His time with Gimli in the deeps of the Entwood was indeed making Legolas feel young again.
Fangorn's trees, huge and gnarled and webbed with lichen, spent their lives in such a slow silence that they calmed his heart and opened his eyes. He was beginning to remember how it had felt back in his youth, and as happened for Elves, to remember it was to be able to relive it. The newness to each moment; the way that he gazed about him in hungry wonder; the eager waiting quiet in his mind.
But there was another part of his dim past also stirring now, a part he had forgotten and gladly so. Young and sheltered among his eternal folk, all he had at first known of Men and Dwarves was that they faded as quickly as birds or beasts, greying and stooping and falling before you could notice one more than another. Travelers, traders, miners, rangers: all who passed through his father's realm blurred into each other and were forgotten. They swarmed by and brought terrible thoughts of how it might feel—
Well. He had grown since then. But now any wisdom he might have gained seemed suddenly to evade him, and along with the wonder of his youth returned this strange dread. He had no reason for it—or none that he cared to put into words—but he felt it at moments, and this was one of them.
Gimli, freshly-wakened, was lying with his head propped on one hand, his blanket at his waist. And he said, his voice morning-hoarse, "If my memory doesn't fail me, we'll be reaching the River Limlight soon. I'd dearly love a wash."
Legolas's heart seized and tightened. The Limlight was in the very north of the forest, and once across it, they would emerge from their easy wandering, cracking out of the chrysalis to the pain of the open air. No more Fangorn, no more careless peace, no more Gimli at dawn stretching his muscles limber and grumbling about the wear of a bootsole.
And all the future losses lined themselves up: first they would reach Mirkwood, and Legolas would return to his hall and report to his lord. Gimli would depart for the Lonely Mountain to do the same. The cogs and wheels of kingdoms would groan and grind like one of Saruman's devices, devouring them and their time together. And by the time Legolas looked around again, the leaves would have fallen some few hundreds of times, and Gimli would be lying under a stone somewhere with nothing but the sharp Dwarven runes of his public name to keep him company.
Legolas felt as grasping and greedy and frightened as a child—he could not savor thoughts of the sweet promise of the Limlight's water, its kiss on his skin or its sparkle in his eye, its new music joining the grand song of all the waters he'd ever met. Instead he regarded it only as a border, a sheer cliff's edge with nothing past it but a terrible fall.
"No?" Gimli said. "Well, perhaps the Master of the Wood will not allow it. But I wish for it still." He sat up and yawned, warm and solid in the forest's hush. "Or is it like the draughts Merry and Pippin drank from the Entwash, and we'll shoot up like saplings?"
At first Legolas could only blink at him, lost in foreboding. Then he said, smiling as best he could, "I think the Ent-draughts must be brewed on purpose. And I would hate to see you outgrow all your fine armor just as punishment for a swim."
"Swim?" Gimli scoffed. "No thank you. A wash will do, if the herdsmen consent."
That familiar tone soothed the clench in Legolas's chest somehow, smoothing his hackles. His smile felt lighter and more genuine, and he answered, scolding, "Not still resisting the lure of the water! And you a veteran of the Elven-boats of Lórien."
Gimli's eyes softened as always at the memory and the name, but he said only, "An oarsman is not the same as an otter." He sniffed. "Present company excepted, I suppose."
"Without the mail-shirt and those boots of yours, I'm sure you'd be as much an otter as anyone." He watched Gimli rise to his feet, and suddenly it felt like something more than their ordinary jesting. "Come, Gimli, let me—" teach you were the first words that came, but he quashed them, knowing Dwarven pride. "—swim with you."
Gimli looked at him as if he'd heard the thought, and Legolas held his breath. "Away with you," Gimli said at last, and though he waved it off as nonsense, nevertheless he smiled.
That was how it went for most of the early morning, as Gimli dressed himself and braided himself and knelt to obliterate all trace of the little cooking fire Fangorn permitted them. He had opinions on deep water, namely that it was a place for fish and for ducks, and grasping weeds, and the sort of silty mud that stank like a midden. He eventually granted that it might even be fit for the other free peoples to splash about in, but was it his fault that Dwarves knew better?
But once they had shouldered their packs and left the clearing behind, Legolas heard him mutter, "At least it's fine weather for it."
And so when they found themselves at noon on the bank of the Limlight, the gently-flowing water glittering in the sun, Legolas's heart was eased. Gimli didn't just drop his pack as if this were a brief stop to wade or wash; he went about setting up camp as he had before, tidy as always, everything at right angles. There was still time, and Legolas could stop thinking these strangely hasty thoughts.
Instead he stealthily took off his clothes while Gimli was busy, and slipped into the water, sinking down, savoring its living coolness. The current was enough to be refreshing, but not so much as to be risky to an uncertain swimmer, in case any wandering Dwarf nearby cared to try it.
Legolas surfaced at last to see Gimli standing waist-deep, his arms crossed on his bare chest, frowning at the river. He looked as powerful and rooted as an oak, though Legolas doubted he'd appreciate the comparison. As beautiful as one too. Legolas had no idea what he would make of that.
"Come," Legolas said, and held out a hand. "Show me how you float. Let us disprove the old tales of Dwarves being hewn from stone."
"I have been in water before, you know," Gimli said, but he gripped Legolas's hand as he waded ever deeper.
"On purpose?" Legolas asked mildly. Gimli, now submerged to the chin, glowered.
And though his race might have been iron-hard and stone-steady, Gimli did indeed float. At least, once he had grappled with the question of letting his feet come up off the riverbed, and stopped swearing long enough to hold his breath. Legolas stayed close enough for Gimli to clutch with a flailing hand and gasp and sputter in between attempts, and the timelessness of the long summer afternoon calmed him so much that he did not even jest at Gimli's expense. Or at least, not often.
By the time the sun was setting, Gimli was stubbornly threshing across the deep center channel and back: his limbs churning strongly, his eyes and nose cleaving the surface surrounded by his mane of floating hair. He swam with more noise and effort than any Elf, charging ferociously through the water's embrace rather than becoming one with it. But, Legolas thought, that was Gimli in all ways.
Night fell, and they sat clean and dry and fed by their little fire. Gimli was combing out locks of his hair and plaiting them, his fingers nimble, his gaze on the flames.
"Tomorrow..." he said at last, and yawned.
Legolas said nothing; he hunched closer to the fire's heat.
"Tomorrow," Gimli said again, "I shall swim underwater as you do. Though I still think it's clearly unnatural."
"Well," Legolas answered slowly, warming now from the inside, "if it helps, I'll never tell a soul."
They would stay tomorrow. Swim, tomorrow. The Limlight whispered in the dark, and its voice was sweet.
And so they discovered that Dwarves not only could swim, but swim underwater. They could even float, in a way, although Gimli never seemed to find it restful: his legs wanted to sink, so he spent his floating time with arched back and wide eyes, drawing in big breaths to make his chest keep him on the surface. Sometimes he let his guard down and went abruptly underwater with an indignant splash; sometimes Legolas reminded him with a fleeting hand in the small of his bare back.
In between swims, they basked on the shore, or explored a bit downriver. Gimli—or rather, Gimli's big toe—found a thriving pool of crayfish, long and healthy and quick with their pincers.
That night they ate their first fresh meal in a while. And Gimli, over the last of the crayfish, said as of course was inevitable, "When we leave the forest tomorrow, perhaps you'd cast your eyes about again for game. Rabbit, or even deer." For they had neither hunted nor set any snares in Fangorn, with the courtesy of guests.
"Very well," Legolas said.
While Gimli slept, Legolas lay gazing up at the thick old branches above and called the memories, fresh as they were. He journeyed again through Fangorn with Gimli step by step, and let himself rest, forgetful of the coming end.
They emerged from the forest before midday. Legolas squinted as they stepped out of the peaceful dimness of the trees; the sky seemed too big somehow, and all the sounds of the world too loud.
He followed Gimli, who walked with his head down, looking thoughtful. But before they'd gone even a furlong, Gimli stopped. Wordlessly, he drew forth his axe and laid it on the turf. Then he turned to face the huge dark line of Fangorn behind them, and lifted both his arms to it, hands open.
It was hard for Legolas to take his eyes from Gimli, but he did, looking back at the forest. And he saw the rustling of boughs and the bristling of leaves, all along the border. Until from a dark gap emerged a sturdy, reddish-brown Ent crowned all in late-summer flowers. It bowed, stiff and slow.
Gimli bowed deeply, and Legolas did likewise. When they rose, the Ent was gone.
Late in the afternoon, the endless line of the Misty Mountains on their left casting long shadows, they stopped in a clover meadow near a sprawling thicket of scrub and young trees. Gimli was carrying the game Legolas had shot as they travelled, three plump partridges.
"Twilight soon," said Gimli, removing his pack.
"I'm glad." Legolas looked forward to the dark and the stars, as ever; but also, when they weren't walking, the leagues didn't disappear so relentlessly beneath their feet, ticking down the last of their journey.
"And I." Gimli looked meaningfully at him. "Dusk is a good time to catch the hare out of the burrow or the deer out of the coppice."
"More food?" laughed Legolas. "Even you can't eat that much in a sitting, surely."
"Just do as I ask, will you, and don't stint the arrows—put those eyes and ears of yours to work doing something useful."
Legolas, shaking his head, checked the string of his bow and the strap of his quiver. "Are you certain you won't come along? Seeing a Dwarf running at them with an axe might startle some poor creature to death."
Gimli only snorted, already scraping a clear patch for a fire. Legolas was glad to see his mood lighten; since leaving Fangorn's forest he had grown subdued, not sharing his thoughts, though his evasions were mild enough.
It was a lovely evening for a hunt, and Legolas enjoyed it. He returned to camp well after dark with a smug smile, a string of hares, and over his shoulders one of the tough hill goats that sometimes wandered down from the mountains.
"Enough, do you think?" he asked sweetly. "I wouldn't want you to go to sleep hungry."
Gimli, kneeling before a good wide bed of glowing coals, said, "Oh, it'll do, I suppose," but his eyes creased at the corners in the way Legolas understood.
In Legolas's absence, Gimli had not just laid out a comfortable camp, but also built a big, sturdy rack of green sticks. After spitting two of the partridges to roast at one side of the fire, he set to the other game, neatly dismantling it, slicing it very thinly, and draping pieces on the rack to dry over the coals. Sometimes he put bundles of twigs on the coals to send sweet smoke over the meat.
Legolas reclined comfortably and watched Gimli work. His brawny form stooping in the dark over flame and smoke might have been the smith of the Valar, laboring in the deeps of time to bring forth the bones of the world. Except that sometimes the majestic silhouette shifted, and it was Gimli looking at him, eyes aglow in the warm light.
"I'll watch these," Gimli said, after they had eaten and put the little bones in the fire. "Why not sleep? If sleep you call it."
Legolas needed no memory to rest in that night. He watched Gimli through half-shut eyes, and listened to the coals, and savored the scent of night-breeze and smoke.
Toward dawn, he stirred to full awareness, and saw Gimli carefully wrapping and stowing away some of the bundles of dried meat. And at last his mind, grown sluggish with comfort and pleasure, felt the itch of curiosity.
"Before too long we'll reach the eaves of Lothlórien," he said with no preamble, breaking the hush. "Were you willing to enter, I suspect they'd be glad to feed you properly."
Gimli bent his head over his task, but did not answer.
"The Lord and Lady are likely to have reached there before us," Legolas went on, "even though they went further on the road with the others. Don't you want to see them again? Her, at the least?"
"Well of course I do," Gimli answered. "Just...not now."
Legolas watched him some moments longer, the furtiveness of his movements, the way he would not meet Legolas's eyes. "Gimli. What is it?"
Gimli sat back on his heels. His face looked drawn in the grey light. "I meant to tell you yesterday."
It took only a few breaths of silence, as Legolas sat up to see him more clearly. Then Legolas knew. "You're leaving." Even before Mirkwood, even before Legolas could—
"Half the provisions are here for you," Gimli said. "And the goatskin. I didn't have time to cure it properly, but it's been scraped and dried enough that it shouldn't rot before you can look to it."
"Yes," said Legolas.
"If you do stop on your way home to see the Lady, tell her..." Gimli's voice trailed off, and he shook his head.
Legolas watched him finish packing. He felt winded, as if he'd taken a long fall—this wasn't supposed to happen so soon. Nor so suddenly.
Though of course, he reminded himself, you never knew, with mortals. They crumbled like the rank dead leaves of autumn and left nothing but dust.
"I suppose I'll move faster now," he said as carelessly as he could.
"Surely," said Gimli.
"No more need for a Dwarf-city in miniature every night."
"No." Gimli started taking the meat-rack apart into sticks again. "You can...perch upon a bough with your eyes open like a night-bird, I suppose."
The little camp was gone, leaving just some mashed-down clover and the scraped remnant of the fire-circle. Gimli flung the sticks away one by one, flipping them end over end.
"Gimli," Legolas said at last, watching the last stick arc into the morning sun. "Where are you going?"
"Just an errand, before I get home and the real work begins." He bent to his baggage-straps. "I'm sure it is not for you."
"Oh, are you," Legolas said rather archly. "Your time with the Lady gave you her sight into the soul?"
This time, the way Gimli's eyes softened at the thought of her did not make him smile; he felt an inexplicable hand around his heart, gripping tight.
"Well," Gimli said, heaving his pack onto his back. "Even a Dwarf should be able to tell in this case."
Gimli had that hangdog look again. "Only Moria."
Legolas felt his mouth open and close, suddenly parched dry. He had been ready to fence and parry whatever ridiculous answer Gimli came up with, but now—
Ai! Ai! A Balrog! A Balrog is come!
His hands and arms felt numb and cold, as they had when he had dropped the arrow. Gimli grunted in assent, as if his assessment of Legolas was all proven true.
It took enormous effort to pull in a breath. Finally, Legolas managed to gasp, "You cannot go back there."
"It's all right. Shouldn't take long."
"Not long? Are you mad?"
"Can't go in the east door anymore," Gimli went on, as if he hadn't spoken. "Not with the Bridge cracked and fallen. So I—"
fire and darkness, sword and whip, the fog of dread that chokes and freezes
"—thought I'd see if the Redhorn Pass is open now that it's summer. Cross back to the west door, see if I might slip in for just a bit."
"Slip in," said Legolas in disbelief. "By yourself."
Gimli shrugged, as if his pack weighed nothing at all. "Who is to care, and why? Now that the Darkness is fallen and we no longer travel with the Ring, that target of targets."
"That was not in the agreement!" Legolas burst out. Gimli looked far too calm. "I did my share, I went to the Glittering Caves with you!"
"You did," said Gimli.
"And then you came to Fangorn!"
"I did." Gimli smiled. "Who could have known I'd be so glad of it?"
"It was a fair exchange, and now it's over! Now it's— Now—"
Legolas felt another chill sweep him, panic on the leading edge of a gust of foul wind from the dark places of the earth.
"You're not coming to Moria," Gimli said. The reassurance in his voice was enraging.
Legolas turned away as if to look calmly into the distance, his mind and heart battering at him like a hail of sling-stones. A reasonable voice reminded him that he'd always known how it must end. The rest of him, however, felt anything but reasonable. He thought instead of himself, wandering home along paths gone still and aimless—and more, he thought of Gimli, alone in those crushing, stifling tombs beneath the mountain.
"Perhaps not," he said. His voice sounded weak, and he cleared his throat before turning around. Gimli was watching him, his face gentle and melancholy. "But do you imagine I'd let you go over the Redhorn Pass without me? The Enemy might be no more, but that doesn't mean every orc has vanished all at once. You'd end up a Dwarf-shaped pincushion for orclings to decorate on feast-days."
Gimli's brows had risen during this speech. "Oh I would?" he said, laying a hand on his axe.
Legolas crouched to fasten his own pack with decisive yanks of the straps. "Even the Hero of Helm's Deep would need sleep sometime. And you said yourself that Caradhras has long been known for his cruelty, Sauron or no."
"I remember. But I'm surprised that you were listening, back then—when you were staying to windward like a herder with his goats, and laughing at us from atop the snow."
Legolas stood and began striding in the direction that would lead them toward the mountains and the Pass, veering northwest. "I was listening," he muttered. "When you had anything useful to say."
When Gimli caught up to him, Legolas glanced over, and saw him smiling to himself.
Their journey to Dimrill Dale passed pleasantly, the late-summer days still long, more game to hunt and then dry in Dwarf-fashion. Legolas even managed to make himself forget again, submerging once more in the rhythms of their days and nights, always a further horizon before them.
It was strange to remember how they used to be, before. Now it was as if they had always traveled together, trading tales or walking in comfortable silence, wielding jests like fencers' buttoned foils, deciding together what path to take or when to stop at night, each doing the tasks that best fit him to the benefit of both.
The night before they were to begin the climb up the Dimrill Stair, Gimli overhauled his axe, his belt knife, the tools he'd accumulated in his pack. He went over his mail shirt ring by ring, repairing any minor faults.
He seemed excited, energetic, and once he'd finished with his own gear he poked into Legolas's, checking buckles and straps on pack and quiver alike. Legolas caught the fever and went carefully through his arrows, though they were already balanced and sharp.
Even close to midnight, Gimli couldn't settle, and finally he tossed back his blanket and said, as if they'd been in the middle of an argument, "Nay, nay, I simply cannot do it—so close again to Kheled-zâram and not to look, it's impossible." He pulled on his boots, examined the remains of the fire, scraped the glowing coals into a tidier heap with a stick, and said, "Just a brief visit, and I'll return."
Off he walked into the darkness, his step brisk and light. And Legolas contented himself for a little while with gazing into the sky, listening in memory to Gimli chanting to the Fellowship while they had rested beneath the mountain, the rhythm beating strong like a tireless hammer.
Before too long, though, he found he still felt the lingering restlessness Gimli had left behind. And as the words sounded within him, He stooped and looked in Mirrormere and saw a crown of stars appear, as gems upon a silver thread, he found he was no longer quite satisfied with just looking up into the night sky from here.
He followed Gimli's tracks through the tumbled ruins of the Dwarven road, strolling casually. Perhaps Gimli wouldn't mind showing him the Mirrormere, the way he'd shown Frodo before. He might tell Legolas a story, or simply stand with him in the sweet midnight quiet.
Legolas stopped at the top of the grassy slope above the lake. Below him, Gimli's silhouette stood out against the smooth and shining water, still as a carven pillar. His head was bowed. And the glitter of the starlight, from sky and mere alike, frosted him head to foot in glowing grey.
His stooped form—his beard reflecting as white as that of old Théoden—
Legolas stepped backward as noiselessly as Elf ever did, and melted into the night. When Gimli returned to camp, Legolas was wrapped in a blanket by the dying embers of the fire, as if he'd never left.
The next day, they scrambled up the Dimrill Stair and made their way into the pass. Gimli was still full of fire and life, laughing at memories of how the snow had kept them at bay the last time. Now it was only a reasonable late-summer mountain trail, though whether that was due to the season, the fall of the Enemy, or Caradhras himself grown sleepy, Legolas could not say.
"Shall we have another contest?" Gimli asked, as the path grew more winding and promising for ambushes. "We did well for ourselves at Helm's Deep."
"You don't think we'll find another fourscore orcs hiding up here, surely," said Legolas, though he was carrying his bow with an arrow on the string.
"It's always been a troublesome road, one way or another." Gimli sounded pleased rather than wary.
"I suppose keeping a count never hurt."
After that, every time they approached a blind turn, or a deceptively-quiet widening of the road with perfect hiding places overhead, they readied their weapons, exchanging looks and fierce smiles. But every time, nothing. Sometimes the ground was stirred up or the scrub was broken or flattened, but there were no tracks Legolas could read.
Nevertheless, when they stopped that night they sat up in strict watches, and Gimli lit no fire. Legolas held an arrow ready in his hand, feeling the notch and the fletching as an extension of his fingertips. Still, nothing.
He wasn't sure if Gimli slept when not on watch. He seemed to be straining his own senses as well, and lay down in his boots with his axe ready under his hand.
It was slow going for a while, their broken rest and the suspense of the climb wearing on them, but then they reached the highest point of the pass to find a broad, trampled sward, violently disturbed. In the middle was a huge heap of ash and char, ringed by many objects embedded in the dirt that at first glance might have been large stones.
But Gimli dug one up and heaved it from the ground like a great root: it was an orc helmet, jagged and squat in shape, splashed with black blood.
Nothing was left within the circle but bone and ash, and metal fragments in heaps, some like needles and splinters, some like pebbles.
Gimli leaned closely to examine them, though he did not touch. Then he looked up.
"These were blades, I think. And these others might have been rings of mail. But they haven't melted the way they ought—it's more like they shattered apart all at once."
Legolas stepped back from the remains, and as he turned away, something caught his eye. "Look."
A huge boulder had been upturned from the churned ground at the side of the clearing, now bathed in full sun. Carved across its face, in sweeping lines both vigorous and delicate, was a portrait of a mallorn tree.
Gimli reverently approached the boulder and touched it with gentle fingertips. "The carving is fresh."
"I told you the Lady and the Lord would find their way home before us," said Legolas. "I suppose they left the hobbits on the far side of the mountains and brought their folk back through the pass from west to east."
"Tidying up as they went," said Gimli, sounding well satisfied.
"So you were right: there were orcs left to trouble us."
"Of course I was right." Gimli patted the stone. "If only they'd left us a few!"
"Do not lose hope," said Legolas. "Maybe one or two got away."
"Nay," Gimli sighed, at once wistful and pleased. "She'd never have allowed it."
The rest of the pass was quiet and harmless, as tame as the village gardens of men. He and Gimli were both discontented at the fact, but there it was. So they left Caradhras behind, Gimli's axe unused, Legolas's bow hanging on his back. It was a quick turn north to find again the ancient and broken road leading back east into the mountains from Hollin-that-was.
"Poor old Sirannon," said Gimli as they walked by the nearly-empty riverbed.
"Yes," Legolas replied, feeling pity to his very bones. His spirits, lowered with every step back toward the Black Pit, were not helped by the sight of nothing but jumbled stones where living water should run. "Perhaps your people will come break the dam."
His voice sounded tentative to his own ears, but Gimli said at once, "Of course! If the king will countenance a return to Khazad-dûm, we'll set all this right again in a trice, never fear." He seemed confident and eager, as if the energy Legolas was losing flowed into him, and he led the way up the path to the dammed valley almost at a trot.
Out came the axe again as they walked by the lake; Legolas gladly readied his bow. But the dark water lay dull and flat, without a ripple to be seen. In the distance, the cliffside showed a confused heap of tree and boulder where the creature had blocked Narvi's doors.
Legolas's heart eased. Though he regretted the ancient holly trees knocked down so mercilessly, the greater part of him rejoiced. Now Gimli couldn't get in, and off they would go together, leaving the Pit behind where it belonged.
But Gimli didn't seem to notice the problem, even as they drew closer along the narrow lakeshore. Instead he was frowning at the water. He stooped for a stone and said, "How many bones of Dwarven heroes lie there, I wonder?"
"Not too close," said Legolas. "I wouldn't care to add any more."
Gimli only glanced at him. "Ready?"
Legolas bent his bow obediently, and Gimli threw the stone, low and hard. It skipped across the surface seven times, the sound of each strike echoing in the deadened quiet. Then it sank, and they waited.
Another stone, thrown in a high arc this time, to land with a ker-plunk that sent out a great ring of ripples. But the ripples died, and nothing came after.
Gimli growled, kicking rocks and dust into the water's edge with great scrapes of his boot. "Come on!"
"Perhaps it has died," Legolas suggested, feeling as foolish as the suggestion deserved. "If it drew any of its life or power from the Enemy, now it would have none."
Gimli paid no attention, but brandished his axe and shouted: "Foul beast! Rise and fight! Gimli son of Glóin the brother of Óin is here to avenge him!"
Legolas waited. He felt almost physically hungry for the fight, longing to lose himself in the dance of blood and scorch away this strange timid unhappiness that haunted him. He and Gimli had fought together, at Balin's tomb and Helm's Deep and Pelargir, at the Pelennor Fields and the Black Gate, as if they had done so forever, and at Gimli's shoulder in battle Legolas could forget that forever had no meaning between them.
But nothing surfaced, and there was nothing to kill. Even when Gimli waded in up to his knees, splashing and shouting, offering himself as a tempting meal, nothing stirred.
Disgusted, Gimli at last re-slung his axe and stomped with wet feet up to the heap of stone and wood that blocked the way.
One of the ancient holly trees flung against the doors was indeed dead, the wood dry and grey. But Legolas couldn't help but notice that the other, while knocked slantways, was still brown in bark and green in leaf, torn from only some of its roots. He laid a gentle hand upon its great side to feel the life in it. So many trees he had seen sprout and grow and die in his long days, and it was always just another melancholy moment in the long spinning-down of the world; but for this huge and ancient sentinel, left alone by its dead companion to struggle as it would, he felt an unexpected flood of true sorrow.
"Let us go," he said, when he could speak through the pressure in his throat.
"Eh?" Gimli replied, and Legolas looked up to see him clambering among the boulders. He had taken off pack and weapons, and carried a little hammer.
"With the way blocked, it's Caradhras again for us. Perhaps now you'd be willing to stop in Lothlórien?" He felt he was baiting some sort of hook with the prospect of Lórien, and rather despised himself even as he gazed hopefully up at Gimli.
"Nonsense," Gimli said absently. He squinted closely at the spot where several boulders met, then leapt to the ground like a roebuck. Before Legolas could gather his wits to reply, Gimli had slithered through a gap at the bottom of the pile and disappeared. Legolas heard the crisp tap-tap of his hammer.
"Be careful!" Legolas cried despite himself. "You'll bring it all down!"
"Rather the point." Gimli's voice was muffled.
"Down on your head, I mean."
No answer but tap-tap, tink-tink-tink, steady and firm. Legolas finally just folded himself down, arms round his knees, and fumed. Even should all the mountains fall upon Gimli's head, it was obviously too hard to take a dent.
At last Gimli crawled out again, dusty and satisfied.
"Gimli," Legolas said, struggling for patience. "Why not wait for your people? Surely a squadron of Dwarves with proper tools could clear this up, and without anyone being flattened in the bargain."
"The day I require a squadron for this is the day they lay me under a carven stone," said Gimli, and his tone was so light that Legolas could scarcely stand it.
"Oh, curse you and your stone!" he cried. "Why do you want so badly to go back into that terrible place? I would say your wits were charmed away, if I thought you had any wits left."
Gimli stared at him, and even in such fear and anger, Legolas was sorry to see his pride fade. Now he looked uncomfortable again, as in the meadow east of the mountains. When he spoke, it was hesitant. "I left something."
"Nothing could be worth another journey through the Pit!" Legolas replied, but it was half questioning. For a fleeting moment, the thought came to him: the three precious golden strands from Galadriel's head—what wouldn't Gimli face if he had left those behind?—but of course Lórien had been after.
"The Book," Gimli said with some effort, and Legolas could hear the emphasis. "The Book from Balin's tomb. When Gandalf gave it to me, I was wrapping it for the journey, and suddenly the enemies were upon us."
"A book? A book for your very life?"
Gimli's face changed, and Legolas wondered if he had heard beneath the surface of the words.
"Not my life," he said. "I do value that, you know, even if you doubt me."
"Then what...?" Legolas couldn't finish. He flung his hands up and turned away.
"I must," Gimli said simply. "It is my duty."
"To this new king of yours?" Legolas said. They had learned of Ironfoot's death and Stonehelm's ascension from the embassies at Aragorn's coronation.
"Perhaps." He sounded painfully certain. "But truly, to my cousin... to my uncle. To my people. That they did not—"
He stopped, drew a breath as if to continue, then let it out. Legolas heard his footsteps recede, and the little hammer began again, tink-tink-tink.
Legolas sat on the shore by the packs and whetted his white knife, though it had been seeing no proper use lately. The tap-tap sounds rasped down his spine and echoed in his head like drums.
At long last, Gimli reappeared from a final nook and flipped his hammer in his hand, round and round. "There."
It all looked the same to Legolas, but he rose and picked up his pack.
"Don't worry," Gimli went on. He still strove for that reassuring tone, though by now it sounded strained. "I'll wait until you're well on your way before I bring it down. You don't need the dust in your hair."
Legolas studied him silently.
"And good fortune go with you always." Gimli reached out and grasped his wrist. His hand was gritty with dirt, callused and warm. He blinked rapidly, as if dust had sifted into his eyes, but kept his chin firmly up.
Legolas said, "What do you mean, 'well on my way'?"
"Why...back to Mirkwood. Mirkwood and your people." His grip softened uncertainly and let go; his voice was just as uneven.
"Your way is my way, Gimli son of Glóin. Or did you forget? What happened to 'where you go, I will go'?"
"I have to do this," Gimli said.
"And you shouldn't come."
"Oh, I know." Legolas adjusted his pack straps impatiently; perhaps it would hide the minute trembling in his hands.
When he looked up, he saw Gimli watching him closely. "Are you certain?" Gimli asked.
Legolas hardened his jaw and looked down along his nose, as arrogant as he could manage. "I am certain that it is my turn. The Glittering Caves for me, Fangorn for you, and now for me...this."
"I see." Gimli cleared his throat. "That's...very fair-minded of you."
"Don't sound so surprised," Legolas growled. "And just remember it's your turn next."
Gimli regarded him for a long moment. Then he shook his head and laughed to himself. "Wait here." He disappeared behind one side of the rockfall.
There was a grinding of stones; Legolas flinched, but there was no roaring landslide. Instead, a stack of boulders on one side simply slid downward and away, collapsing neatly one after the other, and there was a heavy grating sound as one of the doors eased open a few feet. The dead holly tree stopped it there, but a few feet was enough.
Gimli returned, wiped and stowed his hammer, and placidly lifted his pack into his arms, apparently unmoved by the amazing piece of practical magic he had just performed. "A bit of a tight squeeze. At least for some of us."
He led the way into the remaining jumble of rocks, under the canted tree, and through the gap—snug for his broad shoulders and chest, true, but nothing much for an Elf. With one hand on his knife, steadying his breath, Legolas followed him into the dark.
At first it was just as terrible as he remembered. Though now they were lit on their way by Gimli's supply of torches rather than by Mithrandir's glowing staff, it didn't improve the place. Huge and looming, sharp and ugly, like the look of a dead forest after it had been chopped and burnt. And over all, the memory of shadow and flame, filling senses and heart like poison smoke, his people's ancestral foe who had laid low even the most powerful Elf lords of old.
He shivered, cold to his marrow. At least they moved much faster now without the little people to look after and keep rested, and without needing to hesitate and guess at the road. The less time they had to spend in here, the better.
Unfortunately, Gimli didn't seem to think so. His reaction to the lack of the quest's pressure and strain was to enjoy himself.
"Look!" he kept saying, his voice hushed not from fear, but from awe. And he would wave his torch at some column, or arch, or cascading set of steps. Legolas seldom had any reply, though sometimes he was forced to say "Keep to the path, if you please!" Finding his way in a darkness with no stars, the utter unnatural dark, kept him in mind at all times of the mountain above his head, pressing down.
Legolas would have done his best to travel with no pause for sleeping at all, chewing dried meat on the march. But after some hours Gimli discovered a little side-chamber the Fellowship had passed by; he was weary from his toil at the gate, and Legolas could not refuse him.
So Legolas followed him reluctantly into the place, a smaller tomb crammed into the larger. "I will take first watch," he said. "As I know I could never sleep here."
"Wait," said Gimli, slotting his torch into a sconce on the wall. "Rest yourself and see."
Legolas propped himself against the doorway, arms crossed. Gimli took his pack off, rubbed his hands together, and set to work. And curiously, in what felt like minutes, the little room came alive.
It had a hearth carven into the wall, with a cunningly-designed flue that Gimli explained and Legolas could not comprehend. Gimli built a small fire there and arranged their blankets comfortably around it. He heated water to steep tea in, the last of the leaves they had both favored in Minas Tirith. The steam eased Legolas's memories of fear and flight; it perfumed the air instead with memories of battles won, a king returned, hard-earned joy with friends thought lost.
After Gimli cooked a hot meal on a grating built over the hearth, they lounged on their blankets, heads resting on their packs. Gimli even smoked a pipe, and the smoke did not hang heavy, but was carried away on a subtle draft of fresh air that kept the room from growing stale. And after a time, Legolas found that he might in fact be sleepy after all. He gazed into the coals, glowing orange and red, and listened to Gimli humming a low, soft tune. It might have been any one of the many bivouacs they had shared, from flat spots in the dirt to a lord's hall.
Gimli took first watch in the end, and Legolas dreamed to the mild, homely noises of him tending to his boots or mending his clothes and tools, familiar sounds of their long road.
The second leg of the journey was kinder, somehow, though Legolas could not tell why. He did see some light now and then, when they walked beneath air shafts that the Fellowship had missed by night. There were elaborate carvings and empty brackets by each of them that pleased Gimli beyond measure, and he talked for miles about something he translated as "mirror-lamps".
"I had heard how bright and fair it once was," Gimli said at last, as they walked along a smooth and rising road. "And I had heard much speculation about the uses of air and light, as well as the water-engines. But seeing it for myself...!"
He rubbed his eyes and hurried ahead. Legolas looked at him thoughtfully, then up at the rising roof over the path, noticing for the first time a painstaking pattern of lines and angles all along the edges, carved by many hands over many bygone days. It looked crisp and fine, and he could imagine it polished again to smoothness, every little detail labored over and cherished despite it being merely a tiny moment on a byway.
They entered the huge Twenty-first Hall by daylight, the great shafts bringing in streams of sun like tumbling gold upon the gleaming black walls. Gimli paused there, his head thrown back, beholding the work of his people's lost city with an expression upon his face of such joy and awe and sorrow mingled that Legolas had to look away. Instead he studied the great pillars, now that there was light and time to truly see them.
Giants they were, the tallest so far, but now Legolas didn't feel quite the same sense of looming or toppling with which his journey had begun. Instead he let his eye follow the lines and find them graceful in their power, patterns fitting neatly together, drawing the eye up and up to the sweeping arches overhead. It was a forest of its own, brought forth from the living rock with the most loving hands.
"Look," he said softly without meaning to, then pressed his lips tightly together. Luckily Gimli had already walked away to the north side of the hall and was not close enough to hear him.
He trailed after Gimli, heading through the northern arch. A faintly foul current of air greeted them: in the doorway to the Chamber of Mazarbul and leading inside, overtop the traces of the old fight between Dwarves and orcs, lay a scattering of fresher bones and other remains, though not enough for as many orcs as the Fellowship had slain in the fight. Presumably the survivors had returned here for...provisions. Legolas kicked aside a fanged skull with the flare of hatred that he always felt in the presence of orcs, alive or dead.
Further inside was a massive heap of debris, and Legolas recalled Mithrandir telling them of his spell through the far door. The whole room had not caved in as he had feared: the east wall had slumped down, and much of the east side of the roof, but part of Balin's tomb in the middle of the room was still visible beneath the pile.
Without the east wall's air shaft for light, it was dim. Gimli wedged his torch securely into the rockfall, then unpacked the little hammer again.
"If the book is under that much of the mountain, it might need to remain there," said Legolas.
Gimli remained where he was, hammer in one hand, considering. "It may be under that much of the mountain," he said. "But it is also under something else."
He crouched by the exposed portion of the tomb, carving away at the rubble underneath it with the point on the back of the hammer's head.
Legolas hovered nearby for a time, though clearly there was nothing he could do to help. At last he stood back and simply watched in admiration as Gimli burrowed toward the underside of the tomb-table like a badger through spring soil. When only his bootsoles showed, he stopped. There were some sounds of effort, the shifting of loose pebbles, and he began to slide back out.
He emerged streaked with dirt from brow to toe, and clutching a large bundle swathed in sacking. Legolas came and knelt next to him as he brushed off the cloth and reverently unfolded it.
The great book lay unharmed—or at least, with no additional harm to add to its many old wounds and stains. Gimli wiped his hands and touched the leathern cover with his fingertips.
"I had wrapped it," he said. "When the drum sounded, and the horns."
Boom, echoed in Legolas's mind. Doom, doom.
"And I just had time to shove it under the tomb. I thought I would retrieve it after the battle."
Legolas said slowly, "At the end, as we fled, I pulled you away from it."
"I cannot say I'm sorry. For I did not want you struck down to keep Balin company."
"No?" said Gimli. "Even so early, when all you knew of me is that my people had wronged yours, and woken the evil in the deeps of the mountain."
"Of course not."
"Aye, I know," Gimli said. "And once, long ago, there was no evil here, and there was peace between mine and yours. 'I, Narvi, made them,'" he recited. "'Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs.'"
His eyes, deep and dark and gleaming as the walls of the Twenty-first Hall, were full of grief. He turned them upward to the ruins of the chamber roof, once as strong and well-crafted as the rest of the great city. And Legolas knew that his sorrow went beyond the death of his uncle at the gate, his cousin-king in the tomb, his kinsmen whose bones lay silent sentinel against the walls. There was so much loss here, a people, a legendary and magnificent place of light and song and craft, a history. A home.
Legolas laid his hand over Gimli's and pressed it. Gimli gave a long sigh.
"Let me carry the Book," Legolas said after a time.
It sounded loud somehow in the air between them, and it felt loud in his heart. Gimli looked long at him.
At last Gimli nodded, grave and solemn. They got to their feet, and he re-wrapped the fragile volume and handed it to Legolas as if it were fine-spun glass.
"Back the way we came," Gimli said. He bowed his head to what could be seen of Balin's tomb, but this time he needed no pulling away. He turned and walked out, and Legolas followed. Only as he left the chamber did Legolas remember that he had been kneeling with Gimli just where the Balrog had been, when Mithrandir had struggled against it from behind the east door. Nothing had troubled him, beyond Gimli's pain.
When Gimli paused in the corridor back to the Twenty-first Hall to brush the rest of the dust off himself, Legolas said, "It won't take us long to travel back to the gate...if you felt like exploring a little before we go, I wouldn't object."
"Stop staring at me like that," he continued, and swept past open-mouthed Gimli with his head held high.
They spent the rest of the day exploring the suites of rooms leading off the Twenty-first Hall. Many were royal in their size and decoration, and must have been comfortable and splendid for the new king and his people for the few years they had had before the end.
As night fell, when the high shafts showed patches of starry sky and the air currents grew cool, Gimli discovered a door with a tapestry still hung upon it. Moths had chewed holes and a diagonal black swipe of soot had been slashed across it, but no orc had torn down the finely embroidered panel to wipe its bloody blade or worse.
They stood together and looked at it by the light of a torch. A river, once surely a light blue, swept down and around a peaceful scene of grass and flower. The lines of stitching were curved, sinuous, even the blossoms bent as if swayed by a soft wind. None of Khazad-dûm's strong straight lines showed anywhere.
Gimli looked at him. "Elf-work?"
"Yes...It seems your cousin held no grudge against his time in my father's keeping, if he would trade with us on his journey here."
"Is that why those creatures left it alone, do you think?"
Legolas frowned. "It wouldn't have burned their hands to touch it, more's the pity. Some few Elvish works may still have power in them, but most now are merely ordinary."
"Wouldn't call that ordinary," Gimli said, and carefully eased the door open.
Inside the room were more wonders, revealed one after the other by Gimli's torch: abundant tapestries, some by Elves and some by Dwarves, unharmed and beautiful; furniture of metal and oiled hardwoods; even a few fine carpets for the stone floor, though these had been tossed into heaps hither and yon and seemed the worse for wear. Once there had been cushions scattered everywhere, though now these were mostly torn patches of cloth.
And along one whole side of the room was a great pool in the floor, still full of water. They approached it cautiously, expecting mold and stench, but the water was deep and fresh and gently moving, ripples glittering in the torchlight.
"A current runs here," said Legolas in wonder.
"They were masters of putting water to work." Gimli bent and trailed his fingers through the surface. "It is said whole rivers run among some of the halls. Though there are no engine-wheels—I suppose this place might have been for bathing."
Legolas considered. "Peaceful, to sleep once more by the sound of living water."
"I can't argue there," said Gimli, and mounted two torches in wall-sconces.
It was even cozier than their last camp. One of the pieces of furniture, a heavy couch built low to the ground, was comfortable even without cushions; they heaped it with their blankets and burrowed in contentedly. First they were side by side, then shoulder against shoulder, and at some point Gimli started using Legolas as a backrest, to which Legolas pretended objection but had none. A low fire burned in the hearth. Gimli had his boots and tunic and stockings off; the stockings were draped along a carved stone sideboard, damp from washing.
"No pipe tonight?" Legolas said.
Gimli wiggled his toes. "Not just yet. I'm thinking of a bathe, and might perhaps put my head under the water."
"We shall see." Gimli climbed from their nest, stretched, and walked to the pool, picking his way among the tumbled furnishings. "It's a bit odd...the room is thrown about, but clean. If those creatures came in, why not ruin it as they ruin everything else they touch?"
"I am the last person to ask for the logic of orcs," Legolas muttered.
Gimli tested the water with one foot. Then he stripped off his breeches and drawers, folded them neatly, and set them aside. Legolas watched through sleepy eyes as the torches and firelight washed over his skin, dancing and flickering.
Carefully, Gimli sat down at the edge of the pool and dangled his legs in the water. The muscles of his shoulders and back were thrown into relief by the flame-shadows.
"Legolas," he said.
"You know my path to Erebor passes through your wood."
"I supposed so," said Legolas. Then, hesitant and soft: "I hoped so."
"Well, it does." Gimli splashed his legs and feet about in the water for a while, as Legolas settled lower in the blankets, basking in a tentative joy.
Then Gimli said, "I thought...after reporting to your king...it isn't so far to the Mountain from there."
"It isn't," said Legolas, half in dream.
"And you offered to bear the Book...will you carry it to its rightful home?"
Legolas couldn't speak at first. The sounds of gentle hearthfire and playful splashing water overwhelmed him, as they heralded this gift, Gimli reaching out to him and keeping them on the same path.
"Gladly," he managed at last.
Gimli made a gruff and satisfied noise, and with a push of his arms, launched himself into the pool.
The splash was large, for someone too short for the armor of Rohan. Legolas shook his head at the puddles left along the pool's edge. Gimli paddled about, then ducked and rose, ducked longer, and rose.
"Ach!" he cried. "Water up my nose."
"Remember to blow air out the whole time," Legolas said primly. "'Where air flows, no water goes,' or so my people say. Didn't your water-engineers ever teach you anything?"
Gimli spouted a stream of water from his mouth that mercifully couldn't reach as far as the couch.
Legolas, laughing, rose to tend the hearth, adding plenty of wood and poking up the fire. Gimli would be cold when he got out.
"Hoy, look out!" said Gimli in breathless surprise. "It's sinking."
When Legolas turned, he saw that the whole surface of the water had indeed lowered by a good foot. "Let me give you a hand. If the water-courses have chosen this moment to fail, I don't want you to drain away with them."
But before he could move to the pool, he saw the water level rise again, bubbling up in a surge that flooded slightly across the floor.
Gimli paddled for the edge. "A very cold current, that."
And so Legolas, thinking no evil, went instead for the couch and one of the blankets, intending to wrap it round Gimli.
He had just laid his hand upon it when there came a cry, quickly stifled, and a deep and resonant splash. Water spattered over him, and the odor of something rotten.
He turned to see...
Or at least, no Gimli climbing out of the pool to complain about the chill and wring water from his beard. He did see that the overflow of water onto the floor was still trickling, and thick strands of something had come up with that last current, perhaps decaying waterweed?
Only one quick step toward the edge and he saw they were not waterweed at all. Pale green they were, slick and sinuous and and faintly glowing. They splished and smacked about in the water on the floor, feeling their way along.
Gimli's name caught in Legolas's throat. He leapt for the packs and took valuable moments to find his long knife in its sheath, so casually discarded there, then he turned and ran full-speed to the water. He struck with all his force at one of the seeking arms.
It was tough and fibrous, and even with his knife honed past shaving-sharp it took far too many hacks to cleave the thing through. The cut-off end curled and squirmed in the puddle of water. Another tentacle, as if following the carnage, snaked rapidly up to him.
He was shouting as he cut at the creature, wordless cries of rage. The injured arms shrank and waved about, flinging droplets of slime; more lunged from the water, striking him, squeezing round his arm, his chest, stinking and fleshy as a long-drowned corpse.
And during the struggle: time. Time passed for him in heavy, terrible blows, like a giant pendulum from Man's machinery. Each moment stole more air from Gimli, somewhere beneath the roiling water. If indeed the creature had not already—
He would not allow it.
And yet for each arm he defeated two came at him—some ten had hold of him by now, despite the pieces scattered writhing on the floor. He remembered twenty coming after Frodo at the gate, and there was no way of knowing whether that were all the monster had.
If only he had thought to find Gimli's knife for his other hand! Not meant as a fighting weapon, but strong and sharp, as well-tended as all of Gimli's other equipment. He began to lean against the tentacles, struggling backward across the room as he continued to cut at the ones round his chest or seeking his throat.
But it was too far. Too far! Time howled in his head and he lunged back as hard as he could, over and over, inch by inch. The packs were still impossibly distant. But as he came just barely within reach of the hearth, he writhed within his captor's grasp, nearly dislocating his arm in order to seize the bare end of a burning log, white hot at the far tip.
And now he struck again and again with ember and flame, searing the pallid skin, crisping the fingers at the end of a tentacle. The coating of water and sticky, snail-like secretions boiled and sizzled away, and finally it began to burn—sluggishly, but steadily.
The pool frothed, the water churned white, a high-pitched whistling shriek bubbled up to echo through the room.
Legolas bared his teeth and went after another arm, fire in one hand and blade in the other, a song of destruction keening in his throat and his head. He fought his way up to the pool itself, stumbling over dismembered bits that clung to his feet.
"Let him go!" he roared in his own language, all others forgotten. "He is mine!"
He spun, stabbed down as hard as he could, and pinned the largest tentacle into a crack in the stone floor, his knife striking sparks. Then he pressed the fiery branch against the arm, digging it into the smoking skin, branding it deep, and deeper. Enormous power struggled against him, but it was gravely wounded, and at last he could feel it drastically weakening.
He yanked his knife free to finish severing the big tentacle, and when he finally sliced the last of it away, the creature gave a huge twitch and writhe in all its parts, as if struck by lightning. The rest of the remaining arms began to unevenly slither and shrink back into the pool.
Still no sign of Gimli—and no more time. Even the best swimmer could not have lasted. Legolas stood gasping at the waterside, his eyes unfocused. He had fought...and lost.
All that remained was to kill.
And so with a fluid, careless emptiness, he dove into the water. Down, down, he followed one of the last living tentacles to a fleshy, rough-skinned mass, lined with jagged rows of something that rasped at his fingers and arms and cut his skin.
He didn't care. Slowly, inexorably, almost tenderly, he slid his knife hand along a tentacle that only feebly resisted him. He pressed the tip of the blade to the center of the mass and forced it in with the strength of his entire body. Each grind of the knife in the wound, each lessening twitch of the dying Watcher, he savored like a drop of dew sparkling from a fresh young leaf.
When it had stilled, he swam with great effort toward the surface, dragging it along by a tentacle. He hadn't taken a particularly deep breath before diving in, and he was uncertain whether he would reach the surface before blacking out, to lie here beneath the water with Gimli until the world be remade. But that was all right, too.
He crawled out of the pool at last and crouched there, his head low, gripping the monster's dead arm in both hands. The room had felt so comfortable once. But now, though the torchlight still flickered over lovely tapestries and well-crafted furnishings, though the blankets that surely still held Gimli's scent or a strand of his hair remained piled in their cozy nest, now he could feel none of it. He had somehow come to love this place, this Khazad-dûm, through Gimli's eyes. But now all it was was Moria. The mountain crushed down upon him, merciless and lifeless. Its grandiose history and its tomb and its halls and its useless, crumbling Book had drawn Gimli here and killed him.
Slowly, hand over hand, he hauled the tentacle toward him, pulling the creature toward the edge of the pool. It would fuel his wrath before the end. Yes, Gimli's people were put under carven stone when they died. But Moria had had its own way long enough. Now it would burn. The wood, the tapestries, the carpets, the brittle Book, the last skeletal remnants of the brave and foolish Dwarves who resisted their fate: all would be consumed, to leave only the true, cold, dark hollow of the Pit.
Legolas would bid Gimli farewell with a grand pyre, well-fueled by the oily flesh of his murderer, and then...
Well, then he could rest.
He slowly reached into the pool for one of the few remaining tentacles. He would pull the bulk of the beast up onto the edge, then drag it across to the dry side of the room and the wooden furniture perfect for a vast burning. But as he seized this tentacle and pulled, he felt it was much heavier.
Perhaps he should just sever it. But he kept pulling without much thought, the pain singing through his strained muscles and joints, the scraped skin of his arms and hands, everywhere but his silent heart.
At the end of this tentacle, which was coiled in a knotted whorl, lay Gimli.
So much the better, Legolas thought, in the part of him that could still, barely, think. The hero rises for his pyre.
He leaned into the pool and took Gimli's naked form in his arms, hauling him and his capturing tentacle up onto the floor in a splash of water. He had trouble drawing breath after that, and rested with his forehead on Gimli's chest.
Gimli's skin was wet and cold, though not as cold as the tentacle's pallid, rubbery flesh. And it was unbearable, the way the dead monster touched him.
Legolas leapt to his feet and seized his knife. With a sound that began as a warcry but rose to a scream, he hacked at the tentacle.
At the first strike, the wrapping arm reflexively tightened, just as the other fragments scattered on the floor had crawled and curled before their final death. It happened all at once, and hard, jostling Gimli's body.
Something shot from Gimli's mouth like a cork from a bottle. Water followed in a gush. Then came a wheeze, air trickling in to Gimli's lungs. And then a breath out...and another in.
The knife fell from Legolas's hand. His vision went black at the edges; for a moment it was all he could do to stay upright. The dead might breathe, out or in—once. But only once, as the body settled and stopped.
With an enormous effort he made himself move: he threw himself on Gimli, scrabbling at the dead tentacle with his hands, his nails, clawing it loose from around him. He rolled Gimli over and over to free the coils. Again, a breath out—and another weak gasp in. Each time there was less water, and more air.
The tentacle was loose, and Legolas shoved it away. It had left red weals across Gimli's body as well as trails of slime; Legolas could do nothing else for the moment but scrub intently at the sticky stuff with his wet sleeves. He was disordered inside, sick and strange and numb, but his hands kept at their work.
Beneath his touch, Gimli began to shiver.
With the last of the terrible substance washed from Gimli's skin, Legolas peeled off his soaked, filthy tunic and flung it away. Then he seized Gimli in his arms and rose slowly to his feet. It felt like the work of lifetimes to carry Gimli back to the couch, hearing the slow wheeze of his breath, feeling the deep shivering thrum. He was strong, and had fancied himself a pillar of the Fellowship, but this burden was nearly too much.
He buried Gimli in the blankets, turned on his side, only his face exposed. Gimli's breath no longer sounded watery, but it trembled in gusts with his shivers. Legolas stroked his wet hair back from his brow, just for a moment, then hastily withdrew his hand.
The best thing about building up the fire, Legolas found, was that it let him turn his back. He stoked it to a roaring blaze until it hurt to get too close. Then he stood, staring into the white core of flame, sweat stinging his eyes, cold inside where it could not reach.
After a time that could have been mere moments or the best part of an hour, a croak came from the couch behind him.
Legolas did not at first respond. He did know now, and too much. Too much to bear. Everything felt sluggish and slow, the cold within him trickling to a frozen stop. If touched—if seen—he would shatter.
"...why the orcs...didn't come here."
There was coughing, still shivery. Legolas took a breath and smoothly turned.
"Do you want some water?"
Gimli's eyes were open now, and despite everything they gleamed with his same solid humor. "Oh, I've had plenty."
"To drink," Legolas said.
"I had...my drink." Gimli coughed, leaned to spit, and settled back. "A real bellyful."
"Very well." Legolas came a step closer, observing. Gimli's face was already gaining some color. "You should sleep."
Gimli grunted, though in assent or scorn, Legolas could not tell.
"I'll make some broth," he said. He went to the packs and rummaged through Gimli's supplies. He half expected Gimli to complain of it, or remind him not to leave his belongings in an uproar. But as he returned to the fire with the things he needed, Gimli spoke from behind him.
"Are you all right?"
Legolas had no answer to that, not being much given to lying. Though would it even be a lie, to say all was now right? Now that he knew the terrible truth of things—of himself, of his own fragility in the face of this burden—all would be set back in train, returning to its proper course. He would send Gimli off to his Lonely Mountain, an honored prince of his people, to die quite soon among his own. Legolas in turn would go home to follow his father's orders, would work to heal the hurts of the lands of Men. Would watch the slow decline of his folk, feel the fading within himself, leave these lands forever whether on the back of the sea or by laying himself down where he thought best.
That was what was right. That was all he was able to do.
He set the water to heat, piled some dried meat at the ready, and turned at last to look at Gimli. Gimli was watching him narrowly.
"Are you still cold?" Legolas asked him.
"Of course I am." He coughed. "No one ever mentions...this downside of the swimmer's art."
Legolas should then have entered the jest. Only Gimli could turn a simple swim into such a production, perhaps; or, he thought Gimli had been looking for a fight, it wasn't Legolas's fault he found it.
But he couldn't. His failures mounted, weighing on him. He smiled instead and turned back to the fire.
"Legolas," Gimli said quietly.
"This will not take long." Legolas began to tear the dried meat into smaller pieces. "Once the water boils."
Gimli's voice, strong and rooted and alive as the oak, surrounded him and made him turn, helpless.
Gimli had reached one hand out from his blankets, held out toward him, open. He no more could have stopped himself from going to it, taking it in his, than he could have stopped himself from breathing. Or, perhaps more to the point, from diving into the water. He reminded himself that it changed nothing. One had one's limitations, and must accept them.
Gimli held his hand and looked at him searchingly. But Legolas said only, "You are still cold."
Shivering faintly, Gimli nodded.
Legolas knew it would only make the parting harder to bear. But oh, the feeling of Gimli's hand trembling in his overbore him. He drew upon all his courage, took off his wet boots and breeches, and crawled under the blankets. Elves knew no sickness, but they could freeze like any animal of the wood, and knew well how to reawaken chilled blood gone too thick. That was all it would be.
He held Gimli's broad back against his chest, wrapped both arms round him, felt his occasional coughs rumble through both their frames.
"Better," Gimli said. Or had it been a question?
Legolas stayed quiet. Distant. They would be gone from here soon. He would once more be alone beneath his native sky.
The warmth in the blankets built; the shivering dwindled. Gimli fell asleep, and his body softened to complete relaxation in Legolas's arms. At first Legolas worried at this torpor, but Gimli's breathing was regular, his heartbeat steady. It sounded like any given night on the trail, or during a catnap snatched on horseback, snoozing with his face mashed comfortably against Legolas's back.
Legolas closed his eyes, but could not sleep. He listened to Gimli's steady breaths the way you listened for the song of a rare bird in the distance...or the footfall of an enemy in the dark.
He could tell the very instant Gimli woke. Even before stirring, there was something that flowed through his whole body, some life, flowing golden like the sun that slanted down through the Dwarven air shafts from the sapphire sky.
Gimli coughed. "Was I out long?"
"No. Certainly not long enough." Legolas heard the flat, businesslike tone in his own voice. They were silent for another little while.
"Well," Gimli said after a time. "This will teach me to try to leave you whether it's for your own good or not. It was a foolish plan, to come here alone."
Legolas considered. If he had been able to resist at the gate, if he had indeed gone on his way, then what would have become of him? Would he have been able to know himself without first suffering this wound?
"I haven't thanked you," Gimli went on. The words sounded stiff, and the whole concept absurd. "Saved me in the blink of an eye."
He turned his head aside from Gimli's damp hair. "Oh? It seemed long to me." He was only stating a fact, but Gimli rumbled something and patted his hand. He frowned.
"I remembered what you told me," Gimli said. "Breathed out of my nose as long as I could. Then one of those arms came squirming round my face." Legolas could hear the grin in his next words: "I bit the bloody end off. Oh, he didn't half like that."
Legolas remembered the tentacle around Gimli's body squeezing suddenly tight, and something coming out of Gimli's mouth. He relived the whole grotesque moment in a tight circle, over and over, could feel the hilt of his knife, smell the reek of the slime.
"You seem warmer now." He hastily let go and began wriggling out of the nest. It was hard to extricate himself, like the giant spiderwebs in the dark places of Mirkwood.
"Legolas." Not so quiet this time. "What's amiss?"
"Nothing." True, at its base.
"Your hands are like ice. And if they feel cold to me, then you know—"
"The water will boil off," Legolas said desperately.
Gimli seized his hands and held them. It was true, Gimli's skin felt much warmer now, warmer than Legolas's, alive with his powerful heartbeat like a ringing hammer, blood hot as forgefire.
"Stay," said Gimli. He sounded uncertain now, and vulnerable. "Will you stay?"
The Legolas in Fangorn would have rejoiced to hear such words. The Legolas of only just an hour ago, watching Gimli's back as he splashed the water and asked plainly for Legolas's company, would have rested blissfully in the thought that his chosen one had, on his own, chosen him.
"I can't," he said miserably. "Let me go."
Gimli released him. His instant response was perhaps the only thing that could have stopped Legolas's panicked struggle, and Legolas subsided, sitting up, still half tangled in the blankets.
He felt he owed Gimli something, but could not at first either move or speak to give it. After a while, Gimli managed to sit up, and coughed a while. Then he looked at Legolas, who sat a few inches and many miles away from him.
"Tell me," he said, and it was more careful and subdued than a straightforward Dwarf should ever have to be.
"I do not know how I can."
"Well..." Gimli was still gentle, though his voice had thickened. "Now perhaps you echo my own words back to me at the gate, and say 'I have to do this'."
Legolas shook his head. But rather than force Gimli to seek and find, he forced himself to speak: "For shame."
"Ahh." Gimli shifted as if he would touch him, but at the last moment stilled. "Now that is familiar."
"No," said Legolas despairingly. "Your shame about the Book was a passing thing, and well-discarded in the face of your courage. Mine—" He wanted so much not to say any further, dig any deeper. But this was what he owed Gimli, this at the very least.
And so he made himself say, "I thought I was equal to it. To...to bind myself to the fleeting summer, and see autumn bleed away to winter and to dust. And yet then you were gone...and I could not bear it."
"You didn't sink down and die," said Gimli, some of the fire coming back to him. "You rescued me—and more, you avenged Óin when I couldn't."
Legolas said intently, "Had a few more moments passed and the fire sparked as I meant..."
He wrapped his arms around himself, but there was no more warmth to be had, outside or in. Fault lines cracked through him as in the thinnest, weakest crystal.
Gimli seemed to sense this, because he subsided and was quiet. Then he sat up straighter and took a breath.
"It's all right," he said stoutly. "It is. I'm well enough. Soon I'll be back on my legs. We can get you to the gate, outside where you belong."
Though Legolas had just been thinking of that very thing, making himself look forward to it, he shook his head. What did it mean, belong.
Gimli said, his voice still so firm and kind, "You're free," and the words caught on Legolas's soul like barbs in the flesh.
He thrust out his hand and caught at Gimli's arm, unable to look at him. The cuts and scrapes on his hand sparked with distant fire. Gimli had seen into him, along their journey—seen him truly, somehow, and had reached out to meet him. And now that Legolas had suddenly changed his answer and cast him off, Gimli would strive to make even that road smooth for him.
The pain was immense in all directions. To stay was impossible; he knew himself too weak to survive it. But to go....
No. It seemed there was in fact nothing he could bear. He could no longer think, with ruin meeting him at every turn. He let himself hold on to Gimli's arm. That was something he could have, just for this moment, and no word nor thought nor sense of time went with him.
He felt, after a timeless while, Gimli touch his hand with an unusual timidity. But then came a small sound as if to speak, and Legolas turned, as swift as ever in battle, and pulled Gimli toward him. Their mouths met in blessed silence.
Gimli responded cautiously at first, hesitant in that same wrong and terrible way. Legolas fought to reach him, clenched both fists in his hair and pulled him close, kissed him hard, harder, as the flint to the steel.
At last, he set him aflame.
Gimli made a noise—Legolas muffling and devouring it within his own mouth—and seized Legolas in his arms. But he did not push forward and bear him down; instead he fell back and, with no perceptible effort, drew Legolas bodily upon him. His big callused hands held Legolas by the nape, stroked down his back, gripped his waist, and everywhere he crossed the monster's welts, leaving a bright spatter of pain.
When there was no more danger of words, then Legolas could at last let go, his head bowed, eyes closed, gasping. Gimli held him, grounded him with heat and scent and touch. He was poised in a timeless spinning dark, safe.
But nothing could balance on that perfect point. Nothing could keep them from crashing down.
He opened his eyes to Gimli's tumbled hair, the firelight glowing strong upon it. Beneath him Gimli breathed hard and well, one hand ghosting along Legolas's arm. Then he gave a hoarse cough. The whole event began to return, and behind it trailed despair.
Legolas was abruptly distracted from his wakening thoughts by Gimli's renewed touch, spread fingers drawing lines along his back, his ribs. He thought of taking Gimli's hand, stilling it...but he left it alone, just one more moment, then another. His very skin felt hungry, and the touch fed him.
Gimli tapped him on the side. "What's this then?"
Legolas said nothing, loath to stir.
"Come now, look at you," Gimli said, his chiding fond, if a little too determined and bright. His thumb rubbed next to an itch, and relieved it. "Striped like you've been in the brambles, and 'oh, nothing amiss'."
Legolas regarded the welts on his arm. After their mutual effort, the tentacles' lines showed clearly against the gleam of sweat and the flush of his skin.
"It's nothing," he answered.
Gimli snorted, rolled his eyes, but his touch remained gentle. "Mmm-hmm."
"I thought it was the least of my problems," Legolas said truthfully.
"Our," said Gimli.
"What?" Legolas said, pushing himself upright.
Legolas laid a fingertip on one of the welts still showing on Gimli's skin, though his were nowhere near as clear. "Yes, fair enough."
"That's not what I mean." But Gimli, it seemed, did not care to pursue his meaning. Instead he took hold of Legolas's wrist. "And your fingers. Did your knife slip?"
The scores and cuts on Legolas's fingers ached now that he considered them; he had not noticed them for some time, not even when he'd had both hands threaded through Gimli's hair. "No. It had, in the middle...I think there were teeth."
Gimli nodded, unperturbed. Then he coughed again. "Uch. I'll be tasting that foul creature for awhile."
"I'll get the broth made. If the water hasn't all gone, and your pan with it."
Gimli's hand remained around his wrist, one thumb rubbing the pulse-point, in no hurry to let go. And Legolas found he was in fact in no hurry to pull away. The pain in his hands was ebbing somehow, and the touch distracting him from something he might have meant to say.
"That pan's from Minas Tirith," Gimli said. "I find their work isn't to be despised. Not as good as Dwarf-make, of course."
"Of course." The low, steady beat of Gimli's heart seemed to be lulling him. This was not making anything any easier. Of course, what could?
He moved to climb from the blankets; Gimli let his hand fall away. The fire had burned down, but was still hot with a layer of red coals, good for cooking. The pan, boiled dry, was sooty and scorched on the outside. Like the rest of them, it seemed to have taken no real harm.
They drank broth and chewed on the stewed meat, Legolas in spare breeches, Gimli wrapped elaborately in all the blankets like an emperor from tales of Men.
Legolas bound up his hair and spent time over the pool washing his bedraggled garments, but they were torn and slimy and almost past saving. The water flowed on, deceptively clean and peaceful, as the beast's carcass rotted on the floor.
When Gimli woke again, his eyes flickered open too quickly for Legolas to pretend he had not been watching. So he remained where he was, expressionless.
Gimli muttered, still rather hoarse, "Time to go, wouldn't you say?"
Legolas replied with as much unconcern as he could muster. "It is well enough. We should stay until you're recovered..." He shrugged at the chaos of tentacles, the dead heap oozing slime. "Though perhaps in another room. Some place more comfortable."
Gimli picked at the covers for a while with restless hands. Then, surprisingly: "No."
"If you'd rather stay right where you are," Legolas said, "I'll take the carrion away. Or perhaps whatever opening lets the water flow out will be large enough. After all, it got in when it was alive."
"Nay, that's not it." Gimli sounded thoughtful, sad, but not at all tentative. "I won't be comfortable here. Not this room, not any of them."
"Are you sure?"
"I don't belong here," Gimli said, so honestly that it hurt. Legolas remembered how he had beheld all the hard-won beauties and marvels of his people, talked about the lamps and the engines and the smithies, the cavalcade of wonders that now were only tales. "I don't know if anyone does."
"It can be revived." Legolas wanted this so much for Gimli's sake, though he knew he himself could never love Moria again.
But Gimli shook his head patiently. "Perhaps my king will do so—I don't know his mind."
"Won't you come with him?"
"I will not." Gimli looked at him solemnly. "This place is full of the past. Shadows and echoes."
"Echoes can be very beautiful," Legolas insisted.
"Of course. But they're not for me. Nothing to build on." He paused, considering, and then asked, "Would you go to live in Fangorn?"
Legolas blinked, taken aback. Memories pushed to the fore: the huge ancient trees, the close-grown tangles of roots, the lichen swaying like grand draperies of a forgotten mansion, so dark and close and still. His own path had included Gimli, the evening campfire and the shared wonder, carefree swims in the Limlight. But Fangorn itself was none of that. As Moria was not. The joy of the journey was something he and Gimli made between them, crafted with hand and word, body and time.
"Shadows and echoes," Legolas mused.
Gimli nodded. He pushed abruptly at the heap of blankets. "This is more than enough. Too blasted hot, a fellow can hardly move his legs." Grumbling, he freed himself and padded away to find his clothes. Legolas noticed that the welts hardly showed upon his skin anymore. Sturdy, or well-healing? Or was it both?
They left the Watcher where it lay. Time would rot it down to nothing, and in the meantime, if some lost and starving remnant of the orcs were to find the carcass...well, that would only be fair.
Gimli, his cough dwindling, led the way back toward the west gate. There were no more detours, no exploration of the lost and forgotten. Now and then, though, he did smooth his hand over some piece of passing stonework, and his eyes lightened.
Legolas felt it would be forgivable for he himself to submerge in some long-gone memory, to walk eyes open in Gimli's wake while keeping far, far away. But he didn't. He thought, instead, about Gimli, their path, his own weakness and his doom. His mind shied and resisted, but he forced himself back to it though it pained him like a live coal in the hand. He thought about Gimli's decisiveness in leaving behind his dream of Khazad-dûm, striding forward, not without the loss and the sorrow but despite it. Perhaps it took a Dwarven constitution to do such a thing.
For by the time they reached the gate, Gimli was whistling, though the tune was a melancholy one; he patted the broken slab of the marvelous door with a sigh but without lingering. Legolas, in his turn, had great trouble passing by the orphaned holly tree, and had to stop for a while with his fingertips on its side. An ant trundled over his hand and went on its busy way, paying no more heed to him than to the way the tree now grew slantwise instead of up. When Legolas finally made himself turn around, Gimli was waiting on the lakeshore, skipping stones.
That night found them encamped beneath a moonless spread of stars. Legolas lay on his back drinking them in, desperately trying to settle his mind—but he was finding that even they were not enough. He wondered if it would always be this way, caught between hammer and anvil, crushed beyond repair at every strike. When even the cool balm of Elbereth's light could not save him, he must be lost indeed.
Gimli lay nearby, hands folded behind his head. When Legolas quietly crept close, he said nothing, just lowered an arm to pull him in and make him comfortable, settling Legolas's head on his shoulder.
Legolas managed to doze fitfully for a time, but his dreams were memories of Gimli, and they brought him no rest. He found himself clinging closely, too closely; a tear escaped him to drop upon Gimli's skin.
"Hmm," Gimli said sleepily. His arm curled around Legolas. The chill abated—a chill that didn't come from the night breeze.
Legolas didn't answer the implied question. Gimli said nothing more, only held him close and breathed. But when eventually Legolas made himself roll away, Gimli stirred awake and let him loose. This freedom was no better.
He sat up, then stood. The sky pressed down upon him like a mountain.
Gimli rose as well, rubbing sleep from his eyes, looking solemn and sad. "Legolas," he said. "One thing before you go, as I know you must."
"You may ask anything of me," Legolas said at once. He felt wild and dizzy and could not seem to get his breath.
Gimli's hand moved, but lowered without reaching for him. Legolas could scarcely bear it.
"You have borne the last writing of my lost kin safely out of Khazad-dûm. You avenged my father's brother and his killer is no more." He swallowed, then continued in the same slow cadence. "I ask you therefore to give me the Book. And I thank you for it."
Had Legolas thought he knew the pain of this sundering before? Never let it be said an immortal did not have more to learn.
He went to the packs and knelt by them, fumbling for what felt like a long time. At last he withdrew the cherished bundle and held it in his arms. It felt terribly heavy, wounded, as still as the body of Gimli when he pulled it from the water.
And now he found that he could not stand. He had used the last of what strength there was within him, coming unexpectedly to the end of his resources.
A stirring of air announced Gimli's presence, close and warm in the cool night. He knelt before Legolas and took both shoulders in his hands—no hesitation this time, no stopping himself, gripping and squeezing with a familiar, welcome strength.
"All is well," Gimli said. "You have finished this journey fairly. Now you can stop suffering the ways of all these mortals, and live in peace as you were meant to."
"Peace," said Legolas bitterly.
"Elf." Gimli's voice was tender. "This isn't your battle, and no need for you to fight it."
Legolas tore his gaze from the wrapping of the Book and met Gimli's eyes. They glittered in the light of the stars.
"Come now," Gimli said. "And don't worry."
Don't worry, Legolas heard again, Gimli at the gate, setting him free no matter the cost. Gimli would see him off and safe, tone as light and strong as need be so as not to tax Legolas's pride. Then he would turn and go alone into the dark. Into utter peril.
He took in a deep, hard breath.
"Dwarf," he said. "Your battle is my battle. Or did you forget?"
They looked at one another, long and long.
"Not likely I'd forget that," said Gimli at last. He did not this time ask if Legolas was certain; Legolas knew him wise.
"May I carry it further?" Legolas asked.
Gimli held his shoulders a moment more, thumbs stroking, then released him. "Oh," he said, his voice husky. "I would be glad."
Legolas stowed the bundle carefully in his pack again. Then he looked up to see Gimli, risen, offering his hand. He took it and was grateful for its strength.
Gimli half-lifted him from the ground and supported him to the blankets. They lay down, and Gimli warmed him, whispered to him, grumbled amiably when Legolas held him tight around the ribs. They breathed at the same time, they settled into their cocoon.
“Cold?” Gimi asked, and rubbed his back firmly, with friction.
Legolas basked in the touch, his very muscles uncoiling from within. “No,” he said. “Not any more.”
Gimli rested a heavy hand on the back of his head. He rumbled something affirmative, and then fell quiet, a well-banked fire in Legolas's arms.
Just as Legolas felt he might sleep, however, Gimli yawned, ending with a cough.
"Gimli," Legolas said into Gimli's neck.
"Will you please tell me—"
"—here you are, who only narrowly escaped death, at the hands—at the grip of a terrible creature from the depths of the world."
"And yet," Legolas said, rising up on an elbow, "here I am, wavering and flapping like a silk ribbon in the rain, and here you are, looking after me. Can you explain this, Gimli?"
"Eh?" Gimli opened his heavy eyes. "Well, now. You've had a hard time of it." He sounded sleepy but entirely sincere, as if there were no more to be said.
"That's—" Legolas groped for words, nearly sputtering. "Ridiculous. Utterly foolish."
"You're feeling better," said Gimli, satisfied. "Temper's up."
"This is no spat, son of Glóin. You are being a fool."
"I suppose." He was falling back to sleep again.
A pause. And then Legolas said, suddenly quiet and frightened, "Does it mean nothing to you? Knowing I might fail you?"
"Ah," said Gimli. "Is that it? Nay, I'm not bothered."
But before Legolas could catch his breath, let alone reply, Gimli went on: "I mean...we know you've chosen. And what you will, you do. So."
He let out a deep, comfortable sigh and subsided under the blankets. And Legolas felt—more than seen, he felt known, caught by a piercing golden arrow shot through him on a venture.
He had chosen, and longer ago than this. Had there ever truly been another option? Or had he clung to it as a familiar phantom, the old Elven-song of long fading somehow soothing in the face of the new and strange life he had actually already embraced? This road, bright and swift, unknown and untested, was nevertheless the one he wanted. The one he needed. He was tethered to Gimli, soul and body, and would share his path to whatever end, no matter how brief. No matter how painful. And maybe, he heard in his mind, in a voice much like Gimli's—no-nonsense and steady, unafraid of the prospect—no matter how joyful?
"Oh," he said.
"Mmm." Gimli held out an arm for him, and Legolas lay back down.
Gimli stroked his hair.
"I'm afraid I don't know how."
"You do," said Gimli contentedly. "You can, and you have."
Legolas leaned into Gimli's hand, though his tone was waspish: "You would think that. You were born to all this. You're already used to it."
"Well." Gimli turned to him in the starlight, drowsily kissed his brow, his cheek, his mouth. He spoke against his skin, his beard softly scratchy: "I trust you can learn."
Legolas felt a warmth inside building to a melting heat. He knew well that Gimli trusted him. And he would put his trust in Gimli, willingly, gladly. They were entwined, in heart no less than limbs.
Gimli must have felt this unwinding, this opening to trust and hope. For he clasped Legolas tight in his arms, shook him gently, and murmured, "After all, I learned how to swim."
At that laughter took them. They lay beneath the peaceful, healing stars, and saw them auspicious. And soon, together, they saw the dawn.