Chapter 1: The Breath Before the Plunge
The whole of Arda seemed to hold its breath in those last few hours before the battle. In his room high in the spires of Minas Tirith, Legolas felt breathless along with it.
“Well, Master Elf,” Gimli said, emerging onto the balcony with him, where the cool wind from the south rushed past them in reverent silence, “I could think of no better way to mark the occasion than with drink. Unfortunately, we will have to make do with what these weak-kneed southerners call wine.”
Legolas smiled, and when Gimli offered one of the two cups to him, he took it with a nod of thanks.
“Ah, what I wouldn’t do for a proper dwarvish ale!” He leaned forward on the stone balustrade. Legolas sank to a sit beside him, making them nearly the same height. “There’s nothing that stokes the fires of battle lust in your belly quite like it.”
“Would you lust for this coming fight, my friend?” Legolas asked. He took a sip of the wine. As promised, it was adequate at best.
“It need be lust, for there’s no ale strong enough to cause love for it.” Legolas watched as Gimli took a long pull from his cup. A rivulet of wine ran down his fiery beard, so red that it was nearly invisible.
Privately, Legolas agreed – there was no joy to be found in this final assault. It was at best a tactical necessity, at worst a suicide mission.
Although it had been there the whole while, at the same time they both finally turned their eyes and beheld Minas Morgul, the tower of Barad-dûr, the fire in the Mountain of Doom. Lightning flashed and thunder pealed across the plains of Pelennor. Legolas gripped his cup more tightly.
Gimli turned briefly, sensed the tension, and laid his hand on Legolas’s shoulder. “Peace on you, my friend,” he said. “For we exist in the unique place and time where peace is the only thing worth having.”
Legolas turned his gaze away from the fire on the horizon. “You do not despair?”
“Not when it won’t make any bit of difference,” he answered. “There’s nothing left to do, no preparations we can make, no change we can affect. So what good is despair?”
He paused, then smiled. “You speak with wisdom, Master Dwarf.” He raised his cup to the sentiment, briefly, and Gimli did the same. They drank together.
Silence, then, long and tense. The great Eye, ringed in fire, swept across its burned and broken domain.
“I wish I could see the stars this night,” Legolas said, eyes trailing upward to the shroud covering the sky. They looked like clouds, but he could smell the difference – sulfur and ash. There were no clouds in the sky, only the smoke from the Mountain of Fire. “Their presence has ever been a comfort to me. Their lack feels an ill omen.”
Gimli’s hand, still on Legolas’s shoulder, gripped tighter. Legolas turned to him, opened his mouth, and nearly said, Your presence is a comfort, too.
But he shrank at the last moment, and the words died somewhere in his throat. He feebly swallowed a mouthful of wine.
“Legolas,” Gimli said, with a tone that suggested he was about to begin a long and heavy sentence. Legolas watched his friend’s face as his expression changed – slowly at first from determination to doubt, then into a sharp bitterness. When at last he spoke, all he said was, “You should rest.”
Legolas had lost count of how many times their conversations had ended thus: with words that felt profound, yet went unsaid. For his part, Legolas felt if he said aloud the words beating drums in his heart, the cost would be too steep for him to bear. So silent he stayed, and wondered without asking if Gimli’s silences were the same as his.
He finished his wine and went inside. Behind him, thunder shook the ground, and Legolas tried not to hear it.
There was a pall over Rivendell when Elrond rode back to it after his brief absence. Though he had done his part as best he could, reforging Narsil into Andúril and delivering it to the proper hands, still he felt a wariness in his bones as though there was something left undone, just beyond his articulation – some unseen doom left unacknowledged.
He was met at the courtyard by a footman, who took his horse’s reins and bowed low. “Welcome back, Lord Elrond,” he said. “What news from Gondor?”
“The elves of Imladris have done all they can,” he answered, swinging off his saddle. “All news now will be made by the men of the West.”
The footman inclined his head. Just before he vanished from sight, as the Lord of Rivendell pulled off his gloves and riding gear, he called: “How fares my daughter?”
The horse and its tender both stopped. The footman looked back at Elrond, expression hesitant. “My Lord should see for himself,” he said rather than answer. “She is as he left her.”
Fighting down the surge of fear in his heart, Elrond pressed quickly through the courtyard and into the upper chambers.
The whole of the city was hushed. Even the wind and the water seemed to only whisper. The halls were emptier than they had ever been, in Elrond’s time, and his otherwise soft elvish footsteps echoed as though he tread through caverns rather than glen.
When he found Arwen, she was as described – precisely where she lay when he departed for Gondor, in her bed, on her back, dark hair spilling to the floor. But there was a new shudder to her breath, as though each inhalation caused her tremendous pain, and her eyes – her eyes were wide, transfixed on the ceiling, as if spellbound by some horror that manifested only for her.
Anguish lanced through him. He went to her side and took her hand, which might have been mistaken for ice but for how supple it was in his own. “Arwen,” he whispered, holding tightly. “Arwen, are you awake?”
She did not answer. To his eye, the only change in her was that her shuddering intensified. Elrond gripped her hand all the tighter.
“Arwen,” he called again, louder. “My daughter, can you not hear your father’s voice?”
The shuddering breaths turned to wheezing. Her body seized as if by sudden pain, and she arched off the bed.
And before he even found further words to say to her, the ring around his finger began to burn like fire.
He looked down at his hand, where Vilya was blazing bright red, and the burning became more intense. He cried out and staggered back from his daughter’s bedside, ripping off the ring and letting it drop to the floor with a clatter that seemed far too loud.
Arwen had stopped wheezing.
The view from the very top of Caras Galadhon was expansive, and enhanced further by elvish eyes. From where the Lady of the Golden Wood stood, she could see the glow of red fire just beyond the horizon, and in her heart there was a growing dread.
“My love,” Celeborn said, behind her, “you are agitated.”
Around her finger, she spun the ring Nenya as though from nervous habit, but her eyes stayed firmly on the distant red glow.
Her husband came beside her when she did not answer, and he searched her face for answers. “You look feverish,” he said. “What do you see on the horizon?”
“Fire and smoke,” she said, voice strained, “and the ruin of our wood.”
Celeborn straightened. “You have seen this?”
“The powers in Mordor gain form,” she said, as her breath came harder. “Dark shapes rise from the south and march north.”
She gripped Nenya tightly between the fingers on her opposite hand. A frenzy had possessed her wide, starlit eyes.
“The Ringbearer has fallen,” she hissed, “and the world falls with him!”
She pulled Nenya from her finger. As she did, every light Lothlórien seemed to dim – and on the horizon, the red light from Mordor blazed all the brighter.
At the top of the tower of Barad-dûr, the Eye snarled out of existence in a spiral of flame and smoke.
“Mithrandir!” Legolas called, and cut down two orcs with one long arc of his knife. “The tower!”
Several yards away, Gandalf looked to Legolas, and then to the sky, where he stared at the tower, blood-spattered face wrenched in sudden terror.
“What does this mean, Gandalf?” called Aragorn. Andúril was already painted black, his velvet tabard slashed.
“A scent rises in the air,” Legolas cried. “Metal and molten rock – something approaches—”
DOOM, from great Black Gates, thunderous, the earth itself trembling in fear. The armies of men and orcs both stopped, and turned, and held their breaths, as—
DOOM, again, louder than before, and the gates that were once only ajar went barreling open, carving earth and orcs in their path, crashing and breaking against their towers and the mountainside, sending dust rising into the air. Through the veil, a shadow appeared, twenty feet tall at least, black and terrible, a mace held aloft in one hand, and on the other—
“No,” Gimli said, behind Legolas. “No!”
The voice was dark and terrible, echoing at once from everywhere and nowhere. Orc and man alike quailed at the sound, scattering backwards and away from the dark shape.
“The Ring!” Aragorn cried, aghast. “He wears the Ring!”
Even through the dust, the fire-red lettering burned bright. Heavy footsteps echoed, and Sauron came upon the fields of Pelennor.
Towering and black, in armor of shining obsidian and dark metal. Horses whinnied, and all around them, soldiers of Gondor dropped their weapons in the dust and ran, fleeing back to Minas Tirith.
“But that means—” Gimli began, choking. “The Hobbits!”
“We’ve failed!” came Pippin’s voice, strung high with terror. “Oh, Sam! Frodo!”
Frantic, Legolas pulled an arrow from his quiver and, faster than the eye could perceive, fired.
The arrow sailed true and well, aimed for a gap in the the Dark Lord’s armor between helm and breastplate – but as it came within the last few feet of its goal, the arrow burst into flames and dissolved into ashes, as though the air around him was too hot for a weapon of wood.
Legolas went staggering back. The flame red eyes of Sauron turned to the elf.
“Legolas!” Gandalf called, but he did not have chance to hear his name. Legolas’s bow went clattering to the ground. He fell to his knees, doubled over, and began to scream.
Gimli was at his side in an instant, grabbing him by the shoulders. “Legolas!”
But Legolas could not hear him. He was gripping his head, screaming still, and all around him, Gimli could hear dark whispers, festering in the air.
And then, the battlefield was quiet. Legolas stopped screaming. Those soldiers of Gondor that remained stood still as stone. Even the army of orcs and trolls that has poured out of Mordor sat stunned, staring at their dark master, as if waiting for something.
But all Gimli could see was Legolas, who when he lifted his head, had red fire rising out from his eyes, searing the white flesh near his hair. Gimli went stumbling back.
“Legolas—” he said, but Legolas did not hear him. He picked up his bow again, drew an arrow quick and deft as wind, and fired.
The whole world held its breath.
And then, several yards away, Aragorn fell from his horse, an arrow in his throat.
“No!” Gandalf cried, and rushed to catch Aragorn before he hit the ground.
The breath once held released as a scream. Yet more soldiers went fleeing, calling to retreat, riding hard into the White City and away from the battle.
Even from several yards away, Gimli could hear the sounds of Aragorn choking on his own blood. Horror crept up through him, starting low in his belly and clawing its way up his spine. Legolas would never – how could he—?
“What have you done,” Gimli rasped. “Lad, what have you done!”
Legolas drew an arrow again, and turned. The dark whispers surrounding him grew louder, and Gimli stared, too stunned to move, as the best marksman he’d ever met aimed for the middle of his forehead.
The red fire was rippling from Legolas’s eyes. The foul whispering around him began to crescendo, pulsing and snarling around him.
But Legolas did not move.
The hand that had drawn back on the bowstring was trembling, Gimli could see, and the fire in his eyes flickered, like a candle caught in a gust of air.
Louder and louder the dark whispering became, but still Legolas did not move. The hand that had just murdered the Heir of Isildur hesitated on the son of Glóin, and Gimli did not know why. He did not know anything.
“Legolas,” he hissed, voice breaking.
And then, all at once, the elf was spirited away from his sight. The arrow fired harmlessly into the dirt then the bow dropped.
To his horror, Gimli saw Legolas held up, the very hand of Sauron clasped tight and hot around his throat, and Legolas was screaming – the heat of the hand around his neck was searing his flesh. Gimli could hear it sizzling, even from twenty feet below.
Sauron was burning the foul brand into his neck, and, hardly thinking, Gimli charged forward, axe in hand. But as he swung, a force met and matched him. Before his blade could land, Gimli went flying backwards into his horse, breath leaving his lungs in a rush.
“Gimli!” Merry cried, clambering over the corpse of an orc to get to his side. Gandalf was a breath behind him, grabbing Gimli by the wrist and pulling him up. Gimli struggled to catch his breath.
“Gandalf,” Merry said, “is Aragorn – is he—?”
“What’s happening to Legolas?” Pippin cried.
But Gandalf did not answer their questions. Grip still on Gimli’s wrist, he addressed him: “Gimli, you must lead Gondor’s army away.”
Gimli heard him, of course, but could not look away. Legolas was screaming, still screaming, and the hand around his throat was burning him, and Sauron – the dark fiend was staring at him as though searching his very soul—!
“Gimli!” Gandalf snapped, drawing his attention sharply. “Take Merry and Pippin and lead Gondor’s army to Edoras and Lothlórien. Tell them of what has happened and evacuate the cities!”
Every thread in Gimli’s body felt pulled taut enough to snap. “You – you cannot ask a dwarf to lead an army of men!”
“They have no choice and neither do you!”
Gandalf thrust into Gimli’s hand Andúril, the Flame of the West, black with orcish blood, and for a moment, Gimli’s heart stopped, knowing what this meant.
Merry sobbed, once, and clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Hear me, son of Glóin, for time is precious,” Gandalf said, grabbing him hard by both shoulders. “Evacuate Edoras and Lothlórien, do you hear me? Tell them to make for Rivendell, and you do the same. I will meet you there when I can.”
“What about Legolas?” Gimli returned, breathless. “He is beset by some evil spell! You can break the foul magic, can’t you?”
Gandalf did not reply, but his face was answer enough. Merry sobbed again.
“We’ve failed, we’ve failed!” Pippin wept.
“I cannot leave without him!” Gimli said, desperation rising in his chest. “I will not leave him behind!”
“We cannot spare a second longer!” Gandalf said, and near threw Gimli onto his horse, then Merry in front, Pippin behind – a more cramped ride than he was used to, to be sure. “Repeat my orders, Gimli!”
Throat tight, eyes burning – and still watching, staring, as Legolas screamed and screamed – he said, “Evacuate Edoras and Lothlórien, meet you in Rivendell.”
“Yes,” Gandalf hissed. “Now go.”
“Go, I said!”
Gimli’s horse whinnied and kicked, then took off in a gallop through what remained of the armies of Gondor and Rohan.
He felt as though he might cave in from grief. Aragorn dead, the Ring on Sauron’s hand, and Legolas, still screaming in agony, he could still smell the searing of his flesh!
Two small hands fisted in his cloak behind him. Gimli swallowed the knot in his throat and lifted high the Flame of the West. It shone brightly in the setting sun.
“Gondor!” he bellowed, kicking the horse faster. “Rohan! To me! To me!”
Behind him, Legolas stopped screaming. Even as Gimli prayed to any god that would listen for his safety, he hardened his heart and urged his horse faster, breaking through the back of the army and veering northwest.
“To me!” he called again. “To me!”
Chapter 2: A Parting of Ways
Gandalf had not heard his true name uttered in an age. That it should come from the black mouth of Sauron lit his blood afire. He gripped his staff with both hands and stood unyielding. Behind him, Shadowfax nickered and kicked the dirt anxiously – further back still, Gimli held aloft the sword of the West and guided the armies of Gondor and Rohan away. If Gandalf had only one more purpose in this world, it was to give them more time to escape.
Sauron released Legolas from his fiery hand, who dropped onto ground with a cry of pain. The smell of his burning flesh still permeated the air, and Gandalf fought back every instinct to run to him. The elf’s mind was no longer his own.
“I have not failed while there are yet those in Middle-earth who breathe free!” Gandalf thundered. “And at every turn, we will resist you! To our last breath, we will fight you! Do you hear me, Gorthaur, foul creature?”
Sauron exhaled a long and sulfurous breath, so strong it nearly knocked Gandalf over, so hot it stung at his eyes. And all at once, as if reacting to some unspoken command, the amassed armies at the gates of Minas Morgul began to move.
Gandalf watched, frenzied, as the majority went loping, scrambling toward the White City, and a minority split off to follow Gimli and the men of the West across the plains. Gandalf grit his teeth and gripped his staff tighter. What was once a battlefield was emptying around him. All he had left was his horse, his staff, the corpse of the Heir of Isildur, an elf whose eyes burned red fire, and Sauron the Deceiver.
He breathed, swallowed his terror, and uttered a prayer – the oldest prayer he knew, in Valarin. If this was to be the end of Middle-earth, he would not let it come without a fight.
So focused was he on Sauron that he did not see the pair of arrows flying at him until they went ricocheting off his barrier of magic with a flash of white light. Scarcely before he could identify the source, Legolas came charging at him, eyes burning and screaming red fury.
The elf was fast – it had been a long time since he’d fought an elf of the Woodland Realm, and he’d forgotten just how fast they could be, slicing and spinning and slashing in a deadly and accurate dance – and Gandalf was only just able to catch and parry his attacks with his staff. His instinct to use magic was undercut significantly by the target. Sauron’s puppet or no, this was a true and stalwart member of the Fellowship. But Sauron’s power was terrible and tremendous, and he did not know how – or even if he could—
“Legolas!” Gandalf cried, catching another slash of his blade on his staff, barely. “Legolas, you must resist him! I know your heart to be true and good, you can overcome his will—!”
Sparks went raining from the top of his staff where the elf’s white blade met it. He leaned forward, and Gandalf stared into the eyes, now bleeding red fire along his skin. Gandalf could feel the heat from them.
“Your words are as worthless as your power now, Maia!”
The voice that had answered did not belong to the elf Gandalf knew, too deep and dark, and as he struggled to keep the elvish blade back, he answered, “Think of your home, my friend. Think of your father and your people! They will all come to ruin if you do not fight!”
The flames in his eyes burned ever hotter, blackening fair skin. “I belong now to Sauron!”
CRASH, from overhead, and Gandalf’s shield of magic exploded, shattering like white glass. Sauron stood above him, a tower of fire and dark fury, his heavy mace five feet across swinging backward, then coming around in another arc—
Gandalf leapt away, but a bladed flange caught him in the arm and across the chest. He cried out in pain and stumbled, nearly collapsing onto his staff. He had felt the sting of a Morgul blade before, but this hideous masterwork was far more terrible. The wound festered black immediately, and Gandalf grabbed it hard to stem the bleeding. He looked up and saw Legolas drawing an arrow, and Sauron swinging his mace again.
And then, behind him, a whinny. Gandalf groped backwards, and without looking found purchase in the silver of Shadowfax’s mane. He swung up and around mid-gallop – an arrow hissed past his cheek, and Sauron’s mighty mace carved only earth.
Shadowfax at once broke into a gallop, unmatched in speed and and lightness. With the last of his strength, he summoned one more barrier, just in time to catch four more arrows that would have landed in the back of his neck otherwise, and steered Shadowfax on.
“To Minas Tirith, my friend!” he hissed, through teeth grit in agony. Five more arrows ricocheted off his shield. “Fly!”
Gimli could hear the screams of men mingling with the battle-cries of orcs, even from his position at the head of the pack. He looked backward over his shoulder and cursed – how did they catch up so fast?
“Gimli,” came Pippin’s voice in his ear, drawn tight in fear.
“Forgive me, Master Hobbit,” he said, and pulled hard on the reins. His horse whinnied in protest, but turned sharply to the right to make a broad arc around.
“Keep riding!” Gimli roared to the new head of the company. “Make for Edoras and watch your backs!”
“Gimli,” Pippin said, again, louder, “why are you taking us closer to the danger?”
“They aren’t going to stop on their own, Master Took!” he bellowed in answer, and as he came upon the first orc, unholstered and swung his axe. In one clean blow, its head went flying, and in the process knocked a second orc off its warg. “You see that? Ring or no Ring, orcs still die the same!”
Small hands grabbed one of his throwing axes from his belt. Before he could rightly determine what it was, he saw it go sailing into the throat of a third orc, who choked and fell, rolling into four more and sending their mounts collapsing.
“Well shot, Meriadoc!”
“Let me!” Pippin intoned suddenly, his fear pushed through by a sudden burst of courage, or at the very least, by a desire to throw axes.
It had not been long since he first mounted a horse at all, but by Gimli’s reckoning, he was doing a fair enough job at mounted combat. With two extra pairs of small hands depleting his supply of throwing axes, he managed to carve down a fair number of them.
But as he came around the back of the army, their numbers became clear. A mere fraction of the forces amassed at Minas Morgul was enough to dwarf their own numbers threefold. By turns Gimli uttered curses and prayers in Khuzdul, and his mind raced – there had to be something—
Dwarvish eyes scanned the scene as they galloped – to east, dry and dusty plains. To the west, a sheer cliff face going up into the mountains. A few hundred yards ahead, the remnants of a landslide, a pile of stone and earth stretching up into the White Mountains, all delicately balanced on itself.
Something deep and primal rose in his chest. The earth was speaking to him, or perhaps he was speaking to the earth. He could hear it whispering, as it always had to his kind, and in a surge, Gimli knew.
“Keep them off me a while longer!” he called. “Ya!”
He snapped the reins and his horse pressed forward. Merry and Pippin shared an uneasy look, then returned their attention to his belt of throwing axes, which Gimli could feel was running low. He hefted his axe in one hand and pulled his horse closer to the cliffside.
“Mahal forgive me for abusing my axe so!” he cried, and swung as hard as he could at a boulder nearly as large as he was.
Sparks flashed, and metal screamed as it was ruined on stone.
The boulder shifted.
And then, as Gimli pressed his horse harder, harder forward, the side of the mountain came down upon the armies of Mordor.
The sound was tremendous. A thousand tons of rock roaring down the mountainside, nearly drowning out the screams of Black Speech. Gimli kept his eyes forward, but he could hear bones crunching, rock breaking, smell dust rising in the air.
“Gimli!” Merry shouted, barely audible over the sound of it. “That was incredible!”
“At best, it’s bought us time!” Gimli shouted back. He threw his axe behind him, the blade fractured and useless. “Hold fast, hobbits, it’s a long way yet to Edoras!”
Minas Tirith was burning.
What grace Ilúvatar had given him to fight off the festering of Sauron’s wound on his chest did nothing to stop the pain of it. Gandalf gripped it tight as he rode hard into the White City, a city that was before his eyes being sacked and razed.
It was not often that Gandalf had ever felt truly powerless. He swung Glamdring where he could, screamed to evacuate to Rivendell, but by his voice or the reach of his arm he was limited. He rode hard through a labyrinth of fire and rubble, Shadowfax as fast and graceful as air, and made his way up and up, to the upper courtyard.
The White Tree was swallowed by red flame, its branches blackened and crumbling to dust. Civilians and children screamed as they crisscrossed the flagstone, and with everything left in him, Gandalf swallowed down a surge of despair.
Up and up still, through the winding streets and into castle, where he left Shadowfax whinnying and kicking the ground in agitation.
Even within the Houses of Healing, there was chaos, and he was sickened but not surprised to learn that the forces of Sauron would attack the sick and dying. He cut down as many as he was able with his good arm, and through the chaos, he shouted—
A door came crashing open in front of him, so suddenly that he jumped back. There was a sword pointed at his chin a moment later, but to his surprise—
“Gandalf!” she cried, and at once the sword fell to her side. “You’re alive! When we saw the orcs storm the city, we thought the battle – we thought – oh, Gandalf, you’re wounded! What happened? How…”
He could not bring himself to say the words, but there must have been something telling in his face, because within moments, Éowyn’s eyes had changed.
“Aragorn,” she said, breath trembling. “Merry, Pippin, are they—?”
“Where is Faramir?”
She pulled in a hard breath, looked over her shoulder down the hall. “He said he was going to evacuate the others in the Halls of Healing, through the upper chamber. I stayed to block the way.”
“Come,” Gandalf said. “Quickly, now. And keep your sword at the ready, Shieldmaiden!”
Gandalf pushed past her. Éowyn, wounded still but holding back all sign of it, was at his heels.
Together they followed a trail of corpses, orcs as much as men, through to the second story of the Halls of Healing. As they came up the stairs, Gandalf could detect the sounds of battle – metal on metal, grunts and cries and curses in Black Speech and Westron.
The moment they turned the corner, the body of goblin dropped to the white marble floor in two pieces. Standing before it, sweat-streaked and wounded, was Faramir, son of Denethor.
“Gandalf, you’re alive!”
“We need to leave,” Gandalf answered.
Faramir’s face twitched into a frown. “What? We can’t – I can’t leave my city, the people—”
“The city is lost!” Gandalf cried, and lurched forward to grab Faramir by the arm and pull him back down the stairs, who stumbled as they went. “The Ring has returned to the hand of its master and the line of Isildur vanquished!”
Behind him, Éowyn sobbed once and stumbled as she followed them.
“I – I—” Faramir choked on something – whether it was blood or emotion, Gandalf could not see; his eyes were set on the way forward. “Gods, he can’t—”
“Listen to me, most noble son of Denethor,” Gandalf said, turning at last as they came back onto the street. “Your grief and your honor you must put aside for now. Gondor has no king to rule nor steward to guide. The men of the West will scatter and diminish without a leader. You must be that leader.”
“But I’m not a leader!” Faramir insisted, and now that Gandalf could see the state of him, he regretted pulling so hard on such a badly injured arm. “Boromir was a leader – my father was a leader!”
“And now they are both dead, and so is Aragorn!”
Behind him, Éowyn bowed her head and whispered a tearful prayer as she clutched the hilt of her sword with both hands.
“My friend,” Gandalf said, sad but desperate, “I would not ask this of you if we had any other choice. We must endure. The kingdom of men must endure. You are the only one who can make it so.”
Gandalf knew the reluctance on Faramir’s face at his words. It was the same reluctance he saw in Gimli when he’d charged him with leading an army of men into Edoras. And in that moment, Gandalf regretted bitterly that these choices should be thrust upon those who sought neither power nor command.
Faramir breathed, and his head dropped, and his hands balled into fists.
“What must I do?” he asked, without lifting his eyes.
“Get to the stables, both of you,” Gandalf answered. “Gather any provisions you can muster, then find horses. Meet me at the gate.”
“Where are we going?” Éowyn asked, through the tears that still fell down her face.
“To Rivendell,” Gandalf said, swinging onto Shadowfax, “to meet whatever remains of your army!”
“An elf? A wood elf?”
As his liege lord had bid, Legolas had gone to the tower of Barad-dûr to wait for his orders. He could still smell the orcs that had only recently made it their home, but now it stood empty – empty, of course, except for him, and this misshapen white orc who now addressed him.
The orc grunted, even as Legolas did not answer. “My Lord does delight in corrupting the more perfect children of Ilúvatar,” it – he? – said, shambling across the floor on one good leg. His eyes raked Legolas’s form, and Legolas sneered.
The dissonance was strangely comforting. He knew himself under a spell – he could feel it burning in his eyes and in the shape of a great hand around his throat – but though magic could bend his will, it could not, it seemed, make him find orcs anything but repulsive.
“I am Gothmog,” he said shortly, “Lieutenant to your new master. You answer to me now, do you understand?”
Legolas offered no reply but a deepening sneer, which seemed to anger Gothmog. He reached out with one hand and grabbed Legolas by the jaw, jerking his head around with rough fingers.
“Answer me!” he barked.
Legolas slapped the hand away in disgust. “I understand,” he answered. “I am bespelled to obey you, not to like you. Keep your foul hands off me.”
The shape of the orc’s face came to an unsettling middle between fury and savage joy.
“A fighter,” he appraised. “Your master will appreciate this trait in you.”
He leaned forward, close enough for Legolas to smell his foul breath.
“So shall I, I think,” he snarled.
A sound of disgust scraped the back of Legolas’s throat unbidden. He turned his head away to avoid the worst of the stench.
Gothmog then grabbed the sleeve of his tunic. “We’ll need to do away with this elvish frippery,” he growled. “Take it off. Use the armor on the rack there.”
He turned his eyes to the corner of the room, where hanging from several pegs on a wooden stand were sets of black armor. They looked heavier than he was used to, thick leather and iron links. Worse, they smelled like everything else in the tower. He growled under his breath, but crossed the room anyway, stripping his tunic over his head.
“Branded you well, didn’t he?” Gothmog said, and with their positions in the room, he could have only been referring to the massive, hand-shaped, blackened burn around Legolas’s neck, now fully visible without his shirt. “There’s magic in it, too. I reckon it should keep you in line.”
The armor sized for orcs was far too large. On the far end of the rack were a selection for goblins that were closer to elf-size, but still proved to be tight across the chest. He doubted he’d find anything better.
“And you’ll need new weapons,” the orc continued, and before Legolas could ask what he meant, a black bow and quiver were thrust at him. “No more dainty elvish fare. Orc arrows are made of metal and fire-glass.”
Legolas frowned, but took what was handed to him. He pulled one arrow from the quiver and inspected it. The head was rough-hewn and sharp, the shaft wide, the fletch uneven.
“I’ve never fired arrows made of metal,” Legolas said. “Nor indeed so poorly balanced.”
“Then you’d best learn, lulgijak,” Gothmog snarled back, “before someone learns you by way of sticking you with one.”
And with that, the orc went to the far side of the room and began rummaging through crates of equipment.
“Find some blades and then a warg,” he said he said as he searched. “We ride for Edoras at nightfall.”
Legolas made his way across the room to the rack of weaponry, but stopped when he caught sight of a strange shape in a narrow slat of a window.
The shape turned out to be his own reflection, though it took two glances to be sure. He could barely recognize himself.
Hair long and unbound, eyes blazing with red fire that blackened his skin. Dark armor and iron ring mail. And of course, the great burned hand around his throat, which still throbbed dully in a residual pain.
He did not like it.
He holstered his new, black bow over his shoulder, strapped his quiver to his hip, and went to look at the blades.
“Ah! There it is.”
Gothmog had moved aside two of the larger crates, revealing a carved inset on the wall, wherein a large black orb was sitting on a metal stand. Legolas knew it instantly.
“The Ithil-stone,” he said. “The lost Palantír of Minas Ithilien. So that is how our master gave his orders to Orthanc.”
Gothmog made a revolting sound at Legolas, halfway between spitting and hissing. “And you’ll keep your pretty mouth shut about it, if you know what’s good for you!”
He surged forward, reaching out one large, lumpy hand and grabbing at the mark on Legolas’s neck. A surge of pain raced down his chest, and Legolas shouted in agony, grasping at Gothmog’s wrist in protest and trying to wrench himself free.
“The master does not take well to grunts who speak overmuch,” he snarled, and released him, with a shove, backward into the weapons rack. “Find your blade and warg!”
Gothmog snatched the Palantír from its stand, tucked it into a large rucksack over his back, and vanished.
Legolas grit his teeth. He did not like anything about this. But surely if it was so willed, he could be forced to. Legolas could not decide if he was glad or angry that his new master should prefer him to suffer in his new destiny.
“Get fresh horses from the stable,” Gimli said, and the squirrelly-looking Gondorian officer at his side hurried to keep up with him as they walked back down and out through the main gates of the city. “You can leave ours behind as replacements; the evacuation does not need as much speed as we do.”
“And take a percentage of food and supplies from the stores. Not more than a quarter. I’d rather leave as much food as possible for the civilians.”
“At best, they have six hours to get packed and gone, so make sure that no one wastes time on trivialities.”
“What’s your name, lad?”
The question seemed to catch him off-guard. “Jonna, sir.”
“You’re handling orders from a dwarf better than some might, Jonna.”
“I don’t spend much time worrying about who’s giving the orders, sir. You carry the Flame of the West. That’s enough for me.”
Gimli flinched. He’d barely touched it once in the hard four-day ride from Minas Tirith to Edoras. There was a lot he hadn’t done in those four days.
They had reached the city in time, thank the gods – he’d half expected it to be swarming with those foul black flying serpents Sauron was so fond of – and the moment they’d arrive they’d rang the bell to evacuate. Now the city was a buzz of feverish activity and subdued desperation. Gimli knew they were afraid. He didn’t begrudge them a bit for it, either.
“Sir, the men are asking questions,” Jonna said.
Together they passed under the mighty wooden gates of Edoras, squeezing through soldiers and civilians as they moved to and from the beginnings of a large caravan on the road.
When Gimli didn’t answer him, Jonna continued, “About Aragorn.”
“Aye, lad. I know.”
“What should I tell them, sir?”
They stopped walking. Or to be more precise, Gimli stopped walking and Jonna followed suit with a stumble.
He wasn’t ready to talk about this. He’d ridden through two nights straight to avoid the incessant questions of hobbits about this, to avoid the grief lapping at the edges of his mind like a rising tide. It was fresh and searing like a battle wound, but the battle didn’t feel like it was over, so how could he stop to heal?
Gimli paused for a moment and struggled for the right words.
“Tell them…” he began, haltingly, “that Lord Aragorn fell nobly in battle, every inch the king he was destined to be. Tell them that Sauron the Deceiver stole that destiny from him, and that although things seems bleak, he would never forgive us if we did anything less than fight till the last against the darkness.”
Jonna swallowed and lowered his eyes.
“Tell them I do not begrudge them their grief, only their inaction. I mourn him, too, more than I can say, but I will not let my sadness become a paralytic, and neither should they.”
“Aye, sir,” Jonna said, softly, and turned on a boot heel to return to the city.
All at once, Gimli was unaccompanied just outside the gates, and even though he stood in the middle of a hundred rushing strangers, he felt entirely and brutally alone.
Something hot and thick welled up in the back of his throat. Slowly, he pulled Andúril off his back and beheld it. Though the orc blood on it had dried and crusted, its shine was not diminished, nor the carvings on its blade obscured.
Gimli didn’t speak a word of Quenya, but he recalled Aragorn translating the words for him when he’d first received it: I am Andúril who was once Narsil, sword of Elendil. The slaves of Mordor shall flee from me.
He shut his eyes and tried to find his center, but without the Fellowship, everything felt off-balance. Aragorn was dead, Frodo and Sam left to rot in some hellish corner of Mordor, and Legolas…
A sharper pain joined the dull ache. He gripped Andúril tightly by both blade and pommel, and tried not to think about Legolas’s flame-eyes, about the hand of fire around his throat, about the way he screamed and screamed, and how Gimli could do nothing, nothing but lead a retreat away from him and likely leave him to die, about how he may not ever see him again, will never tell him – never, never—
When he tried to draw breath to answer, Gimli realized he hadn’t drawn breath at all in nearly a minute. He gasped, and wheezed, and his vision blurred with tears.
“Gimli, you’re bleeding…”
Small, hobbitish hands pried his fingers away from Andúril’s blade, and as Gimli hurried to blink away his tears, he saw deep cuts in the skin of his fingers, wet with blood.
“Just a scratch,” Gimli managed.
“Deeper than a scratch, I think,” Merry answered.
He scraped his palm across his cheek. “Aye,” he said, “deeper than a scratch. But war will not stop for one dwarf’s pain.”
Gimli made his way down the road, back to the army still waiting his command. There was work to do. He could grieve later.
Chapter 3: Golden Wood Burning
Orcs, Legolas was learning, preferred their fighting up close. They liked being caught in the spray of blood, liked to hear bones snapping and the sound a man – or woman, or child – made when their last breath passed through their lips.
It wasn’t an effective strategy in Edoras. The city had been evacuated before they arrived, and those few left were discrete and scrambling for their lives through the nooks and crannies between buildings, who knew just where to hide on the familiar streets. Hacking and slashing weren’t good tactics for scattered stragglers.
That’s why Legolas had taken to moving delicately along the top of the palisade encircling the city, picking off civilians from a distance.
The orcish bow was too heavy, the arrows unbalanced. As he learned to adjust to them both, he found himself missing, though never by enough. Instead of a clean kill shot through the eye, he would hit the juncture of the neck and shoulder, and stand in silence, watching as they choked helplessly on their blood over the course of long, painful minutes. In these moments he found he could not move, could not look away despite wishing he could; his fingers twitched at his sides, his heart pounded wildly at his ribcage, but he stood silent and still.
His eye was drawn down, where at the foot of the palisade, Gothmog stood with limbs akimbo, glaring up at him. Deftly, Legolas vaulted from his perch and landed in silence a few feet away.
“Did you not hear the orders?”
“I do not speak your tongue,” Legolas reminded him acidly.
“We’re burning it,” he said. “Clear out before you get caught up in the fire.”
So falls the noble seat of the House of Eorl, Legolas though, with a sharp twinge of pain, for all the good it did him. “Fine.”
“You look better in real armor,” Gothmog said, sounding lecherous. “More dangerous.”
“The stench on this armor makes me want to vomit,” Legolas snapped, and turned to exit the city. Gothmog was left laughing wretchedly behind him.
He could smell the smoke rising as he made it to the gates, and found himself on a long, winding road leading through the Gap of Rohan, lined with burial mounds that were blossomed with white flowers that he knew to be Simbelmynë. It wasn’t very long ago – although now it felt as though it might have been an age – when he came here to pay his final respects to Théodred, son of Théoden King.
As his gaze lingered on that freshly-dug mound, it was drawn away by a small mound of stones not far from it, arranged deliberately.
A cairn, he realized, one of dwarvish origins, if his eye did not mistake him, sitting small and out of place amongst the Simbelmynë.
He did not understand, until, all at once, he did.
Legolas knelt down in front of it. On the largest stone at the top of the cairn, he could make out Cirth runes carved hastily into it, perhaps by one dwarf alone who did not have time to make them finer.
Something in his chest lurched painfully.
“Gimli,” he said, to no one, just to feel the shape of it on his lips. So he was still alive.
He wished, bitterly, he could read Khuzdul. He wanted to know what message Gimli left, and who he left it for. Or at the very least, he wished the same magic that forced his hand to murder innocents could also force his heart not to care.
Two fingers traced the shallow carvings. How very like Gimli it was to find time in the middle of a war to mourn, when surely there were more important things to be done. A gentle soul beneath it all and to the very last.
He should have told him while he had the chance.
“I’ve only been raised on the stories of Mearas,” Éowyn said through her labored breathing as she came to sit down by the fire Faramir was building. “I’ve never seen one in action. They are incredible. I can’t believe we ran through the night.”
“We will need every ounce of Shadowfax’s speed,” Gandalf said, and as Faramir struggled with the flint, he flicked his fingers and the campfire burst into healthy orange flame. “We need to get to Rivendell as soon as we can.”
Faramir, a bit nonplussed by the casual use of magic, sat back on his legs. “How long is the ride? And why Rivendell?”
Gandalf perhaps should have caught them up earlier, but between departing the pandemonium at Minas Tirith and the hard, eighteen-hour ride without pause, they’d scarcely had time to catch their breaths, let alone commiserate. “With Shadowfax, and barring any unforeseen circumstances, we should arrive in two weeks’ time,” Gandalf said. “As for why…”
He sighed, and leaned forward, hunching his shoulders over his knees.
“It will be a priority for Sauron’s campaign,” he said, “but its position on the far side of the Misty Mountains will make it likely lower than others. It is the home of the ring Vilya.”
“One of the Three Rings,” Éowyn said at once, voice grim. “Will he try to take it from Lord Elrond, or…?”
Gandalf shook his head. “I’ll not pretend to understand his machinations,” he said. “But he’ll certainly not forget it. And we will need Elrond’s counsel. And likely, his soldiers.”
“A platoon of elven archers would be a boon,” Éowyn agreed, drumming her fingers thoughtfully on her knees. “You said the dwarf Gimli got away with what was left of the armies of Gondor and Rohan?”
“Pursued by orcs, but yes.”
“You have confidence in this dwarf’s sense of command?” Faramir asked at once.
“I have seen him fight,” Éowyn said. “He is strong and stalwart. Gandalf was right to place his faith in him.”
“I do not doubt the swing of his axe, only his capacity to lead,” Faramir returned.
“He doubted it, too,” Gandalf said. “In my experience, it is those who are most reluctant to lead who may most be trusted with command.”
Gandalf leveled Faramir with a knowing look. Faramir turned his eyes indignantly to the fire.
“It’s out of our hands now,” Éowyn said, following a lapse of silence. She clasped a friendly hand on Faramir’s knee. “We’ll keep our eyes on what’s in front of us. We can do little else.” She stood. “I’ll find more firewood.”
Faramir watched her as she retreated into the nearby copse of trees.
“She is wise,” Faramir observed neutrally.
“Yes,” Gandalf answered, fishing out and filling his pipe. “You would do well to keep her in close counsel.”
“A woman as counsel,” Faramir sighed. “My father would balk.”
“Your father died in madness,” Gandalf said, “so perhaps it is not his example you should be following.”
He flinched. Gandalf felt a pang of regret at his words as he lit his pipe, and as he took a long and much-needed pull, thought of a better way to speak his piece.
“The world is ending, Faramir,” said Gandalf, more gently this time. “And if it survives this coming doom, it will be people like you who will get to set precedents, if you choose to do so. And there are worse precedents to set than having a wise, strong, and noble woman in counsel.”
Faramir took a swig from his water skin. He muttered something that sounded like “precedent” under his breath, as a lapse of silence fell between them. Then—
“We should rest,” he said, and Gandalf hummed his agreement. It was another long day of riding tomorrow.
They came to the top of the hill to see a channel of black smoke rising from the canopy of Lothlórien. Gimli held up one hand to signal the company to stop.
“Oh, no,” Pippin whispered. He and Merry were on their own horse now, though they kept close. “Gimli, do you think…?”
It was hard to see from this distance – and Gimli shook away hard the nagging thought that if they had that blasted elf with them, they’d be able to see better – but he could make out dark shapes advancing into the wood from the east and south, even as it seemed to be actively under attack.
“Jonna,” Gimli called over his shoulder, and the lieutenant came riding up. “I’ve only very recently been given command, so do correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that if we stormed into Lothlórien with our numbers to aid in its defense, we would be swiftly and thoroughly crushed.”
From somewhere in Golden Wood, an elf screamed – and then very abruptly stopped screaming.
Jonna swallowed. “Aye, sir, that’s a good assessment.”
“All right,” he said, grim. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
Gimli turned his horse to address the company, who were by this point whispering to each other in quiet, frantic words.
“I’m going to need a small platoon to go with me into Lothlórien,” he said, loud enough to be heard by all, and to silence their whispers. “I’ll not lie and say it won’t be dangerous, because it will be. We need to get in, assess the situation, and if possible, find the Lord and Lady. I can offer nothing but my thanks and the honor of courage in a black hour, indeed. Who will stand with me?”
The response was not immediate. It was so not-immediate that for one awful moment, Gimli thought he might have to go in alone – but, slowly, a few riders separated themselves from the pack, coming forward with dour faces and sure eyes.
“Sir, I would come, as well,” Jonna said.
“No,” Gimli answered at once. “Not you.”
Jonna seemed somewhere between surprised and offended. “Sir—!”
“If we don’t come back, you’re going to have to be the one to lead this team on to Rivendell,” Gimli said, which replaced Jonna’s expression with one of sudden contrition. He lowered his eyes. “If you don’t know the way, the hobbits will.”
“Gimli, you can’t leave us behind!” Merry protested.
“I’m afraid that’s not your decision to make,” Gimli said.
Merry and Pippin started talking very quickly and at the same time. Gimli couldn’t make most of it out, but he got the idea well enough.
“I’m not going to risk more lives than I have to!” Gimli said, loudly, cowing both hobbits into sudden silence. “We need every man we can spare, or do you not understand that this will be the last stand of all Middle-earth?”
Gimli looked away. About a dozen men had peeled off from the army, and the one at the front addressed him with solemn countenance.
“You have guided us truly and well in dark times, and have kept the Flame of the West in the absence of our fallen king,” said the soldier at the head of the pack. “We would stand with you in your time of need.”
Gimli eyed him. “What’s your name, laddy?”
“Well, Imaras, you show courage to the point of insanity, which is precisely the trait I need going into the Golden Woods as they burn before our eyes. I thank you. Ready to leave.”
“Jonna,” he said, and pulled Andúril from his back, handing it out, pommel-first.
Jonna looked more than a bit queasy at the idea of taking it.
“Till I return,” Gimli said, leaving the if I return unspoken but well-heard.
Jonna took the blade with the expression of a man who thought himself unworthy to even look up on it, let alone hold it. “Till you return,” he said.
Gimli reached out one hand; it landed in the curly mop of Pippin’s hair. He shared a significant look with the hobbits, but no words. He kicked his horse and rode out.
Fighting their way through the outer defenses of Lothlórien had been suspiciously easy. Legolas had a sneaking suspicion that most of what was left of their armies was stationed around Caras Galadhon, a suspicion that proved out when they made it to the foot of the mountain.
His blade as already painted with elvish blood, his arrows half-gone by the time they found Celeborn. His private guard dispatched and bloody on the stair, Legolas came up to the dais where not very long ago at all, he and the Fellowship had stood as friends.
The Lord of Lothlórien found his eyes immediately. Legolas’s presence seemed to catch him by surprise.
“Where is the Lady?” Legolas demanded without preamble.
“Legolas Thranduilion,” Celeborn said, voice sad. “What terrible magic has beset you, child of the wood?”
Legolas did not answer. Gothmog, beside him, went shambling up to the dais.
“My friend asked you a question, Lord Celeborn,” he gnashed. “You’d do well to answer it before he gets pushy.”
“So my wife spoke truly,” Celeborn said, and if he heard Gothmog, there was no sign of it. “The Ringbearer has fallen, and all the world begins to fall with him.”
“Where is the Lady?”
Celeborn did not answer immediately. When he did, it was with laughter – soft at first, but growing in volume and desperation. From the folds of his robes, he produced a two long, shining elvish blades.
“Did you really think you could get to her without going through me first?”
Gothmog growled and yanked his knife out of his scabbard, but Legolas put an arm out to stop him.
“Leave him to me,” Legolas said.
Gothmog spat black bile on the polished floor. “What fanciful nonsense are you trying to protect, lulgijak? Honor? You lost that when Sauron took your mind!”
“Celeborn is one of the most skilled warriors of my kind. He fought at the Sack of Eregion and has slain more fearsome orcs than you.”
Gothmog bared his teeth, but had nothing to say.
“So unless you have a death wish, foul creature,” Legolas continued, “leave him to me.”
He snarled, but shuffled off the dais. Without the words to draw his ear, Legolas could hear the more distant sounds of more elves and orcs killing each other at the base of the tree.
He and Celeborn circled each other, weapons out, but for a few tense seconds did not attack.
“Would it be breath wasted, son of my friend,” Celeborn said, “to urge you to fight the magic that holds you?”
“It would,” Legolas answered, and attacked.
Steel clattered and sang in a fast and breathless rhythm. Legolas had very few preconceptions about his abilities – he knew precisely how fast and how deadly he was – and the same was usually true of those warriors whom he’d had the chance to observe. So when they broke apart a moment later, first blows thrown, Legolas knew how this fight was going to end.
“You’re just as fast as you were at Dagorlad,” he said.
Celeborn shifted his stance to accommodate for the blow to the ribs Legolas had dealt him. “You’re faster,” he answered.
“I was still a novice at Dagorlad,” Legolas said, and launched himself forward again.
Celeborn had the strength, but Legolas had the speed, and in a match between them, speed had a tendency to win. The fight was short and brutal, and though Legolas took a few hits of his own, the only hit that mattered was the one that went through Celeborn’s ribs and out near his spine.
Legolas found himself staring right into his eyes as the Lord of Lothlórien gasped his last. The hands that gripped his swords moved to grip Legolas’s arms, the blades clattering on the floor. Celeborn tried to whisper something at him, but his mouth filled with blood instead of words, and he dropped in a heap at Legolas’s feet.
Something hot and violent was writhing in the pit of his stomach as he watched him bleed out. He took a step back and realized that his hands were shaking.
“Magnificent,” Gothmog said from behind.
Legolas didn’t look back. He was still staring at Celeborn and the growing pool of blood that threatened to soak into his boots.
It wasn’t until he heard it that he realized Gothmog was smelling his hair. He jerked around violently, and whatever frantic fear that had knotted in his gut exploded into anger. He shoved the orc away, teeth bared – unfortunately, the act only elicited a cruel, cynical laugh.
“I’ve never seen an elf fight like an animal,” Gothmog said. “Do you fuck like animals, too?”
Legolas grit his teeth. He was not sure what he might do to the orc in that moment were it not for the hand of fire around his throat, but it would surely be indescribable.
His hands were wet with the blood of the Lord of the Golden Wood. That frantic twist of nerves was back in his gut. He was trembling, fingertips to shoulders and down his spine.
“The Lady will be this way,” he said, and turned hard on a heel.
The closer they got to Lothlórien, the thicker the smell of smoke became. Gimli could not pinpoint where the fire was from the ground, but the scent became strong enough that they thought it best to leave their horses behind, just at the edge of the forest, where they grazed nervously.
Imaras proved to be an able enough tracker; he pointed out marks on the ground and guided them around potential hazards. Everyone in the group was on edge, and not, to Gimli’s mind, unreasonably so.
About an hour into the woods, an elf appeared from behind a tree, so suddenly and silently that the only audible sign was Gimli’s sharp intake of breath.
“Master Dwarf,” said the elf, hands up to show his lack of arms. “The Lady is awaiting your arrival in her private garden.”
Gimli’s hands wrung around the neck of his spare axe anxiously. “Is she, now?”
“How could she know we were coming?” Imaras asked, surprised.
“The lady is renowned for her gift of prophecy,” the elf said. “Please, she insists that time is short.”
Gimli and Imaras shared a look. Gimli nodded and started off, which seemed to be enough for Imaras and the rest of the company.
The elf guided them quickly and silently further into the wood and across a narrow stream into the foot of Caras Galadhon.
When at last they stopped, it was in some natural clearing, full of white flowers spilling overfull from their shrubs. Gimli could imagine that in another situation it would be beautiful – but now, there was a fiendish red glow hovering just beyond the circling trees, an ominous and doom-driven light. In the center by a small pond sat the Lady Galadriel, and though Gimli had thought himself inured to her beauty, he found that he was wrong. The Golden Lady was as lovely as ever, though now her radiance was tempered by profound sadness.
“Lockbearer,” she said as she looked up, and lifted two pale hands to him, palms up in invitation. “You are just in time.”
Gimli holstered his axe and went to her at once. “My Lady,” he said as he knelt at her side, “my heart is gladdened to see you alive. What—?”
“My champion, there’s no time,” she said, and gripped both his hands in hers. “The Golden Wood is falling around us. In moments even this secret garden will be overrun. I have much to say and not enough time to say it.”
Gimli bowed his head reverently and stayed silent.
Her grip on his hands tightened, cool and soft to his rough and warm. “Aragorn called Elessar is dead.” It was not quite a question, but Gimli answered anyway.
“Yes, My Lady. He died at Pelennor.” It still pained him to say the words out loud.
“Hope dies with him, for his name I gave him deliberately,” she whispered.
Gimli hazarded to lift his eyes, seeing hers glossy with tears. His heart ached. “What is left, then? Why fight when there is no hope?”
Their hands she brought together, all four clasped between them. She leaned forward and stared at him, blue eyes deeply searching, though for what, Gimli could not say.
“When there is no hope to be found, it must be built,” she said. “Those who never sought command must lead. And old things must be made new.”
There was something in his hands, he realized. He was not sure how it had gotten there or when, but when he opened them—
“I give you, Lockbearer, the ring Nenya,” she whispered.
“I cannot accept this!” he said at once.
“You must,” she said, and closed his hands around it again. “You must keep it, take it away from here. Better in your hands than those of the Deceiver.”
Gimli’s throat felt tight. “But you would not give me this if you…”
She smiled at him, but there was no joy in it. The Golden Lady bent forward and kissed Gimli’s brow, and it was a benediction. Gimli knew at that moment, as well as she did, it seemed, that Galadriel was going to die.
“Do not put it on,” she whispered against his skin, “not as it is now. If you do, Sauron will be able to find you, to know you.”
“What do you mean, not as it is now—?”
But before he could finish his question, her breath caught and she jerked backward. When Gimli’s eyes refocused, there was a black arrow between her ribs.
He caught her before she hit the ground, but her breath was staggered and wet. All around him, the small platoon of soldiers rushed into breathless formation. Gimli looked up, and through them he could see—
He could see…
Scarcely could Gimli recognize him, so changed was he. Fitted black armor of boiled leather and ring mail, orcish weapons, long hair unbound. The red flames were still burning in his eyes, and around his throat, the massive, black hand of fire yet smoldered. His bow was out, and he was drawing a new arrow. Gimli’s soldiers were lifting their swords.
“No! No, hold!”
He scrambled up and pushed through them, placing himself between Galadriel and Legolas. His soldiers had their swords out and ready, but held back, though he could sense they did not understand why.
“Legolas,” he said, throat tight, “you’re alive.”
He had drawn back on his bow and was aiming for Gimli’s throat, but even if he wanted to, he would not move. Could not.
“Get out of the way,” Legolas said, but there was something thin and frail in his voice.
“It’s good to see you,” Gimli laughed, hoarsely, “though I wish the circumstances were better. But I must confess, just knowing you’re alive…”
“Get out of the way, Gimli,” Legolas said again. The hand on the bowstring was trembling.
“You would not fire on your friend,” Gimli said hopefully.
“I killed Aragorn,” Legolas hissed. “I killed Celeborn.”
“Then surely you can do the same of me.”
But he did not. Legolas, arrow drawn and aimed precisely, did not fire.
Behind the elf and off to the side, Gimli could see a misshapen white orc with armor marking him as some kind of lieutenant. His eyes were narrowed as he watched the proceedings.
“Legolas,” Gimli said, voice breaking with emotion, “come back. I beg you, come back.”
“What are you waiting for?” the white orc snarled from behind. “Kill him and get the Lady’s ring!”
“I must believe that you can break Sauron’s hold on you,” Gimli continued. “Because if you cannot, then I will never see you again, and that to me is a fate more horrible than any other before me.”
“We have promises to keep to each other, my friend! I told you I would take you to the Glittering Caves under Helms Deep, didn’t I? And you promised me in kind that we would see Fangorn.”
Legolas’s face contorted in some deep, psychic pain, but he did not fire.
“I confess that every dwarvish bone in my body mislikes the idea of a forest that can talk, but with you? With you, I could learn to love it. I could…”
Not could. Have. Will always. Has for months now. The words were too thick in his throat; every old prejudice and convention screaming at him now as it had been since he first realized that he was in love, he was in love, just say it, just tell him, you might not have the chance again, just say it.
But neither of them spoke, nor moved. And though Legolas’s hand was trembling like a leaf in the wind, it did not release the bowstring.
“Fine! Then I’ll do it!”
The misshapen white orc came charging out from behind Legolas, orcish blade high. With a startled cry, Gimli caught the blade on his axe and threw it off. At once Imaras and the others rushed forward, but scarcely before the fight had begun—
DOOM, from beyond the clearing, terrible and rumbling. All in the clearing stopped abruptly.
“He’s coming,” Legolas whispered.
Gimli’s eyes flashed back to Galadriel. She was still breathing, even with the black arrow in her side – he couldn’t just leave her here! And Legolas – he was never letting Legolas out of his sight again!
DOOM, louder and closer than before. All of Lothlórien seemed to tremble in the wake.
“Lord Dwarf,” Imaras said, “we have to go. Now.”
The white orc, seemingly realized that he was, at least for the moment, outnumbered, was biding his time, snarling and hissing and swinging his sword to keep the soldiers at a distance.
Gimli fell at Galadriel’s side.
“Go,” she whispered at once, voice wet with blood.
“There is no hope,” she rasped. “You must go and build more, now, while you still can. Go.”
Gimli’s eyes were blurred with tears. He looked over his shoulder at Legolas, who though his bow was still drawn had still not fired. Gimli’s heart wrenched painfully in his chest as he realized he had no choice but to leave him.
“Pull back,” Gimli said. “Pull back! Go! Go!”
And as they retreated, past the stream at the edge of Caras Galadhon, the ring Nenya was a terrible weight in his hand.
The hand of fire around his throat began to burn hot and terrible as the day it was first seared into his flesh. Legolas doubled over and choked on his own scream.
“He disobeyed orders!” Gothmog shrieked. “I saw it, Lord! He drew his bow on a dwarf but did not fire! He did not—”
A hand came out of the towering shadow behind Legolas and swatted Gothmog across the clearing, where he collided hard with a tree. Legolas was still gasping, clutching at the searing pain around his throat.
He lifted his eyes from the ground, though there was nothing he wished to do less. Sauron the Deceiver was towering over him, blazing hot. In his wake he had left ribbons of fire catching on the brush of the Golden Wood, and Legolas was sure he would burn up, too.
Legolas could read no expression behind his black obsidian helm, though he doubted that there was even a face behind it to read. Still, he somehow knew that he was being measured – though for what, he could not say.
Sauron lifted one hand and pointed it to where the Lady Galadriel was still on her side with Legolas’s arrow between her ribs.
He did not speak Black Speech, but he did not need to. He knew this order well enough by the darkness of it, and staggered to his feet, even as the hand of fire burned hot and hard around his neck.
The lips of the Lady Galadriel were red and shining with blood as he approached, and she looked up at him without a trace of fear or resentment in her eyes. Perhaps she was trying to soothe him in the only way she could.
It did not work.
Legolas drew his orcish sword and swung. He was caught in a spray of scarlet, and the the golden glow of the Lady Galadriel faded as she died at his feet.
Gothmog, who had apparently recovered from being thrown, came shambling over and at once set to defiling her corpse, searching her robes.
“It’s not here,” he hissed. “It’s not here! Where is it?”
Gothmog spun, grabbed Legolas by the front of his armor and bared his teeth.
“Did you see what she did with it? Was it on her hand when you entered?”
Legolas was still wheezing from the pain still lingering on his throat, but he had enough strength to push his hand away. “I did not see it,” he wheezed.
“The dwarf took it!” Gothmog said, spinning. “He must have!”
Sauron did not answer, from him came some wordless, formless noise, like a long exhale but thunderously loud.
All around the clearing, elves came walking through the brush, the last Wardens of the Golden Wood. Their eyes were burning red fire, like Legolas’s.
At once, the spellbound elves sprung to action, sprinting through the clearing after Gimli. Legolas felt a surge of instinct in him – he had to go, had to get to Gimli, had to protect him – but as soon as he felt it, it burned away, and Legolas screamed again, dropping to his knees as agony set his blood on fire.
As he lie hunched over himself and wheezing in pain, he heard Gothmog crouch down next to him.
“I don’t know how it is you managed to resist the Lord’s hold on you, elf,” he hissed, “but I’m watching you from now on. And I invite you to wonder what will be done to you if you prove uncontrollable.”
With one deformed hand, Gothmog grabbed the Lady Galadriel by a handful of golden hair. He hauled her up so her bloodied face was next to Legolas’s, who hissed and turned his head away.
“Because it will be far worse than this,” he snarled, and Legolas believed him.
Chapter 4: The Legacy of Durin
Gimli made it back to the hill on which his – and it still felt odd and ill-fitting to call it his – army was waiting shortly before dawn, with a broken rib and a head wound to show for it.
“Gimli!” came Merry’s voice, the first of many. He could just make out the hobbit as he toppled off his horse and went scrambling to his side. Behind him, Gimli could hear the camp by turns waking up and calling for attention. “Gimli, you’re alive! The company’s back!”
The hobbit came racing down the hill and into him, and small though he was, the speed gave him nearly enough momentum to knock Gimli flat – and send a sharp pain through his shattered rib.
“Not so hard, Master Hobbit,” Gimli groused, mere seconds before Pippin did precisely the same thing on his other side. “Ach! Hobbits!”
“Are you injured?” Merry asked, pulling back and looking him over. “Your head is bleeding!”
“What happened in Lothlórien?” Pippin interjected. “Did you see Lady Galadriel?”
“Lord Dwarf!” Jonna called, as he came skidding down the hill. “I nearly sent in a party to find you! What – gods, you’re injured…”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Gimli insisted over the painful throbbing of his head. “A squad of elves under Sauron’s control was sent after us. We dispatched them, with some difficulty.”
Pippin gaped, but it was Merry who put to words the question his answer evoked. “Sauron’s taken control of the elves of Lothlórien?”
“The Golden Wood is lost,” Gimli said, loudly now that he saw the army huddled at the top of the hill, watching, whispering amongst themselves. “The Lord and Lady are dead. We have no time for grief, my friends, we must march on to Rivendell.”
“Dead?” Pippin echoed, voice drawn.
Jonna bent slightly down when he reached Gimli’s side to speak quietly into his ear: “Lord Dwarf,” he said, “how are we meant to get to Rivendell? I saw Sauron’s forces head north, so there’s no mountain pass that would be safe. Backtracking through the Gap of Rohan would take weeks. Do we have such time and resources?”
Gimli sighed, shut his eyes. He’d seen Sauron’s dark armies march north, too – and when he did, he knew what would have to be done. Although there was nothing else in the world he would rather do less.
“We have to go through Khazad-dûm,” he said.
Pippin had been rubbing his head with one hand as if trying to process the news that Lothlórien had fallen, but spun at once when he heard Gimli’s answer. “Moria! Gimli, we can’t go back that way!”
“It’s infested with orcs, goblins, trolls, and who knows what else,” Merry added.
“I remember,” Gimli said, perhaps too sharply. “But I saw part of Sauron’s forces attack Lothlórien from the west.” He turned, and pointed toward the Misty Mountains rising over the burning wood. “Where else could they have come from but Khazad-dûm? Would Sauron not marshal all available forces in this, his final march?”
Jonna, Merry, and Pippin all exchanged worried looks.
“Is that a risk we can take?” Merry asked at last.
“Is it a risk we can’t?” Gimli answered.
“If they followed us to Edoras, they likely left some forces marshaled there,” Jonna said, looking anxiously south. “So if we pass through the Gap of Rohan, there’s a chance…”
“Either way, there’s risk,” Gimli said. “But at least through Khazad-dûm, we save time.”
“Yes, let’s race to our death,” Pippin said miserably. Merry patted his back reassuringly.
“We should have someone see to your wounds, Lord Dwarf,” Jonna said.
Gimli shook his head. “I’ve had worse. We need to ride.”
“Then at least take this.”
When he looked back, Jonna was holding out Andúril to him, hilt first. Behind him, the company gathered at the top of the hill quieted and watched.
Gimli wetted his lips, took the blade, and holstered it over his back.
“The sword suits you better than it does me,” Jonna said.
“I prefer axes,” Gimli muttered. “Ready the men. We need to leave soon.”
In his head, Legolas was playing the interaction in Lady Galadriel’s private garden over and over. He remembered firing the arrow into her ribcage before even identifying who it was knelt in front of her. He remembered seeing Gimli turn, and feeling a surge of sudden emotion that in an instant was devoured by a dark nothingness. Most of all, he remembered drawing his bow and not firing, no matter how much his blacker instincts screamed at him to.
He must not have been the only one thinking about it. When Gothmog came shambling up behind him as he sat by the edge of the Anduin River and dressed his wound, the orc took one loud, long breath in near Legolas’s hair and said, “Magic still holding up, elf?”
Legolas bared his teeth. Of course Gothmog would approach while he as naked from the waist up, binding the injury Celeborn gave him, thinking of Gimli and vulnerable. If the foul creature smelled his hair one more time he could not be held responsible for the state of the orc’s nose afterward.
“Let’s hope for both our sakes you are,” he said. “Otherwise, our campaign to Mirkwood might get messy.”
Legolas’s eyes lifted at once. “Mirkwood?”
Gothmog was smiling savagely. Clearly he’d been eager to give him the news. “That’s right, Mirkwood. Our master will be calling on every spider in the forest to aid us in our conquest. But I hear he has a very important diplomatic mission for you.”
The orc leaned down until his foul breath was snaking through Legolas’s hair.
“Perhaps if you can convince your Lord Father to willingly submit to our master’s will, he won’t force you to gut him like a fish.”
A knot of nausea roiled in Legolas’s belly. His father had his vices, but he would never submit to Sauron without a fight. The thought of just showing his face to his father as he was right now was unspeakable enough, but killing him?
“Do you think he’ll fight back like Celeborn?” Gothmog asked. “Or do you imagine it would be too much for him to hurt his own son, and so he’d just stand there while you carve him up?”
Legolas tied the bandage around his ribs too tightly and rose to his feet to tug his armor back over his head. After pulling taut all the straps and buckles, he turned around, stared directly into Gothmog’s eyes, then swung one fist and punched him.
The orc’s nose crunched satisfyingly under his knuckle. Gothmog stumbled, then staggered back upright, black blood running down his mouth.
“Marr kurv zanbaur!” Gothmog bellowed, as he ripped his blade from his scabbard. “I’ll tear you apart and fuck your corpse!”
“I welcome your best attempt,” Legolas whispered. “I could rip your tongue out in the name of self-defense. That should shut you up.”
Gothmog’s expression turned from blind fury to impotent rage. It was a subtle but gratifying change. He did not sheath his blade, but he did retreat the two steps forward he’d taken.
“One more slip like what happened in Lothlórien,” Gothmog growled at him, “and I’ll be sure the master’s next order is for my axe in your gut.”
“Shall I see if your jaw breaks as easily as your nose?”
One more snarl, and Gothmog stormed away. Legolas’s knuckle ached pleasantly, but he knew the satisfaction would be short-lived. They were going into Mirkwood, and Legolas would likely be forced to kill his own father, and there was nothing he could do about it.
It did not take their company long to hunt down the unassuming hole in the foot of the mountains that led down into Khazad-dûm, but it was long enough for Gimli to come to hate the idea of going back to it. The place was too full of bad memories now, and if their luck continued on its current trajectory, also equally full of orcs and cave trolls.
But in he went anyway with his company, leaving their horses behind and unbridled, over the bridge rebuilt with spindly orcish scaffolding, deep into the cavernous hallways.
“They’re whispering about you,” Merry said a few hours into their dive under the mountains. Gimli glanced back at him, brow furrowed.
“Do I have cause to care?”
“They can sense your tenseness,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. Jonna was heading the pack, holding his torch the highest against the darkness. “A dwarf hesitating to enter mines makes them nervous.”
“They should be nervous,” Gimli said, “or have you forgotten all we saw here?”
Merry didn’t answer. They walked in silence for a while, and now that he was listening for it, Gimli could indeed hear them whispering in soft, indistinct Westron. He did his best not to listen.
“You know what might help?” Merry said.
Gimli sighed. “Master Hobbit—”
“If you used the sword.”
It wasn’t what he’d been expecting to hear. “What?”
“Andúril,” Merry said, nodding at the blade still over his back. “It was the sword of their leader, and you’re their leader now. It would be a comfort to see you use it, I think.”
Gimli wasn’t sure if he should be more surprised or offended. He settled on something in the middle of both. “I have no interest in using – Aragorn’s blade should not – I am not their leader.”
Merry leveled him with a skeptical gaze.
“Gandalf made my part clear at Pelennor,” Gimli said, at last finding his point. “Evacuate Edoras, evacuate Lothlórien, and get to Rivendell. My job was never to be their leader.”
“But you already are,” Merry insisted. “Don’t you see it on their faces? You guided them out of danger after Pelennor, and at Lothlórien, you were the first to volunteer yourself for danger. That’s what a leader does.”
“I know that you’re still mourning Aragorn,” Merry said. “Everyone is. But we are running low on people who have your courage and wisdom and capacity to lead. If you don’t swallow your reluctance soon, they’re going to notice, and they’ll suffer for it.”
Gimli snapped his mouth shut when he found that he had nothing to say.
Khazad-dûm, like most mines of its size, was large enough to have developed its own wind, and one of its cold gusts went rushing past him as he realized, with great reluctance, that Merry was right.
“I don’t know that I can be what Aragorn was,” Gimli admitted, voice quiet. “I have neither his blood nor his nor his instincts. I am a second son of a second son of a second son. I was never bred for this.”
“No one can be what Aragorn was,” Merry said. “But you can be what they need.”
Gimli released a breath he had not even realized that he was holding. Slowly, he holstered his axe with one hand, and with the other, he pulled Andúril off his shoulder.
Behind him, the whispering stopped.
Gimli held the blade up to the light of Merry’s torch. It flashed orange-gold, and perhaps it was his imagination, but the hilt felt warm in his hand, yielding. Gimli had smithed enough of his own weapons to know that there was some measure of spirit in each of them, and this one seemed gracious enough to accept his hand.
“You are wiser than you let on, Master Hobbit,” Gimli said, letting the sword drop to his side.
“Of simple and subtle things, maybe,” Merry admitted, smiling. “But I’m still mostly useless in a fight.”
“You are anything but useless, my small friend,” Gimli said, ruffling his hair with one hand. Merry grinned.
“At least our luck is holding,” he said, as his bright eyes swept the rocky corridors around them. “I’ve seen no sign of orcs or trolls. Perhaps you’re right and they all left at their master’s call.”
“I’ll have to press that luck a bit further, I’m afraid,” Gimli returned, turning his eyes forward. “I’m going to have to make a stop.”
It was past sundown when they finally arrived at Rivendell, and in all his years, Gandalf had never been so relieved to see it. Even with the speed Shadowfax granted them, Éowyn and Faramir’s horses were winded and panting when they at last came through the gates.
“Rivendell,” Éowyn said, sounding breathless. “I did not know what to expect, but somehow my expectations are still exceeded.”
Gandalf swung off Shadowfax’s back and patted his neck. He scanned the main courtyard, expecting some steward to attend them, but finding none.
“It seems… quiet,” Faramir said. “I suppose I should expect nothing less from a haven of elves, but…”
“Do not doubt yourself,” Gandalf said. “Something is indeed wrong.”
He strained to listen, but could hear nothing – no voices, no footsteps, no elvish song or laughter, nothing but the sound of the waterfall closer to the center of the city.
“Where is everyone?” Éowyn asked as she swung off her horse.
“This way,” Gandalf said, and set off out of the courtyard.
As their horses went gladly to the nearby stream to drink, the three of them started toward the heart of the city. But no matter where they went, through great feasting halls or gleaming council chambers, they saw no sign of life.
“What has happened here?” wondered Faramir, the first threads of anxiety tightening in his voice.
Gandalf did not answer. He turned a corner and followed a curving stairwell up, up to what he knew was the private chambers of Lord Elrond himself. At once they were caught in a cold cross breeze, which carried the smell of rotting bread. A nearby table had a plate of food on it, left to moulder.
“Elrond Peredhel!” Gandalf thundered. “Lord of Imladris, if you hear me, I bid you speak!” He pushed through a second doorway, into the bedroom. “We have ridden hard for two weeks seeking…”
He stumbled to a stop when he turned the final corner and saw him, Elrond Half-elven, the Lord of Rivendell, hunched over on the floor at the side of his bed, where his daughter, Arwen Undómiel, lie pale and dead.
Éowyn clapped a hand over her mouth.
“What do you seek, Mithrandir?” Elrond rasped, voice hard and dry from disuse, though he did not move otherwise. “What would you come demanding of me, here at the deathbed of my only daughter?”
Hesitantly, Gandalf approached. He placed one hand against her brow, and found it cold as ice. Her spirit had already left for Valinor, though her body would linger like this, uncorrupted.
“My friend,” Gandalf said, grief rising in his chest.
“Her fate was tied to the Ring,” Elrond hissed, and lifted his eyes to Gandalf’s, where the wizard found rage burning deep in the grief. “And now the Ring has returned to the hand of its master. The Fellowship has failed – you have failed – and now you come back, asking – what? What, Mithrandir, do you want from me now?”
“My Lord,” Éowyn interjected, before Gandalf could find the words to answer, “I cannot imagine your loss. Every condolence I could offer would be slivers of sunshine on an ocean of grief.”
Elrond turned his furious gaze to Éowyn, where it softened, but only just. She dropped to her knees at his side and placed both hands on his arm.
“I, too, have lost my family to this rising doom,” she said. “My cousin in Rohan, my uncle at Minas Tirith, and even my brother at Pelennor. No comfort can I offer you, but empathy I have in spades.”
What anger there was in Elrond seemed to drain away. He dropped his chin to his chest, shoulders sagging.
“I know your anger is not directed at Gandalf,” she said. “But where else can you direct it? If there is any subject in which a mortal might be wiser than an elf, it is in matters of grief, and all I would say to you is that you measure your emotions where you can. There will be time for sadness, and rage, and loneliness, but that time is not now.”
Elrond did not answer. Gandalf came forward, slowly, and pulled the white sheet bunched at Arwen’s feet and gently pulled it up to cover her body.
“My Lord,” Gandalf said, more slowly this time, “we came here seeking your counsel. Where is your city?”
Elrond’s head stayed low. “Gone,” he said. “They left for the Havens when the Evenstar faded.”
“All of them?” Faramir asked from behind, breathless with sudden fear.
“All except myself,” Elrond said. “I could not… I did not wish her to… I wasn’t able to draw myself from her side.”
“I understand,” Éowyn said, and Gandalf found himself amazed at her capacity for empathy.
“Who are you,” Elrond asked, “who seeks to impart wisdom on an elf and succeeds?”
Éowyn smiled. “I am Éowyn,” she said, “daughter of Théodwyn, who was sister to Théoden King.”
“Rohan,” Elrond said. “I might have guessed by your look.”
“And this is Faramir, son of Denethor II, who is – was – the Steward of Gondor.”
Faramir said nothing, which did not seem to bother Elrond. He was still trying to pick himself up off the floor, literally as much as emotionally.
“And Gandalf spoke true,” she said. “We came here seeking your counsel.”
“And an army,” Faramir added dismally, “though that opportunity seems to have passed us by.”
“I fear my counsel is also an opportunity passed,” Elrond said. “I find myself disconsolate. I do not know what it is I can offer you, here at the end of the world.”
“My friend,” Gandalf said, offering him a hand to help him up, “there is wisdom in you even when you drown in sorrow.”
Elrond stared at his hand for a long while before he took it, and slowly rose to his feet, though still he seemed weak.
“The magic of this place seems dimmed,” Gandalf observed, looking out through the nearby window. “What has changed?”
Rather than answer, Elrond nodded his head to the side. Gandalf followed his gaze, and found himself in shock that he had not noticed it before—
The ring Vilya was lying on the floor several feet away.
“Do not look so surprised, Mithrandir,” Elrond said. “You removed your own, did you not? You felt it burn as much as I did. Wearing it now would be foolish.”
“You have one of the Three Rings?” Faramir asked, surprised.
Gandalf didn’t reply immediately. He walked slowly to where Vilya lay unattended on the floor, and stooped to pick it up. Even on his palm, he could feel new, foul magic swarming it, just as with his own.
“And hardly can I blame the elves of Rivendell now for leaving for Valinor,” Gandalf said, turning Vilya over in his palm. “Without the magic of the ring to protect it, the city is more vulnerable than it has ever been.”
Faramir released a long, frustrated breath. “Why did we even come here?” he asked, though by his tone he hardly expected an answer. “There is no army, no counsel, and not even a ring of any use! What are we meant to do?”
Gandalf took a breath and closed his eyes. In his head, he uttered a prayer for their last hope, urging them speed toward Rivendell.
The tomb of Balin was just as they had left it.
Gimli could even see the marks in the dust from their last battle here, patches of congealed black blood on the floor and splattered up the walls. The sun that shone through the high window was filtered and orange-red from sunset, and rather than on the tomb, it landed in Gimli’s eyes when he went to kneel down in front of the cairn.
“Balin,” he sighed, “my cousin, my friend. I did not imagine that I would come back to this place again.”
Outside, he could hear Merry and Pippin whispering harshly to the army. He could not hear their words, but their tone was clear enough, urging patience, hurried explanations for why Gimli wanted – needed – to stop here, assurances that he would not be long.
“When I return to Erebor, I will tell them all what became of you,” he promised. “You will be honored a hero in the Lonely Mountain when I return. If I return. I…”
Gimli tripped over his own tongue. His heart hurt.
“Oh, what bloody use is it, talking to the dead? They cannot hear me, and even if they could, they cannot answer.”
He lifted his head, and squinted against the light now falling on his face. He swallowed hard, and clasped his hands together, and shut his eyes. If Balin could not hear him, then he would speak to the only one who could.
“Mahal,” he began, and then stopped.
He was not good at prayer.
It had been a point of contention between him and every dwarvish priest he’d met. He had lost count of how many times they had assured him that Mahal loved dearly his children of the rock and stone, urged him to pray, because Mahal would always listen. They were never satisfied with Gimli’s answer, that he had no reason to pray, because he had nothing to say to his maker, at least nothing that would not waste his time.
But now – now, at last, he had something to say.
“Mahal,” he said again, eyes screwed shut and hands clasped all the harder, “if all the priests have told me is true, if you can hear my words…”
The aching in his heart was not easing.
“I ask nothing for myself,” Gimli said. “I would not waste your time with that. I can mind my own. But my friends – Mahal, my friends – the wizard Gandalf, watch over him. And the little hobbits, I wouldn’t mind an extra pair of eyes on them. And…”
His throat felt tight.
“And the elf, Legolas,” he said. “I am told that our races once were friends, and so perhaps you would not find it untoward, my affection for him. He is snared by dark and terrible magic. If you cannot break it, then give him the strength to break it on his own. Seeing him like this is a personal hell beyond articulation. He is so kind, and wise, and fair, and a little odd, I grant you, but he is – he is—”
Gimli’s voice broke at last. Even to his god, in the privacy of his cousin’s tomb, he could not say it out loud. He is everything to me, Gimli did not say. I love him. I love him more than I have ever loved anything.
There was a soft sound from in front of him, on the far side of Balin’s tomb, almost like a sigh. With a start, Gimli lifted his eyes. Standing at the head of the cairn was a white figure, tall, hazy and indistinct, as though made of fog.
“You are selfless to a fault,” the figure said, or at least Gimli thought it did. It was hard to tell, what with it lacking a mouth. “Why should you not pray for yourself? You would have plenty to ask.”
Gimli did not answer. He was still trying to understand what it was he was seeing.
“But that is your nature, isn’t it? You were made with a heart that could love the whole world, and forget about itself.”
Slowly, Gimli rose to his feet. No matter how hard he looked, he could not bring the figure into focus. The details of its face stayed hazy, its voice an ethereal whisper.
“What are you?” he asked.
“What you ask cannot be granted to you by divine Providence,” the figure said. “But there exists in you the strength to do it on your own, once you realize your own power. Open your cousin’s tomb, Gimli.”
Gimli’s mouth was moving, but no words came. His eyes flickered between the lid of his cousin’s cairn and the white figure in dumb silence. When at last he found his voice, all he could manage was, “Why?”
The figure made a sound like laughter, though it echoed strangely in the air.
“Because destiny and legacy are not always interchangeable,” the figure said. “Because old things must be made new.”
Galadriel’s voice echoed in his head. He wetted his lips, looked down one last time, and with both hands pulled hard on the lid of the cairn, sliding it with a great, echoing groan of stone on stone to one side, where it thundered against the ground.
As Gimli waved away the dust that rose in the air, the first thing he saw was an aging dwarvish skeleton, armored, covered in a fine layer of cobwebs. But clasped in both hands—
He looked up, but the figure was gone, as though he’d never been there at all. A flutter of panic rose in his throat, but he looked down again at the axe.
Slowly, he reached down and pulled it from the skeletal hands of his cousin. The pommel was warm, to his surprise. Hot, almost. And the Cirth runes on the blade – it was hard to make it out through the dust, but—
“By Mahal’s beard,” he whispered.
Durin the Deathless, read the runes, in Old Khuzdul. This was Durin’s Axe. Balin had found it!
His heart thundered. He was not worthy, surely. No living dwarf was worthy to wield Durin’s own axe! And yet…
“Gimli?” Merry’s voice came from the door behind him, quietly. “Are you alright? We heard – what happened to the cairn? Did you…?”
Gimli turned, and his eyes found the hobbit’s. Then they moved past, to the army huddled together in the ruined and ancient city. He thought of the conversation he’d had with Merry only a few hours ago.
Perhaps it did not matter if he was worthy. Perhaps he had this axe because he needed it. Because everyone needed it.
“I did,” Gimli said, feeling dazed.
“What’s that axe?” Merry asked, puzzled.
Gimli did not know how to answer, so he did not.
“We should keep going,” he said, and walked past him to do just that.
Chapter 5: Words Across Mountains
The whole trek northwest from Minas Tirith had taken less than a month all told, but when at last the remaining armies of Rohan and Gondor came up the road into Rivendell, Gimli felt years older. They had lost good soldiers along the way, and despite his best efforts, the smell of Lothlórien burning still lingered in his clothes, and the image of Lady Galadriel’s bloodied lips were burned indelibly into his mind’s eye. He felt tired, and older, and grief-stricken.
So arrival at the river-hewn glen of Imladris should have been a relief, and perhaps to some of the men it was, but all Gimli felt was exhaustion.
As what was left of the army made their weary ways into the lower tiers of the city, Gimli went up, noting with growing suspicion that the unnatural silence of a place he knew from experience to be fair bursting with elves. Up and up he went, through empty corridor and abandoned hall, until at last he found a few familiar faces seated around a large stone table near the upper terrace.
Gandalf was at the head of the table, smoking so heavily that his white head was wreathed in smoke. Lord Elrond was at his side, also, though there was a darkness behind his eyes that Gimli did not recognize. And a few chairs away from them—
“Lord Faramir,” Gimli said, drawing their attention to the door through which he’d entered. “And Lady Éowyn – you’re alive.”
Éowyn rose from her chair at once and went to Gimli, crouching down in front of him and embracing him. It may have been improper by some custom of either dwarves or men, but Gimli could not find the will to care. The lass had wormed her way into his heart at Minas Tirith, and it was no small relief to see her hale and whole. He returned her embrace tightly.
“It is good to see you,” she said. “We’ve been here for days, and for each that went by, I feared—”
“Your fears were not misplaced, nor are they now unappreciated,” Gimli said, as they drew apart and she sat back on her knees. “It was a perilous journey out of Pelennor. We lost many.”
“How many?” Gandalf asked. He has not risen from his chair, nor had the smoke around his face thinned.
Gimli sighed. “It’s good to see you, too, wizard.”
Gandalf paused, then waved away the smoke. His face was somehow older and grayer than before. “My apologies, friend,” he said, rising. “It has been a hard few days.”
“I should imagine so,” Gimli said. Éowyn rose, and guided him toward a chair, which he climbed into gratefully. “I feel as if I walk within a city abandoned. Where is everyone?”
“Gone,” Faramir said, with an underpinned bitterness that was difficult to ignore. “All the elves of Rivendell have departed for the Havens.”
The news was so hard to hear it bordered on painful. That was – what – nearly eight hundred good archers, gone? Gimli pulled his helmet off and set it on the floor.
“This is a dark tiding indeed,” Gimli said. “And I fear not the darkest yet uttered in this room.”
Everyone looked to him, then, and he could see them bracing for the worst. Gimli reached into his pocket and felt the cool mithril of the ring Nenya. He set it down on the table.
Elrond blanched. Gandalf stood, his wood chair scraping on the floor.
“Lothlórien has fallen,” Gimli said, and though he’d been practicing this moment in his head since it happened, it did not making the saying of it any easier. “The Lord and Lady are dead.”
Elrond hunched forward over the table. Gimli heard him whisper a long prayer in Quenya.
“Dead,” Gandalf said. “By Sauron’s hand?”
“Far worse,” Gimli answered. “By Legolas’s.”
“Your friend,” Éowyn said, voice faint. “He lives?”
“If you can call it living,” Gimli spat. He clenched and unclenched his hands on the table. “Sauron’s foul magic has taken his mind. He bears a great, black hand around his throat as some terrible mark of subservience, and his eyes burn with fire. It was the same fire I saw in the elves of Lothlórien as they chased us out of the Wood.”
“Hope has abandoned us,” Elrond whispered.
“What about Edoras?” Éowyn asked, sitting forward in her chair.
“Evacuated, when I left it,” Gimli assured her. “Though I’m sure Sauron’s minions followed us to raze it to the ground. I told them to make for Rivendell, though they will likely be a week behind us, at least.”
“Merry and Pippin?” Éowyn pressed.
“Well enough, in these black circumstances,” Gimli said. “They’re showing the army into the city to find lodgings, I’d imagine.”
She sighed in some measure of relief, but not enough. Her fair face was still lined with worry.
“So let me see if I can summarize our state of affairs,” Faramir said. “Minas Tirith and Edoras are both in ruins. The elvish allies we once had in Lothlórien are under the control of the enemy. The elvish allies we once had in Rivendell are leaving Middle-earth forever. We have three magic rings we can’t use, eight-thousand soldiers from Gondor and Rohan at best, a very limited timetable before Sauron likely crosses the Misty Mountains, and no plan?”
“That is about the state of things, yes,” Gandalf answered, voice dry. He leaned back in his chair again and refilled his pipe.
“Well, I don’t know why I was even worried,” Faramir said.
“We must be able to make something of this mess,” Éowyn said. “There are those in Middle-earth still free from Sauron’s control who would fight with us if they knew the state of things. Gimli, isn’t your father a lord of Erebor?”
Gimli hesitated. “A minor lord,” he admitted.
“Does he have any sway with the King Under the Mountain?”
“Some,” Gimli replied doubtfully.
“And what about King Thranduil?” Éowyn said. “If he knew his son was enslaved by Sauron, surely he’d wish to fight back!”
“What makes you so sure, girl,” Elrond snapped, “that these are not the next places Sauron is going to strike?”
Éowyn opened her mouth, but snapped it shut again.
“He has an army fifty-thousand strong at least, who can move very quickly for days without rest,” Elrond said. “Unless we know precisely where he is going, doing anything like what you’ve suggested would be a risk too big to take. Hope,” he said, “has abandoned us.”
“Hope may be dead, Elrond Peredhel,” Gandalf growled, “but at least the Lady of Rohan does not lie down beside it and await her own doom.”
“And what is it that you would do, Mithrandir?” Elrond said, voice rising. “Do you have enough magic in you to fell the Deceiver on your own?”
“My lords,” Gimli sighed.
“If there is no other course but a last stand, then I would ride out and face him on my own!” Gandalf said. “It is better to die in glory than languish in cowardice!”
“Please,” Éowyn said, “this is getting us nowhere—”
“If shrewdness is cowardice to you, then courage is madness!”
“Gandalf!” came a small voice from the hallway, which Gimli knew at once to be Pippin’s. His heart leapt up in his throat and he rose from his chair, turning in time to see the hobbit come skidding to a halt in the doorway of the meeting room, hair frazzled, face desperate.
Gandalf and Éowyn had also risen and turned, and all were now staring, hands hovering near their weapons.
“There’s no wine in the storeroom!”
Something subtle and soft broke in the room at that moment. Hands dropped from weapons. Gandalf sat back down.
“Truly, then,” the wizard said, “we are doomed.”
Gimli laughed. Then so did Gandalf and Éowyn, and even Faramir.
And then they stopped laughing.
And it was quieter than it was before.
The closer they came to the Old Forest Road, the tighter Legolas’s nerves became.
They were covering so much ground, so quickly. He had never seen an army this size move with such speed. Every part of his mind screamed at him to break away in the night, to steal into the halls of his father and warn him, evacuate his people before this coming doom could burn its way through the forests of his childhood. But each of those thoughts were strangled by the hand of fire around his throat before it could become action, and so Legolas did nothing.
They made camp after three straight days of running along the eastern shore of the Anduin, and by his estimate, the dawn would mark the final leg of their journey into Mirkwood. Legolas felt like a newborn fawn, delicate and jumping at every shadow. He knew as the army made their camp that he would find no rest this night, tired as he was.
“There he is!”
The voice was familiar, jeering and grating to his ears. He sat down at the bank of the river and set to fixing the holes he’d worn in the shoddy orcish boots.
Gothmog approached from behind with a group of about eight other orcs and goblins, all varying in size and shape. “I’m wondering if you can settle a wager between us concerning the nature of elves.”
Legolas muttered something in Sindarin that would curl his father’s hair if he heard it. Gothmog either did not speak the tongue or did not hear him.
“Here’s the thing,” Gothmog continued, coming around to Legolas’s front with the braver of his goblin cronies, “every time we would capture parties of elves, we would kill the men and rape the women, yes?”
Legolas shut his eyes tightly.
“And the women would always die, every time!” Gothmog said. “Mahndorr here thinks that raping an elf is the same thing as killing them, something about the way you mate. But Bolorang thinks Mahndorr is just too rough with them!”
His hands were trembling with barely-contained rage. He knew, of course, precisely what Gothmog was doing. Ever since Legolas broke his nose, he’d been itching for any reason to kill him, but knew he couldn’t do it on his own, or without justifiable reason to his master. He was itching to get Legolas to react with violence, but only in company, so he would be outnumbered.
“So which is it, elf?” Gothmog taunted, crouching down in front of him. “Is it the rape itself that kills the elves, or is it that your kind just can’t handle an orcish cock?”
“Has anything you’ve ever fucked lived to tell it?” Legolas spat at him. “Perhaps orcish cocks are so rancid that they poison everything they touch.”
The comment drew equal parts amusement and ire from the group surrounding him. Legolas knew it was almost certainly a mistake to have spoken, but his patience was dwindling and his nerves were worn thin. There was a not insignificant part of him that would have just had them kill him and get it over with, so he wouldn’t have to face his father as he was now.
Gothmog’s face was dark and furious, even as his companions by turns laughed and snarled.
“Perhaps,” he said, voice dangerous and low, “when the master orders me to kill you, I’ll put it to the test, shall I?”
Legolas met his gaze unflinchingly.
“Might as well get a last bit of use out of you before you die,” Gothmog said, “and settle a bet in the process. I wonder if you’d mewl like the she-elves I’ve had did. I wonder if you’d cry like they did.”
“How’s your nose, Gothmog?” Legolas hissed at him. “It seems a little lopsided. Say the word and I’ll break it in the other direction for you.”
It was another voice, from farther down the camp. Legolas turned his head and recognized the source as another lieutenant, higher in rank than Gothmog.
“Your platoon is squabbling! Get over here and break it up!”
Gothmog was smoldering in his anger. He leveled Legolas with one last, hateful stare, but rose and stormed away. His cadre dissipated as he left, and Legolas shrank.
Legolas did not fear death. He’d had so many brushes with it since leaving Mirkwood that he’d almost gotten used to it.
But violation – that he feared. Not because it would kill him, though it would, but because it was the last part of him that was untainted. He could not imagine, despite trying, a more horrible way to die.
He breathed, and he centered, and with what strength he had left in him, he tried to put it from his mind.
It did not work. He wondered, with a dismal but even terror, how he’d even lasted this long.
Even when it was empty, Rivendell was beautiful. Time was Gimli never would have found beauty in forests and rivers and glens, but there was quite a lot that had happened to him since leaving Erebor he would not have imagined.
At night, in the highest tier of the city, the stars were bright and blanketing the sky. Gimli had always found comfort in the rock and stone, but in their absence, the stars were an adequate substitute. He could almost understand why Legolas always sang to them at night, when he thought no one could hear him.
“How fare you, my friend?”
Gimli looked over his shoulder to see Gandalf approaching, pipe in hand. It had been a few hours since the argument, and they had all gone their separate ways to think, agreeing to meet again in the morning to discuss a plan of action.
“I’ve been better,” Gimli admitted.
“So have we all been, I think,” Gandalf said. He stood beside Gimli at the balustrade of the veranda, and together they took in the night. “You will find no judgment from me for your fears. Under the circumstances, you have shown remarkable composure and strength of character. I notice you have a new axe.”
Gimli hesitated. “Aye, I have.”
“Quite old, by the look of it. Where did you pick it up?”
Gimli was not sure how, or even if, it was a thing he should say. And it was his instinct as a dwarf to keep it to himself.
“Very well, then, Master Dwarf,” Gandalf said, “keep your secrets. Khuzdul is one of the few languages of this realm I do not speak, so you may rest assured that it shall remain unknown.”
“It’s just that it comes with a tale I do not quite know how to tell,” Gimli said. “The process of getting it was unique. I saw things I cannot explain, and as such I cannot articulate them to another with any accuracy.”
Gandalf did not press him. From somewhere, Gimli could hear someone singing, muffled and indistinct. He sighed and leaned forward on his palms, into the cool air of early spring.
“Is that Elrond singing?” Gimli asked.
“I think not,” Gandalf answered. “He has little cause to sing these days if not in mourning.”
“It’s in Elvish.”
“Perhaps one of the men knows some of their songs.”
“It sounds like…”
Gandalf turned his sad eyes to Gimli.
“Never mind,” Gimli muttered, looking down.
“You miss him,” Gandalf said.
Gimli’s heart ached. “Like I would miss a limb.”
The wizard’s hand came to rest on Gimli’s shoulder. “I am sure he misses you in the same way.”
“By Mahal, whoever it is that singing, I pray they stop,” Gimli said, voice bitter. “It sounds so much like him. It’s…”
Gandalf cocked his head a moment and listened. Then his eyes narrowed.
“That is the same song he sang at night,” Gandalf observed slowly.
“Or parts of it,” Gimli said. “He keeps starting and stopping… but the voice…”
On the other side of the Misty Mountains, as he surmised he mightn’t, Legolas could not sleep.
The sky was clear and the stars were out, and with the sound of fifty-thousand orcs all snoring mere feet from him, all he wanted to do was sing to the stars as he once had.
But he could not remember the song.
He would recall a few words, and then his mind would stutter to a halt. Pieces of melody would rise to the fore in his mind, but without lyrics. The best he could do was stumble through disconnected phrases and broken melodies.
Legolas was aching. Since he was a child, singing to the stars, to the wood and the river, had brought him immeasurable comfort. Now, though, it was as if his mind was too stained, too twisted by Sauron’s foul magic to remember such goodness and purity. He was too broken to sing for Elbereth, and so Elbereth rejected his song.
From behind him, muffled as if under cloth, a familiar voice rose.
Gandalf had taken the Palantír out of his robe, suddenly and without explanation. The moment he did, the singing became clearer. And all at once, Gimli was without doubt.
“That’s Legolas,” Gimli said, straightening. “That’s him. I would know his voice anywhere. Gandalf—!”
“Hush!” Gandalf said. “Not so loudly. We do not know who else might be within earshot.”
The singing stopped.
Gimli bent toward the Palantír, heart thundering against his ribs. There was a chance – and it was so remote that it felt almost impossible – but there was a chance—
“Legolas,” he hissed. “Legolas, is that…?”
For several painfully long seconds, there was no answer.
And then there was.
He dared not speak above a whisper. Gothmog was sleeping soundly by Legolas’s measure, but he did not want to press his luck. Hearing Gimli’s voice brought a surge of warmth in him, and it had been so long since he’d felt it that he almost didn’t recognize what it was. Joy.
“By all the gods, Legolas… there are no words in the languages of man, elf, or dwarf to express… where – are you alone?”
Legolas swallowed. The more Gimli spoke, the better he was able to pinpoint where it was coming from – a small rucksack perilously close to Gothmog’s head. Legolas crept forward silently, and pulled carefully at the leather encasing it.
Gothmog snorted in his sleep. Legolas froze.
Then the orc rolled over. He swallowed and opened the rucksack, pulling loose the Palantír and then leaping away, closer to the river.
“I am now.”
Gimli could have wept. There was a better than decent chance he’d end up doing just that before long.
“It is good to hear your voice, Master Elf,” Gandalf said.
“Mithrandir,” came Legolas’s voice again, and beneath the cloudy black surface of the Palantír, his face swam into focus. Gimli clapped a hand over his mouth to keep back the surge of emotion. “You’re alive. You’re both alive. I… I…”
“You are still under the thrall of Sauron the Deceiver,” Gandalf guessed. “I have seen his magic in action before. It is never quite as airtight as he believes it to be.”
“I can’t talk to you,” Legolas whispered, but everything in his voice said that he wanted to do nothing but. “I can’t. I can’t. Don’t tell me anything. He’ll ask me and I will have to tell him. Gimli, I have missed you. Gimli, mellon nín, your absence has been unbearable. Say nothing! I cannot speak to you! I have to – I have to—”
The conflict in his voice, the pain, was a shard of glass in Gimli’s heart. In that moment there was nothing he wouldn’t have given to be there, to soothe him, to whisk him away across the mountains. Even if the magic never broke, at least he would have him, at least he would be safe, at least Gimli could know…
Briefly, Gandalf covered the Palantír with the sleeve of his robe and looked to Gimli.
“My friend,” Gandalf said, “you must help him break the magic.”
Gandalf held it out to Gimli, but Gimli did not take it. He stared at Gandalf instead, in desperate confusion.
“Do you remember Pelennor?” Gandalf asked. “When Sauron first used his magic? Without hesitation, he fired upon Aragorn, but he could not do the same to you.”
Gimli swallowed hard. His eyes were burning. “In Lothlórien,” he whispered, “he did the same. He drew his arrow and aimed, but…”
“The mere sight of you was enough to stay his hand in direct defiance of his master’s will,” Gandalf said. “If you said to him what is in your heart, it could very well fracture or break the spell.”
Gimli balked. Perhaps foolishly, the only thing he could think of was how Gandalf knew – he had barely admitted it to himself! Was Gandalf disgusted? Was he outraged? Would he—
“Out of your head, Master Dwarf!” Gandalf snapped. “I am too old for petty prejudices and too short on time to indulge your worries! You love him, and I promise he loves you, too. Love is something Sauron has not understood in many ages, it is far mightier than he will ever be, and his magic holds no sway over it. Tell him!”
He pulled his sleeve away from the Palantír and urged it at Gimli, whose eyes were wet, whose heart was stuttering. But he took the Palantír as bid, and he swallowed, and he spoke.
He had to tell someone. He had to wake Gothmog, or someone else. He had to let his master know what he knew. With this they could find where the last vestiges of Gondor and Rohan were hiding. They could expedite his master’s will. He had to, he had to, he couldn’t, he must, he never would—
“Legolas, before you act, hear me, I beg you.”
And he did. Because Gimli asked him to, he stayed, though his hands shook, though the hand of fire around his throat seared. He stayed, holding tight to the Palantír.
“I love you.”
Legolas opened his mouth, but said nothing.
Gimli’s face came into focus on the surface of the Palantír, and Legolas might have fallen apart at the sight of it. He looked so tired, but his eyes were still shining, and his hair was still fire-red.
“I love you so much I wonder sometimes if I have lost my mind,” Gimli said, and Legolas’s heart swelled in his chest. “And not because we are of different races or the same sex, and not because our two houses are bitter enemies, but because I can hardly imagine the sun rising or the rivers running in a world that was without you.”
Something thick and hot wedged itself in Legolas’s throat, and his vision blurred. “Gimli,” he said.
“You, Legolas, exist at the center of my entire world,” Gimli said, his words tumbling from his mouth like poetry he’d composed years ago and practiced every night since. “You are what keeps me tethered to Arda, you are what wakes me up in the morning and lulls me to sleep at night. I love you because I do not know how not to love you.”
“Scarcely have I heard you wax so sentimental,” Legolas said, and he was sobbing, or perhaps laughing. He couldn’t rightly tell.
“For you, sentiment comes easily,” Gimli said. “I love you for your courage and your kindness and your strength and your fierceness, and I have for quite some time now. And I beg you, Legolas, come back to me. Each day without you is torturous.”
There was something in Legolas that was breaking under the weight of Gimli’s words. It ached terribly, like blood rushing back to a numbed limb. But Legolas would not trade the pain for anything.
“I love you, Gimli,” Legolas said, and Gimli nearly dropped the bloody Palantír in the process of guarding his emotions. “And I wish I had your poetry to tell you all the reasons why.”
Gandalf had watched his whole exchange from a few feet of respectable distance away, eyes soft. As Gimli struggled to catch his breath, he approached, gently taking the Palantír from his hands. “Legolas,” he said, “you must tell us where your master is going. You must tell us anything you can.”
Silence, then, for so long that Gimli was worried that Sauron’s dark powers had reasserted themselves. But, eventually—
“He has us marching on Mirkwood,” Legolas said. “We are taking our last rest now, but we will be there within a week.”
“Mirkwood?” Gimli breathed. Would Sauron be so cruel as to force Legolas’s hand against his own father and people?
“And then where?” Gandalf asked.
“I don’t know,” Legolas hissed, as if in some pain. “The master keeps his secrets well.”
“With a small company,” Gimli said, “we might be able to outpace them to the north, and make for—”
“Do not say!” Legolas interjected. “Gimli, meleth nín, do not utter your plans where I can hear them. I fear I will not be able to stop myself should the master ask.”
Gimli and Gandalf shared a meaningful look, then both turned their eyes to the Palantír.
“Then hear no more,” Gandalf said, “and know that you have saved many lives.”
“And know that we will come for you,” Gimli added, hastily.
“Gimli—” Gandalf began, but Gimli talked over him.
“Whatever it takes, I will find you,” Gimli said. “I will not say where or when for fear you would be forced to betray your own heart, but keep the knowledge of it close. I will come for you. I will find you, I swear I will find you.”
Legolas was weeping, though he was trying to keep his voice level and his face away from the Palantír so they would not know. Gimli was coming. He was going to see him again.
“I will hold you to your word, dwarf,” he said, as evenly as he could, “and I will be quite cross with you if you should fail.”
“Then I will not fail,” Gimli swore, and uttered something in Khuzdul that Legolas did not understand, but which sounded like a solemn vow.
From behind, an orc coughed loudly in his sleep. Legolas scraped his palm across his cheek.
“I have to go,” he said.
“I love you,” Gimli whispered desperately.
“I love you, and hurry!”
He covered the Palantír with his arm and rushed back to Gothmog’s rucksack.
Gimli felt both much better and, somehow, terribly worse. As Legolas’s face faded from view, he gripped the Palantír hard, willing himself to keep that last image of him in his mind – Legolas, misty-eyed and whispering his returned affections, despite the foul magic that held him, despite the terrible circumstance. Through everything, they loved one another, and Gimli held onto the knowing of it as tight as he dared.
“It was perhaps not the wisest idea to make a promise we are not sure we can keep,” Gandalf said.
Gimli handed back the Palantír, expression stormy. “I intend to keep my promise,” he answered. “If it is the very last thing I do on this world, if I do it unaided and unarmed, I will get him out.”
Gandalf said nothing, and even his expression offered no clue. He seemed somewhere between doubtful and pensive as he tucked the Palantír back into his robes.
“We know Sauron’s plans now,” Gimli said. “We know he’s headed for Mirkwood, which gives us the opportunity to pass them to the north and make for Erebor, to rally their armies to the defense of the Woodland Realm.”
“Your people have no love for the Greenwood or its inhabitants,” Gandalf reminded him.
“I will convince them,” Gimli said. He had never been so sure of anything.
“Is that within your power?”
“It must be, for if it is not, then I will lose Legolas forever, and I will not allow that to happen.”
The inscrutable expression on Gandalf’s face changed in ways that Gimli could not quite name.
But Gimli was already walking away from the veranda, mind spinning with rapidly-forming plans. “I’ll go down to the men now and ask for volunteers. I should not need more than ten or twenty – the fewer, the faster. Do you think Shadowfax will bear me hence?”
He had turned to ask his question, and saw Gandalf approaching. He leaned his long, white staff against a nearby wall and knelt down in front of Gimli to lay both hands on his shoulders, a gesture which caught Gimli by surprise.
“Shadowfax is a lord of horses,” Gandalf said, slowly, “who bears only lords upon his back. If not in name, I think Shadowfax will see that you are a lord in spirit and in temperament.”
“I do not ask for lordship,” Gimli reminded him.
“I should be more worried if you did,” the wizard answered, and he was smiling sadly. “True power should be taken with reluctance and gravity or not at all. You have shown incredible courage and strength of character in these dark days, and in so doing, you have built something precious.”
Gimli furrowed his brow. “What have I built?” he asked.
Gandalf smiled. “Hope,” he said. “From darkness and despair, with wisdom and with love, you have built hope from where there was none.”
Gimli smiled feebly. “Hope alone is not enough to win an unwinnable war.”
“No,” Gandalf agreed, “but it is more than we had. Find your company. Take Éowyn with you, she has proved a useful diplomat.”
“I’d not mind her strength of arm, either,” Gimli said. “You will tell Elrond and Faramir where I am going?”
“We will marshal our forces in one week’s time from the west. With the army of Erebor, you can flank us from the east. The numbers will remain uneven, but it should give us some advantage, if we are going to evacuate who we can and rescue your elvish love.”
Gimli felt he had done more than enough crying for one day, but still his eyes felt misty. He gripped Gandalf’s arm tightly with one hand. “Thank you, my friend,” he said.
“Go,” Gandalf said, and Gimli went, heart lighter and feet faster than they had been in quite some time.
Éowyn awoke to heavy, loud knocking on her door. As she rose up through the layers of her consciousness, she also became aware of a familiar voice:
“Lady Éowyn!” It was Gimli, and though he sounded urgent, his voice had no trace of anxiety. She was groggy and her head felt heavy, but she rolled over on her back and sat up.
The door swung open, and Gimli stood in the threshold, a lit candelabrum in one hand, lighting his face. He opened his mouth to speak—
Faramir sat up beside her.
The sudden surge of panic did a better job of waking her up than Gimli ever could.
“I – ah, I can explain—”
Realizing then that she was exposed from the stomach up, she made a soft noise of alarm and tugged the fine elvish sheets up to her neck.
To her relief, Gimli only chuckled. “I think I can put it together on my own,” he said.
“Lord Dwarf—” Faramir began haltingly.
“Get dressed, both of you,” said the dwarf brusquely, though he was smiling. “Faramir, downstairs. Éowyn, to the courtyard. You and I are riding out tonight.”
At least he was not being unkind. “I – I – we are?”
“We have learned Sauron’s plans,” Gimli said, eyes twinkling, smile broadening. “And now we have one of our own. Now get dressed, lovebirds!”
And then he was gone, the door swinging shut behind him. Éowyn glanced over at Faramir, who was looking just as bewildered as she felt.
“Well,” she said, “at least it’s good news that roused us.”
Faramir laughed, and so did she. Then they both hurried to dress.
Chapter 6: The King Is Dead
Hope, Gimli discovered, was a funny thing.
In the strictest terms, it did not exist – you could grind down every rock and stone and branch and body in all of Arda and find not a single grain of it to hold between your fingers – and yet its impact could be felt in every part of him.
He had never ridden so hard or so well in his life as when hope fueled him, when he thought of his love, awaiting his promise fulfilled. Shadowfax was a tremendous steed indeed, but it was when Gimli gripped hard on his mane and whispered that promise he had uttered to Legolas that the Mearas was especially quick, as fast as wind across the plains north of Mirkwood.
They made it to Erebor with time to spare – he, Éowyn, Imaras, and seven other soldiers who had volunteered from the ranks that had survived Pelennor – which as it turns out, was entirely necessary.
Because as they made it to the top of a hill which overlooked the Lonely Mountain and the Lake, he could see smoke rising from Dale, and a great army gathered at the doors of Erebor.
Beside him, Éowyn took in a hard breath of shock.
“We’re too late,” Imaras said. “I know that banner – that’s an army of Easterlings.”
Yes, hope was a funny thing. When it was true, when it was strong, it refused to shatter, even as it was fractured.
“We are not too late,” Gimli said.
“Gimli,” Éowyn said, voice soft, “that’s ten-thousand men at least. How many do your kin number? We cannot possibly win such a lopsided fight.”
“We need not fight at all,” Gimli said, “and nor, it seems, do they. Look.”
He walked Shadowfax forward and pointed down at the cluster of Easterlings by the great gates of Erebor. “Do you see how they are formed? They’re all crowded by the doors, but the doors are closed. They have not yet breached.”
“What does that mean?” Imaras asked, wary.
“It means that my kin have had time to set up the famously impenetrable defenses of the Lonely Mountain,” Gimli said, “which almost surely means that they also had time to evacuate Dale.”
“If the defenses are famously impenetrable,” Éowyn said, “then how do you mean to get us inside? Or or that matter, get them out?”
“My lass,” Gimli said, smiling, “you ride with a noble son of that very mountain. There are ways both in and out not known by any Easterling.”
Éowyn and Imaras shared a worried look. Behind them, one of the other soldiers suddenly cried, “Look!”
They looked, and what they saw was that large army carving itself in twain. Down the center of the break came two massive shapes – Oliphaunts, Gimli recognized at once – and held between them was what could have only been a battering ram, its head carved in the shape of a dragon.
“All right,” Gimli admitted, “so we’re somewhat pressed for time.”
“Lord Dwarf,” Imaras said, voice strained, “are you sure this is something we should dedicate our time to? This army fights for Sauron, which means they are likely strengthened by the One Ring. Even now, I can see reinforcements riding up from the east. Every tactical bone in my body tells me that these numbers, with this timetable – it would be wiser to give the mountain up for lost.”
“No,” Éowyn interjected, “it would not. Wisdom is not wisdom when it makes bedfellows with callousness.”
Imaras seemed stricken. “My Lady—”
“You are right, sir, that this army is likely strengthened by the One Ring. You are right that even the famously impenetrable defenses of Erebor are likely to come down. But those innocent people who fled into that mountain do not know that. How could they? They will try to wait the attack out, not knowing the odds, to the ruin of all. If there is any chance at all we can save them, then it is an obligation!”
Gimli found himself once again impressed by the Lady of Rohan. It was hardly a wonder that Faramir had been so taken with her. If Gimli were a different sort of dwarf, he might be just as taken. He did have a provable weakness for tall blondes, after all.
“I would not ask Lord Gimli to give up on his home, and nor should you. We are the Men of the West! We will not stand by while death comes to the free peoples of Middle-earth! Not while we can stand and fight back!”
“Hear!” cried one of the soldiers in agreement from the back.
“And if we perish here, then we will perish in glory and courage!” she said. “I will ride with Gimli, and you all should ride with me!”
“Hear!” called several more of the soldiers.
Imaras seemed chastened. He hesitated first, then said, “You are right, My Lady. I was wrong to speak such.”
“Speech may be forgiven easily,” Éowyn said, head high and queenly, “it is action that counts more. You have proven stalwart in the past and I am sure you will again. Gimli!”
“My Lady,” Gimli answered, smiling.
“By your will!” he said, and kicked Shadowfax, who took off down the hill like water and air. The men followed.
Outside the Healing Hall, the Prince Under the Mountain was pacing, rubbing his hands together, sweating. He could feel the living rock under his feet groaning in pain. So too could he feel an electric fear in the air, all around him, stifling the normally cool halls of Erebor with a tense heat.
“Stop pacing,” Glóin said. He was seated at the wall, beside a group of children from Dale, all huddled around their mother’s skirts. He was a calm foil to the prince’s nervousness.
“I’m not pacing,” Thorin answered, as he turned on a heel and went back down the hallway in the opposite direction.
“The tread you’re wearing in the stone is evidence to the contrary.”
Reluctantly, Thorin came to a stop, but as his feet stilled, his hands wrung all the faster, as if making up for the loss.
“He’ll be fine,” Thorin said.
Glóin did not answer.
“He must be fine,” Thorin continued. “He’s been through worse.”
“My Prince,” Glóin sighed.
“Far worse, in fact! I’ve heard you tell me stories of your youth.”
“My Prince,” Glóin said again, more patiently, “it was quite a blow he took.”
“He’ll be fine,” Thorin said, and Glóin was not sure who he was trying to convince.
“Fine,” Glóin said. “Let’s assume he will be. He is still not equipped to make critical decisions, being lately rendered unconscious, and so that duty falls to you.”
“He’ll be out in no time. It takes more than some Easterling spear to take down Dáin Ironfoot.”
DOOM, from the south, the third in as many minutes by Glóin’s count. This time, it took nearly ten full seconds for the ensuing rumble to fade. Thorin was tense the whole time.
“If I could but get your leave to send an investigative party out around the mountain to learn the source of that sound,” Glóin said plaintively.
Thorin chewed anxiously at the nub of his thumbnail, saying nothing. Glóin sighed. He feared that until they heard word of his father’s fate, they would get nothing from the young prince. Worse, he feared they would get nothing from him even if they did.
It was a particularly winded member of the Royal Guard who came hurrying down the hallway, by equal parts skirting around and tripping over the refugees from Dale that lined the corridor.
Thorin glanced up, but only just. His eyes kept flashing back to the door of the Healing Halls.
“A party has arrived,” the guard panted, “from the secret door.”
Glóin sat up in surprise, even as Prince Thorin did not. “The secret door?” he repeated. There were a fair few people who knew of it.
“A group of ten, Lord Glóin,” the guard said, “your son among them.”
Glóin stood up with a start. “Gimli?”
“Yes,” the guard answered, “he has with him—”
But Glóin cared for the details as much as they mattered, which was to say, not very much at all. Gimli was back. He took off at once through the hallways. It had been long since he’d seen the secret door from this side, and longer still from the other side, but not so long that he’d forgotten.
But he was only halfway there when—
Glóin’s heart leapt up into his throat at the sound, and as he rounded the corner and saw him—
“Gimli! My boy, inúdoy, you’re back!”
The moment he was close enough, Glóin seized him in his arms, and at once he could feel the difference in him. All trace of the softness of his youth had left him; his beard was longer, his shoulders broader, and – when he pulled back again to see him properly – so too was his face harder.
“My boy,” Glóin said, feeling suddenly misty-eyed, “I hardly recognize you!”
“Da, there’s no time,” Gimli said. “I need audience with King Dáin.”
Glóin at last looked past his son, and found him in strange company, indeed. Eight men, by his count, and not of Dale, by the look of them, and one woman, fair-haired but armor-clad.
“That might be hard, my boy,” Glóin said. “He is in the Healing Hall, fighting for his life.”
Gimli grit his teeth. Glóin could see the conflict on his face – the instinct of grief warring with the urgency of whatever news he bore.
“Then where is Prince Thorin?” he asked. “We have to evacuate. The Mountain is lost.”
Glóin did not try to hide his surprise. “It doesn’t seem lost to me,” he said, gesturing to the hallway, packed with refugees.
“Not yet, it doesn’t,” Gimli said. “Please, Da – the prince?”
DOOM again, from the south, and everyone in Gimli’s party tensed at the sound.
“We have less time than we thought,” said the lady, who turned toward the man next to her. “Imaras, go find a guard captain and start organizing the evacuation.”
“Hold on, now!” Glóin began, but was cut off by Gimli.
“Take Andúril with you,” Gimli said, pulling a fine elvish sword off his back, “to corroborate your story. Let Lady Éowyn do the talking, she’s good at it.”
It was the lady – Éowyn, Glóin supposed – who took the sword with a perfunctory nod. “Come, then, Imaras, time spent idle is time wasted.”
“Isn’t this all a bit rash?” Glóin asked, but the lady was already gone with her companion.
“I fear it is not nearly rash enough, Da,” Gimli said, face dour. “You have not yet heard the tidings I bear. Please, where is the prince?”
Glóin had made a career from his sedate nature and aversion to alarmism, but he knew his son – he was not an unreasonable dwarf. If he was worried, he had good reason to be.
So Glóin drew a breath and set off back whence he came. “Perhaps this news, whatever it is, can startle the laggard into action,” he said, and Gimli and the remaining soldiers with him followed him back toward the Healing Hall.
But when they made it there, the door that had been tightly closed was now wide open, and Prince Thorin was nowhere to be seen. Glóin looked around – he had barely been gone five minutes, the prince could not have gone far.
“Oh, no,” Gimli said beside him. Glóin looked to him, then followed his gaze into the Healing Hall.
From outside, he could see Prince Thorin on his knees at the side of a healing cot, gripping the pale hand of King Dáin II Ironfoot, who lie still and ashen. Glóin’s heart sank.
Gimli cursed colorfully in Khuzdul. “We have no time for grief,” he said, Glóin suspected to himself. “We have no time. My Prince!”
Gimli pushed into the Healing Hall. It was overfull with refugees and injured dwarvish soldiers, and even in the presence of their newly-dead king, the healers could find no time to rest. They were all moving frantically from bed to bed, as Prince Thorin crouched at his father’s bedside, shuddering.
“My Prince,” Gimli said, “we need to evacuate the mountain. Now.”
DOOM, once more, even more thunderous.
Prince Thorin did not answer. Gimli grit his teeth and kept talking.
“The secret quest that took me out of Rivendell has failed, Prince,” Gimli said. “The One Ring has returned to the hand of its master.”
Glóin felt as though he stopped breathing. “What?” he rasped.
“The army that batters down the gates of Erebor is strengthened by Sauron’s magic,” Gimli said. “The Lonely Mountain is lost. We must evacuate everyone while we still can.”
But still, Prince Thorin did not answer.
Glóin gripped his son’s shoulder. “Son,” he whispered, “you speak truly?”
Gimli looked back, face dark. “I would not lie about such things,” he said. “Minas Tirith is in ruins, as is Edoras. The Heir of Isildur is slain, and Lothlórien is naught but ashes. Sauron the Deceiver is stronger than he has ever been, and if we do not evacuate this mountain now, he shall count the dwarves of Erebor and the men of Dale among his slaves, or among his victims!”
But still, Prince Thorin did not answer. Glóin’s heart ached as it struggled to hear his son’s words, but Gimli seemed to be seething in rage.
“Thorin!” Gimli thundered, so loudly that the whole hall suddenly quieted. “Do you not hear my words? We need to evacuate!”
Prince Thorin at last lifted his head. He looked up at Gimli, and it was then that Glóin noticed that it was not just his shoulders that were shaking – his whole body was trembling.
“My father…” Thorin began, but did not finish.
“Your father is dead! The king is dead!” Gimli cried, and grabbed Thorin by the shoulder, hauling him hard to his feet and turning him around. “You are the King Under the Mountain now, cousin, and you must act like it before we all perish! Every second we stand here is a second the armies of Sauron, strengthened by the One Ring, bring us closer to our doom!”
Gimli had successfully commanded the attention of everyone in the hall, and several outside of it, peering in anxiously through the door.
Thorin was quailing. Glóin had always known the boy to be a softer soul, largely untouched by conflict or strife. Dáin had been a father to him more often than he had been a king, ever to his detriment. It had never been so directly dangerous until this moment.
“I – I can’t—” Thorin stammered, “I don’t know how – I can’t be—”
Gimli cut him off with a hard, loud, exasperated sigh. “Clearly not,” he said, and punched Prince Thorin hard in the side of his head. The prince collapsed like a tower of stones. Glóin balked.
“Gimli, you reckless…” he muttered, staring wide-eyed.
“Right!” Gimli said, loudly. “I think we can all agree that we just heard Prince Thorin order an evacuation!”
For several long seconds, there was silence.
It was the healers who reacted first. “I certainly heard it loud and clear,” said one, a sour-looking dwarrowdam who was already shoveling medical supplies into a bag. “Didn’t you, Frís?”
“And a wise decision it was,” said another, presumably Frís. “It would be a fool king indeed who’d leave us to the wrath of Sauron. Right! Walking wounded get up! The rest of you get stretchers ready!”
“Gimli—” Glóin said, but Gimli cut him off with a gesture of his hand.
“Later, Da, I swear,” he said. “We need to leave, and that means you, too.”
Legolas could feel the magic fracturing.
He had not expected it to hurt.
The internal conflict of it was bad enough – being pulled in two directions at once by his mind and the magic trying to exert control over it was physically nauseating when it was not confusing – but the pain of it made everything worse.
Each time he thought of Gimli, of the promise he had made to him in the Palantír, the hand of fire around his throat seared as if in punishment. It was everything Legolas could do not to scream from the pain of it. It never got more bearable, no matter how many times it burned.
He wanted desperately to run. Every now and then he thought he might be able to get away with it. When he lagged near the back of the party, when they strayed closer to the edge of the wood, larger and larger parts of his mind told him to just go, just go, go now, they will not see you!
He would start to tug on the reins of his warg, and the hand of fire would sear, and he would right his course, gagging on painful sobs.
The only thing worse, he found, than thinking about Gimli and his promise of rescue, was not doing so, for when he did not, he was beset by the only torment more agonizing than the hand of fire – crushing, desperate fear and loneliness.
He jerked. They had stopped, but only for their wargs to drink from the Anduin. They were very close to the Old Forest Road now, Legolas knew.
“The master calls you.”
Terror cloyed in the back of his throat. He rose to his feet, legs stiff and weary from travel, and without even looking at Gothmog, he made his way to the vanguard.
Sauron was a constant presence at the head of the army or in the air above them on his dark-winged Angmar drake, dark and towering and terrible. Legolas spent more effort than he cared to admit deliberately avoiding looking at him.
But now, he had no choice. The master was standing several yards away from the front of the army, facing north, while his black drake made ominous circles overhead.
“Master,” Legolas said, and dropped to one knee, head bowed.
Sauron did not react for quite some time. When at last he did, it was heralded by a slow turn. The mere movement sent ripples of hot wind past him. The air around Sauron was warped by the heat burning just under his black armor, and Legolas kept his head low as he was able.
To his surprise, the words he uttered were not in Black Speech, but in Sindarin:
Never had he heard his language uttered with such wickedness. Something primal and proud in him recoiled in disgust to hear it spoken thus, and quickly was the feeling squelched by the surge of pain around his throat. He fought down hard the instinct to scream.
He had been expecting this order, of course. But hearing it had still been hard. A frantic nervousness rose in him with the fear and the pain.
“E al-lastatha, Hîr nín,” Legolas began, “e maethatha a gwannatha eb—”
A fire-hot, sulfurous breath came rushing from him then, so hot it nearly seared the flesh off his skull. Legolas struggled to stay upright against it.
When at last the heat faded, Legolas was left feeling breathless and winded – and cowed into subservience.
“Athon, Hîr nín,” Legolas gasped, and struggled to rise.
He walked away, but even as he did, he could feel the heat of Sauron’s gaze on his back, burning just as strong as the hand around his throat.
Gothmog was watching him as he retreated. He was not smiling in his usual, savage way, instead eyeing him with naked suspicion. Legolas kept his eyes forward, his better instincts at war with the magic suppressing them, and tried not to scream from the pain of it all.
Gimli had been surprised, when he went to search Éowyn, to find that the evacuation was already well underway. He could see her easily enough, head and shoulders above all the dwarves and golden-haired besides, shouting orders.
“Again, My Lady, you surpass my expectations!” Gimli called, drawing her attention away from the work. “Rallying dwarves to do anything is hard enough as a lord of them. I’m impressed!”
“I think Gandalf was correct in his assessment of my diplomatic skills,” Éowyn said, smiling. “When a woman balances decorum and assertiveness just so, even the most stubborn men have difficulty denying her.”
“Well, we have the official order from the prince in absence of his king, or at least that’s what you’ll say if anyone asks,” Gimli said, and before Éowyn could question the strangeness of the statement, Gimli continued. “They know where they’re going?”
“I’ve told every soldier and guard I’ve seen to make for Mirkwood, and every refugee to make for Rivendell,” she said, “and Imaras and the others are shouting it out as they direct the flow.”
“Good,” Gimli said. “Good.”
He looked out of the hallway in which they were standing, where one of the great feasting halls was bustling with dwarves and men.
“I remember when we reclaimed this mountain,” Gimli said bitterly. “Many fought and died to win it back from the dragon Smaug. It hurts my heart to have to see it lost again.”
“Perhaps it can be reclaimed again, as well,” Éowyn said. “I find we have more reason to hope these days than we did before.”
Gimli smiled at her, but before he could answer, there came a scream from the feasting hall – then another, then another.
Gimli’s heart stuttered in sudden fear, and as he pushed through the now-scrambling crowd, Éowyn was at his heels. Easterlings were flooding into the hall.
“They’ve broken through the gate!” Éowyn cried.
“Soldiers!” Gimli thundered, and pulled Durin’s Axe from his back. “To arms! To arms! Guards, get the refugees out!”
Éowyn found herself at his side, and Andúril was in her hands at the ready.
“I am with you, Lord Dwarf,” she said at once.
“I’d have you nowhere else, Shieldmaiden,” he answered, and charged forward with a cry. “Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!”
Chapter 7: The Rape of the Greenwood
Hi in case you missed the like eight warnings I've left so far TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE.
The forests as the armies of Sauron came through them were unnaturally quiet.
Legolas knew every inch of the Greenwood, every rock and tree and stream by rote, and loved them dearly. Everything was as he left it but the sounds they made, and Legolas could feel the fear of his forests as they passed. They were too scared to utter their greetings. They knew why they marched.
They passed several points that should have been sentry stations for his father’s guard, but saw no one. Legolas did not know if it was because they had fled at the sight of the armies or if it was because they had been warned – if Gimli had kept his promise early, if he’d made it here first, urge his people to flee.
He did not know. But dearly and desperately he hoped.
“It’s you and me for parley, elf,” Gothmog said as his warg came up beside Legolas’s. He kept his face set and his eyes forward. He did not want any trace of his thoughts betrayed by his expression. “I suppose we’ll see how reasonable your father is when faced with the choice of death or power.”
Legolas’s warg snapped and snarled at Gothmog’s as the orc sidled up closer, and reached for a handful of Legolas’s hair. He recoiled sharply, slapped his hand away. The reaction brought to the orc’s malformed face a twisted smile.
“I was just going to say,” Gothmog crooned, “that I look forward to seeing you fight again. You know, when your father inevitably makes the wrong choice, and you are forced to kill him.”
Gods, but the pain of the fracturing magic was unbearable at that moment. It was as though his soul was shattering with the dark powers that held him. He was barely able to keep himself upright at the wave of nausea and pain. Kill his father? He would never raise a blade to his father. He had to. He wouldn’t. He must!
Gothmog made a sound halfway between a laugh and a snarl. Legolas breathed hard through his nose, focusing all his energy on not screaming in pain and frustration.
“Meet me up front when we make it to your father’s halls,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Leave, his mind whispered. Leave now. Go now. Go now. Warn your father. Evacuate your people.
But Legolas did not leave. He kept marching, kept burning, kept holding back his screams.
Unfortunately, Prince-Now-King Thorin III woke up just as his armies had reached the edge of Mirkwood. Even worse, he found Gimli almost immediately afterwards.
Shadowfax huffed in displeasure. Gimli, who had by now become quite fond of the horse despite himself, patted his mane reassuringly.
“Cousin, what is this? Where are we going?”
Éowyn answered before Gimli could, smiling beatifically down from her own horse as Thorin stumbled to keep up. “We’re going to the realm of the Wood Elves, King Thorin, or was our locale not obvious enough?”
She gestured around her. The trees were towering and dark, and the army, though they marched, did so warily and with their guards up.
“Mirkwood!” Thorin cried. “Why?”
“Because we have lost the Lonely Mountain,” Gimli answered, without any of Éowyn’s patience, “and because we must aid and evacuate our elvish allies in the Greenwood before they suffer a fate we so narrowly avoided.”
“Anyone who is not a slave or conspirator to Sauron is now our ally, Cousin King,” Gimli said sharply, looking down with hard eyes. “Or did you not listen to my words before we left?”
“We cannot do this!” Thorin said, and he sounded frantic. He kept looking back over his shoulder, to the rows and rows of dwarves who marched along the Old Forest Road. “We cannot risk our necks for the elves! And you! You can’t just show up like this, order around the dwarves of Erebor, evacuate the Lonely Mountain – we – we could have held the mountain! We should – we—!”
Gimli was staring down at him with rapidly dwindling empathy. When he pulled Shadowfax to a halt, Éowyn stopped as well, and the marching army parted around them to keep marching.
“What, Cousin King?” Gimli said. “What should we have done? How would you have held the mountain against ten-thousand Easterlings and a dozen Oliphaunts, all strengthened by the One Ring?”
Thorin stared up at him, mouth moving, but uttering nothing.
“Even if the defenses could have held up to a battering ram the size of a building, which I would add that they did not, how would you have stretched three months’ rations for twelve-thousand evacuees?” Gimli asked.
“I…” Thorin began, but his voice failed.
“And if you are so sure that this course is wrong, then order your men to stop!” Gimli said, gesturing to the soldiers as they marched past. “You are their king now, are you not? Exert your authority!”
Thorin looked where Gimli bid him to, but said nothing. Thorin was a few years older than Gimli, but the more Gimli spoke, the more Thorin looked like a chastised child.
“Cousin,” Gimli sighed, “we do not have time for your old prejudices or your new insecurities. The world does not have time. Middle-earth would fall into darkness while you struggle to find your feet. So do yourself a favor and listen well: we abandoned the Lonely Mountain because we had to. We march into the Halls of Thranduil because we have to. You are my king, and I hope one day that I can honor you as such, but right now, I need to make sure anyone survives this coming doom, let alone the line of Durin.”
In a small voice, Thorin said, “This is all happening so fast. I’m frightened.”
“Good,” Gimli said. “You should be. Fear will keep you sharp.”
He turned Shadowfax and marched on, back up to the head of the army, where his father, hitherto silent, finally spoke:
“You could have been easier on your new king.”
Gimli shook his head. “I’ll be gentle when there’s room for it,” he answered. “There are things more important than protecting the fragile heart of a young king.”
He could feel Glóin’s eyes on him, though Gimli kept his own forward.
“My son,” he said, following a lengthy pause, “when did you become a leader?”
Gimli opened his mouth, but snapped it shut again. He was still training himself to fight down the instinct of denying he was a leader at all. It was not an easy transition.
“I had little choice, Da,” he said. “Most of the other leaders are dead now. Boromir, Aragorn, Théoden, the Lord and Lady of Lothlórien.”
He looked across. Glóin was on Imaras’s horse, which Imaras had given up in deference to Glóin’s advancing age (and then stubbornly refused to accept Gimli’s thanks for it). If Gimli had it his way, his father would have followed the evacuees to Rivendell rather than the army into Mirkwood, but if he’d ever had any power over his father, they’d have a very different relationship.
Silence, then, for a while. Eventually, Glóin turned forward and said, “Your braids are different.”
Gimli seized up.
“Assuming we all survive this,” Glóin said, “will I get the chance to meet her?”
Gimli found that he had no answer. His new courtship braids, of course, were nowhere near the most important thing to think about, but they still paralyzed him in a fear that was far more immediate than the looming threat of death.
“Lord Glóin,” Éowyn suddenly interjected, “Gimli once told me that you were in the party that reclaimed the Lonely Mountain. I should love to hear your tale.”
Gimli relaxed, but only just. He looked sideways at Éowyn and wondered just how much she knew.
If her subtle wink in his direction was any indication, more than she let on.
Gimli sighed, and as Glóin readily launched into the story he’d told a thousand times, each more outrageously than the time before, Gimli set his eyes forward.
It would not be long now.
The army arrived outside the Halls of Thranduil to a full line of his father’s guard, all standing to attention, armed and cloaked in forest-green.
There were faces in the ranks that Legolas knew. And it hurt, in ways that were not the least bit magical, to see them thus. He turned his head and averted his eyes in a sudden wave of shame.
Gothmog, on the other hand, rode right to the front.
“We come to treat with the Elvenking,” he said, so loudly and in a wood that was so unnaturally quiet that his voice echoed ominously. “Our master has no desire for war when it is not necessary, and so asks parley.”
Members of the woodland vanguard were exchanging brief, anxious looks between each other. But none spoke, and none moved.
“We have a diplomat with us that might bend his ear more willingly,” he said, then turned and yelled, “Elf!”
Legolas seized up. He did not want to go. He did not want to show his face to them. He did not want his kin to see him in the black armor of Mordor, wielding an orcish bow.
But his warg walked anyway. And when he broke the front line of the army, the reaction was immediate. By turns, the vanguard gasped and whispered, bent to each other and conferred, asking the same question.
“Behold Prince Legolas, who as of late has had a change of heart,” Gothmog said, grinning viciously even as he brushed imaginary dust from Legolas’s armor.
“You have bespelled our prince, monsters!” thundered one of the captains, who made to draw her sword.
“Daro!” Legolas said at once. “Al-maetho!”
“None of your damn birdlike tongue!” Gothmog snapped. “I don’t want you saying a word I can’t understand, elf!”
Legolas grit his teeth, and with great reluctance switched to Westron. “Do not fight, Captain, we outnumber you ten to one. It is folly.”
“My prince!” cried a soldier to the right, gripping hard her bow at her side. “Do not say that you are lost to the darkness of Mordor!”
The pain around his throat was unbearable. But still he could not be sure it was the physical pain which pricked tears at his eyes. “Find my father,” he said, half-begging. “We must treat with him before the Master runs out of patience.”
The soldier who had spoke, upon hearing Legolas call Sauron master, sobbed once into her hand.
“We will bleed you dry and feed your corpses to the wolves for this transgression!” the captain thundered, and unsheathed her sword, and as a surge of panic rose in Legolas’s throat, as Gothmog snarled and went for his blade, as both armies armed themselves and hunched to ready their attacks—
Legolas knew the voice at once. He lifted his eyes, past the elvish vanguard, where standing under the shallow mouth of the caves leading into the Halls was his father, tall, armed, but pale as death.
“Let them through,” he said.
“My king—” the captain began.
“Let them through, I said! I will parley!”
Gothmog smiled viciously. The captain smoldered in rage.
But the vanguard parted.
Legolas swung off his warg and made his way past, keeping his eyes forward. Whatever it was that was roiling in the pit of his stomach – anger, maybe, or shame, both, or something else – it made what was by rights a familiar walk feel like a descent into unknown darkness.
“Well, Elvenking, it is about time that we met like this!” Gothmog said, loudly, the moment he came into the Hall. “Our master has been eager to treat.”
Legolas came up after him. On days brighter than this, he knew that the gaps in the ceiling of these caves let in shafts of golden sunlight, but today it was overcast, and the only light came from the sconces lining the walls, casting odd shadows and flickering orange firelight.
His father was sitting at his living-wood throne, shoulders hunched, eyes decidedly and unwaveringly on Legolas.
Legolas met his gaze, though he wished he wouldn’t. His father’s dark, grief-stricken eyes were everywhere he looked, somehow.
“So tense, Elvenking!” Gothmog said. “Worry not, we come in good faith. Our Lord Sauron wishes to come to a rapprochement with your kingdom.”
Sharply, and without preamble, his father said, “Is that your price?”
Gothmog’s misshapen ear twitched. “The price of what?”
“Of removing your accursed magic from my son!”
Gothmog positively cackled. Hatred and pain rose in Legolas in equal measure. Finally, he managed to tear his eyes away from his father’s face. It hurt too much to look upon him, as Legolas was.
“If I order my soldiers to lay down their arms,” Thranduil said, rising like fire from his throne, “will you release my son from this curse?”
“I’m afraid such a gift from Lord Sauron would require more than your unconditional surrender,” Gothmog said, shambling forward. Legolas’s hand twitched around the hilt of his orcish sword, though whether to protect Gothmog or strike him down even he could not say. “We would also need your cooperation, which would be richly rewarded with power. You see, your son has proved extremely valuable to us. He has killed many in the name of his new master.”
“Sauron is not his master,” Thranduil thundered, and Legolas flinched. His father’s rage was rare and deadly, like lightning from clear sky. “You think I cannot see the fires of Mordor burning in his eyes? He would never bend to your lord if it were not forced upon him!”
“Well,” Gothmog said, with poorly feigned innocence, “why don’t we just ask him what he thinks?”
Gothmog came to Legolas’s side and draped his arm around his shoulder. Legolas bared his teeth. If he hadn’t become so accustomed to orc stench in recent weeks, it would be enough at this distance to make him retch.
“Go on, elf,” Gothmog prompted, voice purring. “Tell your father who it is you serve. And just so there’s no misunderstanding—”
With one malformed hand, he grabbed the back of Legolas’s head and steered his gaze so he was forced to look upon his father.
“—say it to his face.”
Of all the indignities he’d been thus far forced to suffer, this was somehow the worst. To an untrained eye, there would be no trace of emotion to be found on his father in that moment, but Legolas had known him for an age – he could see the subtle twitch in his fingertips, the almost imperceptible furrow in his brow. His father’s heart was breaking in front of him, and it was almost too much for Legolas to bear.
“I serve Sauron,” Legolas whispered, as the hand of fire burned and burned.
“Ion nín,” his father whispered brokenly, and it was perhaps the only thing more painful than the hand of fire around his throat, “man agorthol?”
“Adar, caro sui pêd,” Legolas begged.
“No Elvish!” Gothmog snarled, his grip tightening in Legolas’s hair, but Legolas shoved him back and stepped toward his father.
“The armies of Sauron are too many, Father,” he said. “We will raze the Greenwood to the ground, and every last elf here will be dead or made slave to Sauron as I have.”
“And you would have me bend before this doom? Bend our people?” Thranduil said, and he closed the distance between them, placing both his hands on Legolas’s face. “Look what it has done to you!”
“Adar, he will force my blade against you!”
Tears were falling freely down his face, and even his father’s normally impenetrable façade was crumbling around the edges at the sight of his son’s emotion. Legolas had never been in so much pain, and it was not just the hand to cause it.
“The blood of the Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn are already on my hands,” Legolas said.
“Ai, Elbereth,” Thranduil whispered, head dropping, hands gripping hard on his son’s shoulders.
“My heart cannot handle more elvish blood spilled,” Legolas sobbed, gripping his father’s arms to keep his hands from shaking.
“My child, I know your heart,” Thranduil whispered. “Neither could it handle seeing this doom forced upon your kin, on your forests.”
Legolas shut his eyes tight. The worst of it was the knowing that his father was right, the knowing that there was only way this confrontation ever could have ended. The hand of fire throbbed and burned and the pain of it swallowed him whole.
There was silence, long and heavy. And then, from outside, a sudden calamitous sound. All three turned toward the mouth of the cave.
Legolas’s heart leapt into his throat. Between the sudden clatter of steel and the screams of battle, he could hear war horns – Rohirrim war horns.
Gimli, his mind whispered, and for a moment – just a moment – his hope burned harder and hotter than the hand around his throat.
“Time’s up, Elvenking,” Gothmog said. “What is your answer?”
Thranduil’s eyes flickered from the cave’s mouth, where outside the elves of Mirkwood were rushing into a battle that was just out of sight, then to Legolas.
His answer was not immediate. He dropped his hands from his son’s shoulders, and he turned his stormy gaze to Gothmog.
“No,” he said.
Gothmog roared, and it echoed off the walls. “We are ten-thousand in number! There’s no force in Middle-earth that can count as many! Would you throw away your kingdom so easily?”
“Not easily, no,” Thranduil said. “I am well aware that this is a battle I am likely to lose. But I would let my kingdom burn a thousand times before I ever surrendered it to the Deceiver without a fight.”
Gothmog ripped his sword from his scabbard, teeth bared. Legolas’s heart was hammering in his throat, just under where the hand of fire was smoldering.
“You parade my son before me, the very worst and most terrible reminder of just how foul your master can be, and you think it will win my allegiance? I would not take your master’s ill-gotten power if he begged!” he continued, unsheathing his own vicious elvish blade. “So burn the Greenwood if you will, and may your foul armies suffocate on the smoke!”
“Elf!” Gothog roared. “Kill him!”
Legolas’s chest was heaving. Something was happening to him, in him. He did not unsheathe his weapon. He did not advance. He felt dizzy. Kill his father? Kill his father?
Gothmog spun. “Did you not hear me?” he bellowed. “Kill him! Do it now! Rip out his throat!”
Thranduil turned his eyes to Legolas, sad but set. And even as the hand of fire seared his flesh, Legolas did not move. Crack by crack, like steady weight on fragile ice, the magic that held him, that Gimli had so badly fractured, was beginning to shatter. Kill his father?
“Legolas,” Thranduil whispered, tears falling free down his face, “know that I will remember you in the Halls of Valinor as my son first. When I think of you, I will think of your childhood in the forests, not of what dark magic forced you to become. I will wait for you and I will love you still when you come West.”
He had to kill his father. He would not kill his father. He had to. He would not. He must. He would not kill his father, he would never kill his father! He would not!
“My son,” he sobbed, voice hitching, “my son, my only child—”
And then, Thranduil jerked, stumbled.
There was a blade between his father’s ribs. Legolas felt lost for breath for a moment – he had not raised his sword, had he? – but as he looked down, he saw it was not his own sword that had found purchase.
It was Gothmog’s.
“L…” his father began, then staggered backward and collapsed.
Legolas was shaking. Gothmog’s blade was painted in his father’s blood.
“Adar—” he sobbed, when a fraction of a second later, he was seized by the hair, and—
Crack! Stars exploded behind Legolas’s eyes as his head went crashing into the nearby wall. His sword in its scabbard was pulled from his belt and clattered to the floor.
“I knew,” Gothmog spat. “I knew you had slithered from our master’s grasp somehow!”
Crack! A second blow, and Legolas’s vision grayed for a moment. He’d have fallen but for the strong grip still holding him by the hair.
“Treacherous elf, I should have cut your throat in your sleep!”
He was thrown to the floor, and where he landed, he could see his father’s corpse, sprawled out at the foot of his throne, blood pooling beneath him, eyes vacant and dead.
Metal scraped and skittered on stone. Gothmog had kicked his sword aside. A moment later, there was weight on his stomach – the orc had straddled him. Sudden terror joined the grief and pain, and Legolas struggled. Gothmog seized both his hands before he could strike and pinned them down hard to the ground.
“But then again,” the orc growled, “if I had, I wouldn’t be able to settle my bet, would I?”
Legolas tried to scream, but his head was too heavy, his mind too clouded with pain. All that came out was a hoarse sound in broken Sindarin, too soft to be heard through the battle outside.
Buckles tore and pieces of ring mail went rolling away across the floor as Gothmog ripped at his armor. Legolas screamed again, but not loud enough. He struggled, but not with enough force. Every horror he could have imagined was happening at once. His father was dead, his Greenwood burning, his virtue ripped away, and Gimli – Gimli, Gimli, meleth nín—
Gothmog held him down hard and forced himself into Legolas with no preamble, and he could only scream again, uselessly, as his eyes began to blur with tears as much as injury.
Of course, there were not enough of them to make a real fight of it, not nearly enough. There did not have to be. The fighting dwarves of Erebor knew, well before they’d even made it to Mirkwood, that they were to retreat west the moment Gimli blew his horn.
Already they had sent outlying elvish settlements evacuating for Rivendell, and already they could hear the clash and clatter of battle, even before they could see the Halls of Thranduil.
But they could see it soon enough. From Shadowfax’s back, Gimli had a good vantage. He could see that, thank Mahal, they had flanked Mordor from both east and west as per their plan. He could see the men of Rohan and Gondor, the elves of the Greenwood, and now the dwarves of Erebor all fighting together along the Old Forest Road, under the thick canopy of trees.
He could see—
He could scarcely believe his eyes, but there he was – a hundred feet off, sword and staff flashing, doing battle with Sauron, himself. It was better to have the Deceiver’s attention on Gandalf, rather than on making more slaves for his army, though Gimli did not know how long Gandalf could hold his attention, or stand up to his assault.
Biting hard on his tongue, he scanned the rest of the battlefield. Golden hair on black armor would be easy enough to pick out on such a tableau, but he saw no sign of Legolas.
He swore in Khuzdul.
She had already joined the fray, of course, but turned to him when she heard her name, the orc she had been fighting dispatched and falling at her feet in two pieces. Already her face was splattered with black blood.
He tossed her the horn on his hip, which she caught reflexively.
“Keep your eye on Gandalf, lass!” he called, and pointed in his direction. “If he falls, sound the retreat at once!”
She nodded once, eyes hard, and returned her attention to the battle.
“To the hall’s entrance, Shadowfax,” he urged. “Quick!”
If he was not in the battlefield, he could not imagine anywhere else he might be. But as he came to the mouth of the cave and leapt off Shadowfax’s back, the sounds of battle faded. Coming into the cool and airy cave, Gimli thought that perhaps the halls were abandoned.
But it was not silent. Gimli could hear something, as he came around that first corner, a rhythmic sound, flesh on flesh. Grunting – orcish, if he had to guess, as it was too deep and guttural for any other race. And a wet sound, too, in time with the rhythm. As his eyes swept the hall—
An elvish body, dead before a throne.
Another by the wall, still and vacant-eyed – Legolas, his heart stuttered – and above him—
Gimli thought he understood what rage was. But as his mind put together what it was his eyes were beholding, he realized that all his life he had underestimated its potency.
What flared in him was an amount of fury that Gimli had not imagined he was capable of. In an instant, it burned the heart from him, and so too did all else in him burn away. In an instant, there was nothing inside of Gimli but the hatred.
Gimli screamed and charged, Durin’s Axe held high.
There was a light to the west.
Legolas opened his eyes to it, could see it even through the stone and the trees and the distant Misty Mountains, so bright was it. He could no longer feel his pain, so warm was it. It was whispering for him, sweet assurances of peace.
He could see rivers and trees and golden daylight. He could hear songs, and laughter, and birds chittering.
He could see Galadriel and Celeborn, smiling, waiting. He could see his father.
The orc’s foul hands were still on him, but with no effort at all, Legolas slipped free. But Gothmog still rutted, even as he pulled away.
So he was dead, then. His fëa had left his hröa, and was yearning for the Halls of Mandos, for the West. As he looked upon the body he would leave behind, his lip curled in disgust. The foul creature Gothmog was still defiling his corpse, grunting and panting like a dog.
But to the west…
He turned his eyes.
To the west, there was peace. He slowly moved toward it. To the west, to the west…
Something fluttered in his chest. He turned away from the light.
He could not hear his own voice, but he could hear Gimli’s, that familiar and fearsome battle cry. He’d caught Gothmog off-guard, and the orc had only a split second to scramble backwards before Gimli’s axe caught him on the arm – and the orc’s arm came off.
Gothmog howled, shrieked in pain, gripped the bloodied stump of his arm as it spewed black blood onto the wall and floor.
Legolas’s ghostly, half-transparent hand found his mouth. Emotion welled in him. Gimli had found him.
“Stay back!” Gothmog gasped through his pain, grabbing Legolas’s old orcish blade off the floor with his remaining hand. “You’re too late! This forest will burn!”
Gimli was standing over his body, eyes burning with a ferocity Legolas had seldom seen. Truly, the anger of a dwarf was not something to be trifled with.
“I should cut you in half,” Gimli snarled, shoulders hunched, axe shining with blood. “I should rip your guts out and hang you with them!”
Gothmog was stumbling back toward the entrance of the cave. “It won’t bring your precious princeling back!” he snarled, and then ran, frantic and one arm the less.
Legolas watched, breathless, as Gimli looked down.
“No,” Legolas whispered, though he was voiceless. He did not wish Gimli to see him, not like this.
Gimli’s axe clattered to the floor. He dropped to his knees and pressed two fingers to his throat.
“No,” Gimli echoed, and all rage had drained from his voice. “No, no, not now, not after everything…”
Legolas’s body was still, eyes open but sightless, ripped from his armor and lying naked on the stone floor.
The West was singing Legolas’s name, but Legolas could not pull his eyes away for a second.
“No,” Gimli sobbed, and pulled Legolas’s broken, defiled body up against his chest, burying his face in golden hair. Legolas’s heart wrenched. To the west, Valinor sang to him, but right before his eyes, his love wept, and Legolas could not look away.
“Not like this,” Gimli said into his hear, voice breaking with every word. “We have promises to keep, amrâlimê! We have oaths yet unfulfilled, you cannot be dead!”
“Gimli,” Legolas wept, voicelessly.
He watched as Gimli began to rock where he sat, gripping Legolas tightly to his chest, shoulders shaking.
“What of the Glittering Caves?” Gimli said, every word hitched with emotion. “What of the forests of Fangorn? I uttered to you my vow of undying love!”
The ache in Legolas was almost too much to bear. Was that what Gimli had said into the Palantír?
“I owe you a lifetime, amrâlimê,” Gimli sobbed, “so how could I live it now without you?”
His words finally broke, and all Gimli could do was weep, clutching Legolas to his chest.
Legolas had no voice as mere fëa, but he must have had tears, because he could feel them falling down his face.
Behind him, to the west, the peace and beauty and healing of Valinor sang and sang. But Legolas could no longer hear it.
He would not go west. He could not go west.
With every ounce of strength in him, he pushed.
And then, as Gimli sat sobbing and shaking on the floor, Legolas came alive in his arms, with a jolt and a wheeze of air, flooding color back to white lips.
For a moment, Gimli sat dumb, wondering if perhaps in his grief he had lost his mind. But Legolas’s eyes were open, and clear, and fixed on his – and the elf was starting to shake, Gimli realized, from cold.
At once, Gimli ripped his Lórien cloak off his shoulders and threw it over him. For an instant he worried it would be too short, but of course the cloaks of Lórien would fit any stature, with their subtle elvish magics. He bundled it close, and stared down at Legolas, face nakedly astonished.
“How are you alive?” he asked.
Something almost like a smile lifted the corner of his mouth. “Promises,” was all Legolas could whisper, and Gimli’s heart lurched with love so strong it nearly stole his breath from his lungs.
From the battle outside, a clear dwarvish horn blew loud. Then another, then another. Gimli swore. Éowyn had called a retreat.
“Can you stand?” Gimli asked.
Any trace of smile was gone now. “I don’t know,” Legolas replied, as though the answer scared him.
“Then do not strain yourself to try,” Gimli returned, and picked him up. Elves might have been made from pure air for how light they were, and though Legolas’s long legs nearly trailed on the ground, Gimli was able to keep him close to his chest as he left the Halls of Thranduil, where an anxious Shadowfax saw them exit and hastily bowed down on his two front legs. Gimli slipped Legolas onto the Mearas’s back, side-saddle.
“Take him,” Gimli said to Shadowfax. “Follow the retreat.”
Legolas gripped Shadowfax’s mane as the horse rose onto all fours. “Do not ask me to leave you behind!” he said.
“I ask nothing of the sort, my love,” Gimli assured him, gripping Legolas’s hand tightly. “We have promises to keep to each other, after all.”
Legolas swallowed, and for a moment, his fingers threaded through Gimli’s. He gripped his hand all the tighter.
“I will be a breath behind you,” Gimli swore. “Now go.”
Shadowfax took off in a swift gallop. Gimli spared himself only a moment to watch, then turned back inside to pick up Durin’s Axe where it lay on the ground.
His eyes turned, and lingered for a moment on the corpse of the Elvenking. He had to find Gandalf, find Éowyn, find a new horse—
And though his father might balk and curse him for it, he had to do this, as well.
Durin’s Axe holstered securely, Gimli went over and picked up the body of his love’s father and walked out with it, back into the battle.
He had promises to keep.
Chapter 8: The Second Council of Elrond
Never had he seen Imladras so overrun.
Dwarves of Erebor, men of Dale and Edoras, elves of the Greenwood, soldiers and civilians, merchants and mothers – they were all packed into the glen, setting up small camps, muttering in a half-dozen different tongues. Among them, Legolas could see, were the soldiers of Gondor and Rohan who had fought at Pelennor, distributing food and supplies, answering questions where able.
With his head wound, Legolas’s count of days was skewed somewhat. He had faded in an out of consciousness on the long trek back to Rivendell, and surely would not have made it but for Shadowfax’s keen instinct. As he made it into the main courtyard at the foot of the glen, Shadowfax slowed to a stop and turned his head, nudging Legolas’s leg with his nose.
It was around this point that the elvish refugees were looking in his direction, and the whispers of “The Prince of the Greenwood!” started to spread like brushfire. He tried, best as his aching head would allow, to climb from Shadowfax’s back.
The voice was familiar to his ears, but cocking his head to hear it better was a mistake. A wave of dizziness took him, and he fell to the ground.
Within a few moments, a wide circle had formed around him. Within a few more, two hands found his shoulders and helped him back to his feet.
“Your head! Are you all right? This way – we don’t have as many healers as we need, but those we do have are set up in the lower tier of the city.”
He could name the voice now, though he could not lift his head to confirm it with his eyes. Éowyn was shouldering some of his weight, which Legolas allowed her gladly.
“Have you seen Gimli?” he asked her as she helped him stagger his way through the crowds. “He sent me on without him.”
Éowyn hesitated. “I – no, I haven’t.” Legolas’s heart sank in fear. “But many are still filtering in,” she added hastily. “He may yet turn up.”
“’Twas such a lopsided fight I fled,” he said, taking note of all the eyes that stared as Éowyn helped him into the city. “Why did you attack when the numbers were so skewed? What hope was there of victory?”
“None,” Éowyn admitted, “which is why we did not attack with victory in mind. Our mission was to evacuate Erebor and the Greenwood, Master Elf. Our mission was to rescue you.”
Something twisted in the pit of his stomach at her words, some nameless combination of adoration and guilt. Evacuations he could understand, but to storm the Halls of Thranduil for him?
“Foolish dwarf,” Legolas said, voice suddenly hitched in emotion, “to risk so much for so little.”
“Your life is no trifle, not to me, and especially not to Gimli,” she said.
Legolas kept his head low. He was sure his emotions were written all over his face, and he was not ready to handle them on his own, let alone bear them to others.
As Éowyn had promised, the lower tier of Rivendell had been turned into a makeshift infirmary, clear overspill from the modest healing halls. Beds, clearly dragged from the upper tiers of the city, were arranged in uneven rows, mostly occupied by walking wounded. Éowyn had been right – there were not nearly enough healers for all those injured.
“Varien!” Éowyn called, and when Legolas’s ears perked, she looked down and said, “Yes, that’s your Varien, your royal physic. And what a boon she’s been.”
“Prince Legolas,” came a familiar, tired voice, “it is as though you are a child all over again, tiptoeing to me past your father’s chambers so as not to let him know how you fell from your favorite tree.”
Varien was tall and stately, with dark Silvan hair to match her drawling accent. By the state of her clothes, Legolas was willing to bet she was wearing the same robe she’d fled the Greenwood in.
“The tidings are darker this time, I fear,” Legolas said.
“Aye,” Varien agreed, her eyes sweeping him for obvious injury, “far darker. Sit him down, if you don’t mind, Lady of Rohan.”
There was an unoccupied bed a few feet away. Éowyn guided him to it and helped him sit. Every part of Legolas ached, his head worst of all. A week of riding had not helped in the slightest.
Varien tilted Legolas’s head up and inspected the wound, under his hair which was now matted with dried blood. At once, she dipped into the small hip-mounted healer’s kit and applied some sweet-smelling salve to it. It stung horribly, but Legolas bit his tongue.
“Once you’re walking again,” Varien said, “we could use your skills of healing, too.”
“You’re a healer, Legolas?” said Éowyn, surprised.
“Not in any official capacity,” Legolas muttered.
“It is in the culture of elves to avoid mixing the arts of healing and battle in the same soul,” Varien said, and as the salve was applied, she picked up a candle on a nearby bed and drew it close to his eyes, to check his pupils. “Custom dictates that knowing one impedes the other. But custom only goes so far when you’re two weeks out in the Rhovanion and you get bitten by a spider. I taught him everything he knows.”
“I can handle simple patch and fix work,” Legolas said. “I’ll help you, Varien. It’s the least I can do.”
“Your eyes are dilating correctly, and with the salve, your wound will not fester,” she said, and drew back. “Take off your cloak and I’ll see to the limp—”
He must have surprised both of them with the sudden change in volume. He had jumped backward across the bed, pulling the Lórien cloak more tightly around his body. He could not let them see. Not Éowyn, and especially not Varien. Varien would know at once what had happened to him. She had been a healer longer than he’d been alive, and he knew she could deduce the cause of wounds from the shape and nature of them. If she saw what Gothmog had done to him – the bruises on his arms, the dried blood down his thighs – if she knew—
“My Prince,” Varien said, a look of deep concern suddenly replacing her usual impassiveness, “are you all right?”
“I… I’m fine, I just…”
He could hardly bear the knowing of what happened to him. How could he bear anyone else knowing?
“I’m fine,” he said again, as if trying to convince himself. “The head wound was the only wound in need of tending. I – I should like to bathe, and change, and then I can help you. I don’t…”
Yes, a bath and a change of clothes. That was what he needed.
Varien and Éowyn exchanged a knowing look. Legolas climbed off the bed on the opposite side and fled.
He had spent a few summers in Imladris when he was younger, and in that time he’d learned of subtle, secret places within the city. He knew that behind the grand council chamber, down a staircase and through thick overgrowth, there was a waterfall, clear and cool, that fed the stream running through the glen.
The blood would wash off. The bruises would fade in time. The water would help.
He dropped his cloak around his ankles at the edge of the pool. He was still bare beneath, having had no opportunity to find clothes on the ride to Rivendell. He could not stand to look down at himself, and so kept his face skyward, letting the cold water rush past his face and down his body.
The blood washed off. The pain of the bruises numbed in the cool water.
The water couldn’t get everything, of course.
It could not ease the ache at the base of his spine, a subtle but unyielding reminder of the orcish cock that had ripped him open and bruised parts of him he did not know he had.
Nor did it do much for the teeth-shaped holes in his shoulder, where in some heated frenzy Gothmog had bitten as he raped him.
And despite the way Legolas tried to lose himself in the sound of the water, it could not replace the memories. Even as he willed, desperately, to focus on his new freedom, on the hope of his love returning to his arms with a newly open affection, all he could think about was how ruined he felt, how some inscrutable part of him had been ripped away. If he laid down in the water and shut his eyes, perhaps the water would rush him out to sea, to sea, to Valinor, ai, Elbereth, the gulls had never called so loudly. What healing could there be for him in Middle-earth now? What peace could he find after this? He felt not just injured, but less, somehow, than before, less than what he was.
Some wounds, his mother had told him before she left for the Gray Havens, can only be healed by the Valar, my son. And now, finally, brutally, he understood.
He sank to his knees in the water, willed himself swallowed up by the mist rising up from the waterfall, and prayed to be swept to sea.
Gimli was so glad to see Rivendell at long last that his father would have scolded him for it. In fact, he did.
“You’ve gotten too chummy with the elves,” Glóin said.
Gandalf made a soft, strangled sound. Gimli shot him a stormy look, which went unheeded.
“I’m just glad to be off the road, Da,” Gimli said.
“Never thought I’d see a Son of Durin so happy to be at some elvish woods-home,” he answered, shaking his head.
There were more refugees there than when he’d left – a lot more. He was at once gladdened and anxious to see it. It meant that their homes had been lost to Sauron, but it also meant that now they were as safe as he could make them.
“I expect, Master Dwarf,” Gandalf said to him as they all dismounted in the courtyard, “that by tomorrow morning there will be another council. Rivendell cannot be a permanent refuge, not with the speeds at which Sauron’s forces are moving.”
Gimli nodded. “I’ll be at the council chambers at dawn,” he said.
Gandalf looked back, where over his horse, the corpse of the Elvenking lay wrapped in simple cloth. “I’ll find a place to keep his body till we have time for rites,” he said, more softly.
“Aye,” Gimli replied grimly. “I’ll inquire after how they ought be done.”
With one gentle motion, Gandalf pulled the body off the horse and carried it through the crowd. Gimli sighed and started off in another direction, when he suddenly felt a hand on his wrist.
“Boy,” Glóin said, “when are we going to talk about the axe?”
Gimli hesitated. Glóin sensed the trepidation.
“I held my tongue in the presence of those not of our kind,” he said, glancing past Gimli to Gandalf’s retreating form, “but you cannot expect me to ignore it forever. I can read the runes on it plain as you.”
“It will take some telling, Da,” Gimli said. “I still am not sure how I came to it, or perhaps how it came to me. Right at this precise moment, I have a few very important things to see to—”
“You know the legends, same as me,” Glóin insisted, the hand on his son’s wrist holding firm. “Lost to a great son of Durin, returned to his better heir.”
“I’m not Durin’s heir,” Gimli reminded him. “And I’m certainly not better than King Durin II.”
Glóin did not argue the point, but by his face, he wanted to.
“Get some rest, Da,” Gimli said. “We won’t have much time for it soon.”
Gimli headed off, rubbing the ache away in his brow. He was tired, and saddle-weary, and damn hungry, but at least he could get a good night’s sleep. At least he could find…
“There you are! You certainly kept us all waiting.”
Gimli cracked a smile. Not precisely the face he was searching for, but a welcome sight all the same. He stopped outside the lower tier, which by his reckoning had been repurposed as a healing hall.
“Éowyn of Rohan,” Gimli said as she approached. “I see you made it out of Mirkwood with nary a scratch.”
“I see you made it out with several,” she returned, smiling, hands on her hips.
“Trying to show me up, lassie?”
She laughed. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said. “But you should see those wounds tended to. I think I have just the healer. Legolas!”
Gimli’s heart stuttered in his chest. When Éowyn looked over her shoulder, Gimli followed her gaze. Before long he could see a fair head standing, turning, and it was as though everything in Gimli’s gut flipped upside-down.
“He has been anxiously awaiting your return,” she said, smiling.
The voice was distant, but it scarcely mattered. Gimli’s heart leapt at the sound of it all the same. He stumbled forward, but Legolas ran, carving his way deftly through the crowds of walking wounded.
When at last the distance between them collapsed, Legolas fell to his knees and embraced Gimli tight, and Gimli held returned it in equal measure, and by Mahal, to have the elf in his arms – he could not put to words if he tried what weights were lifted from his soul. They had both lost so much, but Gimli had him, and somehow he felt as though with that he could bear the rest.
“My heart never left you for an instant,” Legolas said to him, voice tight with emotion.
“Nor mine yours,” Gimli said, and put one hand on the back of his neck, pressing his forehead to Legolas’s. “Mere words cannot express – every moment with your lack—”
Legolas kissed him, and for a moment it was though all of Arda stopped spinning.
Soft hands on his face, fingers curling in his beard. The smell of healing herbs and spring flora. And lips, so warm and soft and yielding that Gimli felt as if he had come home.
Long had he imagined what Legolas’s kiss might be like. The reality had exceeded all expectation.
Éowyn delicately cleared her throat.
The spell broke rather quickly. Legolas sprang backward.
“Perhaps not where unkind eyes might see,” she said, tapping the side of her nose.
“You knew,” Gimli said, somewhere between a guess and an accusation.
She only laughed. “Please, I knew before either of you did.”
The tips of Legolas’s ears went rather pink, but he did a fair enough job of collecting himself.
“Love between two men or women is not so strange in Rohan,” she said, “although love between races… I’m afraid you’re on your own with that.”
“Let’s all be thankful your help is not required, then,” Gimli said.
“You’re injured,” Legolas observed suddenly. “Ai, Valar, I was so caught up—”
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Gimli said.
“Sit,” Legolas ordered, and even if he’d cared to, he doubted he could defy him.
“My Lady,” said Gimli, as Legolas steered him to the nearest bed, “at dawn, we will need your presence in the council chambers.”
“I’ll be there,” she promised, and strode away.
Legolas was already peeling off his armor.
“Lad,” Gimli said, “before you—”
“There’s an arrow in your chest!”
“—Yes, see, that’s what I’d meant to warn you about.”
It was just below his ribs, caught at such an angle that it was hidden under his cloak.
Legolas was muttering a long stream of birdlike Elvish, and Gimli did not speak the tongue, but he could tell by tenor alone that he was likely swearing colorfully. When his words were done, he switched to Westron just long enough for Gimli to hear, “—foolish dwarf, you should have tended this before a week-long horse ride!”
“It hasn’t hit anything important,” Gimli assured him. “I’d have felt it. And I know enough about battlefield medicine to know that if you pull things out without a healer nearby, bleeding gets worse before it gets better—”
Gimli sighed, but pulled the axe off his back and set it down to comply. Legolas was dipping his hands into a wash basin on the floor by his bed, back to muttering in Elvish.
“I didn’t know you were a healer,” Gimli said.
“And you should thank your stars I am, since apparently you’re the sort to keep an arrow to the ribs hidden for six days—”
He applied a salve around the puncture. Gimli hissed in pain.
“Yes, I hope that hurt,” Legolas scolded.
“You should not be so cross with a dwarf who’s been shot,” Gimli groused.
Legolas gave him a withering look. “I’m going to have to pull it out,” he said. “Brace yourself. On three?”
Gimli took a breath and nodded, steeling his nerves.
“One,” Legolas said, and pulled. Gimli howled, but the arrow came free. At once, he felt cloth pressed to the wound to stem the bleeding.
“What happened to three?” Gimli wheezed.
“It hurts less if you’re not expecting it,” Legolas answered as he packed the wound and began pulling Gimli’s armor off.
“Easily said by the one doing the pulling!”
Legolas ducked closer to the floor to get a better view of the wound, now unobstructed. “No major blood vessels were hit, by my reckoning,” he said, “though you’ll be lucky if you avoid infection, with how long you left the damn thing in there.”
“Dwarves are made of hardier stuff than that,” Gimli said, between gasps of pain.
“Sit up, I’ll wrap the wound.”
Bandages must have been in short supply, based on the number of wounded filling the makeshift healing hall, but somehow Legolas still had a roll of silk wrappings, which he tied tightly around Gimli’s chest.
“They’ll need changing every other day at least,” Legolas said as he secured the bandages in place with a knot. “Are there any other arrows in you I ought to know about?”
“That was the only one,” Gimli promised. Legolas picked the arrow up off the floor where he’d dropped it and turned it over in his hands.
“Orcish,” he observed.
“Aye. In getting Gandalf out of the fray, I made myself open to a wily orcish archer.”
Legolas was staring at the arrow. His expression had changed, though Gimli could not quite name which emotion had appeared there.
“And what of your wounds?” Gimli asked, when the silence had lapsed. “I hope you were tended to.”
“Everything that a healer could mend has been seen to,” Legolas answered as he spun the arrow between his fingers. “But there are some things that no physic can fix.”
Gimli did not need to ask to understand his words, although the reminding hurt him more than he’d expected it to.
“Time will,” Gimli assured him. “Gentleness will. I cannot imagine what hells you have been through, amrâlimê, but it is a miracle that you still stand. If you have not been broken after this, there’s nothing in this world that can do it.”
“Are you sure?” Legolas asked, finally lifting his eyes. There was a new vulnerability to be found there. “I cannot lie, Gimli. I feel deeply and profoundly broken.”
Gimli turned, threw his legs over the side of his bed, and pulled Legolas’s head forward so once again his forehead was pressed against his own.
“Bent, perhaps, but not broken. Wounded, but not fallen. Your injured heart deceives you, and after all it has endured, I cannot blame it its grief.”
Gimli’s hand trailed down, covering the great black hand still burned onto his neck. Legolas tensed under his fingertips, but did not flinch away.
“You will come through this,” Gimli promised. “We both will. Promises,” he said.
Legolas swallowed. “Promises,” he echoed.
Gimli kissed him, once, gently – and, thankfully, more subtly. When they broke apart, Legolas’s brow once again rested on his.
“Do you know what I’m going to do with this arrow?”
Gimli hummed inquiringly.
“I’m going to stick it into the neck of Sauron the Deceiver.”
A smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Not that I wouldn’t like to see it,” he said, “but the last time you fired at him…”
“Orcish arrows are made from metal and fire glass,” Legolas said. “They cannot burn.”
Gimli chuckled. “That is an excellent point.”
“My heart is yours, Gimli son of Glóin. Keep it well, for an elf’s heart, once given, rests forever with its bearer, from this world till the end of this Song and well beyond.”
Several feet away and half ducked behind a curtain, Glóin was staring hard into the floor.
He had nearly talked himself out of the obvious, before he’d seen his son lean in and kiss the bloody damned elf.
“I shall keep it well, ghivashel, if you keep mine in kind.”
Glóin would have laughed, but his chest felt too hollow. Ghivashel, he said! Was his son so sure he’d found his treasure? In an elf?
“Always,” the elf swore, “always.”
There were too many things in Glóin’s heart to settle on one. There was anger (a noble son of Durin, uttering secret words in their ancient tongue to an elf!) and betrayal (of all the elves in the world, the son of the Elvenking?) and even fear in the midst of it all (was the boy out of his mind? Did he not see how he was signing himself up for a lifetime of misery and rejection?), and Glóin could not be pulled in so many directions at once.
A man Glóin could forgive – among dwarves, such things were not unheard of, though rare they remained – but an elf, the elf son of Thranduil – it was too much, far too much.
And as he stewed in his resentment and his anger, he could hear his son uttering long lines in Khuzdul, sacred words, words of binding and love, and his heart sank. Long had he wished his son would utter his Oath, but to an elf? To an elf?
“I know these words,” the elf said. “These were the words you whispered into the Palantír.”
“An oath of love undying,” Gimli answered. “Once uttered, held to forever. They’re words of betrothal among the Longbeards.”
“Then you must teach me these words so I can answer in kind.”
Glóin could hear no more – his son, teaching Khuzdul to an elf, to the son of Thranduil! – but as he stormed from the healing hall, he heard more anyway:
“Nothing could bring me greater joy,” Gimli said, voice slanted by emotion, and Glóin’s stomach lurched in fury and grief.
It was, Legolas supposed, the Second Council of Elrond, but only very technically.
For a start, there were barely enough people to call it a council at all – himself and Gimli, Gandalf, Éowyn, Faramir, Glóin, Prince-Now-King Thorin III, and an entirely and obviously reluctant Elrond.
And therein was the second key distinction – Elrond had not called this council. In fact, by his stony, distant expression, Legolas could only assume that he did not want to be here for it at all. Even as Gandalf stood and cleared his throat, still the Lord of Rivendell stared mutely into the middle distance.
“Now that we’re all assembled,” Gandalf said, “or at least all those that remain, we should discuss our course of action.”
“Who wants to start?” Faramir asked with mock joviality. No one laughed.
“I suppose I might as well begin by pointing out the obvious,” Éowyn said. “We cannot risk staying here much longer.”
“Agreed,” Gimli returned. “But that raises the question of where. Where is safe in these times? Especially since we have all three of the Three Rings, which we know Sauron covets.”
“Yes,” Gandalf said. “The rings. Legolas, you were—” (here he paused, and hesitated on his choice of word) “—in his counsel.”
Legolas flinched, and without thinking rubbed one hand along the blackened shape around his throat.
“Do you know what he means to do with the rings? He cannot wield them himself, as they were made independent of his influence, and they are useless without bearers.”
“I know not the specifics,” Legolas answered. “All I can say is that he was prepared to offer my father one of them. He refused, to his ruin.”
Gimli put one comforting hand on his back. On the other side of the table, Glóin seethed silently.
“Thinking of it through his eyes,” Éowyn said, “that would be the ideal situation, would it not? New elven bearers, bent willingly to his authority. Though I imagine he’d have to alter them somehow.”
At the word “alter,” Gimli shifted in his spot, as if remembering something.
“As long as they exist, they are a target to him,” Gandalf said. “I hesitate to say this, but it may be wiser if they were destroyed—”
“Gandalf,” Gimli said, and all eyes turned to him. “I – when the Lady Galadriel gave me Nenya, she – she said something rather strange.”
“Strange?” Faramir echoed.
Gandalf frowned, leaned forward on his palms across the table. “The Lady is – was – known for her gift of prophecy,” he said. “If she uttered to you something odd, there’s likely more meaning in it than you realize. Speak, speak.”
“She put it into my hand,” Gimli said, staring down into his open palm, as if reliving the memory, “and then she said to me, ‘do not put it on, not as it is now.’ I asked her what she meant by as it is now, but she had not the time to answer.”
Legolas wrapped his arms around his middle. He could remember all too well why she could not answer.
“Not as it is now?” Gandalf repeated, and sat down heavily.
“She said also that ‘old things must be made new.’ I have been puzzling over her words for some time, but have found no clarity.”
Silence fell for a while. Gandalf thoughtfully filled and lit his pipe, staring into the table as he pondered.
Then, in a very small voice, Prince-Now-King Thorin III said, “Gimli, you’re a master forger and smith, aren’t you?”
More silence – harder and deeper than before. Slowly, all eyes turned to Gimli.
“I—” Gimli began, haltingly, “—well, yes, but—”
“That could be what she meant,” Éowyn said, sounding breathless. “Old things must be made new. Gandalf, is that possible? Could the Three Rings be reforged?”
Gandalf’s pipe, though now lit, had not been pulled upon. The wizard was staring, eyes unfocused, at Gimli, as though his mind was moving too fast for his body to catch up.
“Gandalf,” Gimli said with sudden haste, “a smith I may be, but I have no experience with magic. I do not know it and I cannot wield it. And I certainly cannot be expected to infuse three rings with it!”
“Gimli,” Legolas intoned, leaning toward him, “if the rings are reforged, the magic may change on its own.”
“Or it could be lost altogether!” Gimli said.
“But you found Durin’s Axe!” Thorin cried.
“Quiet, boy!” Glóin barked, but Thorin did not heed him.
“You wield the weapon of Durin the Deathless, at the end of all things, just as the old legends said! Gimli, you could be—”
“My King,” Gimli grit, “I beg you silence.”
It was Gandalf, who had finally, it seemed, found his voice. He was staring at Gimli with sudden intensity, clutching his pipe so tightly that it faintly trembled in his grip.
“What forge would you trust to do this thing?”
“Wizard, you cannot ask me to reforge the Three Rings! My expertise lies in weapons and shieldcraft, I would not even know how to begin forging a magic ring!”
“Answer my question, Gimli,” Gandalf said, and he had never sounded so serious.
Gimli was floundering, looking frantically between every face at the table, and they were all staring back at him.
Under the table, Legolas gripped his hand. Gimli breathed.
“The forge in Erebor—” he began.
“Lost,” Glóin muttered.
“I… I heard tell of a mighty forge in Khazad-dûm—”
“Known too well by the enemy,” Gandalf said.
“It might still be occupied,” Legolas agreed.
Mind racing behind his eyes, Gimli finally said, “Perhaps in Tumunzahar, my childhood home. There is a kingly forge there.”
“The Blue Mountains?” Éowyn said uncertainly. “It’s quite far.”
“But defensible,” Thorin added. “And guaranteed to be free from orcs.”
“Not a bad place to evacuate, as they go,” Legolas said.
“An elf willingly going underground,” Glóin returned, his voice hard and jeering. “The times are dark indeed.”
Legolas frowned at Glóin, but said nothing.
“With enough supplies, it could be the ideal place to hold out while the rings are reforged,” Gandalf said.
“Gandalf, again I urge you to consider the fact that I do not know how to forge magic rings!”
“Neither did you know how to lead an army of men,” Gandalf reminded him, voice dour, “but you adapted, as have we all adapted.”
“That’s different,” Gimli insisted.
“I don’t think it is,” Legolas said. “This is the end of the world, Gimli. None of us here are prepared for this doom, but it is upon us anyway. We must do things that are uncomfortable, improbable, impossible. And fail they might, but at least we will have died trying.”
“If the dwarf says he cannot do it,” Faramir interjected, sour, “then he cannot do it.”
Gandalf leveled him with a vicious look. “Do not project your own fears upon others, son of Denethor.”
“We all have the same fears, wizard. We fear the death and subjugation of all free peoples. I’d say it’s a very reasonable thing to fear.”
“Faramir,” Éowyn hissed, sounding angry.
“And why should we die trying?” Faramir demanded, rising, raging. “What good is virtue and honor and pretty sentiments about intention at the end of the world? Would it not be less painful and more kind to end things sooner than to drag out the pain with mad fantasies of reforging magic rings?”
“Sit down, Faramir!” Gandalf thundered. “Make your own decisions as you will, walk into Sauron’s own blade if you will! But you do not have the authority to make that choice for the ten-thousand refugees in this city! You do not have the authority to inflict doom on your people, and if you think you do, then you inherited your father’s same madness!”
That cowed Faramir into silence. He dropped his eyes, shoulders shaking, and sank into his chair.
“Hope is dead,” Elrond drawled, drunkenly, into the silence.
“Then we shall build more, Lord of Rivendell,” Gimli said.
Legolas turned, and despite everything, smiled.
“To Tumunzahar, then,” Gimli continued, “chasing mad fantasies of reforging magic rings.”
A breath seemed to release from the room at that moment. Not relief, not gladness, but rather something like determination.
“To Tumunzahar,” Gandalf said.
Chapter 9: Rivendell Falls
They announced the moment the council ended that they would be evacuating Rivendell at first light. The reactions from the refugees could charitably be called mixed. Legolas could not blame them their reluctance. Many of them had only just arrived, and had young children or wounded family to consider. Still, after the word was given, even from his bedroom on the highest tier of the city, Legolas could see the refugees bustling and packing, readying for the journey.
“If the words are too hard on your tongue, you need not say them just for the sake of saying them. I know your heart, and it is more than enough for me.”
Legolas turned back toward the bed, where Gimli, in just his underclothes, was sitting on the edge of the bed.
“I want to say it,” Legolas answered, moving to his side and sitting down next to him on the bed. “I want to honor your culture.”
The answer stirred something soft and subtle on Gimli’s face, drawing a strange and thoughtful smile.
“Once more,” Legolas entreated. “Slowly. My tongue will learn to stumble its way through all those glottal stops.”
He laughed but obliged, repeating the oath piece by slow piece. Parsed so finely, even Legolas was able to utter it with some semblance of clarity.
“There,” Gimli said, smiling. “By dwarvish culture, we are bound and betrothed. Granted, in a more formal setting, there would need to be permissions given on both sides of the family, but under the circumstances…”
Legolas dropped his eyes. “I don’t think we could expect a familial blessing under the best of circumstances.”
“No,” Gimli agreed, voice grim.
Legolas collapsed backward onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. Gimli laid down in kind beside him, tucking his arms beneath his head.
“What of dwarvish marriage?” Legolas asked. “How are they done?”
“Oh, in grand affair,” Gimli said. “A dwarf will use any excuse to throw a proper party, and there’s no better excuse than a wedding.”
Legolas smiled and looked across at him, hands folding on his stomach.
“Great feasts, roaring fires, the finest sweet ales, dancing, singing – one of the bawdier Longbeard traditions involves an elaborate kidnapping scenario for both parties, where they are stolen from the feast, bound, and paraded past any number of handsome and half-naked dwarrows to try to tempt them at last ditch from their marriage bed!”
Surprised, Legolas laughed loudly, and Gimli laughed with him.
“It’s all in good fun, of course,” he said, through his laughter. “Per tradition, both bride and groom resist temptation, and their captors give up in despair, releasing them back to their love, whereupon the marriage is consummated.”
“I wish we had time for such an affair,” Legolas said. “You are owed a grand and decadent wedding.”
Gimli made a dismissive sound. “I’m not owed anything. I count it as a blessing that I was able to utter my Oath at all, after everything that’s happened, let alone hear it returned to me. Albeit in somewhat slanted Khuzdul.” He grinned at Legolas, who could only smile sheepishly.
They were silent for a while. They both knew that they should likely be sleeping, but Legolas suspected that Gimli, like himself, could not find rest so easily these days. Legolas felt as though he hadn’t truly slept since Pelennor.
“What of elves?” Gimli asked, following a lapse of comfortable silence. “What is an elvish wedding like?”
“Nothing like what you’ve described, I fear,” Legolas answered with a smile. “There may be some small feast upon the betrothal, but we hold no special ceremony for the marriage itself. It’s considered quite private.”
The answer seemed to surprise Gimli. “Private? Why?”
“I suppose because elves are rather private by nature,” he answered. Legolas rolled over so that his head was tucked against the crux of Gimli’s neck and shoulder, and at once Gimli’s fingers found purchase in his hair. “The couple utters to each other a very personal vow, and the marriage is consummated. It is the bedding itself that is the act of marriage within Sindar culture.”
For a time, Gimli said nothing, though his hand continued to draw through Legolas’s hair.
Eventually, he said, “Vows, hm? I think I could do an elvish marriage vow.”
Legolas lifted his chin to look up, only to find Gimli looking back down. “Hopefully better than I could do a Khuzdul vow,” he said.
“My instinct is to utter it now,” Gimli said, suddenly sounding serious, “for in these dark times I do not know how long we may be assured the opportunity. And if I am owed a grand dwarvish wedding, then surely you are owed a vow as you would hear it spoken.”
Another moment of silence. Legolas wetted his lips, then sat up on one elbow. “Just so,” he said. “I have not your mithril tongue, but I know well enough what I would swear to you.
“I swear,” Legolas said, “that my love for you will know neither end nor diminishment. I swear that I will love you truly and completely, not in spite of our differences, but because of them.”
Gimli’s face had softened. Legolas came closer, pressing more of his long, warm body into Gimli.
“I swear that I will fight with you, by you, and for you,” Legolas said, “that when you are injured, I will heal you. If your breath is stolen, I will breathe for you. If your heart is stopped, I will beat it for you. And when mortality finally separates us, I swear to keep your love in me through the end of this Song and into the next.”
For a moment Gimli said nothing. He swallowed something thick in his throat, then pulled Legolas’s brow against his own.
“No mithril tongue, eh?” he muttered, and Legolas laughed wetly. Despite himself, the emotion of it was taking him.
“I swear,” Gimli said, “that I will make up for my short life by loving you as fiercely and all-encompassingly as you will allow me. I’ll love you enough for ten lifetimes, to tide you over to the end of this Song, where I swear I will find you again.”
Something hot hitched in Legolas’s throat. It took more control than he’d anticipated to keep it down.
“I swear to protect you, as best as I’m able,” Gimli continued, sliding one hand around Legolas’s back and pulling him in closer. “I’ll take any blow for you, end any threat to you, and fight till the last with you, by you, and for you. I swear to be your sense of safety when all else is darkness—”
Quite without meaning to, Legolas threw himself forward and kissed him, fingers threading through fire-red hair. Gimli’s surprise lasted only as long as the breath that was knocked from him – before long, he was meeting his intensity, pressing into him, hands on the small of the elf’s back to pull him closer.
“Ghivashel,” he muttered, rolling onto him—
—there was weight on his stomach – the orc had straddled him. Sudden terror joined the grief and pain, and Legolas struggled. Gothmog seized both his hands before he could strike and pinned them down hard—
Every nerve that had been warmed by his love’s vow was abruptly and brutally rubbed raw. Suddenly Legolas was not in his lover’s arms, he was held down on the floor of the Halls of Thranduil, and there was a shadow over him, tearing at his armor, snarling in Black Speech.
He started to shake.
—pieces of ring mail went rolling away across the floor as Gothmog ripped at his armor. Legolas screamed again, but not loud enough. He struggled, but not with enough force. Every horror he could have imagined—
Fear and bile rose in the back of his throat. His eyes burned with fire-hot tears. “Nn – nnnn—”
“By the stars, Legolas, you’re trembling…”
—held him down hard and forced himself into Legolas with no preamble, and he could only scream—
Hands on his shoulders pulled him upright, forcing out some tight-held breath which released as a sob. He could not see. He could not move. He could barely breathe through the wracking, choking sobs.
There were hands on his face, but he could hardly detect them through the numb fear that had settled into his skin. There was a voice in his ear, but it sounded so far away.
“Come back,” the distant voice pleaded. “Come back to me, ghivashel, my love, come back.”
It took him some time to learn again where he was – to feel the softness of the bed beneath him rather than stone, to see the bright moonlight through the window rather than the orange fire from the sconces on the wall.
“I should have—” Soft, hissed swearing in Khuzdul. “I might have known this would happen if I pressed. Ghivashel, amrâlimê, can you hear me?”
Though his throat had never felt tighter, he gasped, “I’m sorry. I…”
“Don’t apologize.” A kiss landed by his temple. “Don’t you dare apologize.”
And he was grateful, so grateful, that Gimli asked no more. He was so grateful that when Legolas curled tightly onto his side, Gimli did nothing more than lie beside him, pull blankets over them both, and whisper his Oath like a prayer.
There had been too many funerals that day for Elrond’s taste. The cemetery nestled in the back of the garden of Imladras had seen too many new occupants. Men and dwarves and wood elves in freshly-dug graves and newly-built cairns, denied much of the ceremony deserved for lack of time and resources. Captains buried among commoners, the Elvenking entombed beside children – his own daughter, laid to rest among so many strangers.
Even as all others filtered away to find what rest they could before the evacuation in the morning, Elrond remained. He sat beside his daughter’s cairn, by a small creek that ran along the side of the cemetery, eyes closed, and for the first time in his long, long life, hearing the water as more than just water, but as a call to the West.
He regretted not leaving with the rest of his people in that moment. He could be halfway to the Shore by now, closer to his wife, his daughter, his sons. He could be far away from this anguish.
For a while, he turned his head to the West, where the moon was low on the horizon, like a lighthouse calling him home. And for that while, as he wondered if he could just leave, just take a horse and steal away like a thief in the night, something began to warm in his pocket.
It took him a moment to realize that it was Vilya.
The Lord of Rivendell hesitated, but only for a moment. He pulled the ring from his pocket, where between his fingertips it became so hot that it nearly burned his skin. Elrond stared into its blue gem, trying to divine the meaning of the heat. The last time it had been this hot…
He surged to his feet, grief momentarily forgotten in a wave of fear. He raced from the cemetery, fleet elvish feet silent through in the grass.
He climbed the spires of the city as fast as he could, moving silently past halls and corridors full of refugees, sleeping in bedrolls on the floor. Up and up and up, to the highest tier, where when he threw open the window facing northeast to the High Pass, he could see a fearsome red glow rising up.
He gripped Vilya hard in one hand. Sauron was coming.
“Imladras!” he thundered, voice traveling far down, into the courtyard full of tents and dying campfires. “Echuion! Echuion!”
Legolas awoke with a jerk.
Even freshly conscious, he knew the voice of the Lord of Rivendell, and he knew the deathly seriousness therewithin.
He looked down and shook Gimli awake with one hand. The dwarf snorted and rolled over with a grunt in Khuzdul.
“Gimli,” he hissed. “Something’s wrong.”
Then, from above their heads, a tremendous, bellowing roar, deep and terrible and familiar.
Whatever lingering grogginess was in Gimli evaporated like water on hot iron.
“Fellbeast,” he said, like a curse.
Legolas sprang from the bed and threw open the double doors onto the balcony. Already he could hear the call being risen, see the refugees in the courtyard far below waking up to the alarm.
“On the air,” Legolas said, “sulphur and smoke. The Deceiver is close.”
Gimli was already pulling his armor on. “Get down there and start the evacuation,” he said. “I’m going to wake Gandalf and the others to rally the troops to the defense. Have them make west, tell them to keep to the road and make for Ered Luin.”
Legolas had nothing to grab but a pair of knives, a quiver, and a bow left over from the Rivendell armory. Just as Gimli was pulling on his helm and heading for the door, he called, “Be careful!”
He stopped, though only for a moment. “Promises,” he said, like a reminder.
Legolas smiled, replied in kind with a soft, “Promises,” and then vaulted over the balcony and slid down the steep roofline toward the courtyard.
He leapt deftly from roof to roof, catching on columns to change trajectory and sprinting along balustrades. As he ran, he joined the growing cries to evacuate. Already he could see the refugees scrambling through the courtyard, grabbing bags and trunks and children.
“Take the road west!” he cried. “Make for the Blue Mountains!”
He was only two stories from the ground when a young dwarrowdam in the courtyard below, looking up and past him, suddenly cried, “Elvenking, behind you!”
Scarcely did he have time to acknowledge what she’d called him. He turned, and only just in time to see an enormous fellbeast streaking down toward him, its massive jaws open, teeth wet with acidic saliva.
Legolas ripped his white knife out from its scabbard and held it hard and steady with both hands. The fellbeast did not have time to pull away, and the blade caught its cheek and dragged, spewing black blood. Its attempts to escape only sent the blade further and further down its neck, until it had one long, twelve-foot gash from mouth to wing, spurting lifeblood.
The fellbeast gurgled wetly in its attempt at a scream and its wings flapped once, taking it high, before stopping. Its body twisted and began to fall.
More screams came from the courtyard. The fellbeast was set to land on top of anyone too slow to move from its path. Legolas looked down, swearing in Sindarin – the petite, dark-haired dwarrowdam who’d warned him was standing, paralyzed, beneath its growing shadow.
Legolas launched himself off the edge of the roof where he stood, falling free two stories, landing in a hard roll that caught the dwarrow and tumbled her away with him, mere seconds before the fellbeast crashed into the ground and demolished a tree and several tents.
When his head stopped ringing, he looked once at the fellbeast to ensure it was dead, then down at the dwarrowdam.
“Are you all right?”
Her beard and hair were matted with twigs and her eyes were as wide as saucers, but she nodded dumbly. She was, if nothing else, scrambling to her feet.
“Good,” Legolas said. “Quickly, now, make for the western road out. We are evacuating into Tumunzahar.”
“Thank you, Elvenking,” she said, when she managed to find her voice.
“I’m not—” he began, but stopped himself. What did technical rules of succession matter now, least of all in semantic terms? “You’re welcome. Please, go!”
She nodded again, and took off running. Legolas rose, knees aching from the hard landing.
DOOM, from the far end of the glen, and the ground rumbled in a familiar, ominous frequency. Legolas leapt up and over the fellbeast’s body to get a better look across the small ravine separating the courtyard from the end of the High Pass leading into the glen.
Three things he saw at once, and his mind could not decide which was more important – the foul armies of Sauron rushing into the glen like a dark tide, the towering figure of Sauron himself with mace and Ring in hand, or—
He was unarmored, and barely armed. He had nothing but long, curving elvish blades in both hands, and was standing in front of Sauron the deceiver, teeth bared, defiant, doom-driven, grief-sick.
He was going to get himself killed, Legolas knew. The loss of his daughter made him just mad enough to risk it. He still had Vilya.
Swearing again, Legolas launched himself forward, taking off again across rooftops and balconies to the other side of the ravine.
Gimli had not yet made it to the lowest tier of Rivendell when he hard the familiar horn of Rohan blowing. As he came into a rapidly-emptying makeshift healing hall, the first familiar face he saw was the royal physic of Mirkwood, who was barking out orders to the other healers as they loaded the wounded into wagons.
“Varien!” he called, drawing her eye. “Where is the Lady Éowyn? Gandalf, Lord Faramir?”
“They just came through!” she shouted back. “They’re rallying the fighting fit in the eastern courtyard!”
He nodded his thanks, hefted Durin’s Axe, and sprinted. Thank Mahal they were quick on their feet, he thought, as he fought upstream through the rush of refugees. It did not take him long to find a fight – stragglers had managed to get deep into the city, and as one of them came barreling toward him, screaming in Black Speech, Gimli spun and caught him mid-run with the edge of his axe. The orc stumbled to the ground, and before Gimli could turn to finish the job, a sharp silver blade swung down and relieved the orc of its head.
Éowyn stood over the corpse as Gimli turned, already painted in orcish blood, Andúril in hand.
“Good,” she said, “you’re here.”
“The troops?” he asked, foregoing any other words that might risk precious time.
“At the eastern gate now,” she answered with a gesture, where Gimli saw, briefly, a crush of battle near a large stone arch, “though a vanguard got through before we could meet them.”
It was Merry, to Gimli’s horror, wielding a shortsword and shield, curly hair tamped down beneath an ill-fitting helm.
“What in the Mahal’s name—!”
“Gandalf calls for your presence at the front!” Merry said.
“Did you give him that armor?” Gimli asked of Éowyn as he gestured emphatically at Merry.
Éowyn only lifted her chin in defiance. “Would you ask him not to fight?”
Gimli sensed from her tone that there was more weight to this question than she was letting on. He had not the time to argue in any case.
“By your leave, My Lady, and on your head if he should fall!”
She did not answer, only sprinted past him to join Merry in the fray. Further on, Gimli could see Faramir with his broadsword and Gandalf with his staff.
Gimli holstered Durin’s Axe over one shoulder and hurried up a natural incline, to a small knoll which allowed him a good view of the lower tier of the city. He could see the refugees still scrambling to evacuate, maybe a quarter of them safely now beyond the limits of Rivendell. They needed more time.
He glanced back at the fight still raging by the eastern gate. He hoped they could make enough.
Elrond, the mad fool, was fighting Sauron alone.
Already he’d caught two grievous wounds from the Deceiver’s mace, but still he swung, elvish metal clattering on obsidian armor.
In Legolas’s quiver, among the elvish arrows he’d taken from the Rivendell armory, was one black, orcish arrow, the one he’d pulled from Gimli’s chest, the one he’d swore to put into Sauron’s neck. And even as he came within a good range to make the shot, even as he found the rough-hewn arrow and nocked it, he hesitated on the draw.
The last time he’d fired upon Sauron had proved the worst mistake of his life. He was beginning to think there was no more dangerous place on Arda to be than at the bladepoint of Sauron’s attention.
But Lord Elrond needs back-up, his mind reasoned. If he could draw Sauron’s eye for a moment, it could give him the opportunity to get away.
If he would get away, his cynicism replied, and Legolas still hesitated.
It was a gamble either way, but it was not in his nature not to take a risk to save a friend. But still, but still he hesitated, hands shaking, arrow not drawn. He was afraid, he finally realized, afraid to engage Sauron again. He could not remember the last time he had been so truly, utterly afraid to fight. The black hand around his throat pulsed in grim reminder, and his fingers twitched nervously along the bowstring.
Before his mind could come to a decision, Elrond screamed and went flying.
Sauron had caught him with a wide arc of his mace, hitting him in the middle. Elrond went flying, not just away, but across – over a sharp gap in the ravine and across onto the balcony where Legolas still stood, hand hesitating on an undrawn bow. His body went crashing the wooden balustrade, sending wood splintering and flying, and sending Elrond’s bloodied, broken body rolling across its debris.
With a sharp intake of air, Legolas put the orcish arrow back into his quiver and ran to Elrond’s side. It did not take more than a look – even the novice healer in Legolas could see the mortal wounds, plain as day. The flanges on Sauron’s mace had cut across his chest and left arm, and from his shoulder up to his right eye, which Legolas could no longer find in its bloodied socket.
Elrond was gasping, voice strangled with blood. When Legolas grabbed his arm, Elrond grabbed him back in kind.
“My Lord,” Legolas said, “what madness possessed you to face him alone?”
“Grief,” was all Elrond could answer, before the blood in his throat came out by way of wet, ugly coughing. When next he found breath, he said, “Thranduilion—”
Gripped with sudden fear, Legolas looked back over his shoulder. Sauron was standing precisely where he had been, dark and terrible, the heat rising off his armor and warping the air around him. Every instinct in Legolas screamed at the same time – run, go, now. But he felt paralyzed.
Elrond’s hand on Legolas’s arm lowered. Something pressed into his palm, small and hot.
Swallowing his fear, Legolas looked down. The ring Vilya was in his hand, and behind him, Legolas could hear Sauron laughing like distant thunder.
“I go to join my wife and daughter,” Elrond gasped, more blood spilling from between his lips. “I would not make them wait. Go.”
“Go,” he said, and Legolas stood.
Sauron’s laughter grew louder. Hands fumbling, Legolas shoved the ring into his tunic pocket.
A familiar magic snaked around his throat and behind his eyes. Fear and fury flamed in him all at once. He knew this feeling, now better than he knew himself. It was the feeling that had ruined him, blackened his throat and burned his eyes. Sauron was trying to take him again.
But now – now, he had promises to keep, and the knowing of them raged back against the dark spell.
Never, his mind told him, never ever again!
The magic shattered even before it settled. Legolas did not look back. He ran.
The laughter had stopped.
By the time the last of the refugees were racing down the western road out of Rivendell, Gimli had already found and mounted Shadowfax, and had all remaining horses saddled and ready.
“Go, go, go!” he called, as soldiers by turns scrambled past him and onto the horses. “Follow the refugees west! Make for the Blue Mountains!”
He only needed to hear the voice. He turned and stuck down one hand. Merry grabbed it at once, and Gimli swung him up behind him.
“There are so many!” he said, panting, looking over his shoulder. Crushed all together in one small courtyard, it had been almost easy to forget that the army that pressed in was by now nearly a hundred thousand in number, orcs, goblins, Uruk-hai, fellbeasts, spiders, and wargs.
“That’s why we’re leaving!” Gimli answered.
Merry made a sound of surprise. Éowyn had charged into his field of vision, running through two orcs with a bloodied black Andúril. As they choked and gagged, she kicked them off the end of her sword and, in one fluid motion, swung onto the nearest unattended horse.
“Though with the Lady fighting at our side, you almost feel bad for the orcs!” Merry added.
Gimli huffed once, en lieu of laughter, for which he did not have the breath. “She is a fearsome one, and she does the memory of Aragorn well with his blade.”
“Riders of Rohan,” she cried, “soldiers of Gondor, men of the West! Ride, ride now!”
“I still think I was right, what I said about Andúril needing a wielder,” Merry intoned, as Gimli kicked Shadowfax and they took off at speed, “but I think you were also right. You are not the leader of men who needs wield it.”
Gimli agreed, but only privately.
With Shadowfax at the helm, the retreating soldiers of Gondor and Rohan, both on horseback and on foot, were gifted great speed, and they took off out of Rivendell as light and fast as air. But the armies of Mordor were sped, too, by the Ring and its newly empowered wielder. The orcs came first, loping like wolves with unnatural quickness through the western gate of Rivendell, followed shortly by the Uruk-hai, whose thunderous footsteps shook the ground.
Sauron’s armies were gaining quickly. Far too quickly.
And as if to add insult to what injury they had already endured, a massive fellbeast came soaring out from behind the highest spire of Rivendell, its leathery wings beating loudly in the air. Gimli swore as he saw it, and turned forward again, mind racing.
“We need to take that beast down!” Faramir cried, who at some point had raced up alongside Gimli. “Lord Dwarf, where’s that elven friend of yours? If what I’ve heard of him is true, he could blind it!”
Something crushed tightly and uncomfortably in Gimli’s chest. He hadn’t seen him, not since they parted ways. If Gimli knew him at all, he’d have stayed to fight. He looked back over his shoulder – he could not see him in the group behind him, either on horseback or on foot.
“I know not where he is,” Gimli said.
“I think I do,” Merry returned, voice pitched, and Gimli wrenched around.
He had turned just in time to see the fellbeast dive – but not for the armies of Gondor or Rohan, but directly into the vanguard of orcs, where it snatched up five or six in its massive jaws and sent pieces of them falling back down.
Where the fellbeast’s true rider was, Gimli could not say, but holding its reins hard, long cloak caught high in the wind—
“Mahal give me strength, you have got to be goddamned kidding me!”
—was Legolas, who was already pulling the beast in a tight circle for another bite. Its massive wings went crashing through the first twenty lines at least, and it seemed to swallow three Uruk soldiers whole.
“Did you even have an exit strategy when you took the reins of a bloody damned Mordor fellbeast, you mad elf?” Gimli thundered at the sky, knowing full well that Legolas could not possibly hear him, but feeling the obligation to shout all the same.
Merry was abruptly plucked from his horse with a shout. Gandalf had appeared next to him and pulled the hobbit onto his own horse.
“Go!” Gandalf cried. “Get to him, quickly! Shadowfax is the only horse fast enough to catch up again!”
Gimli was swearing loudly in Khuzdul when he pulled Shadowfax around, peeling away from the head of the group and racing back whence he came.
“—better hope you die on that thing, or else I’ll wring your neck myself!”
Legolas would know that ranting anywhere, though as he pulled back up into the sky, it faded out, replaced with the air rushing past his ears. Gimli, now some fifty feet below, was waving at him frantically. He waved back, just once, and aimed down.
The fellbeast, of course, was starting to fight him, learning quickly that he was neither orc nor Nazgûl, and by his estimation he could get one more good swipe out of the armies of Mordor before it threw him off.
So down he aimed the fellbeast’s reins, and down and down, until it went crashing into what was left of the vanguard and carving through the earth with a roar.
Legolas leapt off its back and went sprinting along its frantically flapping wing as it desperately searched for purchase in the ground, and was able to vault off its claw and onto Shadowfax’s back behind the dwarf.
“—out of your goddamned mind!” Gimli finished, once the roar of driving earth and screaming orcs had faded with sufficient distance. “Did not your marriage vow say something about healing? Giving me a bloody damned heart attack is about as far—!”
Legolas cut him off by craning around and kissing him on the corner of his mouth.
Gimli fumed still, but at least his volume had gone down. “You can’t just kiss your way out of my righteous fury, elf!”
“Would you care to take a bet on that, meleth nín?”
His only answer was urging Shadowfax harder. Behind them, the armies of Mordor stuttered to a halt, and ahead, the last free soldiers of Middle-earth thundered away, to something like safety.
It was no victory, Legolas knew, but if any yet lived, then it was a successful retreat. He only prayed he’d earned them enough distance.
Chapter 10: Long Live the King
On a rather uneventful spring morning, Barliman Butterbur’s flimsy office door rattled as someone knocked on it frantically.
The business of an inn typically did not get frantic until sundown, and he was not accustomed to urgency this early in the morning. Still, he looked up from his ledgers, pulled his glasses off his nose, and said, “Who is it?”
It was his assistant innkeeper who bustled inside, hands wringing nervously in her apron. “Mr. Butterbur,” she said, though she was looking not at him but over her shoulder, “I think you’d better come out.”
“What’s wrong, Ana?”
“There’s – I don’t quite know how to explain it, sir,” she answered. She still had not looked at him. Now that he was listening for it, Barliman could hear that there was some commotion going on somewhere outside the Prancing Pony, though it did not have the usual tenor of a morning in Bree. “There’s an awful ruckus going on through the village and there are soldiers everywhere with tabards of Gondor and Rohan.”
It was, with reluctance, enough to get Barliman rising up from his office chair, even as it squealed in protest. “Soldiers?” he repeated, alarmed. It had been a long time since Bree had seen soldiers of any stripe, let alone from so far.
“I think the town is being evacuated,” she said.
His mouth made shapes that, if he had his voice, would have made words, but under the present circumstance only flapped silently. A moment later, he was pushing past her, down the narrow back hallway, through the empty ground floor of the inn, and to the front door—
—where, before he could even reach for the handle, it swung open. Barliman stumbled backwards in surprise as a large number of people came flooding in – men, elves, dwarves, and even—
But his voice was lost in the cacophony. As the group flooded in past him – and Ana had been right, he noticed, more than one of the men in attendance were soldiers outfitted with raiments depicting the White Tree of Gondor – they were all having a very loud discussion, talking over each other in at least three languages, by Barliman’s count. At once, one of the two elves, fair-haired and kingly, bent over a table and spread open a map upon it.
“We cannot assume that Sauron’s forces will come only from the east,” the elf said, pointing to a specific spot on the map that Barliman could not see. “Bree’s walls are as yielding as paper to him, and we must assume he has more fellbeasts at his disposal.”
All the others had bent over the table with him as he pointed.
“It has some natural defenses to the south,” said a golden-haired woman to his right, who over one shoulder had holstered a mighty sword, “but they could very easily pass Midgewater.”
“We’ll have to focus the defenses along the northeastern walls,” added a dwarf. “We need to give the evacuees as much time as we’re able.”
Barliman’s head was spinning – Sauron? Fellbeasts? Evacuees? He’d have suspected it of all being some bad joke if it hadn’t been deadly serious. “Excuse me,” he began, but no one seemed to hear him.
“You know the city better than any of us here, Mithrandir,” the elf said, lifting his head. “Is there an easy but non-obvious way to withdraw the army before it’s too late?”
“There’s a wide gate on the western wall,” Gandalf said. “We might be able to pull back through that.”
“Excuse me,” Barliman tried again, still to no success.
“Legolas,” said a fair haired man, from Gondor by his tabard, “you’ve already ordered the remanding of food stores?”
“I have,” the elf, Legolas, answered. “The hobbits are managing it now. I trust their judgment above all others in matters of food distribution.”
“We cannot keep doing this, wizard,” said another dwarf, who bore a crown-like circlet on his head that was slightly lopsided. “We cannot keep running with mere inches between what remains of our army and the enemy.”
“Better our army falls than innocents,” said the first dwarf, dour.
“We should see what stores they have of weapons,” said the golden-haired woman. “We left behind quite a lot in Rivendell, and if—”
It had certainly drawn attention, perhaps a bit more than Barliman would have liked, in retrospect. But now that he had it, he was set on using it.
“What are you all doing in my tavern!”
He’d intended on it to be a question, but it came out as more of a squawk.
For a while, none answered. They were all exchanging meaningful looks between one another.
Eventually, the fair-haired elf rose to his full stature and said, “I’ll go and find the weapons stores, My Lady. Mithrandir, I think perhaps you are best suited to this explanation.”
“I’ll come with you,” said the first dwarf. “Now that a third of our fighting force is dwarves, you’ll need a dwarvish eye in weapons selection.”
The elf and dwarf left the Prancing Pony. Gandalf sighed, picked up his staff and leaned on it as he stooped down to address Barliman directly.
“Bree,” he began, “is no longer safe. Your inn is no longer safe. We are ordering an evacuation.”
“An evacuation!” Barliman blustered. “By whose authority?”
Gandalf huffed impatiently. “By my authority, Barliman Butterbur, and if that does not please you, by the authority of all living leaders of men, elves, and dwarves! The elf who just left is the son of the Elvenking of Mirkwood, and we count in our ranks Lord Faramir, son of the late Steward of Gondor; the Lady Éowyn, last of House Eorl; and Thorin III, King Under the Mountain. Which authority would you like to defy?”
The longer the list of introductions grew, the smaller Barliman felt. He’d heard these names and titles only as reverent whispers from far-off lands. Was he truly in the presence of so much nobility? And then, was Bree truly in danger?
“You must evacuate, too, with your family,” Gandalf said, his tone adjusting to one that sounded more forgiving. “In a few hours, this city will be overrun with the forces of Sauron. Follow the evacuation west to the dwarvish city of Tumunzahar. You’ll be safe there.”
Everyone was looking at him. And now that he was looking back, truly looking, he was kicking himself for not seeing the obvious nobility of their bearing.
“Yes,” he said with some difficulty. “Yes, of course.”
The streets of Bree were madness given form, a cacophonous tangle of movement and noise. It was early in the morning when they’d arrived, and many had to be woken up to be given the order to evacuate.
“I know not how a human village might be laid out,” Legolas said as he walked with Gimli. “Where would they keep their armory?”
“In a guard post, likely, somewhere along the wall,” Gimli answered, eyes sweeping the streets, where soldiers and civilians – men and elves, hobbits and dwarves – crisscrossed in every direction, loading worldly possessions onto horse-drawn carts. “Let’s try this way.”
As they came around a corner, it was to a group of what Legolas suspected were children, all huddled by a wall. A young dwarrow had them spellbound by the story she was telling.
“—that he did not even notice the great winged beast coming up behind him!” she cried. As Legolas and Gimli made to move around her, she continued: “So I yelled, ‘Elvenking, look out behind you, it’s a monster!’”
Legolas stopped and turned.
Indeed, it was the dwarrowdam that Legolas had encountered in Rivendell. She must have been younger than he’d guessed. He’d always been a rather poor judge of age among the mortal races.
“And then the Elvenking turned around, and he whipped out his blade—” (here she unsheathed an imaginary sword of her own, for dramatic effect) “—and he cut its head off!”
By this point, Gimli, too, had stopped to listen. The group of children were enraptured by her story, all of them sitting on the dirt road, knees pulled up to chests, eyes wide.
“But then, the monster fell from the sky, and it was going to fall directly on top of me!” the dwarrowdam continued. “And so I cried, ‘Elvenking, help me, help me!’ And so the Elvenking leapt from the building—!”
Legolas cleared his throat delicately. It was a soft sound, but not so soft that it failed to get her attention, or the attention of the other children.
“You’ll find with age that war stories do not need embellishment,” was all he said. “Do not tarry too long in the street.”
Legolas left, and behind him came frantic whispers of Was that him? That was him! Gimli was by his side, chuckling. Legolas gave him a withering look.
“What?” Gimli answered. “I’m merely appreciating your new fan club, Elvenking.”
“I’m not the Elvenking,” Legolas reminded him.
“You are in all the ways that matter, ghivashel.”
Legolas found he did not know what to say to that, and so remained silent. His father’s title felt ill-fitting, though he supposed it did not much matter how it felt.
“To hear a young dwarrow of Erebor speaking so rapturously of an elf,” Gimli ruminated, “truly, we are at the start of a new age. It’s progress worth building on when this is over.”
“If any of us should make it out of this alive,” Legolas said.
Gimli sighed. “Aye,” he agreed, “if.”
By nightfall, Bree was silent. All the civilians had been evacuated, and even with elvish eyes, Legolas could no longer see a trace of them on the horizon. It was good – the sooner they could get to the Blue Mountains, the better.
Legolas could hear someone coming up the stairs leading to the platform at the top of the city wall long before he saw them. By the footfalls, he judged it to be a dwarf, and though he guessed it was Gimli, it was Glóin who came into his field of view.
“My Lord,” he said with some surprise.
“Gimli elected to stay with the vanguard outside the city,” Glóin said, voice hard and short. “He sent me in his stead to let you know that all the traps are laid.”
Legolas did not and never would have Gimli’s keen social graces, but he was not so blind to them that he could not sense an uneasiness between them. There was something on Glóin’s mind; Legolas could sense it in the way he kept stealing glances at him when he thought Legolas was not looking.
“I worry for his safety at the vanguard,” Legolas said, “but I have never had cause to doubt his strength in battle.” Still, he glanced up at the sky, where into the scattered rags of twilight he uttered a quick prayer to Elbereth in Sindarin.
Hearing the language made Glóin’s eye twitch beneath his bushy eyebrow. “They say there is magic in the tongues of elves,” he said.
It had not been what Legolas expected to hear, and for a moment, he was not sure what to say. Eventually he managed, “I don’t know that I’d call it magic, necessarily—”
“Schooled in enchantment, are you?” Glóin asked sharply.
“What? I – no, not really. It was a prayer for safety, My Lord, not a spell.”
He’d intended it as a joke, but Glóin seemed skeptical, which mystified Legolas – until it suddenly did not.
“Lord Glóin,” he said, frowning, “do you think I’ve enchanted your son?”
“I’d not put it past an elf,” was his immediate answer.
Legolas turned his eyes forward. “You overheard us,” he deduced, “in the healing hall.”
Glóin said nothing, which was answer enough.
He did his best not to be hurt by the accusation. He reminded himself how distrustful he, himself, had been of dwarves at one point, and how Gimli had been the same. Surely if they could overcome old prejudices, others could, too.
“My Lord,” Legolas said, carefully, “even if I had the power to place an enchantment on Gimli, I would not do it. Such things are not in the nature of how an elf loves.”
“Indeed,” Glóin answered. He did not sound convinced.
“A love not freely given is no love at all,” Legolas assured him. “If you worry for anything, my intentions should be the last of them.”
“I worry for many things,” Glóin growled, “and if it’s all the same to the son of Thranduil, I’ll decide which shall take precedence in my mind.”
The choice of epithet was not lost on Legolas. “I am not my father,” he said. “Gimli has helped me in unlearning much of the prejudice he taught me.”
“Elves always speak so prettily,” was his answer, sharp and hard like an axe-edge. “But I have had nothing but reason to suspect foulness lies behind their pretty words.”
He was glad for the distraction; Legolas knew from experience that there was very little to be said that could dissuade such deeply-rooted beliefs.
“Pippin,” he said, “you should not be out this close to the battle.”
“I know,” the hobbit answered. He looked nervous, though Legolas could not pin down why. “I just – I was thinking, I’m not much use in a fight, and we’re… that is to say, we’re quite close to the Shire…”
Suddenly, Legolas understood. He turned from the wall. “You want to go back?”
“Not forever!” he assured Legolas quickly. “I know I’m safest here, everyone is. But there’s likely no one in the Shire who even knows about what’s happened, and I worry, if someone doesn’t tell them, and if even a fraction of Sauron’s army veers even slightly south…”
Despite the situation, Legolas smiled. “Your great heart does you credit, Peregrin Took,” he said. “I do not begrudge your fear for your home. I don’t think anyone here would.”
Pippin’s ears twitched hopefully. “So you don’t mind if I go?”
“We’ll manage,” Legolas answered, smiling. “Rendezvous with us at the ruins of Annúminas. Do you know them?”
The great weight on the hobbit’s shoulders visibly lifted, and he beamed back. “I know them, and I’ll be there as soon as I can. Should I tell Gandalf?”
“I’ll do it, when next I see him. I’m sure he’ll understand. Don’t waste too much time in your exit, the battle will be upon us soon.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll just get Merry and go. Thank you again!”
Pippin went scampering back down the stairs, and Legolas smiled. He hated to admit it, but Pippin was likely wrong – he’d probably be safer on his own than with the enormous, moving target that was the combined armies of Gondor, Rohan, Mirkwood, and Erebor. Two hobbits were not so easily detected as all that.
When at last he turned away, it was with a sigh. He could feel Glóin’s eyes on him still, cold and skeptical.
“Sulphur and smoke,” Legolas said.
Legolas’s eyes scanned the horizon, where he could just detect traces of a fiendish red glow. “Ready your arms, Lord Glóin,” he said. “The Deceiver approaches.”
On his final round inspecting the traps the had set up on the eastern outskirts of Bree, Gimli came upon a face he did not expect.
“Cousin,” he said.
Thorin was wearing ill-fitting armor and wielding an axe that, to Gimli’s eye, ill-suited him. His cousin had many talents, but war – in practice or in theory – was not one of them.
“Cousin,” Thorin returned. He sounded nervous.
“What are you doing here?”
“What a king should do,” he answered, which made him sound even more nervous. “If there is any dwarf in the vanguard, then… then their king should be with them, too.”
Gimli’s instinct was to tell him to go back into the city, to tell him that he was not and never had been a warrior, but the words hesitated on the end of his tongue.
Instead, Gimli said, “I suppose I cannot fault you for your heart being in the wrong place.”
“I can hear your skepticism, cousin,” Thorin said, voice quavering subtly, “and I know what you would say if I were not your king.”
Gimli thought better than to answer, which turned out to be the right thing to do, since Thorin went right on talking.
“You’d say that all my life I’ve been a coward and a weakling—”
“Cousin, your weakness extends no further than your arm,” Gimli interjected, “and a coward would not have shown up at the vanguard at all.”
“But still you would think to turn me away, and you’d not be entirely wrong,” Thorin said. “But I need to do this, Gimli. I need to be a king.”
“You can’t be anything if you’re dead,” Gimli reminded him.
Thorin flinched. Gimli felt a pang of guilt, but only a pang. It would be more dangerous to go into a battle not thinking of mortality.
“There are those who yet live who might take up my mantle if I should fall,” he said, and before Gimli could respond, he heard a high, clear whistle, and knew it once as the signal from the elvish scout out at the front of the pack.
“They’re here,” Gimli said, and Thorin swallowed visibly. “Steel yourself, Cousin-King, and pray that we last the night.”
Shrieks and screaming Black Speech came before all else, which Legolas took as a good sign.
Then came the vanguard, racing as planned back toward Bree, though they were fewer that came back than sent out. Legolas was gladdened to see, if nothing else, Gimli, cloak billowing, axe held high, roaring and resplendant, on Shadowfax’s back, leading the charge through the waiting, open gates.
Then came the orcs of Mordor, many of them still sizzling, black skin half-melted from the hot oil traps they’d set up. Legolas drew quickly and fired three times at those that were nipping too close at the heels of their vanguard.
The moment the orcs were close enough, the soldiers along the wall pushed over the well-concealed vats of boiling tar, and by the screaming to great effect.
“Let them come!” Glóin roared, and despite his age, his axe was in hand, his stance set. He was staring ferociously down at the open gates, ready to leap. “Let them come and we shall show them the wrath of the dwarves!”
“I see now where Gimli acquired his fighting spirit!” Legolas said. “Plende!”
The elves, perched still and dark as shadows on the rooftops, fired a volley of arrows over the wall, taking out whole lines of orcs, but more still came scrambling over their falling corpses.
“Do not be too eager, My Lord,” Legolas said. “Our mission here is not victory, merely to stall!”
Gimli and the vanguard now safely in the city, they took up positions with the rest of the army in the streets of Bree, weapons out, eyes focused.
Every ounce of advantage they could gain from the setting they used; there were four more vats of tar used before even a single orc made it into the village, and despite the griping of Legolas’s kin about the sub-par fletching of man-hewn arrows, they found their targets easily enough. By the time the battle started proper, they had already taken out hundreds of orcs.
The battle went about as well as it could have been expected to, under less-than-favorable circumstances. When Legolas’s arrows were spent, he pulled his knives from their scabbards and cut through the orcs who were filtering up the stairs and onto the platform around the city wall.
He was nearly ready to start calling the retreat when he heard a familiar voice shouting from behind.
“Well, well, well! Look who it is!”
Legolas’s blood ran, for a moment, colder than a winter river. He turned, slowly. Standing some twenty yards away from him, knobbly sword in his one remaining hand, stood Gothmog, snarling, smiling, vicious.
“You know, elf, I’m glad we should have this second chance at meeting,” he said. “I never got to ask you – was it as good for you as it was for me?”
In a rage, Legolas’s hand flew to his quiver, only to find it empty. He swore in Sindarin, then once again unsheathed his knives.
“What, no hello kiss?” Gothmog teased. “Fine, I suppose let’s skip the foreplay. SOLDIERS, KILL THE RED DWARF!”
Legolas’s heart leapt into his throat. His eye was drawn back to the fray below him, where he could see Gimli, but only just – more orcs were turning toward him now, too many.
Snarling, Legolas turned his eyes back to Gothmog. “You only stall the inevitable, foul creature,” he growled. “I’ll gut you myself before this war ends.”
“I suppose we’ll see, won’t we?” he jeered back.
Legolas could waste no more time. He vaulted off the platform and went crashing, quite literally, into the fray, snapping an orcish neck under his boot with the velocity of his fall, then quickly spinning and cutting through two more.
“Gimli, we need to sound the retreat!”
He was fighting back-to-back with his father and his cousin-king, all of them red-haired, and in the fray, the orcs were ganging up on all three.
It was Glóin who pulled the horn off his son’s hip and blew, three times, and loudly. Legolas stood firm at Gimli’s back as the soldiers slowly pulled backwards towards the western gate.
At their lieutenant’s behest, the orcs were unrelenting in their assault on Gimli and his kin, and as much as it filled Legolas with seething rage that he had to abandon his vengeance on Gothmog, he knew this was a better place for him to be. He slashed and spun and sliced as they pulled away, orcish bodies falling in pieces onto the darkened road.
Above him, his woodland kin were racing across the rooftops, leaping over alleyways, following the retreat from high above, still firing occasionally. It was when they came to the western gate, bloodied and panting, that Legolas truly held his breath – two Gondorian soldiers pushed, and two massive vats of oil went toppling down onto the pursuing orcs, who shrieked and hissed as their flesh cooked on their bones.
One burning arrow from an elvish soldier on the roof was all it took thereafter – the orcs went up in rapidly-spreading fire. Glóin blew the horn again, and the last of their soldiers climbed down the ladders they’d left against the outer walls.
“We did it,” Legolas breathed. He could hardly believe it.
“We should not press our luck,” Glóin said.
“Cousin!” Gimli cried, and all turned.
Thorin was staring back in confusion, as if he didn’t quite understand why they stared. It was not until he looked down and saw an orcish arrow in his chest that he began to sway.
“Oh,” he said, and capitulated.
Gimli dropped his axe at once and scrambled to catch him before he hit the ground. Legolas hurried to his other side.
“Ghivashel,” he entreated.
Legolas placed his hand near the wound. Even through the leather and links, Legolas could tell— “It’s pierced his heart, Gimli,” he whispered. “He has moments.”
“Gimli,” Thorin gasped, and grabbed his shoulder.
“Don’t speak,” Gimli said, frantic. “Legolas, there must be something you can do – your royal physic, where is she? Surely, she could—”
“Gimli,” Glóin said, voice thick.
“No, Da! I cannot – I will not lose another dwarf, we’ve lost too many already!”
“Gimli,” Thorin said again. “Gimli, my cousin, hear me, I – I don’t know how long—”
He coughed wetly, and blood came running in rivulets past his lips. Gimli turned his grief-stricken eyes down to his cousin, who was still gripping his arm.
“Take my crown,” Thorin said.
“What?” Gimli hissed.
“What?” Glóin repeated.
“Take my crown, and my mantle,” he said.
Gimli was staring down at him in shock. “Cousin, you cannot ask me—”
“I can and I must,” Thorin said. “I know it is not in your – your instinct to seek power, but you must take it. Who else could?”
“Dwalin is next in line—” Gimli began, eyes tearing.
“Dwalin isn’t here. And your father does not wield Durin’s Axe.”
Gimli’s face was contorted in anguish. Behind them, the oil fire was spreading along the walls of Bree, and the light and heat were coming stronger.
“Cousin,” Gimli choked.
“Neither of us would ask for the burden of kingship, but only one of us has earned it despite that reluctance,” Thorin said, and with one shaking hand, he pulled the crown from his head.
Gimli was all but sobbing, and Legolas’s heart ached for him, even as his mind cried that they should not linger, not even for this. The army was already making good distance west – although many of the dwarves of Erebor were lingering, watching, and by their faces, grieving with Gimli.
Thorin’s trembling hand set the crown on Gimli’s head. Though it had always been somewhat askew on Thorin’s brow, on Gimli’s it sat perfect, as though it was made for him.
“I will believe that you are the one meant to lead us, here at the end of all things,” Thorin gasped. His words were soaked through with blood. “I must believe it. Gimli, my cousin, take care of our people. You must… you…”
And then he fell silent, and Gimli bent forward over his cousin’s corpse, as though the weight of the crown was a burden too tremendous for him to remain upright.
Glóin’s hand was over his mouth and his shoulders were shaking. Legolas leaned forward and placed both hands on Gimli’s shoulders.
“My love,” he whispered, “in Khazad-dûm I pulled you away from your grief for your safety and I must do so again. I love you and I grieve with you, but we must not do the grieving here.”
Gimli lifted his teary eyes to Legolas’s. His mouth was open, but he said nothing.
“The king is dead,” Glóin whispered, voice faint.
“Long live the king,” Legolas answered in kind.
Gimli rose to his feet as though it was the most difficult task ever asked of him. In the growing firelight behind him, his crown flashed red-gold. His shoulders were shaking, his head was low, but he picked up his axe from the ground and held it tight in one hand. Legolas knew well the look on his face at that moment, as well as he knew it in himself – grief, and agony, and cold vengeance.
Gimli looked up at the faces of his kin, all staring, open-mouthed.
“We ride for Tumunzahar,” he told them.
“Long live the king,” one of the soldiers muttered, and the words spread and scattered through the dwarves like brushfire.
Chapter 11: Tumunzahar
By a hair’s breadth they had once again escaped the reach of Sauron’s army, but Legolas could tell by the state of them that they could not do it again. Keeping even a few hours out of reach from the forces of Mordor meant a relentless, unforgiving travel schedule – riding through nights, meals on horseback, and a paranoid vigilance at all times and in all directions to watch for scouts. It had been a long trek from Rivendell to Bree, and it was a comparable distance from Bree to Ered Luin. His elvish kin were holding up well enough, if not with great enthusiasm, but the mortal soldiers were showing signs of significant wear.
Most of all he was worried for Gimli. The dwarf kept most things close to the vest, particularly his emotions, but Legolas knew him well enough to know better. The death of his cousin had rattled him. The crown he now wore on his head and the title that came with it were a heavy enough burden on their own without having to give up the Lonely Mountain and lose so many of his kin.
And seeing the grief in Gimli, however subtle it may have been, was a hard and wrenching reminder of the grief Legolas had been running from in himself. Legolas had lost kin, too, and his home, and his virtue besides, inherited a title he did not feel he deserved, all while still commanding an army. And when he looked at Gimli in the quiet moments of the march, he wondered how the dwarf was even still standing after all of this, and then was forced to wonder the same thing of himself.
“I wonder what thoughts cross the mind of Legolas of the Woodland Realm,” said Gandalf, who had appeared beside him as silently as a shadow.
With reluctance, Legolas pulled his eyes away from Gimli. “Nothing that I’m sure many others aren’t thinking.”
“My mind lately has been too tied up in the technical matters of battle, I fear,” he continued, his horse patching pace with Legolas’s. “I have not given enough thought to our two kings.”
“I’m not a king,” Legolas said, though lacking the energy he’d had for the sentiment before.
Gandalf made a small huffing noise. “Do you really think it will do to stand on ceremony, my friend?” he said. “The same process that transferred kingship from your grandfather to your father cannot be easily repeated in these circumstances. Your people look up to you still, for wisdom and for strength, and you are the only elf-lord left in Middle-earth besides. In what practical way are you not their king?”
“Perhaps my kin would fare better kingless,” Legolas said. “I worry that what strength my father had is absent in me, or else is being worn away by this unwinnable hell of a war.”
Or perhaps it had been stolen. Vivid, wrenching memory rose into his mind like bile. He shut his eyes and fought it off as best he could.
For a while, Gandalf was silent, but Legolas could feel the wizard’s eyes on him still, as compassionate and insightful as ever they had been. When next he spoke, it was with an unvarnished gentleness: “How did you survive?”
Legolas tensed. He somehow knew precisely of what the wizard spoke.
“Who told you?” he returned, rather than give answer.
“No one. In my life I have learned to hear the words between words,” he said ambiguously. “You need not worry for my discretion, if that is what troubles you.”
It was not, of course, what troubled Legolas, not really. He could barely speak of it to Gimli. He could barely confront it within the privacy of his own mind. How was he supposed to discuss it with Gandalf without falling apart entirely?
“I didn’t,” he said eventually, and with great care.
Gandalf said nothing, but Legolas could feel sharp eyes searching him.
“My fëa separated from my hröa, as the act is wont to do. And as I was pulled westward, I heard Gimli’s voice, and I…”
Legolas shrugged helplessly.
“I went back.”
“Such things are not generally considered possible,” was Gandalf’s measured reaction.
“So too was it impossible for me to leave him behind,” Legolas said. “I scarcely understand it. It was as though some new strength came over me, and I was able to fight my way back to my body.”
For quite some time, the conversation lapsed into silence. They rode side-by-side as the ruins of Annúminas came rising up over the horizon. The silence became so long that Legolas thought perhaps they were done talking altogether, but Gandalf did eventually speak again.
“Remarkable,” he said.
Legolas did not answer.
“Truly, from the ashes, your love for each has has sprung the fire of hope,” Gandalf continued. “And somehow it feels as if the fate of all Middle-earth is tied to keeping that flame alive.
“For many years I had been the steward to the Ring Narya. When I was forced to pull it from my hand, I worried that with its magics would dwindle all chance of hope returning. But I have been proved wrong,” he said, and Legolas met his eyes, feeling nervous for reasons he couldn’t quite identify. “Narya was not the maker of hope, merely its steward, and so was I. I will try to be again.”
Legolas would be the first to admit that he knew very little about the precise nature of the Three Rings; after all, no one in his family had ever been deigned to keep one. So though Gandalf’s words felt profound, their meaning was mostly lost on him. If Gandalf said that he would be steward to what little hope they had, he supposed that it was the best news he could hope for as it dwindled in his heart and through his fingers.
He knew the voice, of course. It had been less than an hour since he’d sent the captain of his father’s old guard out to scout the ruins ahead of their arrival. Legolas found her as she came riding down the hill, cloak and hair caught behind her in the rush of wind. Legolas kicked his own horse and rode out to meet her halfway.
“I did not see two hobbits, but hundreds,” she gasped, breathless, once they were within speaking distance. “Many were wounded. The one you call Peregrin Took found me at once – he tells me that they only barely escaped slaughter, that the Shire is lost.”
“He says that his friend is very ill and needs a healer—”
Legolas swore under his breath, then wrenched around on his horse. “Varien! To me!”
“He seemed urgent, My King,” the captain said, and within a few moments, Varien was hurring her way out from the pack, without a horse but with her familiar bag of healing instruments over one shoulder.
“With me, physic,” he said, holding one hand down to her. She took it unhesitatingly and swung up behind him on his horse. “Captain, go and tell the others what you told me. We’re riding ahead.”
“Yes, My King,” the captain said, and snapped the reins to gallop past. Legolas did the same in the opposite direction, up the shallow incline toward the outermost ruins of Annúminas.
“What do you know of hobbitish healing, Varien?” Legolas asked as he rode.
“I’m a quick study, King,” was her answer, the best answer he could have hoped for under the circumstances.
As his captain had promised, the moment the came over the crest of the hill he could hear low, anxious voices; smell campfire and blood; see shapes rustling through tall grass that climbed over the ruined piles of stone. If they’d been anyone else but shirefolk, he’d have a mind to scold them for being so exposed.
He could see Pippin, waving frantically from a large toppled column. The hobbit’s hair was matted with dried blood, and he was favoring his right leg. Legolas kicked his horse and rode to him, past groups of whispering, jittery hobbits.
“It’s Merry,” Pippin sobbed, and Legolas leapt from his horse mid-canter and ran the rest of the way. “Please, he was wheezing all night!”
“I brought my physic,” Legolas said at once. Pippin hurried behind the column, where on a sweat- and blood-drenched bedroll, was Meriadoc Bradybuck, eyes half-lidded, lips white.
Legolas stopped running. He did not need to touch the hobbit to know that he was dead.
“Please,” Pippin begged, tears falling down his blood-splattered face, tugging feebly at Legolas’s cloak. “Please, do something! He’s only hurt because I – I went into the Green Dragon to find – I was looking for my sisters, but – he told me not to go in, and I didn’t listen – the orcs – they were already there, I… I…”
Legolas swallowed. Behind him, Varien came around the column, and slowed when she saw Merry’s body sprawled on the bedroll. She shared a brief glance with Legolas before going forward and keeling down at the hobbit’s side.
“E nara ring,” she whispered as she placed a hand on his brow.
“Why isn’t she doing anything?” Pippin asked, throat constricted.
“Pippin,” Legolas said, and there must have been something in his voice that Pippin could read. He drew back, and Legolas could see his shoulders shaking.
“No,” he said, “no, he can’t be – do something, Legolas! I saw you heal in Rivendell, you must be able to—!”
“There’s nothing to be done, friend of my king,” Varien said, as she lifted her hand to close his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“No!” Pippin cried. “No, no! You’re wrong! You must be wrong!”
Legolas sank down to his knees and pulled the hobbit, thrashing, into his arms. Pippin was inconsolable, though all his protestations of how they were wrong fell off in time, replaced instead by inarticulate sobbing.
Varien gently covered the hobbit with her cloak and rose to her feet. “I’ll see if I can find more wounded,” she said, as good an excuse as any to give Pippin some semblance of privacy. Legolas held the hobbit tight, even as his wracking sobs turned into shuddering.
“I should—” he gasped, through his breathless tears, “I should n-not have gone. I should not have taken us into danger!”
“My friend,” Legolas said, “I am so sorry.”
Pippin had lost all words. Behind him, Legolas could hear hoofbeats, and Shadowfax’s familiar whinny.
“You have lost so much,” Legolas continued, “but so too have you won. Look at all the people you saved!”
Pippin wept into Legolas’s shoulder as though there was no more comfort int he world to be found. Legolas could not begrudge him his grief – he knew too well the unspeakable agony that came with losing hearth and home, kith and kin.
Gimli was beside him a moment later, fresh heartbreak on his face. Legolas met his eyes, an answer to an unspoken question. Gimli turned briefly to look upon Merry, then turned away sharply, eyes screwed shut.
“It does not feel like it now, I know,” Legolas said, “but you have a hero’s heart. So did Merry. You saved so many people, Peregrin Took. Try to focus on that.”
Gimli was muttering a prayer in Khuzdul under his breath. Though none of her stars were out, Legolas did the same. Perhaps if Pippin could heed his advice, Legolas could do the same.
And so their count of hobbits went from two, down to none, then to over two hundred. They slept in piles on the backs of carts, ate through more of their food reserves than they could easily sustain, and had precious little of the jovial spirit Legolas had seen in those that he’d known before.
He knew that they were scared, and wounded, and did not understand the full scope of what was happening to the world, and for all he would have liked to rest more, eat more, talk more for their sake, he knew their physical safety had to come first, and for that to be so, they had to make it to Tumunzahar.
Legolas had never been so far west before, and he did not know what to expect from Ered Luin. True to their name, the mountains that rose over the horizon were blue-hued, bluer still near dawn and dusk. Gimli led them on a route that he said he recalled from his youth, but said little else of it.
The gates of Tumunzahar – Nogrod, in Sindarin – were not easily spotted at first, at least not on their own. It was what lead up to them that caught Legolas’s eye. There were well-worn tracks of all shapes and sizes crisscrossing through the dirt and grass, and he knew that the refugees had made it here before them.
It was a suspicion that was confirmed when the great stone gates were in sight at last – even from a hundred yards out, Legolas could hear chatter in a half-dozen languages, hear babies crying – and, from somewhere off to his side, Éowyn blew bellowing and clear the horn of Rohan to announce their presence.
“What know you of the Lord of Nogrod, Gim— King Under the Mountain?” Faramir asked. Gimli sighed impatiently to hear the title.
“The Lord of Tumunzahar I knew in my youth has likely died by now. His son, Dwolir, was a friend of my very early youth, though I know not how he might have aged.”
It wasn’t long before there was some answering horn from inside the open stone gates of Tumunzahar, a signal that they were to be met in good faith. It was to be expected, perhaps, but Legolas sighed in relief to hear it, anyway. After everything that happening, even the littlest victories deserved celebration.
“The meeting party should be both kings in attendance,” Gandalf said, “myself, the Steward, and the Lady of Rohan. There’s no sense in doing anything less than all we can to impress upon the lord he gravity of our visit. Keep delegations small.”
“Imaras,” Éowyn said, and the lieutenant looked up from his horse’s saddle. “With me,” she continued when he said nothing, “you’re my delegation.”
Faramir chose Jonna, Gimli his father, and Legolas his guard captain. Together, the party rode up through the crowds of refugees lining up along the road leading up to the gates of Tumunzahar.
“I wonder why so many refugees still wait outside,” Éowyn said, with the tenor of one who was trying to tamp down the more obvious strains of suspicion in her voice.
“I suppose we’re about to find out,” Gandalf said, nodding toward the mighy stone doors. A dwarvish delegation was coming out to meet them, though they were fewer in number, and they were led by one particularly stout, golden-bearded dwarf who was all but sprinting down the path toward them and shouting:
“So this is the party who sends near thirty-thousand refugees to the gates of this city unbidden!” he bellowed. Gimli was the first to swing off his horse, and Legolas followed with the others. “Did you not even thing to ask permission? To send word, that we might expect a city’s worth of stragglers to pile into our halls, demanding food and – and – Gimli?”
Gimli had approached first, stonefaced, his black mourning cloak billowing around his ankles as he walked. Legolas, Éowyn, Faramir, and Gandalf were at his heels, the rest of the delegation at a respectful distance.
“Lord of Tumunzahar,” Gandalf announced, “you stand in the presence of Gimli, son of Glóin, King Under the Mountain; Legolas, Elvenking of the Woodland Realm; Faramir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor; and Lady Éowyn, sister-daughter of Théoden King, last of House Eorl.” He leaned on his staff, giving the dwarf a measuring look. “And I believe you recall me from your youth.”
Clearly, the introductions had their intended effect, which was to say that they had cowed the Lord of Tumunzahar into silence, if only for a moment. He stared at each face as Gandalf introduced them, but none moreso than Gimli.
“I hardly recognize you. King Under the Mountain?” It was the first thing that Dwolir said once he had the opportunity to speak. “For that title to have fallen so far down the line of Durin…”
Rather than answer, Gimli said, “Lord Dwolir, we would have sent word ahead if there were any time for it. In the absence of formal communication, I ask you know, as King and as your friend, let these refugees into the city and seal the gates. There is a terrible doom advancing westward, and if you do not defend against it now, this city and all of Middle-earth will fall.”
Whatever spell had been placed on Lord Dwolir at being introduced to two kings, a Queen-Regent, and a Steward of Gondor died fast enough. “What? No! I cannot – there’s not enough room in these halls—”
“Make room,” Gimli said shortly.
“There’s not enough food—!”
“We’ve brought more food,” Legolas interjected.
“I’ve heard the mad ramblings your refugees have been spouting, nonsense about black fellbeasts of Mordor and the ruin of Rivendell – you expect me to believe this tosh? You expect me to fall ass over teakettle to accommodate—”
Gimli came forward, until he was nearly nose-to-nose with Lord Dwolir, a furious and terrifying rage simmering quietly just behind his eyes.
“Yes,” Gimli said. “Every word of those mad ramblings was true. You were the one who refused to send a delegation to the Council of Elrond despite what word we sent you from the Lonely Mountain, so you are the only one to blame for your ignorance.”
Legolas laid a hand on Gimli’s shoulder. It seemed to calm him, but only just. He continued, voice more measured, but with the same fierce edge.
“The One Ring is back on Sauron’s hand,” Gimli smoldered, into the face of a now-ashen Lord Dwolir. “His armies are more numerous and fight more ferociously than ever before. All he has touched has fallen so far – Minas Tirith, Edoras, Lothlórien, Mirkwood, Erebor, Rivendell, Bree – these thirty-thousand stragglers, as you call them, are the only ones who did not lose their lives or their minds to Sauron the Deceiver in his campaign! Would you count the dwarves of Tumunzahar and Gabilgathol among the same fate?”
Lord Dwolir was looking between the faces before him and the delegation behind him, who seemed equally lost for words.
“We have a plan,” Éowyn said suddenly, stepping forward. “Half-mad it may be, but a plan it remains. But we need assurance that these refugees will be cared for, and we need access to your forge.”
“Our forge?” the Lord of Tumunzahar echoed.
“The King Under the Mountain has assured us it is kingly,” she supplied, with as affable a smile as she could manage under the circumstances.
“Of course it’s kingly!” Lord Dwolir said, chest puffed. “It was the forge that made the Nauglamír! But I do not see how—”
And then there came a soft noise from Legolas’s right, and when he turned, there was a black, orcish arrow in Faramir’s shoulder.
“Faramir!” Éowyn cried, catching him by both arms when he stumbled.
Legolas’s eyes flew up, high over the doors of Tumunzahar, where perched nearly fifty yards up the craggy mountainside were—
“Get into the city!” bellowed Gandalf, and the panic that rose was immediate and all-encompassing.
“Take them out, Legolas!” Gimli cried, pulling the shield from his back. “Take them out!”
Legolas was already drawing his bow. Ten arrows for ten targets, taken out in rapid succession, as Gimli stood in front of him, shield taking a battering of arrows. He had nearly taken out half of them when there came screams from behind as well.
When he turned, he could see orcs and goblins leaping out from the tall grass and behind the uneven mountain stones, where doubtless they had been lying in wait. Refugees were screaming and dying, those that were not being cut down scrambling up the path toward the doors.
“No,” Legolas whispered, chest constricted, hope burning to ashes in his heart. “No, not here, not here, we were so close—”
As Éowyn was frantically trying to pull Faramir back toward the city, he stood, wavering, and drew his sword.
“Soldiers of Minas Tirith!” he bellowed.
“Faramir, stop!” Éowyn begged. “You’re bleeding badly!”
“So does Middle-earth, but still we fight!” he said. “My love, fight with me!”
“There are so many,” Legolas despaired. He could see more now, coming up over the hills in the distance, great black wings of – three, five, six? – fellbeasts soaring up and over the tide of orcs. “Ai, Elbereth, there are so many—”
“We just need to hold them off,” Faramir gritted. “We just need to get the refugees inside!”
“Faramir,” Éowyn said, near-choking on her tears, “you cannot fight in this condition.”
“My love, I must,” he said, gripping her arm tightly. “You taught me that, and a hard lesson it was. Fight with me, fight with me.”
Éowyn’s eyes were clouded with tears, and so, he feared, were Legolas’s. This was the sound hope made as it burned to death, and it sounded like men, women, children, civilians all, being cut down as they ran for their lives.
“Riders of Rohan!” Éowyn cried, as the army began to fight back, and she drew Andúril.
Gimli cried in kind, “Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!” His voice had never been so loud or so ferocious. He charged forward like a force of nature, Durin’s Axe held high and gleaming in the last stripes of sunlight over the mountains.
Legolas could not muster his love’s ferocity. So far and so fast had they been pursued by these armies of darkness, and all so they could slaughter children and civilians as they ran for their lives? It was beyond his powers of empathy to comprehend such abstract, serene satisfaction in the slaughter of innocents.
He summoned the only fire left in him, the fire that was burning hope to death inside his heart, and joined the rallying cry: “Edhil en Eryn Galen!”
The fight was short and brutal. They were badly outnumbered, and it was apparent on the battlefield.
Holding off the armies of Sauron for even a few minutes, long enough for the refugees to get inside the gates of Tumunzahar, came at steep cost. As Gimli fought, the bodies of men and elves and dwarves and hobbits fell around him like rain, and he had to keep fighting like each death did not rend the heart from him.
When at last they were able to sound the retreat for their crippled armies, a half-hour and three thousand soldiers had passed, and those fighters left alive went scrabbling, wounded and terrified, for the gates of Tumunzahar.
“Bar the door!” someone yelled – it sounded like Gandalf. “Seal the gates! Now, now!”
Within moments, the great stone doors swung shut. One orc was crushed to death between them and exploded into black viscera; those that made it through were few and cut down quickly. Gimli was painted in orcish blood, and Durin’s Axe had never felt so heavy in his hand. He caught his breath and scanned the antechamber, which he was sure must have normally felt grand and opulent, but was now crowded with wounded soldiers.
Gimli turned his eyes. He could see Éowyn and Legolas through the crowds, both bent over Faramir’s body, and – by Mahal, his mind whispered to him – there must have been six arrows sticking in his chest. At once Gimli’s mind went back – all those months ago, not far from the Anduin river, where Boromor, in defense of the hobbits—
“No, no, no,” Éowyn sobbed, cradling his head in her lap. “No, please, not now, not after everything—!”
Legolas was working frantically, tears falling down his face as he pulled arrows from his chest and held shut the wounds with his bare hands. He shouted for Varien, for any healer, for salve, for something, but no one answered. Men of the West were circling around them, watching in horrified silence as he tried to heal, and as Éowyn wept.
“Faramir,” she sobbed, and his eyes were vacant and sightless, staring into the rough, rocky ceiling of Tumunzahar’s antechamber. “Please, please, wake up, please…”
His love was working frantically, hands shaking with emotion, but it was plain to Gimli that there was nothing left to be done. His heart wrenched, his throat tightened.
“Get up, Faramir!” she cried. “Get up, your people need you! I – I—”
A hand came to rest on Éowyn’s shoulder. It was Jonna, a stripe of a red slash across his face.
“He’s gone, My Lady,” he said.
Éowyn looked up to Jonna, then down to Faramir’s ashen face.
She doubled over and screamed.
It was the most visceral thing Gimli had ever heard, and for a moment he was reminded of the sounds he himself had made in the Halls of Thranduil. Somehow he doubted that the same miracle would befall Faramir as it had Legolas.
She screamed and screamed until all breath left her, until she was shuddering and gasping over his corpse. Even Legolas had stopped his movements, and sat slightly hunched over Faramir’s body, holding in each hand two of the six arrows that had felled him.
“My Lady,” Jonna said, voice shaking, “I do not know what your heart needs, and I cannot imagine your agony, but do not despair for the hearts of the men of Minas Tirith. We do not question who will lead us in the absence of our Steward.”
Éowyn had no words to say to this. On the far side of the door into Tumunzahar, Gimli could hear orcs and goblins and fellbeasts battering at the stone. They would hold for now, but not – he knew from experience – forever.
He reached into his pocket and fished out the ring Nenya. It did not have the same shine it had when he first received it.
There was no more time to grieve, he knew. There was no more time for the anguish that had been so steadily consuming his soul.
He gripped Nenya tight in his fist and turned, pushing through the armies. He had to find the forge.
Chapter 12: Fraying Threads
The hand around his throat, at some point after they had sealed the gates of Nogrod, began to hurt again.
It was initially a subtle pain, so subtle that in the first few hours afterward, he didn’t even notice. His hands and thoughts were occupied with healing, for there were far too few healers and far too many injured after the surprise attack at the foot of the mountains. Legolas had to focus on the setting of bones, the stitching of wounds, the cauterizing, the cleaning, the bandaging.
But in the quieter moments, when he had to pause to wash the blood from his hands or carry baskets of silks and balms from room to room, he began to notice it.
He knew it likely had something to do with the snarling chaos screaming in the darker corners of his mind. It had to do with the way his hands shook occasionally as he stitched shut the gashes on the shoulders of young children. He knew he was compartmentalizing for now, focusing on what needed doing, but he knew that it wouldn’t last forever. Soon, definitionally, he would run out of things to do.
“Has the worst of it been seen to?”
Legolas looked up from the wash bin, its waters red from the blood he’d scrubbed off his hands. Behind him stood Glóin, looking nervous. Knowing that the dwarf would not come to him unless he had little choice, Legolas scanned his body. It was then he saw—
“You’re injured.” It looked like a blunt wound – a mace, perhaps, or a morning star – that had landed on his ribs, judging by the stain on his shirt.
“All the mortal healers have by now collapsed in exhaustion, or I’d be seen by a dwarf,” he said, as if Legolas needed any further assurance that Glóin did not want to be near him. “It’s not a bad wound, which is why I waited. If there’s someone in more dire straits to see to—”
“Sit,” Legolas said.
Glóin looked around their corner of the overcrowded healing hall for a moment, then, finding an empty chair by the wall, sat. Legolas, hands clean, fetched a bottle of salve and went to his side.
“I’ll admit that I would not have pictured the Elvenking of Mirkwood being a healer, let alone doing healing on common rabble.”
“Your perception of what an Elvenking is and is capable of may be slightly skewed,” Legolas said. “Can you lift your arms or shall I cut your tunic off?”
“Better cut it off,” Glóin muttered, “I think I made it worse just getting out of my armor.”
Legolas wordlessly set the balm aside and pulled his small utility knife from his boot, slicing up the side of Glóin’s shirt. It was a nasty wound to look at, bloodied and purpling, but, as the dwarf had already perceived, not very severe. He pressed his fingers gently around the bruising. Glóin flinched, but Legolas could tell that his lung had not been punctured, just bruised.
“I will give you this, lad,” Glóin said, “you are not your father.”
Legolas spared only a glance up at him before uncorking the bottle of balm and applying it to a clean silk rag.
“No,” Legolas admitted, “I am not. I do not think I could be if I wanted to. I do not have my father’s severity, nor his political shrewdness, nor his thousands of years of of strife.”
“Nor indeed his predilection for imprisoning innocent dwarves,” Glóin muttered.
“But I do have his heart of hearts, I think. Or perhaps I hope I do, because at his core, he could be counted among the best of his kind.”
“You’ll forgive me my skepticism, lad,” he answered. “I have trouble remembering your father as anything but a callous, jewel-hungry jailer.”
Legolas pressed his lips together firmly. For a time he did not speak, spreading salve on the wound, and then once it was cleaned, tying the silks perhaps too tightly around Glóin’s ribcage.
“My father was perfectly capable of callousness,” Legolas said. “And so too did he long for the stores of star-like gems, as the elvish kings of old did. I know for a fact that similar sicknesses run in the line of Durin.”
When he pulled the silk around again, he gave it a second sharp tug to punctuate his point. Glóin flinched, and Legolas did not care to know whether it was from the wrappings or the words.
“My affections for Gimli have taught me, above all things, to put aside old prejudices, to see the commonalities before the differences. I hope that you can learn the same, father of my love, because I am not sure if I am in any fit state to forgive such coarse remarks of my own father, who was quite recently slaughtered right before my eyes by a servant of the Shadow.”
One more sharp tug of silks, one more flinch. By Glóin’s expression, Legolas had made his point. But Legolas did not quite feel like he wanted to stop talking.
“Nor indeed am I inclined to feel particularly forgiving when a noble son of Durin clings to hatred at the end of all things, and in doing so forces his own son to choose between his family and his betrothed,” he continued. His hands felt clumsy now, and manipulating the silk bandages became harder for reasons just beyond his articulation. “We are fighting a war for the very soul of Middle-earth, for the last of its freedom and peoples. What good does it serve to add to the misery? What purpose is there in old prejudice? I am barely hanging on as it is and the thought—”
His hands slip. The end of the silk wrappings falls, lands across Glóin’s lap. Legolas flexes his fingers, and realizes that the trembling is not just in his hands, but in his shoulders, his spine. He hunches forward over himself.
“—the thought that I, just by being who I am, would add to Gimli’s grief—”
Glóin was not speaking, nor was he moving to tie off the bandaging around his chest. Legolas could feel the dwarf’s eyes on him.
“So much has been taken away from us, can’t this be the one good thing? Can’t we hold onto each other without… without…”
Silence fell, then, thick and heavy like a blanket. Legolas weakly lifted his shaking hands and finished wrapping the wound.
“You’re right,” Glóin said, and Legolas looked up. The dwarf’s face was solemn, almost sad, and when he reached out and took Legolas’s wrists in his hands, Legolas could not and did not try to hide his surprise.
“Do you swear, son of Thranduil,” Glóin began, “to stand by my son as long as you have legs to stand on, to love him truly and well as long as you draw breath?”
Legolas swallowed thickly. “Of course,” he answered. “With everything in me.”
Glóin was silent again for a while, then nodded, hands dropping. “Then that is all that matters,” he said. “That is all that should matter. Whatever my blessing might be worth, you have it.”
It had been so long since he’d had any shred of good news that Legolas almost did not know how to react. He sat in numb silence for a while rather than speak, and Glóin pushed onto his feet.
“I’d tell Gimli, but I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of the boy since we arrived.”
“He took Narya from Mithrandir and Vilya from me, then vanished into the forge with a host of master craftsmen,” Legolas said. “No one’s heard from any of them in days.”
“I’ve seen Gimli’s forge-work first hand,” Glóin said, “and if there’s anyone in the world who can truly reforge a magic ring, it’s him.”
Legolas sighed. “In any case, there’s little left to do but hope and hold.”
At the same time, they both looked out of the healing hall, where they both knew beyond several doors and walls, the great gates of Tumunzahar were still being battered, orcish bodies still thrown against it, the sound of it thundering through the living rock. It was a silent understanding that their entrance was an inevitability, that it would ultimately come down to who could work fastest.
As she pulled her breastplate back over her head, Éowyn said, “I’d appreciate your discretion in this matter, healer.”
Varien was rinsing her hands, but inclined her head slightly. “Is this not good news, My Lady?”
Éowyn didn’t answer immediately. When Varien looked back, she was securing the buckles of her chestguard.
“It’s many types of news,” she answered eventually, ambiguously. “It was not intentional.”
Varien seemed puzzled for a moment, but only a moment. “I’d forgotten that such things could be accidental among mortals,” she said. Hands washed clean, she straightened and dried them on her apron. “I suppose I might have guessed it from the outset. I can’t imagine it would be intentional in evil days like these.”
Éowyn said nothing. Once her armor was back in place, she stood in silence for a while, staring down. Varien saw the pensive look on her face and was silent with her, knowing the silence was likely a herald for words.
“I suppose if nothing else it is good to have a piece of him,” she said. “Good to know that old bloodlines continue. It is good to know that I have at least one thing, one real thing, one tangible thing, one thing not in ruins, to keep fighting for.”
Varien was older than she looked, as elves were wont to be, and she was wise enough to know that the best thing to do in a situation like this was to be silent, and to let her speak, and to listen.
“But it has also made the stakes much higher, hasn’t it?” Éowyn said, her voice suddenly tightening with a swell of emotion. “My life counts for two now, and I still have to lead an army and fight a war. How dreadfully unfair.”
She laughed, but there was no joy in it. She scraped a palm across her cheek. Varien softened, crossed the small bedroom, and placed a hand on her back.
“It is true that I have not known you long,” Varien said, “but my long years on this world have made me wise enough in the judgment of character. I have no fear for the life inside you. If there is any life left at the end of this war, you and your child will be among them. You are fierce and strong and kind and brave. Your child will not lack for love.”
Éowyn smiled, or she tried to.
Varien returned the smile, and handed her a small vial. “For the nausea,” she said. Éowyn took it with a nod of thanks.
“Thank you for your help,” Éowyn said as she pocketed the tincture. “And for your wisdom. I have not known many elves in my time, but if they are all as strong as Legolas or as gentle as you, I should like to know more ere they leave for the Shores.”
Varien laughed. “I would not count on the elves of the Greenwood leaving for Valinor at first chance,” she said. “We have a great and abiding love for the land and the forests of this world. We should like to see them rebuilt. We should like to see the dynasties of men made secure.”
Éowyn’s smile this time was not so forced. There was still grief in her, of course, and on her face – there was nothing that could erase pain this new – but the joy was there, too, small but genuine.
“So watch out for your daughter, for all our sakes,” Varien said, and placed a gentle hand on Éowyn’s stomach.
And then neither of them pulled away.
And there was something different in that moment, though neither of them seemed to understand it at first. And when they did, all breath seemed to leave the room in a rush.
“I…” Varien began, voice faltering.
Éowyn straightened. “We should—”
“Yes,” Varien said. “We should.”
Éowyn made for the door and Varien returned to her healing kit, its contents laid out across the table where it sat. They both looked back at the same moment, and neither of them knew what to say.
It had been nearly four days now since Gimli had vanished behind the great metal doors of the Forge of Tumunzahar, and though Legolas could count thousands of years lived, it felt as though these four days had somehow taken up the majority of his life.
At night, when all others had gone to sleep or were occupied guarding the front gates, Legolas sat small and curled into himself, just outside the forge, and tried to listen for whatever sounds passed through those six inches of iron. Occasionally he could hear muffled words, hammers striking steel, water quenching hot metal. It all came to him quiet and indistinct, and it offered him no comfort.
He missed Gimli. Or to be more precise, he lacked for Gimli, as he might lack for air if he were strangled. What little sleep he stole at the small hours of the morning was plagued by haunting dreams of malformed hands on his arms, hot breath and spittle on his neck, and the terrible bruising thrusts into his unwilling body. He would wake up gagging and shaking, the hand of fire around his throat burning as fresh and hot as the day it was seared into his skin, and it would take all the strength he did not have to find his center again, to hold himself together when all he wanted to do was fall to pieces. He missed Gimli. He needed him so badly. But all that was available to him were distant, vague voices through shut iron doors.
“This is the second night in a row now you’ve found yourself here, if I have my count of days right.”
Legolas looked up to see Gandalf, leaning on his staff. He misliked the idea of anyone, even Mithrandir, seeing him in this state, but he pushed aside his shame and, with luck, whatever vulnerability was still visible on his face.
“The solitude comforts me,” Legolas lied. Gandalf, he suspected, knew a lie when he heard it, but the wizard offered no comment. He leaned against the wall next to where Legolas sat, and together they were silent for a while, watching soldiers scurry back and forth on the far end of the hall, nearer the gate.
“It is the waiting that is the worst of it,” Gandalf said, ruminatively. “No action to take, no preparations to make. And alone with one’s thoughts is often the loneliest place to be.”
Legolas did not answer, and when the silence lingered, Gandalf glanced down at him.
“I’m sure he’d not take it amiss if you brought him food,” he said.
Legolas shook his head. “I’d not do anything to take him away from what is likely the most important work of his life,” he answered. “Many times have I heard him speak of his work at the forge. I know that above all things he needs focus.”
“And what about you, my friend?” Gandalf returned. “What do you need?”
Legolas flinched and said nothing.
A few moments passed between them in that same silence, and Gandalf sat down next to him on the floor and laid his white staff across his lap. The quiet was not quite companionable, but neither was it uncomfortable. It was what it was.
“The greatest love stories are always tragic, aren’t they?” Gandalf said. “Great love attracts great strife, it seems. Or perhaps it is the strife that makes the love great, for how else could a love become strong enough to survive the fires of hell if it were not forged there?”
“I have no need for a great love,” Legolas answered. “I feel no envy for Tinúviel and would not follow in her strifes if I had my say.”
“I don’t imagine Lúthien would have chosen the path she and Beren walked down, either,” Gandalf said, “but they walked it all the same, and it was the pain of it that moved Mandos’s heart to mercy. Strength and love in the face of incredible adversity is enough to move mountains. You have already shown thus in spades.”
“I do not feel strong,” Legolas said. “I have not felt strong since I was branded by the Deceiver.”
Without thinking, he lifted one hand to his throat, rubbed his fingers along the toughened, blackened skin there.
“Perhaps I was never strong,” he continued, mostly to himself.
“And how do you measure strength?” Gandalf asked him. “What is your yardstick for it?”
Legolas had no answer for him. He’d never been called upon to consider such questions.
“My friend, strength is not measured by your capacity to ignore pain, but your capacity to endure it,” Gandalf said. “You have gone through agonies beyond the imagination of any of your kin, things which should have killed you, but you are still here, living, fighting, and loving so deeply besides. If you cannot see the strength in that, then take it from me: never in all my years have I beheld more strength in one being. I stand in marvel of you – and your strength.”
There was something hot and wet in the back of Legolas’s throat. He kept his eyes on the ground rather than risk answering. He did not know that he believed Gandalf – that he could, even if he wanted to – but there was something in the hearing of it that changed him in some small, inscrutable way.
The sound came suddenly, tremendously, and it rattled the living rock beneath them. At once, they both looked up, toward the source of the sound – further down the hallway, where a commotion was already stirring, where refugees were standing, scrabbling away. And from the other side of the Gates of Tumunzahar—
“Grond! Grond! Grond! Grond!”
Legolas rose to his feet. Gandalf was up a breath behind him. They exchanged a brief look and ran.
Legolas was unsheathing his knives, Gandalf’s staff was already glowing with pale light. The moment they rounded the last corner into the antechamber—
“The doors,” Legolas breathed, like a curse.
Each had a spiderweb of cracks radiating out from the center, and the refugees that had set up their tents in the antechamber were scrambling up from their bedrolls, grabbing their children, backing away.
“Get Éowyn and rally the armies,” Gandalf said. “I’ll keep safe the refugees as they pull back behind the second doors.”
It was so much louder this close, near-deafening, and Legolas flinched without meaning to. From outside, the chanting grew louder – “Grond! Grond! Grond!”
“Do the inner doors have a better chance of holding out against this assault?” he asked.
“We have precious little choice,” Gandalf answered. “Quickly, now.”
He bared his teeth anxiously, but nodded. Gandalf was left alone, refugees rushing past him. His hands wrung around his staff.
“Come, then, Gorthaur,” he hissed, and—
—the doors came crashing down, great splinters of marble and iron. Staff held high, Gandalf’s magic exploded outward, meeting the shower of rubble force-for-force. It may have saved a few refugees from an abrupt end, but it could not save the gates.
Fire rolled from the mouth of Grond, red and terrible even through the dust rising off the broken gates of Tumunzahar. Orcs poured through like black water, snarling and shouting all, and Gandalf summoned all the strength he did not have.
“This far,” he bellowed, “and no further!”
By the time the armies were roused and armed and armored, Tumunzahar was in a panic. Legolas had to fight his way back toward the antechamber upstream against a rush of frantic refugees. Behind him he could already hear Éowyn barking orders to the soldiers of Gondor and Rohan, but the elves of the Greenwood knew already their strategies, finding high perches in the upper walkways and picking off orcs as they clawed their way into Nogrod.
“Pull back into the feasting hall!” Legolas cried. “We’ll seal the secondary doors! There’s—”
His breath left him in a rush, and for a moment his conscious mind did not know why. He’d suffered no blow, felt no pain. He had been staring into the throng of orcs flooding into the antechamber, and saw, just a dozen feet away, so close that Legolas could smell him—
“Lulgijak,” Gothmog snarled by way of greeting. His misshapen white face was contorted into some cruel parody of a smile.
Though the halls were hot with the closeness of the crowds, Legolas suddenly felt very cold.
“We simply must stop meeting like this,” he said. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you had a crush on me. Do—”
And then Legolas’s throwing knife was in the orc’s shoulder. Gothmog made some guttural sound in the back of his throat and ripped the knife out. Black blood fountained onto the floor, and he turned his beady eyes forward.
“I suppose we’re skipping—”
And then Legolas was sprinting forward, screaming, fire and rage and grief burning through him like acid. Gothmog barely caught his blades in time.
And then they were fighting.
Legolas felt as though he could barely see, and yet his vision had never been so sharp. He could scarcely hear, and yet he picked up on the orc’s every grunt and snarl. He was spinning and slashing at a speed he had not known he was capable of reaching. He was slicing and slicing, his torso and his throat, his pelvis and his face, slicing and slicing and slicing, and black blood splattered in his eyes and across his chest, and he sliced and sliced and sliced and sliced, and when the orc fell, he kept slicing, stabbing into the rotten, malformed flesh that remained, slicing and slicing—
—at the foul creature’s face until it barely was a face anymore, at his neck until it caved in and sprayed gore and separated his head, at his chest until the feeble black heart was as ruined as Legolas was, at his stomach until the viscera spilled—
Two hands grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him back, and Legolas screamed, he was not done, he was not done, he wanted to carve him into ribbons, wanted to cut off the cock that had forced itself into him, wanted to rip it all to pieces until all that was left was mangled flesh and unpleasant memories—
“Legolas, he’s dead! Stop, stop!”
He swung and swung, but his blades no longer found purchase in flesh, and he screamed again, and he dropped his sword in his blind fury, and Gothmog was in pieces at his feet, but Legolas was still in tatters, too, it wasn’t… he had to…
He was pulled backwards into Éowyn’s chest and it all came crashing down. He could carve Gothmog into ribbons, but vengeance was not healing, and all he’d achieve was a commonality between them – now they were both in pieces.
The knowing of it burned harder and hotter than the hand of fire ever had. Legolas screamed again, now not in anger, but in soul-deep grief. Nothing was better. Nothing was better.
“Close and bar the doors!” Éowyn cried, pulling Legolas backwards. “Go, go, go!”
And then, as abruptly and brutally as it had begun, it was over.
They gathered their wounded and counted their dead. What limited space they’d already had became all the tighter. Orcish bodies threw themselves at the secondary gates just as they had the first, and Gandalf knew that they had only as long as it took for them to widen their hole in the mountain and pull Grond through it.
When he found Éowyn, she was bent over Legolas, who though he was to Gandalf’s eye uninjured sat curled around himself, painted in black blood and shaking.
She looked up at him, and Gandalf met her eyes. There was an entire conversation that went unspoken between them, both knowing but not saying.
“He’ll be fine,” was Éowyn’s only judgment. She did not sound sure.
Gandalf was tired, but with what little magic he had left in him, he sent the elf to sleep. His eyes fell shut and the trembling dropped away. It was not the mercy he deserved, but it was all that he could give him.
“Gandalf,” Éowyn said, “where was he?”
He canted his head in her direction. “Who?”
“Sauron,” she answered, teeth grit. “Did you see him?”
He opened his mouth, then shut it.
“I didn’t, either,” she said. “We have not seen him since Rivendell, have we? It is not like him to not be with his own vanguard.”
Gandalf said nothing. And though his heart was already whispering the dark question this realization demanded, still she said it out loud:
“If he’s not here, where is he?”
Chapter 13: The Rings Reforged
Gimli was shaken awake by a hand on his shoulder.
“My lord,” said Drór, one of the two master craftsmen he’d enlisted to aid him in the forge, “the metal’s set.”
Reluctantly, he lifted his head off his arms, both of which he’d let collapse onto the crafting table.
Gimli felt as though he’d been kicked by an oliphaunt. Every part of him ached, from his head which throbbed from lack of sleep, to his hands which were crisscrossed by black singe marks and stiff from overuse. He was weak all over and drenched with sweat. It was as though he had been left to burn to death in this oven of a forge.
Groggy, aching, near-blind from an exhaustion that ran down to his bones, Gimli pushed out of the stool at the crafting table and went to the lip of the balcony which overlooked the heart of the forge, where mere yards below them magma flowed in a steady river.
And then he saw the long table where, scattered among hammers and tongs and magnifiers and pliers, sat the product of nearly a week of sleepless nights and backbreaking effort.
And there was something wrong.
Gimli flexed his weary hands.
“Find the wizard and the Elvenking,” he muttered to Drór, “bring them here at once.”
Drór looked nervous, but nodded. He and the other craftsman started for the door, though without much speed – they’d worked just as hard as Gimli had, and they didn’t have his youth.
Remembering this, Gimli was quick to add, “And then get some rest, for Mahal’s sake,” over his shoulder as they vanished through the doors.
He was not sure they heard him, but he had little doubt they’d find their ways to bed with or without his say so. Gimli’s eyes returned to the table.
Gimli knew so little of magic. It had been his chief point of protest when Gandalf had asked him to do this impossible thing. In these halls, in this very forge, the hands of his ancestors had crafted some of the most wondrous magical items ever to exist on Arda – but he was not his ancestors, and the magic that once permeated this world was fading away.
There was something wrong, Gimli knew, something terribly wrong.
At once, his eyes flew open. Light had been his sleep and dark his dreams, and though the rousing made pain throb behind his eyes, it was a preferable condition to the nightmares.
Gandalf was standing over him, dark and solemn. Legolas sat up.
“We’ve been summoned to the forge,” he said.
In a breath, anxiety replaced weariness. Legolas stood quickly, and followed Gandalf out of the hovel-hole Legolas had taken to sleeping in so the family of nine could have his more kingly quarters.
“What news?” Legolas asked as they walked. “Has it been done?”
“I do not know,” Gandalf answered. “I suppose we are about to find out.”
Tumunzahar was quiet as a crypt as they crept through its halls, moving deftly over and between the refugees that lined the corridors, all sighing and twisting in their sleep. The Great Forge was centrally located, and deep under the earth, down several flights of stairs, and through a pair of doors that Legolas knew well – and which now stood ajar.
Red light shone out from between them in a widening arc, and Legolas could see tools and tables and bellows and ingots, but could hear nothing. He and Gandalf exchanged an uneasy look, and it was the wizard who first pushed open the door to let them through.
He hadn’t been sure what to expect, having never been inside, but the Great Forge lived up to its name. It was a massive room, lined with furnaces on both sides, dominated by tables that were covered in an array of tools so wide that Legolas could not hope to name them all if he had ten years to train in smithing. On the far side of the cavern, opposite the doors, was a sharp drop over a stone balcony into lava, which flowed beneath and from the ceiling in a natural cascade. It was hot as hell, and Legolas could hardly stand to be here, but before he could suffer long, he saw—
He was hunched over the table that sat on the balcony, flame-red hair tangled with sweat, shirtless, muscles straining just beneath his skin.
“I told you,” Gimli whispered.
Gandalf frowned. “What did you tell?”
As they approached, slowly, Legolas began to notice the way Gimli’s shoulders were shaking. From exertion, he wondered, or from something else?
“I told you I knew nothing of magic.”
Gimli turned, and now that Legolas could see the state of him, his heart ached. He looked exhausted, thin, like a stiff breeze might knock him over. He looked how Legolas felt.
But now that he had turned, Legolas realized, he had revealed what he had been bent over at the table. Sitting among the tools that made them where three rings, and even from a distance, their beauty stole Legolas’s breath.
In the center of them was what could only have been the reforged Vilya, a golden band and bright blue gem, with detailing so fine that he could scarcely imagine how long it must have taken to carve. To the left sat what was once Nenya, white mithril and glimmering diamonds, its band made from interweaving threads all dappled with gems. To the right was the new Narya, a gleaming red gem set on a wide golden band.
Legolas knew little of forging, but he knew when a thing was beautiful, and in his long life he had never seen so much of it in such little things. Their craftsmanship was exquisite, and he could hardly believe that they had only taken a week to make. Truly, the genius of dwarvish forging was not to be underestimated.
But as he kept staring at the rings, admiring them for their beauty, he began to notice something unusual about them. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was until Gimli spoke again, breaking the tense lapse of silence.
“There’s no magic in them!”
His voice echoed, emphasizing both the size of the room and the brutal severity of his words. When at last Legolas pulled his eyes away and returned his attention to the rings, he realized that Gimli was right. That was what was unusual about them; they felt different because there was no more power in them. They were beautiful, but they were not magical.
The first thing he felt was a sudden surge of fear. They had staked everything on this plan. They’d gambled the lives of thousands of refugees on the success of it. Was it truly all for naught? All that work, all that death, and for what?
Legolas looked over at Gandalf. The expression on the wizard’s face could charitably be described as stricken. Legolas watched as he crossed the room and picked up the ring that was once Narya between his fingers. He turned it over, stared into its gem, even sniffed it, but his expression didn’t change.
“There are ten-thousand civilians here who just went from biding their time to waiting for death,” Gimli said. “How much longer can we realistically defend this mountain now, with – what is it? – eight thousand troops? At best? Against Sauron’s fifty thousand at least?”
Gandalf said nothing. He was still staring into what-was-once-Narya’s gem, as if trying to convince himself of what he was seeing.
“Say something, wizard!” Gimli thundered, voice edged with sudden desperation. “Tell me that all this work wasn’t for nothing! Tell me that those civilians and their children aren’t about to die like cornered rats! Tell me there’s something we can do!”
“Gandalf,” Legolas at last intoned, “you can – can you, I mean – is it within your skill – can you, I don’t know, bespell them, somehow?”
The expression on Gandalf’s face was not reassuring. He looked back at Legolas, wizened eyes sad, and a flutter of panic rose in the back of Legolas’s throat.
“Magic I might cast, by the grace of Ilúvatar’s Secret Fire,” Gandalf said at last, looking despondently down at the ring in his hand, “but the magic of the Three Rings is not something one wizard can replicate. I’d hoped…”
“And clearly,” Gimli interjected, voice thick, “the late Lord of Rivendell was right in his assessment. Hope is dead. And all we have done has been for nothing.”
And then, the heart of the mountain exploded in light and sound.
It was so sudden that Legolas staggered backward and shielded his eyes with his arm. Whatever light had filled the room originated just past the balcony, in the air over the living magma that flowed below the chamber. It was dazzling white, so bright it illuminated corners of the chamber that Legolas did not know where there, humming loud and low and making the rock shudder beneath their feet.
When at last he mustered the courage to drop his arm, squinting against the light, he did not know what he was seeing. Even as his vision adjusted, what his eyes saw offered no clarity to what his mind understood.
There were three figures hovering in the air just beyond the edge of the balcony, wreathed in light, human-shaped, but their mien otherworldly and unknowable. Legolas’s heart was hammering, and as he was too scared to speak, he saw Gandalf drop to his knees, whispering in a language that Legolas did not understand.
“The pain you feel, Gimli Glóin’s son, is not a lack of hope, but mounting despair. Hope cannot truly be dead while love exists, and you have kept love like a single candle against a hurricane of grief and misery.”
Gandalf spoke next, a sudden sob of overwhelming emotion. “Nienna,” he wept, still on his knees, “I thought I had forgotten your face.”
“Nienna,” Legolas whispered, hardly daring to believe what he was hearing. Nienna, Gandalf had said. Surely these could not be—
“Hello, Olórin, my most devoted student. The importance of your mission in this place has not dulled the pain of your absence. I have missed you.”
Gandalf was once again wracked by a painful sob, but Legolas knew this was no sob of sadness, but of bittersweet joy.
“I know you,” Gimli said, suddenly. Legolas tore his eyes away. He was addressing the figure on the right, male-shaped, towering. “I saw you. Under Khazad-dûm. It was you who bid me open my cousin’s tomb!”
“And I know you, Gimli Glóinul, better than you know yourself. When I made you from the stone that bore you and when I first spoke your secret name, even I was surprised by the strength of your heart, and by your capacity for compassion. You have done my work justice in spades.”
Legolas swayed, then dropped to his knees beside Gandalf. It seemed impossible, but he could no longer ignore the evidence. They were in the presence of three of the Valar.
“Mahal,” Gimli choked. The word existed somewhere between a recognition and a prayer. “Twice you have now shown yourself to me and I – I never – I—”
“You owe me no apologies, child, and no deference. It is we who should be seeking your forgiveness. Long have we wished to intervene, but never has the right moment presented itself. Now, at last, you have made this manifestation possible, and we would use it to help you.”
The figure on the left, who up till now had not spoken, at last broke her silence, addressing Legolas:
“New Elvenking, you are at a disadvantage. Here your two companions may speak to familiar faces, but you, Moriquendi, young king of a diminished people, see only strangers. Yet I believe that your heart may know me, for in all my years of watching the races of Endor never have I seen a heart more like my own.”
Legolas almost did not dare to look up, but when he did, found a deep and abiding solace in looking upon her face. For the first time in what felt like an age, peace fell upon him, soft and cool like spring ran, and hardly could he breathe from the emotion such relief brought.
“In your life you have known true peace, true joy, and also have you known it taken from you. It is the dreadful but necessary empathy that makes a healer’s heart, to know pain and to wish and make better for those around us.”
Legolas did not know what to say. His shoulders were heaving with some overwhelming emotion that he could not name. He felt lightheaded, breathless, and stared down at the ground in some combination of reverent silence and numb shock.
“Rise, Legolas Thranduilion, Elvenking of the Woodland Realm, and approach.”
Though he could hardly believe it, his legs cooperated. He rose and came forward, and as he did, saw the Vala extend one hand down towards the rings, waiting on the table. The gold-and-blue band that was once Vilya began to glow with white light.
“In this ring I infuse my power – the power to heal, to rejuvenate mind and body and spirit. I name this ring mine, Estëcor, and bestow it upon its rightful wielder.”
Legolas could not say if he reached out for the ring or if it came to him – perhaps both at once. The masterfully crafted band fit perfectly around his index finger, and as it came to rest there, he felt a sudden wash of strength. It flowed in him and through him and out of him, like cool wind, even against the blistering heat of the forge. Scarcely did he understand the incredible magic of this ring around his finger, but he knew that it was tremendous. He could feel it.
“Olórin, after so many ages of this world, you continue to astound me.”
“My lady,” Gandalf said, barely.
“Grim have been your duties and dark the times in which they were performed. And though your stewardship has been long and full of perils, and though I know how you yearn for the shores of Aman, I must humbly ask that you keep up the mantle for a while longer, while you face down your most feared foe. Rise, Olórin, Maia of Ilúvatar, and approach.”
A moment later, Gandalf was standing next to him.
“In this ring I infuse my power – the power to find and protect hope even in the face of incredible grief. I name this ring mine, Niennacor, and bestow it upon its rightful wielder.”
Gandalf, of course, wore the reforged ring as though it was meant for him, as though it had never left his hand. Legolas could feel the power from this ring, as well – not cool and reassuring like his own, but bright and powerful like fire. Somehow these magics did not conflict, but rather fed on each other and grew stronger.
Legolas looked askance, where Gimli lifted his weary head upon the face of his maker, and found no words.
“Not since the founder of your line has there been a Khuzd of comparable strength, grace, and dignity.”
Gimli seemed to shudder at his words. Legolas fought the instinct to go to his side.
“It is no mistake that you came to wield Durin’s Axe, just as it is no mistake that you now bear the heavy burden and illustrious title of King Under the Mountain. I knew from the moment I made you and gave you to your mother that you were destined for extraordinary things, but never could I have imagined how wildly you would exceed my expectations. I am so proud of you.”
Gimli uttered something in Khuzdul, and though Legolas did not know the language, to his ear it was hitched with an emotion that somehow defied all attempts to explain it.
“Rise, Gimli Glóinul, King Under the Mountain, and approach.”
He did, with some difficulty, and the figure that Legolas could now name as Aulë extended his hand down.
“In this ring I infuse my power – the power to make strength and protection from where there is none. I name this ring mine, Aulëcor, and bestow it upon its rightful wielder.”
And when the final ring came upon Gimli’s finger, gravity itself seemed to shift.
There was new power in this room and in these rings, tremendous and ferocious, that was only strengthened by their proximity to one another. There was new hope, new healing, new strength radiating through them and out from them, filling the mountains.
“Take these rings and put an end to the One and its wielder. Know that the very Grace of Ilúvatar and the will of all free people goes with you.”
“This is a fight that you must win, for if you do not, then more terrible dooms will yet fall over this world. You must not allow this to come to pass.”
“Fear if you will, but do not despair. Our strength is with you.”
The last sentence hung in the air, even as the radiant light of the Valar faded from the chamber. There was left behind a sort of echoing, hollow silence, a palpable absence. The silence stretched.
“If I’d not seen it with my own eyes,” Gimli whispered, staring down at the white ring on his finger, “I’d have called the one who relayed it to me mad.”
Gandalf turned and looked over his shoulder. Legolas did because he did, and through the still open doors of the Great Forge, where further up the mountain the inner gates of Tumunzahar still rumbled and shook, stood a crowd of soldiers and refugees, all staring, stunned.
Gandalf looked back at Gimli, and then at Legolas.
“Ride out?” Gandalf said.
“For ruin,” Gimli answered.
“For Middle-earth,” Legolas added.
Gimli smiled, and Gandalf chuckled.
And all of Arda held its breath.
When at last the inner gates of Nogrod were shattered by the terrible Grond, as the uncountable orcs of Mordor began to climb their way over the rubble, the great stone doors were suddenly flung outward, and in their wake was caught the ill-fated orcish vanguard and one of the wheels of the battering ram Grond, which crunched beneath the stone and forced it to capitulate forward.
Before the armies of Sauron could take stock of what had happened, the armies within came vaulting outward, the combined forces of Erebor, Dale, Rohan, Gondor, Mirkwood, and Nogrod. Few were they in number but they came crashing through like a force of nature, cutting through lines of orcs as though they were no more yielding than weeds.
The fight proved short and brutal. Some twenty thousand there were packed up against the mountainside, and the army less than half their size came blazing outward like wildfire – and won.
The inner gates of Tumunzahar had broken at dawn, and by noon, scouts and medics went picking through the piles of orcish bodies in search of men or elves or dwarves who needed tending. The field was victorious, but uneasy.
“These magic rings are quite handy, aren’t they?” Legolas said, approaching Gimli and Gandalf from behind as they spoke in quiet tones. “I don’t suppose you could whip up a few more, Gimli.”
Gimli chuckled as he turned. “Glad to see you made it out.”
Legolas dropped to his knees and Gimli was ready to embrace him, tightly, fingers twisted in Legolas’s hair.
“I’ve missed you,” Legolas whispered into Gimli’s ear.
“And I, you,” was Gimli’s answer. He pulled back, but only to kiss the elf, once, who leaned forward into it. No more words were spoken on the matter. What their kiss could not communicate could wait.
“A rather swift fight, wasn’t it?” Gandalf mumbled, eyes sweeping the field. “By my count, this could not even be half of the full force of Mordor. Which rather raises the question of where the rest of it is.”
“No sign of him!” It was Éowyn’s voice, winded slightly, but she came tromping over orcish corpses toward them looking hale and whole. “He’s nowhere to be found. Gandalf—”
“Who isn’t found?” Legolas asked, remaining for the time on his knees beside Gimli.
Gandalf was frowning. “The Deceiver,” he said. “Have either of you, since Rivendell, seen sign of Sauron?”
Gimli frowned as well and shook his head. Legolas answered, “Not past unpleasant dreams.”
“If he isn’t here, wizard,” Gimli said, “then where is he?”
Gandalf sighed. “I do not know,” he confessed, “and I mislike the idea of how we might find out.”
He fished one hand into his robe, and was then pulling out the Palantír. Legolas stood up. “Mithrandir,” he said, “I urge you caution. Gothmog did not have the Palantír when I cut him down on their first assault into the mountain, and I cannot say for sure in whose hands it is now.”
“We don’t have a lot of choice,” Éowyn said. Her shining silver armor was painted with streaks of black blood, and her battle-wild golden hair sat in a drooping knot at the back of her neck. “We cannot claim this as a victory if we have no further course of action. What good are the reforged rings without something to use them on?”
“I see a horizon.”
Gimli was the first to turn, then Éowyn, then Legolas. Gandalf was already staring into the Palantír, its dark surface glossy with blue-violet light. Legolas felt a thrum of nervousness in him, but held firm, running his thumb along Estëcor’s golden band.
“It is shrouded in melting snow. Low on the skyline are stars, all glittering brightly. It – I would swear that it…”
His words fell off. Slowly, his expression changed. Legolas was perhaps the first to hear soft sounds from the Palantír, like a thousand hushed voices. So too was he the first to notice Gandalf’s flinch of pain, the slight stagger in his stance.
“Gandalf,” Éowyn said, guardedly.
But Gandalf did not answer. The soft colors of sunset on the surface of the Palantír were being swallowed by red, and Gandalf’s shoulders were hunching in sudden pain. The whispering grew louder, and suddenly Legolas could recognize the language – Black Speech.
“Gandalf!” Éowyn cried, lunging forward to grab the Palantír from his hands. The red fire on the surface became all the brighter, and she screamed, buckling onto one knee, hands splayed as she tried to drop it, but it refused to fall from her hands.
“Stand back!” Gimli bellowed, and before Legolas could react, he went racing forward, Durin’s Axe out and swinging – it sailed through the air, just above Éowyn’s hands, where it collided with the Palantír and abruptly—
—sent it shattering, splintering into a thousand pieces.
If nothing else, the whispering stopped. The fragments of dark stone littered the grass near Éowyn’s feet, as she hissed her pained breath and flexed her singed hands. Without thinking, Legolas went forward to her side. With Estëcor, just as readily as her burns had appeared, they began to sink back down into her skin.
Gandalf, however, was not looking at her hands. He was still staring at the shattered fragments of the Palantír on the ground.
“I suppose that answers the question of who has it,” Gimli muttered. “In hindsight, perhaps my first instinct to destroy it was not the best—”
“I know where he is,” Gandalf said.
Legolas looked up. “You do?”
“You do?” Éowyn echoed, looking up from her newly-healed hands.
“And the answer is far more terrible than I could have ever predicted,” he continued. He turned then, sad eyes landing on Gimli and Legolas and Éowyn. “He is in Aman.”
“Aman?” Legolas answered, standing up sharply.
“That is why he split off from his army,” Gandalf hissed, uttering the sentence like a curse. “That is why we’ve not seen him. His goal was never to chase down the last free peoples of Middle-earth, to win back the Three Rings. It was all a smokescreen! He was always bound for the western edge of the world, to the very lip of reality. He means to open the Door of Night.”
There was a shudder in Legolas that started at the base of his spine and raced upwards before he even knew why, before his conscious mind could draw upon all the lore he knew of the world and its making, before he could remember what lay beyond the Door of Night.
“He means to free his master,” Gandalf said, eyes grim. “He means to free Morgoth.”
Chapter 14: Valinor
“You called for me, Highness?”
His back was to her as she first came through the door, and he was securing a quiver to his belt. It had been quite some time since she’d seen Legolas dress to his station – and it had in the past been a point of some contention between him and his late father. Ever had it been easy for her to forget that the wild, cheerful, friendly elfling was a prince. Now as he turned, his new metal armor gleaming, a simple circlet crown on his brow, a magic ring glittering on his finger, his kingship was difficult to ignore.
“Varien,” he said, pulling taut the leather belt, “I’m going to be departing soon.”
Her lips thinned. She’d heard the rumors as much as anyone else had, but little besides. “Departing where?”
The look he gave her implied that he didn’t know much more than she did. He pulled on the first of his pair of gauntlets and, rather than answer her question, changed the subject.
“Since I can’t be sure how long I’ll be gone, the issue of regency must be addressed.”
“Our people cannot be left leaderless,” he said.
Varien narrowed her eyes quizzically. “Who’s left to lead the Eryn Galen in the absence of any of the line of Oropher?”
As he tugged on the second gauntlet, he said, “Who, indeed?”
He kept staring at her as he tightened the gauntlet’s leather straps. It took several further moments of silence for her to realize his implication.
“Me?” she said, perhaps too loudly.
“Long have you served my family, well and faithfully. You are known to our people, and well-loved.”
She laughed, nearly. Was he out of his mind?
“I’m – Highness, I’m not a Queen-Regent. I’m a physic. I’m a Silvan.”
“So was my mother,” Legolas said, “and still she reigned as queen for a thousand years.”
“That’s different,” Varien insisted.
“How?” Legolas asked.
She opened her mouth, but no words came. Legolas waited for a time as he finished adjusting his gauntlets, but when at last his arms dropped to his side, he returned his gaze to her, empathetic, but unwavering.
“I know what you are feeling,” he said. “I know that you think you’re unworthy of this position. I thought the same thing when first I was called Elvenking. I still think it, even after a Vala has blessed me with a Ring of Power. You’d tell me to choose someone else, someone on my father’s court, a vizier. But I wouldn’t trust this burden to anyone with political ambition. A wise dwarf had it pointed out to him recently that power must be taken with reluctance or not at all. We have seen what lust for power may make of even a Maia when he destroyed Rivendell. It’s what sets us apart from the enemy, my friend. It is what makes our stewardship of Middle-earth better.”
He closed the distance between them and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. It was all she could do not to flinch away in fear of the new responsibility.
“Most of Sauron’s armies have been driven from Middle-earth, but not all. Lead our people back to Mirkwood and rebuild what you can. Fight where you must. Hold the Greenwood till I return.”
“How long will that be?”
“I cannot say,” Gimli answered, a response which did not seem to mollify Glóin in the slightest. “The wizard has been stubbornly silent on all matters of specificity. He says we must go, he tells us to be well-armed, but offers nothing more.”
“And you expect me to take back the Lonely Mountain, do you?” Glóin says. “Again?”
“It’s different this time,” Gimli assured him. “We have more allies and fewer enemies. If Sauron is in Aman now, he’d take all available forces with him for his defense. Éowyn will help you if you ask her. So will the elves of the Greenwood.”
Glóin huffed a short but expressive breath through his mustache. “Never did I think I’d live to see the day when the elves of Mirkwood would stand with the dwarves of Erebor to reclaim the Mountain. Especially after they so recently turned down the opportunity.”
“Times change, Da,” Gimli sighed, shouldering on his armor.
“I suppose they do,” Glóin agreed. “After all, the King Under the Mountain is now betrothed to the King of the Greenwood.”
Gimli looked up, fingers fumbling.
“That does by definition make the two races on better diplomatic terms, doesn’t it?”
Though he searched for it, Gimli could find no trace of judgment in his father’s voice. The thought that this might be sincerity had more weight in his heart than he thought it might. Gimli’s hands dropped to his sides, his armor, for a few moments, forgotten.
“Da,” he said, without knowing what else he wanted to say.
“I owe you an apology, boy,” Glóin said. “Wiser sons of foolish fathers have taught me as much.”
Gimli swallowed the sudden knot of emotion in his throat.
“If my son has found love, real love, then it is not my place as a father to cast judgment. I’m happy for you, lad.”
Gimli closed the distance between them and pulled his father into an embrace, heart swelling. He had almost convinced himself that, despite everything, he’d be forced to love as though it were a secret shame. But if his father’s heart could be moved to change, there was hope for anyone.
“If he ever hurts you,” Glóin muttered into Gimli’s ear, “I’ll break both his legs.”
“I’d expect nothing less from you,” Éowyn said. “You’re out of your mind.”
“In dire times, madness is sometimes the only weapon that makes any sense,” Gandalf said.
“Or perhaps that is the last ditch rationalization of a madman.”
Gandalf paused to consider her words for a while, then shrugged. “Perhaps,” he conceded, and went back to filling his rucksack.
“Do you even know when you’ll be back?”
“Legolas and Gimli, within a year if the war is won at all.”
Éowyn arched one eyebrow at the distinction. “And you, wizard?”
He paused again in his packing, then rose and turned to her.
“What the elves call sea-longing has torn at my soul for a thousand years now, stronger every day,” he said, slowly. “If I do not die on the shores of Aman, I cannot imagine that I shall ever depart them again.”
Éowyn took in a short breath. “You don’t mean to return?” she said.
“If we lose, then it will not matter where I go,” Gandalf answered. “If we win, then my purpose in coming to Middle-earth will be fulfilled. I have been away from my home for so long. And seeing…”
Éowyn studied the wizard’s face closely, but found nothing. He was, as ever, inscrutable. After a lingering silence, he shook his head.
“There is no other place for me after this is over,” he said.
“Then I suppose this is goodbye between us, wizard,” Éowyn said. Her voice was neutral, but carefully so. There was something she was holding back.
“I suppose it is,” the wizard answered, just as carefully. “It was an honor and a privilege to have known you, Queen-Regent. I have every faith that you will lead the Men of the West to glory, prosperity, and peace.”
“Well, I’m glad you do, at least,” she laughed, self-effacing. Gandalf smiled.
“Do not doubt yourself, Lady, not after all you have survived. Your heart will always guide you truly, even if it guides you to unlikely, elvish places.”
Éowyn straightened, blanched. “I—” she began, “—how did you—?”
“I’ll meet you again one day,” Gandalf promised her, smiling, “when you live out all the life you are owed.”
She paused, sighed. “If any of us make it out of this alive,” Éowyn said.
Gandalf sighed. “Yes,” he agreed, “if any of us make it out alive.”
Within a few hours, all told, Gimli navigated his way through and over the rubble of what was once the great gates of Tumunzahar, out to where Legolas and Gandalf were waiting, washed gold in the high noontime sun.
“Right,” he said, “will someone please explain the plan to me now?”
Outside, at the foot of the Blue Mountains, orcish bodies had been piled and burned, and now the battle-scarred fields were home to groups of refugees, all of them packing, organizing, bent over maps and readying to return home. Whatever gladness it brought Gimli to see it was undercut slightly by the knowledge that they were not truly safe, not yet.
“Hello,” Legolas said, smiling. It was a tired smile, but it was no less true, and it warmed Gimli to see it. How beautiful his love was, even at what was perhaps the beginning of the end. Gimli reached for his hand the moment it was within his grasp.
“The plan, Master Dwarf,” Gandalf said, “is deceptively simple. Sauron is in Aman, trying to free his master. So hence shall we follow, to stop him.”
“Hence shall we—” Gimli began, but stopped. “To Aman? We’re going to Aman?”
“It’s rather far,” Legolas said doubtfully. “It’s an ocean away. How are we meant to get there before Sauron is able to open the Door of Night?”
“Two days ago, I’d have called it impossible,” Gandalf conceded. “There is no travel fast enough to get us from here to there in time. But now we have these.”
Gandalf held up his hand. Niennacor, once Narya, was glittering mischievously around his finger.
“I will use what strength the Valar have given us to attempt magic I’d not have dared to before. I’ll need to borrow some strength from your two rings, as well, but with this, I can bear us from here to there with magic, instantaneously.”
“Wizard,” Gimli said, “last I checked, no dwarf had ever set foot in Aman.”
“Then you shall be the first, my love,” Legolas answered, “for I would go nowhere without you, not even to the West.”
Gandalf was smiling smally. “Well, there you have it,” he said. “I’d not risk the wrath of the Elvenking even if I were a Vala.”
Gimli scarcely had time to react, because behind him, a small voice cut off his thoughts:
“You’re going to the West?”
All three turned, and somehow none were prepared for the face of Peregrin Took, emerging from the shadow of the Blue Mountains.
“Master Hobbit,” Gimli said.
“Were you even going to say goodbye?” He tried to sound offended, but there was nothing behind his anger. Gimli could tell easily enough that he was not cross, he was sad. And Gimli could hardly blame him. “Gotten all fancy, haven’t you, since getting those rings?”
Legolas smiled joylessly. Gandalf grimaced.
“Under the circumstances, each goodbye is a heartstring pulled taut and ripped from the chest,” he said. “But you’re right to be cross. You are owed a good parting.”
“What am I meant to do?” was all Pippin asked, but Gimli knew the rest of the sentence left unsaid: all of my friends are dead. He flinched and averted his eyes.
“What all of us must do,” Legolas answered. “Return, rebuild. Try to find something like peace at the end of all things.”
“Will I ever see you again?” he asked, tearful. Gimli stepped forward at once.
“You’ll see me again, lad,” Gimli swore. “Whether it’s in the halls of our ancestors or in some new, fresh Hobbiton, I swear you’ll see me again.”
“Where my love goes, I will follow,” Legolas answered in kind. “Even if it is away from the shores of Aman. I’ll see you again, my brave friend.”
Pippin looked at Gandalf, and so did Legolas and Gimli. But the wizard did not answer in kind. His face was sad, and there was enough answer in that sadness for Pippin’s breath to hitch.
Gandalf came forward then, dropped to one knee, and placed his hand in Pippin’s golden hair.
“You are a confounding and frustrating hobbit, Peregrin Took,” he said. Pippin swallowed. Gimli had half a mind to chastise the wizard for curtness, but he sensed that Gandalf was not done talking. “But for all you have tried my patience, so too have you taught me. Of all the hobbits and all the men and dwarves and elves with which I have consorted, never have I found one with such an incredible dedication to joy.
“Know that I will take this piece of me, the lesson that you taught me, with me wherever I go. You have taught me the value of levity. Indeed, the necessity of it, even and especially when it is darkest. You have changed me for the better, and though I may not see you again in this life, know that I am so grateful for it.”
The emotion in Pippin’s face finally broke, and the hobbit threw himself forward into Gandalf’s arms. The wizard embraced him tightly. Gimli felt wound taut with emotion, and he gripped Legolas’s hand, still in his own, all the tighter, in a last ditch effort to keep himself in check. Legolas returned his grasp.
“So the Fellowship finally ends,” Pippin said.
“One way or another,” Gandalf answered, and drew away, smiling at the hobbit with a great but gentle tragedy in his face. “Look for a foretelling at dusk, far across the ocean. You may see some vision of our fate as the sun vanishes.”
Pippin said nothing. Gandalf rose to his feet, turned his gaze to Legolas and Gimli. His face was drawn, his eyes doom-driven. He held out the hand which bore Niennacor, palm up, in invitation to them both.
Gimli gripped it tight, then so did Legolas. And all around them, reality itself began to shift.
The armies of Aman were riding north to meet him.
But Sauron the Deceiver did not look south to see them. Ever was his gaze held west.
Lesser eyes could not, would not see the Door of Night, could not comprehend the edge of reality even as it was stretched before them, but Sauron could. Ages of this world had come and gone, but never once had his thoughts strayed too far from it. His Lord was so close, yet so unknowably far. And it was hard, frustrating, impossible work, even with the One Ring back on his hand, to carve open the edge of the world and get to him, inch by inch, piece by piece.
When he heard the battle hymn of the Valar far above his head, it was met with the screaming of his fellbeasts, and Sauron’s eyes did not move for a second. Let the Valar waste their time with his creatures, let the children of Ilúvatar break themselves on his armies, or let his armies be broken. It hardly mattered. All that mattered now was the Door.
All that mattered now was Morgoth.
It was when the world stopped spinning that Legolas at last lost his balance, the stopping of it more jarring than the going. He landed hard on his hands and knees, but beneath him he felt soft grass rather than the hard rubble and gravel at the foot of the mountain. When he breathed in, he could not smell burning orcish bodies, but clear air and distant ocean.
And when he lifted his head—
The sad, tragic song in his heart that pulled him West was clear now, loud, and no longer full of grief. It was here. He was here. He was in Aman. And though he had never been further from the Eryn Galen, Legolas felt for the first time like he was home.
“By Mahal,” said Gimli, faintly, beside him.
Legolas turned, and his heart dropped.
Soft was the grass and clear was the air, but there was a black scar stretching through the valley before them where they landed. The combined armies of Sauron, some fifty-thousand or more by his count, were rushing southward, even as an army came racing north to meet them, shining with the now-familiar light of the Valar. And at the horizon – at the horizon—
“He’s already started,” Gandalf hissed from behind him. He sounded winded, and different somehow. Legolas struggled to his feet. “We have precious little time.”
“I suppose our place is not in the fray,” Gimli muttered.
“No,” Gandalf whispered. “We must meet the Deceiver where he is.”
“Just the three of us, then?” he asked, turning. “Against—”
Gimli stopped short. Legolas looked at him in confusion, then turned to Gandalf and knew at once the source of Gimli’s sudden shock.
No longer did Gandalf look a kindly, wizened old man in a hat. Now he seemed to be made of pure white light. It shone in and through a skin that Legolas had not seen before.
“What…” Gimli began.
“It is easy to forget, isn’t it,” Legolas said, “that Gandalf as we know him is little more than a kinder facade for mortal eyes.”
Gandalf – though perhaps now it would do better to call him Olórin – turned his shining face toward them. His expression was unreadable.
“But he is and always has been a Maia,” Legolas said. “He was wrought in this land, and returning to it shows him as he truly is.”
Olórin inclined his head slightly.
“All right, one turmoil at a time,” Gimli muttered, mostly to himself, and Legolas smiled. Ever was his love practical. He watched as Gimli turned his helmed head west, where at a strange and twisting horizon Sauron the Deceiver stood, the One Ring held high, burning so brightly that they could see it even from their significant distance. “Do we have a plan, or are we going to improvise through the most important fight of our lives?”
“Oh, we have a plan,” Olórin said.
And then, there was an arrow in the back of his neck.
Long had it been since he’d felt pain – so long that he almost didn’t recognize it when he felt it. His magic faltered, and he ripped the arrow from where it had landed between his breastplate and helm.
Orcish it was in make, and rage roiled in him. He turned from the horizon, and instead of a wayward orcish archer, he saw a dwarf, an elf, and—
It was the elf who had fired, it must have been. Sauron knew from experience the accuracy of his bow, and the rage in him grew all the stronger at having it turned against him. He snapped the metal shaft in half in his hand.
YOU HAVE SEEN DEATH BEFORE, BUT STILL DO NOT KNOW IT WHEN IT STARES DOWN AT YOU.
He hefted his mace up in one hand. Red fire spilled down its shaft and wreathed its flanges.
YOU MUST BE REMINDED.
“Come then!” roared the dwarf, stepping forward, his axe in both hands. “Let’s find out which one of us sees death first!”
With a roar, Sauron lifted his fiery mace and swung. With a roar, a platoon of his army turned and broke off.
And Gimli lifted high Durin’s Axe to meet the swing of the mace twice his size, and as he screamed, there came the sound of shattering metal.
Fiery iron showered down around Gimli. Sauron’s very mace had broken on the edge of Durin’s Axe, and Gimli widened his stance and grit his teeth.
“Now, Legolas!” he cried. “Do it now! Do it now!”
Legolas vaulted away, down the rocky perch on which they’d been standing, and raced like shadow and air down and around Sauron. Gandalf-now-Olórin began to burn brightly with magic that rippled through the air around him, and as a flood of some two hundred orcs came racing forward, with a swing of his staff he cut through half of them with white fire.
“Keep his eyes on you, son of Glóin,” he said. “I’ll hold off the army.”
“Come, Deceiver!” Gimli cried, as Sauron stared down at his now-shattered mace. “Taste the Axe of Durin!”
Behind him, Gimli engaged with Sauron himself, metal clattering against metal, fire roaring nearly as loud as his Khuzdul battle cries. To the south, Olórin was wreathed in fire that seared through uncountable orcs as they came racing toward them.
In front of him, the Door of Night sat near-invisible, distant yet within arm’s reach. Legolas closed the hand that bore Estëcor and drew together what strength he had in him. He knew so little of magic, and all he had to trust in was Olórin’s word that it would come to him naturally if he focused, and if he knew what it was he needed to do.
And he did know.
He closed his eyes, drew upon his will, and with all his strength, he pulled.
Sauron’s mace was broken, but its jagged edges were no less dangerous than the flanges that were now in pieces on the ground around him. Gimli ducked and swung and parried and dodged, and as Aulëcor blazed bright around his finger, he pushed the Deceiver backward.
Hardly could he see the Door of Night, though he had been assured it was just behind them on the horizon, but as it was pulled open he could see it clearer from the lack it left behind. It was as though there was a gash of nothingness where something ought to be, behind the Deceiver and twice as tall. Gimli steeled himself, even as sweat poured from his brow. Aulëcor had given him a strength he had never known, but even so, he was exhausted. Fighting the Deceiver, Ring of Power or no, was no trifle.
YOU ARE STRONG, DWARF.
The eyes of Sauron, though he could not see them, could be felt. They were hot as any fire, burning into him as Gimli went through frantic calculations.
ONCE I HAD THE CHOICE BETWEEN YOU AND THE ELF. NOW I WONDER IF MY BRAND IS ON THE WRONG NECK.
Sauron reached out one fiery hand. The One Ring blazed brightly, but Gimli stared him down. There was no fear in him. He could feel Sauron’s magic snaking out, and so too could he feel it snarl out of existence. He would not be dominated, not while he bore Aulëcor.
The Deceiver’s hand withdrew for a moment, and Gimli nearly called him surprised.
“Would you like to know, Deceiver,” Gimli snarled, “the problem with power forcibly taken?” He gripped Durin’s Axe hard. “You spend the rest of your existence fighting to keep it. And who knows how it might fight back.”
“Now!” Legolas cried, though Gimli could not see where he was. He summoned every ounce of strength he had and swung.
All of Arda held its breath.
A thousand miles away, Peregrin Took pushed through the door at the summit of the mountain, panting from all the stairs hewn from the rock he’d climbed to reach it.
The top of Ered Luin was windswept and washed gold in the light from sunset. The great ocean was stretched out in front of him, tide rippling, flashing with fading sunlight.
He stood for a while, catching up to his lost breath, and watched, squinting, hoping beyond hope.
As the sun slowly sank away into darkness, on the horizon he saw a faint blue flash.
His heart squeezed in his chest. He waited.
A breath later, a halo of blue-white light exploded on the horizon, so bright he had to shut his eyes for a moment. The halo spread out and out and out, to his eye halfway across the ocean itself before it finally faded.
His hands were shaking.
He had fallen through the Door of Night and could find not footing to stop falling. Sauron the Deceiver fell and fell through nothingness, through void, tumbling into an unknowable blackness.
“Go to join your master,” Legolas hissed, and with a twitch of his finger, released all the strength that held open the Door. When it went crashing shut, it made a sound like thunder, the sudden lack collapsing in on itself and exploding outward in a wave of force that nearly knocked him flat.
It rushed passed him in all directions at once, out and out, crashing past the armies of orcs. He could hear them screaming as they disintegrated underneath it. He could hear the shrieking fellbeasts as they plummeted from the sky.
And then he heard nothing. Nothing but the fading ringing in his ears, nothing but the thumping of his heart in his own neck.
He swayed in his spot. It’s done, his heart whispered, and he fell to his knees. It was done. It was done.
Legolas found himself collapsing under his own weight, hot tears blurring his vision. It was finally, finally done.
Chapter 15: Through Fire and Smoke
“I know full well it’s what we worked so hard to avoid,” said Gimli, “but somehow, it still feels like the end of the world.”
Beside him, Legolas turned his head and smiled. “It’s the nature of this place,” he answered. “It feels beyond time.”
A moment of silence lapsed between them. The sheer white curtains drawn over their bed were moving slowly and deliberately, so gentle was the air rolling in through the open window. Gimli took a deep breath of it. The House of Nienna, Olórin had called it when they’d arrived, and though it did not seem to have any staff, a room had been ready for them as though it always had been, and after such a battle, they’d taken it without much thought.
“I like it here,” he said.
Legolas laughed, and Gimli’s chest seized on itself to hear it. How long had it been, he wondered for a moment, since he’d heard his love’s clear laughter? The elf rolled over, half-draped over Gimli’s midsection, long fingers threading in the red hair trailing down his chest. “I’m gladdened to hear it’s not too elvish for your tastes.”
“It is quite elvish,” Gimli conceded, and Legolas laughed again, “but I think I can forgive it. No wonder your people yearn for this place. It is as though peace itself grows in the grass and runs in the streams. Where I should be battle scarred and weary, I feel…” (for a while he hunted for the word, staring up at the winding ivy painted on the ceiling) “… joyful.”
“And you give all credit to Aman, and none to your excellent company?” Legolas teased, and before Gimli could respond, the elf began dropping coy kisses along his ribs. Gimli fought down the shiver in his spine and pushed two fingers through the elf’s hair.
“I suspect the company may have had something to do with it, too,” he said.
Fluidly Legolas slid up Gimli’s body, and they kissed – slowly, unhurried, for ten minutes or perhaps for an age. Gimli felt as though, if given half a chance, he could kiss his love like this till the end of the Song, tangled limb and sheet on their marriage bed, soft and warm and open to each other.
When Legolas pulled back at last, he whispered, “We could stay here.”
Gimli smiled, but he could feel his own sadness coloring it. “No,” he answered, “we can’t.”
Legolas sighed. “No, we can’t,” he agreed, and laid his head down on Gimli’s chest.
“You would not ask me to leave the dwarves of Erebor to their own devices. Nor would I ask you to leave your people to retake the Greenwood on their own.”
“And neither of us would wish to leave Éowyn to rebuild the Kingdom of Men on her own. There’s so much left for us to do, how could we stay?”
They were silent again for a while, more drawn and tragic than it was before.
After a while, Gimli said, “But we could come back.”
Legolas did not look up, but his fingers, still threaded in Gimli’s beard, stilled their thoughtful movements.
“Some day,” he continued, looking down. “When our kingdoms are secure and our peoples’ futures made safe. We could return. If the shores of Aman would allow a dwarf to tread here not once, but twice.”
Finally Legolas lifted his head, eyes shining with keen and clever defiance. “I would smuggle you in if I had to, king of my heart,” he said. “I said it before – I would go nowhere without you.”
“As though I’d let you,” Gimli returned, grinning, and flipped them both over. Legolas went sprawling onto his back laughing, golden hair falling over the edge of the bed, and Gimli leaned down to swallow his love’s sweet laughter with a kiss. Legolas purred beneath him, arching, and Gimli’s fingers gripped tight at his ribs, down his hips, around his thighs. So recently had they sealed their marriage on this bed, but seeing his love twist and mewl on the bunched and rumpled sheets was lighting fires in his blood all over again. Legolas must have sensed it.
“Ai, meleth nín,” Legolas gasped, voice rapturous, as Gimli’s kisses trailed lower down his throat, his chest, his stomach, “berio nin Eru! Guren min gaim lín.”
Gimli spoke as much Sindarin as he did Quenya – which was to say, none at all – but he liked to hear Legolas speak it, and he did not need to know the language to read the desperation in his voice, or the heat growing under his love’s skin. Now between his thighs, Gimli sat up on his knees and positioned himself to take his elf again, hungry still to stake a claim in him.
“I shall forever measure your enjoyment in your forgetting the Westron tongue,” Gimli muttered.
Legolas laughed breathlessly. “Is that truly how yyyyyaa-aaahh!”
Cool wind off the sea came hissing through the window as Gimli took him, as Legolas gasped and writhed his pleasure, as they made love in the House of Nienna with hearts unburdened by grief. Later, hours later, as the rising sun woke them, Legolas would think back, vaguely, on Gothmog and the act of violence that he had once thought had ruined him too badly to ever know love, and he would sigh, and then put it from his mind, and then wake his husband to have breakfast.
The Queen-Regent of Rohan and the Queen-Regent of the Greenwood parted ways at the Blue Mountains, bound in different directions and with different agendas in mind.
Varien felt as though she did not stop thinking about her for a single moment. Despite all that she had to do – and truly, there was so much she had to do – in every quiet moment, thoughts turned back to Éowyn, Éowyn and her golden hair, and her implacable spirit, and her courage in the face of even the greatest of loss.
So when some months later she received a messenger from Edoras with an invitation to her coronation – to make the Queen-Regent of Rohan into the Queen of Gondor and Rohan – before she could feel the reverence and gratitude of being invited to such an auspicious event, she felt a rush of fluttering excitement to see her again.
Varien took a host of elves with her on the journey south, along with what she could only hope was a suitable coronation gift in several horse-drawn wagons. And though it was silly, and though Varien had been alive for many thousands of years and really ought to be wiser, the trip to Edoras was made with a tight knot of nervousness in her belly at the mere thought of seeing her again.
As Edoras, half-rebuilt and bustling, rose over the horizon, she ran through in her head what the best thing to say would be, reviewed everything she knew about royal protocol. It was not in her usual repertoire to speak to monarchs in formal settings – rarely did one expect formalities from a healer, after all – and just as she was about to turn to her vizier and ask for a reminder on which honorifics humans preferred referring to queens—
She had not expected to be met at the gate.
But there she was, Éowyn, golden and beaming and carving a path through the crowds without even knowing it. Varien was dumbstruck. She hardly had time to dismount from her horse before Éowyn threw herself into her arms.
“It’s so good to see you!”
“I – I, Lady, please be careful—”
“Oh, don’t you start,” she laughed, like clear bells, and withdrew to lay one hand demurely on her stomach – and truly, she was very, very pregnant now. Humans gestated so quickly, her medical mind reminded her. “She’s just as gladdened to see you as I am!”
Varien’s head spun. She did not know what to say.
Thankfully, her vizier chimed in: “Highness,” she said, with a low curtsy. “The Elves of the Greenwood offer their sincerest congratulations on occasion of your coronation, and bring you a gift worthy of your new, united kingdom.”
Éowyn drew her eyes off Varien, and to the carts, where tucked into large fired-clay pots were some three dozen— “Trees?”
“Not just any trees, Highness,” the vizier said, “trees of the Eryn Galen.”
“They grow quickly and spread wide,” Varien said, finally finding her voice. “They’ll bring new fauna to your lands, and will stand for many centuries.”
Éowyn beamed. She was radiant, Varien’s mind whispered, her smile so bright it nearly distracted from the shine in her eyes and the sunlight caught in her golden hair. Varien suddenly felt breathless, voice once again lost.
“How like the elves to offer a gift of trees,” Éowyn laughed, “and yet they are not unwelcome gifts. The forest that grows from Edoras to Minas Tirith shall be a reminder of the great love between our peoples.”
Éowyn surged forward again, taking both Varien’s hands in her own, and the elf’s heart thundered against her ribs.
“Varien,” she said, “I have recently received the most wonderful news. It seems we will have a few extra guests at the coronation.”
“We – we will?” Varien said. “Who?”
It had been a long, lingering trek east from the House of Nienna, the sort of trip made by those who were less concerned with the destination and more interested in wringing every ounce of joy from the journey.
But Aman only felt infinite; in actuality, it was very certainly limited, and within a few weeks they’d crossed the endless rolling plains, forded deep blue rivers, carved through dense forests, and found their way to Alqualondë, on the far shore, gleaming brightly even at night.
Thus far Olórin had walked with them, but as they came to the gates of the city, at last he stopped, and turned, smiling, to Legolas and Gimli.
“It is here that I leave you,” he said. “You will find boats to take you back across the water.”
“You’re not coming?” Gimli asked, frowning.
“No, my friend,” Olórin answered. “My purpose in Middle-earth is held fulfilled. There is no reason for me to go back.”
Legolas did smile, but with some sadness. He had suspected such intentions from the Maia since they left, but had not said so. “You are where you belong, Mithrandir,” Legolas said. “All the good you’ve done will not be easily forgotten.”
“Well, I should hope not,” he said, and Legolas laughed, but Gimli did not. Olórin laid one hand on the dwarf’s shoulder. “All you’ve seen, all you’ve suffered, and this should be the thing that saddens you, son of Glóin? Do not despair for our parting. You and your beloved will see me again.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Gimli said, “but it still feels like one parting too many, after all the goodbyes we’ve already said.”
“Well, then perhaps a few more hellos are in order,” Olórin said, and lifted the hand to gesture behind them.
Legolas was the first to turn, and as he did, all breath left him in a sudden rush.
Beyond the gates of Alqualondë, descending a wide stone staircase, were several figures, all of them wreathed in light. The first among them—
Legolas dropped his bag on the ground and sprinted forward, heart in his throat. Thranduil Oropherion, shining golden and smiling, opened his arms as Legolas came racing forward to meet him, pulling his son into a tight embrace.
All at once, and scarcely feeling it as it happened, Legolas was in tears. He clutched tightly at his father’s robes and shook from the sudden emotion. There was so much he wanted to say, but somehow all of it was lost or strangled halfway up his throat. All he could manage was a broken, sob-hitched stream of “Adar, Adar…”
“My son,” he said into his son’s hair as they stood like that for a while, “my son, my brave child, my pride in you surpasses all description.”
“Word of your deeds at the Door of Night has already reached us,” said a voice from his left, and when Legolas lifted his head and turned his tear-blurred eyes, his heart surged to see Aragorn, radiant and golden. “Truly, your heroism will be known forever.”
It was Gimli this time who came racing up the steps, and Aragorn beamed, dropping to one knee to embrace him tightly at first opportunity. They laughed as they came to each other’s arms, and Aragorn said, “It is very good to see you again, my brave friend.”
But it was not just Aragorn and Thranduil – all around them were familiar faces. Elrond and Arwen, Galadriel and Celeborn, Frodo and Sam and Merry—
“Hobbits!” Gimli cried the moment he saw them, and barreled forward to embrace, with some difficulty, all three of them at once, to their loud, familiar laughter.
It would be another few days before they left, lingering perhaps overlong on the shores of Aman with friends and family and loved ones, saying long goodbyes and uttering promises to return. It was both much easier and much more difficult to finally take that boat back east, and though they did look back as they sailed away, it was with neither regret nor with grief. Hard had they fought and much had they sacrificed to secure the safety of Middle-earth, and they knew they could not find peace until they knew it had been truly won.
Éowyn was crowned Queen of Gondor and Rohan on a bright spring afternoon.
Despite her insistences, Gimli and Legolas had watched from the wings, neither of them too keen to draw attention away from a day that should be about the Men of the West and their new queen. The ceremony was beautiful, and Medulsed, newly rebuilt and gleaming, was overfull, the crowds spilling out through the double doors and into the streets below. When the bell rang to signal that the queen had been crowned, a cheer rose, one so loud that it seemed to rumble through the living earth. The celebration that followed was as decadent as could be expected.
“My father sent his coronation gift with regrets for his absence,” Gimli said, as he and Legolas wandered together away from the celebrations that packed the main hall. “Apparently the Easterlings left more of a mess in Erebor than he anticipated. There’s quite a lot of work yet to be done to truly reclaim the Lonely Mountain and rebuild Dale.”
“Varien has told me a similar story of Mirkwood, though I don’t think any amount of work could have kept her away from Éowyn’s coronation,” Legolas said.
Gimli chucked. “You noticed that, too, eh?”
Legolas laughed easily. “I noticed before they did.”
Gimli stopped and nudged Legolas to do the same, gesturing with a nod of his head down a hallway. In a quiet garden, on a stone bench with legs snarled by ivy, sat Éowyn and Varien, embraced and kissing as though it was their only chance to do so. Legolas smiled to see it.
“Truly, we are in a new age,” Gimli ruminated. “Elves marrying dwarves, Queens marrying elves.”
“If these are the heralds of this new age, then I look forward with excitement,” Legolas decided. “There’s nothing for it, husband. I cannot ask Varien to come back to Mirkwood with me. I’ll have to return without her and finish what she started.”
“And I’ll have to head to Erebor, I suppose,” Gimli said. “So much to do. I’m exhausted already.”
“Well, don’t exhaust yourself too much,” Legolas returned. “We still have promises to keep.”
Gimli smiled. The words still felt good, though now they were burdened somewhat with bad memories. Still— “Aye, we do, that,” he said. “I look forward to them.”
Hand searched for hand; fingers threaded through fingers. They walked in silence for a while, down a hall as the sounds of celebration faded behind them, out through a side door to look out over Edoras, where down the hill in the distance the trees of the Eryn Galen were being planted.
“It’s finally over,” Gimli said, as if he hardly dared to believe it.
“And all that remains is the rest of our lives,” Legolas answered.
Gimli smiled. He could hardly wait to get started.