly and clearly.

Still nothing. He found the poker and prodded, relieved to find that this skill at least had not abandoned him.

Neither had his hearing. Soft footfalls padded his way and he turned, still holding the poker, just in time to greet Legolas. The elf was yawning and rubbing his eyes with his fists.

"Fire giving you trouble, Master Dwarf?"

"Some dwarf I am!" Gimli said angrily, throwing down the poker. "I seem to have lost the gift of Aule altogether." He looked curiously at Legolas. "Do your eyes pain you?"

The elf shook his head. "No, but they have felt odd since I opened them this morning. As if they were full of sand."

"You were sleeping with your eyes closed?" Gimli asked.

Legolas was about to answer when they were interrupted by a knock at the door. Kustaa pushed the door slightly open and poked his head in. "My mother's compliments, good sirs, and breakfast will be served downstairs in fifteen minutes."

"We would be honored to join her," Legolas said smoothly.

As the door closed again, Gimli turned to Legolas. "They think we are men like themselves. We are not! Yet elves do not sleep with their eyes closed."

"Aye," said Legolas. "And fire does not scorn the commands of dwarves." He shivered, rubbing up and down his arms. "I feel the cold here, Gimli, as I have never felt it before."

"I feel it too, Legolas," said Gimli. "I feel it too."

Breakfast was a noisy and cheerful affair; welcomed into the midst of the din, Gimli could almost forget his misgivings of a few minutes before. He found himself seated next to a plump, graying woman who introduced herself as Helmi. Handing him a steaming platter piled with sausages, she said, "Your story last night was magnificent. I enjoyed it a great deal."

Gimli helped himself to a generous portion of the meat and passed the platter on down before answering. "It was good to have an audience that listened so well. Though it would have been even better to have an audience that believed us." There was something about her pleasant, plain face that told him he could be frank with her.

She did not react with anger. Instead, she said, "I care for some of the younger children of the village during the day. They would believe you. You and your friend should come and tell them your story." Then she added softly, "While there is still time."

"Excuse me, Master Gimli," Esteri asked from his other side, "but would you pass the butter?" Gimli complied, and when he turned back to Helmi, she was gone.

"Did you hear that, Master Legolas?" Gimli asked his companion, who was sitting directly across the table and tackling his breakfast with unusual gusto.

Legolas shook his head, but did not speak, having just taken a large bite of his breakfast.

Jalmari appeared behind Legolas and clapped a congenial hand on his shoulder. "Do you have everything you need?" he asked.

Legolas finished chewing and swallowed. "We are very well provided for indeed," he said. Gimli nodded agreement.

"Have you plans for this morning, friends?" their host went on.

Gimli spoke up. "Mistress Helmi requested that we come and tell stories at her nursery school," he said.

"A splendid idea!" Jalmari said, adding quickly, "if you wouldn't mind being so generous with your time. You mustn't let us run you ragged."

"Not at all," Legolas assured him.

"It's very kind of you. Just don't frighten the children so much that they won't nap, or you'll have to answer to Helmi!" he said, laughing, and moved on.

Snow crunched under their boots as they made their way to the village nursery school. The day was cold, but bright and clear. Gimli felt his spirits lift; glancing at Legolas he saw that the elf shared his mood.

"Just think, Master Dwarf," said Legolas, "just two days ago you were expressing your relief at having escaped this very task! Now you appear to anticipate it with pleasure."

"True, Master Elf," admitted Gimli, "but at least this is a new and different batch of younglings to pull my beard." He was about to mention Helmi's curious statement when something caught his eye and he stopped dead in his tracks. "Legolas ..."

"What is it, Gimli?"

Gimli pointed to the walkway behind them. Legolas followed the pointing finger, and paled. Two sets of tracks led from the inn to their present position. Neither of them needed to speak the words aloud. Elves don't leave footprints on snow.

The little ones were asleep, curled up on woven mats on the floor. They had loved every minute of the story, and clamored for more. Helmi sat gently rocking the smallest one, who seemed impossibly tiny in her generous lap. "Hush-a-bye," she said softly, and leaned down to lay the sleeping toddler on its mat.

"Do you think they believed us?" the elf asked her in a whisper.

"Indeed they did," she answered, also quietly. "They still believe in elves and dwarves." She gave them a sad smile. "Of course, they also believe in fairies and brownies and leprechauns."

"You don't believe," said Gimli suddenly. "You know."

"Yes," she said. "And that is why I know you must leave, or be destroyed."

"By Jalmari?" asked Gimli in disbelief. It was hard to believe that the hearty, welcoming folk of the village would turn violent toward a guest.

"Goodness, no!" she exclaimed, and then remembered to lower her voice again. "That's not what I meant. The people of the village are good people. But in this place, you cannot be who you are. You will live, but you will not be Legolas the Elf or Gimli the Dwarf. Not here."

"Why?" Legolas asked.

Helmi shrugged. "I do not know. I know only that this is a place where no trees speak, where no rivers sing, where no magical creatures walk the land. And if you do not leave soon, you may never recover yourselves."

Gimli had begun to pace, thinking over her words. Now he turned and looked hard at her. "You are not of this place."

"No," she said. "I was quite young, traveling with my parents near here, when they were trapped in a rockfall and died. I was found and rescued by these people, and raised as one of them."

Gimli and Legolas looked at each other, instantly finding wordless agreement. "Come with us," said Legolas. "Back where fire roars for the dwarves, and elves glide across the surface of the snow. Where you can find your people, and be one of them again."

"It is too late for me."

"But these are not your people!" Gimli protested.

"They have become my people," she replied. "And this has become who I am. I have grown to love my life here, and I have no wish to return." For the first time since they had entered the room, she arose from her chair. Standing, she was taller than Legolas; her lumpy figure and plain face were suddenly proportionate as they realized what she was. "After all your adventures, you two, of all people, should know that magic is not automatically a blessing. Tell me, Master Elf, Master Dwarf, would you choose to return to that world--as a troll?"

They found that they had no answer for that. "We cannot offer you escape, then," Legolas said at last. "But we do offer you our thanks."

"You are most welcome," she said.

Returning to the inn, they were relieved to find it mostly empty. Kielo was in the kitchen; they could hear her discussing something with the cook as they went quietly past the main eating hall. They crept carefully up the stairs and returned to their rooms, where they repacked with speed. Slipping out of the inn, they hastened away.

By unspoken agreement, they moved swiftly and did not stop for several hours. As they left the village behind, the temperature gradually warmed, and they soon found themselves in woodlands that were free of snow. It was late evening when they stopped to catch their breath in a small clearing. Gimli was about to speak, but Legolas suddenly motioned him to silence and cocked his head as if listening to something. "The trees are singing," Legolas said, his face radiant. "I can hear them, Gimli!"

Gimli grinned widely. "I am glad to hear it, my friend. Let's stop here, then. Even elves and dwarves cannot travel in full darkness." Legolas nodded.

Fallen wood was scarce and damp, yet it seemed only moments later that a small fire was burning briskly. Pleased by this triumph, Gimli took out his pipe to settle down for a contented smoke.

Legolas, meanwhile, had been rummaging around in his pack. Now he spread out the working copy of their map, and took up a quill and ink. Scratching in a sketch of the little village and its name in Westron, he wrote something beside it in Elvish characters.

"What did you put?" Gimli asked.

Legolas blotted the ink carefully. "Here begins the Fourth Age." Rolling up the map, he pulled its protective cover back over it, then put it into his pack. "This is only a foretaste, Gimli. The dawning Age belongs to Man, and sooner than we imagine, there will be no place for us."

Gimli swallowed hard. This then was the vision, the hollow world without light that Legolas had glimpsed in the fire. "Then we will make a place for ourselves," he said firmly.

Legolas had a faraway look in his eyes again. "Yes, we will," he said, with a sure and sudden smile.