Legolas kept Arod's head beside him with gentle words and gentler touches, stroking his cheek and neck, as they walked together toward the end of the Paths of the Dead. The horse blew and snorted, his breath coming quick, and his hooves scuffed an uneven tattoo upon the ground as he fidgeted and danced from side to side. The blood beat in him so high and so fast that without constant attention, Legolas knew he would bolt and be gone, lost forever in the Paths, the Dead watching through the ages as he turned from living horse to weathered heap of bone against the rock.
"Tcch tcch," Legolas murmured toward one fringed ear, which was flattened backward in the extremity of terror. "Come, little child of the horsemen. Remember how often you bore your proud rider into battle and returned with your ears high, your enemies' blood splashed upon your feet. And these dead men behind you now are no foes of yours, and they mean you no harm. You can disregard them as you disregard a foul wind from the east, heading home to your well–earned rest with your mind on your manger."
Arod tossed his head, giving a sinuous half–leap of alarm that buffeted Legolas's shoulder. Legolas hummed him quiet, and smiled. "If indeed you do disregard it. Perhaps in Rohan you shied at the blowing leaf, as long as it came from the direction of the Enemy." He ran his fingertips along the base of Arod's mane, feeling him sweat and tremble. "And to your credit."
He sang a bit of a song of springtime in his own language for its lines about the foals scratching their backs on the fresh grass of the meadows, and wondered if Arod would have found him more convincing had he been able to speak as the Rohirrim did, a chant strong and flowing like a wind sweeping through the grassland. But the horse seemed to find the Common Speech and Legolas's own equally comforting (or not), as he struggled bravely to keep at Legolas's side and not give in to his every burning instinct that tells a plainsrunner to run, and run, and run.
The horses of the Dúnedain walked more steadily. Legolas could not see them too clearly, in the muffling, otherworldly dimness that had descended since the torches had gone out, but he could hear their tread. But no matter how faithful they were to the masters they loved, they were not immune to the fear floating in the air and the pressure of the Dead behind them, judging from the stumble and skip of hooves, the creaking of leather straps gone taut, and the nervous grinding on the bits.
"You do well," he said soothingly as Arod's eye rolled, showing panicky white even through the thick darkness. "Your fellows are a different sort, but all of you fight against your own great wisdom to accompany us in our great folly. Had I more leisure I would make a song of it. Or perhaps there already is one among the Rohirrim, and Merry will sing it to us later over a banquet of wine and oats." Arod rubbed his whiskery muzzle against Legolas's neck, and Legolas stroked him under the jaw where the skin ran softer than silk between the powerful bones.
But thinking of Merry, who they had left behind perhaps forever, alone among the Rohirrim on his little pony, oppressed his spirits. And so that the horse would not sense it and lose the thin thread of calm that kept him on the path, Legolas sang again, very softly. He sang this time of streams and rivers and how they flowed, and where they came from and where they went, circling round and through until the world be remade.
And as he did, his voice rippling like a brook over pebbles, he thought he might almost be conjuring up the sound of real water. Until, falling silent to draw another breath, at once he did hear the faint sound of a chuckling rill, just as Arod's head went up next to him, nostrils flaring wide and dark. Legolas could hear the scent of water spread among all the horses, the sound of restless urgency. For a few moments, he and the Dúnedain were momentarily hard–pressed to calm them again, convincing them to resist another excellent instinct, for fear of a rush turning first into a general bolt and then a rout.
After a time, Legolas could also hear that the sound of the water had spread to the ears of the Dúnedain, as they exchanged grave but hopeful words. It seemed that this little stream was expected, and would mark a change from the Paths themselves to the narrow road out of the mountains. He was surprised at the sharp pang of longing he felt at those words, a craving to claw out from beneath this darkness, as if burrowing up through leagues of solid mud that choked and smothered.
"Steady, now," he said, and whether to Arod or to himself he did not know.
Finally, there was the gateway out of the Paths and there was the little stream, and though the pressure of the airless Dead behind them remained and the high cliffs kept them in shadow, the air felt bright and sweet in comparison. Some of the horses charged the last few feet to the water and thrust their noses in, sucking at it as if they had been lost in a desert for days. Arod danced beside him and flicked his tail.
"Well, arod my noble one," Legolas smiled, using the word in his own language so much like the horse's name, "go on then and take your reward, a taste of the world of light and air." And Arod trotted forward to shoulder in among the big, shaggy horses and drink.
At a command from Aragorn, low–voiced but carrying, the Dúnedain began checking their bridles and saddle–straps, adjusting them with care before remounting one by one. Legolas reached Arod and ran his hands under the padded saddlecloth and band, smoothing along the horse's back and belly where the fear–sweat was already dry.
"Oh ho," he said indulgently, "see your spirit roaring like flame fed by the wind! Sûlnor you are, to be sure," and Arod snuffled at his chest with a dripping–wet chin. "Yes, you'll be all right. I told you you would."
He led Arod aside to a tumble of rock at the base of the brook and turned at a familiar footstep behind him. Gimli stalked through the gateway last of all, drawing his hood up over his face as if the small increase in light were too much. His clothes were thickly patched with dust.
"Come," Legolas chided. "Though well I know that dwarves love to live under stone, I have not yet heard that they also love to wear it!"
Gimli only blinked at him from the shadow of his hood, his face as set and grey as one of the boulders supporting the gateway's high arch. So Legolas smiled and bent to brush at Gimli's chest and thighs, sweeping dust away in little clouds.
Gimli cleared his throat and stepped out from under Legolas's ministrations. "Not this stone," he said, very low, and beat the dust from his own clothes with harsh, rapid passes of his hands.
Since the rocks were stacked high enough to serve as a mounting block for Gimli, Legolas leaped up first and gave Arod a companionable rub between and behind the ears. He could feel beneath him still a banked nervousness and fear, though not on the same verge of utter panic as before.
"Our friend did very well," he said to Gimli, combing his fingers through Arod's mane. "I'm sure he's never been through such an ordeal, but he stayed by me and fought to keep his wits."
Gimli stepped up the pile of stones and clambered on. "I congratulate him," he said after a few moments. But that was all.
At Legolas's urging, Arod fell in line behind the other horses, with only Elladan behind riding rear guard. They all rode with more ease now, even if only because of the glimpse of honest sky far above the ravine.
After a time, Legolas said, "It's good to know that our companion withstood such a test. When we come next to danger and trial, we'll know how much he has borne, and how much he trusted us in the bearing."
"Aye, I'm glad," Gimli replied. "We all need comrades who don't break under pressure like a reed in a mineshaft."
His voice was gravel–rough, as if worn out with talking, or even with something like sorrow. And Legolas turned to look at him in the dimness, searchingly. But as he turned, past the mounted form of Elladan behind them he caught a proper sight at last of what dogged their heels—or rather, who. The traitorous Dead rode and marched in a great host, with their arms and standards in misty array, and Legolas could sense how they pressed forward as if they all were horses scenting water. Or as if they hungered.
"The Dead are following," said Legolas, in wonder. But as he spoke to Elladan about it over Gimli's shoulder, Gimli never once turned to look.
Aragorn shortly spurred them on, after they had ridden forth from the downward road out onto open land and could take full breaths at last. The river—the Morthond, or what men called Blackroot, as Elladan had said to Gimli—seemed to be breathing in gratitude as well, filling out from a brook to a proper stream, casting itself downhill in icy froth. And lashed by Aragorn's urgency, they whistled the horses up into a gallop and ran pell–mell for the midnight meeting at the Stone of Erech.
Arod seemed to relish stretching his legs, his neck held long and his head low. Legolas bent over his withers, taking in the fresh wind like wine. Gimli gripped fistfuls of Legolas's cloak with both hands but uttered no complaint at all about the speed, which wasn't like him. Holding to the cloak alone while sitting at a distance also wasn't like him, but then, who was like himself now, with the hordes of dead men biting at their heels? There was neither time nor leisure to speak, and Legolas let his body blend into Arod's movement while watching the ground ahead with all his attention for rabbit holes that at this speed could be deadly for horses and riders alike.
They swept among the habitations of men, over bridge and down road, like a blast of cold wind. And Arod kept up with the big horses, his ribs going beneath Legolas's knees like a bellows. Though after long enough at this frantic pace, even he began to tire, his hooves knocking against stones, froth at the corners of his mouth. Legolas spoke to him encouragingly with his hands laid flat on either side of the great neck, the muscles there working and hot beneath his touch.
The next time he spared a glance up and further ahead, he was struck by a hill in the distance with a smooth and ominous shape atop it.
"There it is!" he cried to Gimli.
For a few moments there was no answer, then Gimli stirred behind him. "What?" he asked thickly, as if waking, though Legolas knew that no one could have slept on horseback during such a gallop as this—and more to the point, after all the time they had spent as one with Arod, he knew well the feeling of drowsing–Gimli and waking–Gimli, and all the states between.
"The black stone of Aragorn's tale," Legolas said, casting out one pointing hand. "Look!"
Gimli gave a huff of breath. "I could stare in that direction until the Shadow fell upon us and it wouldn't help," he said. "'Look' indeed."
Legolas smiled, relieved; Gimli at last sounded more like himself. Not altogether, perhaps, but heading in that direction. "Like a dome upon a hilltop, dark as the patches between the stars. But not a dull black like ordinary rock or ash—it gleams, so that I almost thought even the eyes of man or dwarf could see it from here. I don't know when I've seen stone like it, no matter how polished."
"Does it shine like a mirror? As if it's oiled?" Gimli asked, the interest in his voice clear even beneath the ongoing pounding of the horses' feet.
"Yes," said Legolas, examining it carefully. "But I see no oil on it, nor water."
"A stone like night and glass." Gimli sounded grave and thoughtful. "I've seen it before, or something like it. It comes from molten earthfire, or rarely you find it left in the wake of dragon's breath, though only from the old worms who fought long ago. You can work it, with the greatest care."
"And what did you make from yours?" asked Legolas.
"What!" cried Gimli, and though Legolas had not turned to look, his attention still on the smoothest part of the path for the running horses, he knew the thunderous expression that would be on his face. Knew, and secretly cherished.
"I? Craft an urus–aban—a—a firestone? A dragonstone? You may hear a leaf fall at a full day's ride, but you clearly cannot hear my words from a handspan away. The greatest care, I said!" Legolas half–expected a box on the ear at this, though of course he didn't receive one. "No student nor apprentice may touch it, not even the most experienced—none but the master of his own forge."
"You forge it, then? A stone?"
"No," said Gimli. "A forge–master has a workshop all his own, it's not just for fire and metal."
"So you save all your dragonstone for the master's chisel, then."
"No." Gimli sounded aghast. "You don't set a chisel to this stone. You might use a hammer on the smallest pieces, lightly—to flake angles, to flute edges, you see? Though there are other ways to do that, better ways. But you never strike the great ones."
"This one is certainly great," Legolas said, eyeing it with more respect. "It looks man–height at least, with a perfect curve, and it glows like a dewdrop."
Gimli drew an awed breath. "Master's work indeed. A polished curve in this stone requires a slow shaping, the slowest. You have many different—" as if groping for words in the Common Tongue— "different grains, you see, and you plan and match their use to the angle and the curve and the finish. Dozens, hundreds, down to those softer than dust—"
As Gimli continued, Legolas lost his understanding of the process, even translated for his benefit, and the words washed over him like the wind against his face. He remembered when Gimli's musings on the qualities of gem and stone had sounded dull to him, when the Fellowship was new. What was the point, he had thought with disdain, of caring for these dead things? An interest in rocks was an interest only in destruction: you knocked them together into smaller and smaller pieces, pretending to be amazed at your own skill. The dirt on Legolas's hands had been noble, the dirt of the loam that grew and created, rather than destroyed.
He didn't like the way the memory felt. Not even half a year ago, too, so it was fresh and sharp–incised like a raw scratch girdling the bark of a tree and leaving the gash white and fragile. It was strange, how soon his scorn had changed; strange, too, how embarrassing he now was to himself, remembering that Legolas of Elrond's Council, with his chin in the air and all his decisions made. He had lived a long time, like the trees of his homeland, and like the trees, he was not to bend at every passing wind that ruffled through the leaves. Quick change was for those low to the ground, saplings and brute beasts and mortals.
But looking back on that Legolas, he felt the difference as he never had before, and it made him dizzy. Perhaps there were speeds at which an elf was never meant to travel, faster even than a steed of Rohan racing downhill at the command of the King.
"—the greatest pressures inside, opposing tensions, balanced just so. Like uncounted needles sharper than glass, bound together with forces you must not disturb. If—" Gimli caught a breath, and the spate of explanation abruptly stopped. "Well," he finished brusquely. "It's no task for any but the most brave."
"I cannot imagine that I'd have the cheek to try," said Legolas, "but I don't see why you couldn't."
He anticipated some kind of rough witticism about Gimli's axe being no tool to use on such a grand thing, or perhaps the sort of playfully–stern scolding they had come to enjoy trading back and forth. But instead, Gimli muttered something in his own language, rasping in his throat like two stones rubbed together, and fell silent. The sounds of the laboring horses filled the space.
At the bottom of the hill, Aragorn called them to a walking pace; Legolas suspected it was so the horses might cool as they climbed and keep their legs sound for whatever came next. Luckily, Arod's walking gait felt easy and smooth, which was a relief after such a hard run. Legolas unraveled wind–snarls from the grey mane and listened to the sparse, quiet talk among the Dúnedain as they wound their way up toward the Stone of Erech. It didn't seem that any of them knew precisely what to expect either, no matter what lore or rhyme they might have heard passed down from their failed line of kings, in times that seemed unknowably ancient to them. All that Legolas knew was what Aragorn had said of the dead Oathbreakers, and that the Seer had said "at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again".
Stand to what? Legolas mused. Or against what? And although he had no reason to fear the shades of dead men however they might stand, the back of his neck still shivered. Because climbing toward the gleaming black stone, the night around them flattened by the breath of the Dead, it was as if they were all being drawn up into one of the barrow–tombs men loved to make, full of bones and moldering iron and loss. And as Aragorn on his horse led them into a great ring about the seamless six–foot dome, the suspense and readiness in the air was wound so tight it could almost choke.
Arod was still second–to–last in the slow line circling round the hilltop, and as he followed to his place, Legolas again felt Gimli behind him abruptly come to life. He was shifting, muscles bunching, and there was the sound of his axe being unslung. He was clearly readying for a fight, and all with a low, satisfied sound as if he saw a banquet laid out before him. But when instead Aragorn blew the silver horn and spoke directly with the Dead, Legolas could feel this readiness slowly fade away from Gimli, until he once more sat still and distant.
Aragorn finished his orders, his standard–bearer unfurled the banner, and the rustling, chittering spectres fell completely quiet at last. After another moment or two of stern, silent command, Aragorn let out a long breath and looked around at the company.
"We have a long journey ahead of us, and a hasty one," he said. "Tend the horses and sleep now—we ride at dawn."
Without a fuss, the Dúnedain dismounted, and Elladan made his way over to Elrohir, where the brothers spoke together in earnest undertones. There were the subdued sounds of straps and buckles as the horses were unsaddled and partly unbridled, their riders rubbing them down and seeing to their comfort.
Legolas slipped down from Arod's back; Gimli followed him to the ground and landed with a thump, legs braced apart and axe in one hand.
"What a ride we have had today, Gimli!" said Legolas. "A battle–charge, with nothing at the end but a parley."
Gimli shook his head and twirled the haft of his axe, watching the bright head catch and spark the starlight.
"I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to use that," Legolas added, stooping to stroke down each of Arod's legs and make sure all was well. "If it could even catch on the necks of ghosts. But I suppose now they are our allies, so you must restrain yourself."
"Such allies," Gimli said darkly, not returning his smile. "Traitors once, traitors again, who's to say?"
"Aragorn, I suppose," said Legolas. He unfastened the saddlecloth and laid it carefully aside. "We've seen him a good judge of comrades before now."
Gimli looked as if he might answer, but in the end he only nodded and unshouldered his pack. Legolas left him to find a likely spot to unroll the blankets, and walked with Arod toward where the rest of the horses were gathered, touching noses and blowing softly as if having their own council. Knotting a light halter of soft rope, he picketed Arod with his cousins, and smiled to see the dappled head lifting proud and fierce among the big shaggy ones.
"You heard what I told our friend," he said reprovingly to Arod. "Allies, so you must restrain yourself." He left the horses grazing companionably enough together, although Arod seemed to be accepting this peace only as a noble sacrifice on his part.
The rest of the company were settling down in groups of two or three, and Legolas returned to find one of the Dúnedain deep in trade with Gimli, small winter apples and dried meat and bits of cram and such things going back and forth. He was dark and tall, like the rest of Aragorn's kin, his face set in hard lines and his grey eyes deep set. Next to such a grand figure, Legolas would have expected to see Gimli's head flung back and his eyes sparking, his own inner fire showing forth as with Arod among the Rangers' horses. But Gimli stood with his head bare and slightly lowered, saying little and that only in a restrained voice. He seemed muffled throughout, like a candle burning low in a stagnant room.
The big Ranger finished their trade and bowed with courtesy. "I thank you, Master Dwarf," he said. "And from what I have already heard of the way you fought at the Hornburg, I must say I am glad to have you in the company."
Gimli coughed in his throat and bowed. "Valiant are the Dúnedain," he answered, "and fortunate anyone who rides beside them."
With this exchange, they parted, and the man went back to his companions. Legolas sank down on one of the blankets Gimli had spread, one for each of them and a space for Aragorn's beside, as was their habit by now. Gimli sat heavily on his blanket and parceled out their meager rations. "Here," he said, and lay a little bundled scrap of cloth in Legolas's palm.
It held a piece of honeycomb, pale gold and fragrant, and Legolas marveled. "One could almost take you for a hobbit," he said, "unearthing something so precious in the midst of war and its privations."
"I thought you'd like it," Gimli said shortly, his head bent over a hard cake of cram he was breaking between his powerful hands. "I don't suppose that people of the woodland do well without such fripperies."
Legolas divided the comb carefully and slipped his own share into his mouth. It carried memories of long days of sun and sweet blossom, the humming of the hive in full–fed contentment; he chewed the soft wax with languorous delight, despite the darkling mist all around them burgeoning with ghosts.
Gimli ate in subdued quiet and set aside his helm and boots to wrap himself in his blanket. He stretched out on the ground with a sigh of utter weariness Legolas remembered from their run afoot in pursuit of the band of orcs. His eyes, though, stayed open in the dark.
This was nothing remarkable. Legolas could see open eyes everywhere among the company, no matter how tall and doughty they were. The army of spectres surrounded their camp and the very air was full of dread like smoke. Everyone lay still under the suffocating weight of it, but for Aragorn, who sat with Elladan and Elrohir in quiet discussion. And even they seemed to feel it, drawn close together with their eyes tired and worried.
"I don't think he'll need the room we've left for him," Legolas said.
"As one of the Three Hunters, Strider would sleep here. But not perhaps Aragorn the King."
Gimli regarded Legolas for a moment. "So be it then." And he rolled further away in his blanket, using some of Strider's space for himself.
Legolas, in his turn, stretched out on his back and folded his hands, attempting to compose his mind into resting memory that his body might refresh itself. The stars seemed very far away. Too far. Allies or not, the very presence of the ranks of the Dead blurred the points of fire like a stagnant fog and kept Legolas from finding the comfort he was used to. The darkness was not a soft blanket of living night, but an oppressive heavy shadow; the quiet was not peace, but the strangled silence of a hostage.
His mind could not find a purchase on such a night as this. Without the blessing of the stars in their immortal courses, or the welcome of the friendly dark in which his race had first awakened and celebrated, he felt unmoored. The sense of spinning change returned to trouble him. The only way to bend an ancient tree so fast and so low was in a gale, which throws the world into an uproar and leaves things broken and confused in its wake.
He remembered his abject fear at the bridge of Khazad–dûm, and the depth of his grief at the loss of Gandalf. And he remembered too the comfort he had unexpectedly found thereafter in Gimli, and how their comradeship had grown. At each loss or trouble since, he had had Gimli's warmth by his side or at his back, and he wondered if he had somehow hastily grafted a root or branch over onto that rock without knowing it, to keep himself steady when the next swift gale raged through. But...how could that be steadiness in truth, leaning on nothing but a scant flash of a mortal life? Sometimes in the path you saw a rocky overhang bridging a whirlpool, and you were tempted to step there but you mustn't, for it might crumble even under the footfall of an elf. Sandstone, wasn't it...or was that the one he meant? Gimli would know. Of course.
Legolas turned from gazing at the blurred stars and pillowed his head on his arms. He cast his mind back to his father's halls, and the lay of Illuin and Ormal that Thranduil had been wont to sing as the venomous darkness had crept ever further through Mirkwood which once had been Greenwood the Great. It was a rare song of truly ancient days, a time even before the elves had awakened in Middle Earth. In this golden springtime of Arda, it was said that the only light had come from the two great lamps crafted and hallowed by the Valar, and the light lay across land and water in a golden evenness, without sunrise, sunset, moon, or stars. A great age had passed upon this steady world in its steady glow, before ruin and darkness, and his father cleaved to the song as a distant wish in the midst of his busy and troubled kingdom. When he sang, his voice lightened the air and made it sweeter to breathe, even if for just a while. So Legolas sent his memory there to walk, in among the song, striving to recreate that quiet changeless space for himself.
He had not thought of the song for some time, and never once since he had left his home in the wood at his king and sire's behest. For when he had gone out onto the open road, and even more when he had spoken to the lord Elrond of his willingness to travel with the Ringbearer at least as far as the mountains, he had set aside the dream of changeless things. Banding closely together with mortals, and running into so much chance and loss on the path, had taken him ever further from that thought—except for their interlude in the land of Lórien, where the power of the Lady held the rest of the world and time at bay. But even then, he had ended up finding his greatest solace somehow in spending his long hours there with a mortal, walking beneath the golden trees and silver light.
No, not with "a mortal," with Gimli, who had gladly wandered at his side, speaking with him or being silent together. And Legolas supposed that what he had found in Lórien had been a tentatively poised mixture of the changelessness of the Golden Wood and the onward rush of the stream of time in the form of his journey, his comrades, and his mortal friend. But now the stream's rush was becoming a flood and a cascade down sharp and rocky cliffs, the torrent's roar drowning out the still and peaceful music of the dream–place where change did not come.
So Legolas, his eyes turned from the sky hazed over with the presence of death, betrayal, and the withering of hope, strove to find that music in himself again, weaving it into the sort of dream that rested body and mind.
First he heard the theme of Elbereth, who was called Varda, both in the song and in the land of the Valar. It was a familiar theme, Legolas having heard it in his father's voice from his very youth, and in it he could hear and see the Kindler holding this early, unformed light between her hands in the midst of the expectant darkness. She was majestic and powerful but ever–comforting, like the soft clear fires she lit and shared. So Legolas circled the sound and wrapped it round himself like the finest blanket, taking the sort of refuge in Elbereth and her works that those of his kind always did.
But he found himself unable to stay in the midst of that thread of the song and to give up his sense of change and weariness. The other theme, the one he had never paid as much attention to when his father or the harpers sang, now rose and caught his notice as it had not before. It was Aulë, the other maker of the grand lamps—while Legolas's attention and love had always before been given almost entirely to the moment when Varda had filled the lamps with her light and set them to their steady task, now he saw more of the picture and heard the other side of the theme with a growing clarity.
Because before the lamps could be filled and hallowed, they had first been wrought, and the song filled with the blood–beat of the hammerstrokes of Aulë the craftsman. With his skill and ingenuity he made and perfected each of the lamps, his love of creation and sharing imbued within them; and when he offered the sparkling new creations to Varda his comrade, they clasped their hands together in gladness and fulfillment, the lamps bearing the strengths and gifts of each of the two creators. Legolas had heard Aulë's theme in the song before but had never truly listened, and now despite the beauty and the familiarity he found it troubling in ways he could not name. He beheld Aulë with a new clarity, the power of the mighty smith at his forge, the clear bright ring of his hammer driven by the powerful arm and broad shoulders, and the way he concentrated on his work with fierceness and joy. As rooted as his anvil, as bright as his smithfire, he gave with both hands and overflowed with a great love for these things, even though—as the lay did not itself tell, being centered on the time of changelessness—they would one day be overthrown and utterly destroyed.
The theme of Aulë rose in Legolas's heart too high for peace, and he lost his grasp on both the song and his resting–dream. He turned onto his back again and drew in breaths of the still, clouded air, hearing restlessness throughout the entire company—no one was spared, from Aragorn to Elrond's sons to the doughtiest of the Dúnedain, and to a rustling amidst the horses who shifted and stepped and ground their teeth in the face of the low scentless smoke of terror.
Legolas sat up and saw Gimli's back still turned, but knew he was awake.
"I think I'll see if the horses can be soothed," he said. "For they're the ones who will be called upon for the most strength and speed tomorrow. Arod our friend is brave and strong, but not tireless or made of sorcery."
Gimli grunted. "Give him my regards. And my apologies in advance for having to bear me again tomorrow."
Hesitating, Legolas spent a moment regarding the blanket stretched warmly over Gimli's shoulders. "Everyone is wakeful," he said at last. "Aragorn perhaps is troubled by the hosts who rebelled against his forefathers; his Rangers are men who might see these Dead in themselves. Even the twin brethren share the blood and the memories of Aragorn's kin, and I suppose these oathbreakers touch something in them. But I don't... Gimli, I don't see why you and I should be concerned with men's histories and men's ghosts."
"It's all right," Gimli said unexpectedly, sinking down further beneath his blanket. "I didn't suppose you would." And he was silent.
Legolas made his way over to the horses and slipped into their midst, singing a quiet song of the wind rippling through the fern. They shifted and snorted, making way, and he saw Arod's ears easing sideways and then forward as the sound had its calming effect. Legolas stood with Arod for a long while, rubbing the bristly chin and the velvet–soft nose, and many of the Rangers' horses pushed their way up one after the other to investigate him with warm puffs of breath. But eventually they did sleep a little, bunched together with their heads low, which was more than Legolas could sense from any of the rest of the company. And though he himself should have been able to rest his mind, at least, there among the horses with Arod's head against his shoulder, he still found himself unable to settle into a waking dream. Memory would not cooperate, and he could not seem to hold fast to anything. Instead he listened to the sounds of the resting horses and their restless riders, breathed the heavy air of the Dead, and felt the world spinning out of his grasp.
Dawn crept up over the horizon as stiff and hesitant as any of the company, the light a flat and blurry grey. The Dúnedain rose silently from their sleepless rest and saddled their horses; Legolas returned to Gimli with Arod walking close behind him, bumping him in the back with his forehead or nose every few steps.
With the slow, economical precision Legolas remembered from their hunt after Merry and Pippin, Gimli was tying their tightly–rolled blankets neatly to his pack. He stood and heaved the pack over his shoulders, and it thumped perfectly into place against the breadth of his back without any finicky adjustment.
"Good morning," Legolas said, seeing to the saddlecloth. "I'm happy to say that Arod took some sleep, even if no one else did."
Gimli sipped sparingly from his water bottle and handed it to Legolas. "I once thought myself a dwarf of much imagination," he said as Legolas drank. "But I confess I never dreamt of the day when I would find myself lacking compared to a horse." He did not smile, but sometimes his humor was dry and his beard a perfect disguise to smirk behind. So Legolas made a point of raising one eyebrow sharply upward, waiting contentedly for the off–color remark that was sure to follow—but nothing followed. Gimli simply took the bottle back from Legolas's hand and fastened it into the cunning arrangement of laces he had contrived to keep it in easy reach but securely lashed with the other equipment.
The silence between them felt long. Which was odd, for they had come many leagues together without chattering all the way like hungry nestlings, even back when they felt uneasy enough with each other to regularly spar and fence with words. But now the silence wasn't filled with comfort and knowledge and peace; it instead felt dried out, starved like the cracked floor of long–dead mud flats.
"Gimli," he said, although he wasn't sure what he intended to say next, what if anything could fill that terrible quiet. But he didn't have to decide, for at that moment Gimli looked warily past him and there came a familiar step.
"My friends," said Aragorn, his cloak cast back from his shoulders despite the chill before the sun. Legolas smiled to see him, but Gimli gave a bow with one hand on his chest, his eyes lowered.
"We set a place for you," Legolas told him. "Before we forgot that the Three Hunters were no more, and the King now sleeps in state."
"If council meetings allow him to sleep at all," Aragorn replied ruefully. "But I'm not the king yet, nor ever will be if we can't bring help in time. Leader of this company will have to do."
"An admirable company to ride to war with, living and dead," Legolas said. "The Dúnedain of course are welcome comrades, but your dead men also seem useful enough to me."
"That remains to be seen," said Aragorn, looking dark and thoughtful.
"Yes." Gimli spoke unexpectedly. "There is no reason to depend on one who has failed in his trust."
"But Gimli," Legolas said, delighted to see him willing to engage in their conversations again, "if their original betrayal came as I suppose from their fears of dying, now those fears are gone forever. So being dead has very likely improved their character!"
Aragorn smiled a little at this, although his face was still drawn. "I wouldn't generally recommend it as a training tool."
"Perhaps not," Legolas said, smiling in return.
Gimli, however, did not smile, nor essay a joke of his own. He said, his voice and face still remote, "They are lucky to have this chance to amend their cowardice." Then with another of those strange bows, he turned and headed for Arod, who was idly grazing a little distance away.
Aragorn and Legolas watched after him a moment, as Gimli tentatively but sturdily took hold of Arod's mane. He apparently began negotiating with the horse, to get him to walk closer to a rock outcropping that Gimli could use as a step.
"The Dead will prove their mettle and their word, or they won't," Aragorn said at last, turning back to Legolas. "But my old comrades are a comfort. And at least we still have Gimli with us."
"Striking a blow for good relations between the Dwarf kingdoms and horsekind," Legolas said. Gimli had convinced Arod to take a step or two, but then Arod discovered how good it felt to scratch the sides of his face against Gimli's armor. The enthusiastic rubbing rocked even Gimli on his heels, no matter how rooted he was to earth and stone.
"When the battle separated us at Helm's Deep, a part of me was worried," Aragorn admitted. "But in the end, I truly couldn't imagine not seeing him again, ever at your side."
Legolas nodded, unable to look away for the moment from Gimli stoically enduring Arod's enjoyment. Then the horse contentedly pulled back and gave a great shake of his head and neck, grey mane flying, ending in a thorough shiver all down the skin of his sides. Gimli stubbornly urged him on again, and this time he followed.
Legolas suddenly felt poised on the edge of memory's flood, the past real and breathing. Before him stood Aragorn, wise and determined and ready to war against the darkness until his last breath. But also before him, overlaid like a reflection in clear water, was Gimli, walking steadily at Éomer's side out of the remains of the battle, his head bloody but held high, his voice loud and strong. At least we still have Gimli with us, said Aragorn's voice, and ever at your side, and Legolas blinked and made himself bring his gaze back from Gimli and Arod to meet Aragorn's eyes.
"We are ready to ride at your command," he said.
Aragorn nodded gently. "The command is given." And he pressed Legolas's shoulder and turned away.
The Dúnedain mounted, Aragorn last of all; Legolas leapt up onto Arod's back in his spot in front of Gimli, who had concluded his negotiations successfully and was sitting well back to give Legolas room. Legolas was just preparing to say something complimentary about Gimli's improving willingness with horses—with the one horse, at least—when Aragorn raised his voice in command.
"Now we ride to Pelargir and Anduin," he said, his voice muffled by the strange flatness in the air as if by fog. "Gondor is in the greatest danger, and with it all the West. By day and by night we must move forward, and at the end still be ready for battle." His tall kinsman Halbarad moved his horse up beside Aragorn, the dark standard hanging limply in the grey air. Legolas heard a shuffling and a muttering, as if the Dead too were gathering themselves and making ready. Aragorn cast his keen glance all around, from the mounted riders to their unseen companions, then turned his horse and headed down the hill at a walking pace.
The Dúnedain followed, their horses stringing out in single–file on the hill path. Arod fell in to his usual place, at the end of the line with Elladan riding sweep behind, and then the Dead keeping themselves in the very rear. They seemed sullen somehow, perhaps grudging the slowness of the journey, and the air around them swelled with pressure and prickled like the wind before a lightning storm. Arod picked his way down the hill with finicky grace, ears alert and swiveling—he spent too much time turning them rearward and tossing his head at some faint swirl of sound from the Dead, but at Legolas's reassurances, this nervousness did not rise to panic.
Gimli still sat well back, holding a handful of Legolas's cloak on either side, and said nothing.
Once they were off the hill and heading east to Lamedon, they settled into the forced–march formation that they hoped would suit them for the coming hard days. The horses were mostly kept at a walk, but one so brisk as to almost be a trot whenever the terrain was safe enough. Legolas had had his days of riding on lazy, good–natured horses who would walk as slowly as the journey permitted, spending time nosing through every passing shrub for something amusing to eat, or nipping idly at the tails of the horses in front. Now there was no danger of that kind of delay; it was harder indeed to keep the horses from hurrying, even bolting into a wild run, with the ever–present sense of the Dead coming behind them.
Horses thrived on their well–honed ability to keep away from the predator, but now they were being asked to let themselves be herded onward day and night by the sort of invisible menace few of them had ever met before. Had they not so bravely loved and trusted their riders and friends, Legolas was sure the journey would have been over and lost before it had even begun.
"Pado thala," he murmured to Arod, leaning forward to scratch and rub around his ears and poll. "Forward for the horses of Rohan, who will show the northern breed how it's done." Arod's head jerked, nodding and rising, his neck tensely arched, for all the world as if he wore the most constricting sort of bit and bridle on his head instead of nothing at all.
Legolas would have turned to remark on it to Gimli, but he seemed sunk deeply into that brooding silence that had been coming on since yesterday. So instead Legolas gave a leap and a sideways slip, and landed on his feet on the ground; Gimli let the cloak slide through his fingers without hindrance. For perhaps a quarter of every hour, the riders were to dismount and walk or trot alongside. This pace was to be their duty and burden day and night, as long as they could stand it.
"Eh," Gimli said, shaking himself. "Time already?" And he swung his leg over and jumped down, taking a moment to steady himself before beginning his quarter–hour march. As they walked, the sun slowly came up in their eyes, beckoning them onward, and Gimli shaded his face with his hand.
"Now that's good to see," he said.
"Sunrise?" Legolas asked, examining it for himself. Lovely it was, flushing pink and palest gold, though always second in his heart to the stars of his race's first awakening. He spoke his next thought, as Gimli seemed to be more open to discussion now: "I wouldn't have expected you to think overmuch of the sun, being of an underground people."
Gimli shrugged, taking a few jogging steps to get a little ahead of Arod.
"In fact," Legolas continued, thoughtfully, gazing at Gimli's back and slightly hunched shoulders, "I remember you speaking of your eldest father Durin's sight of the stars in Mirrormere... did the Lady call it Kheled–zâram?"
"It reminded me of my own people waking to the stars."
Gimli's back expanded and contracted as he drew and released a long breath. "We do not tell overmuch of our own waking," he said slowly. "But it was to the stars, as was yours. And when Durin saw his crown in Kheled–zâram, of stars was it made."
Arod's longer steps, and Legolas's, were drawing them up abreast of Gimli. As Legolas reached Gimli's side, Gimli glanced at him sideways for just a moment, his eyes almost hunted. "It is only..." He fixed his gaze in the distance again, the bones of his face cast into gold and shadows by the growing light. "The night just gone past... It was the longest night I have ever known."
Legolas regarded him, the broad, strong face all at once seeming pale and tentative in a way it never had before. Not even cast unwelcome into the midst of Lórien and faced with what seemed a nation of lordly enemies had Gimli looked cornered so.
But as Legolas opened his mouth to ask, Gimli reached out and grasped a handful of Arod's mane to tug him to a stop. "The rest of you may leap on and off while walking like frolicking stoats," he said, "but some of us did not train to be acrobats." Legolas bent and seized Gimli by the shin; with a quick, cooperative effort he lifted as Gimli leapt, so that Gimli landed soft on the saddlecloth and Arod moved back into formation with hardly a moment lost. Gimli nodded, and squinted into the distance with the rising sun bathing him in tones of amber fire.
Legolas thought about the night, which he could remember and experience moment by moment in its full passing the way Gimli had told him mortals apparently did not. And he knew it had been long in spirit, in that gloom and dread and uncertainty; as well as long in fact, from entering the dark Paths before dawn to reaching the Stone at midnight, and then the sleepless night proper. But other than that, he was grieved to find he could not understand; his time had been spent with Arod alone, keeping him to the road and sane, helping him fight his instincts and stay with the company. What Gimli's night had been, Legolas could not say. And unlike after the fighting at the Hornburg, when they were likewise separated, Gimli was not now saying either.
Legolas stayed afoot awhile longer, troubled, casting his gaze and his thought around to soothe himself. They passed between ranks of hills that caught the light in undulations of rose and blue, and he worked to lose himself in the sight. When eventually he leapt neatly back onto Arod in front of Gimli, the grasp on the edges of his cloak felt rote and meaningless.
But as time passed, the mood of the entire company seemed somehow to lift. The sun was shining clear, on the sort of March day that has the crispness of the winter past but also offers the warm promise of early summer. The horses moved briskly, their nostrils widening at the good scents of the sun–warmed slopes, and the riders took to passing around bites of their own provisions even as they traveled. When Gimli pressed the last piece of honeycomb silently into his hand, Legolas felt he was saying what he could, and accepted it in that spirit.
For a time, the tall man Gimli had traded with the night before, who called himself Edreintir Dúnadan, rode and walked beside them; he even told them a few tales of the countryside they were passing through, the regions of Gondor where it sloped from the mountains down to the sea.
Legolas offered some tales in return, and when he sang, the tight arch in Arod's neck and the flat set of his ears eased somewhat. Even though the spectres still trailed close behind them, the sun and the breeze and the rising hope of reaching Pelargir in time seemed to be muting the power and weight of their dark breath.
The sun westered at last, casting long shadows of horses and riders like arrows toward their destination, their shapes outlined with the fierce deep red of the sunset as if in anticipation of fire and blood. And they approached the town Edreintir told them was called Calembel, at the fords of the river Ciril.
Aragorn raised his arm, and the company neatly slowed and halted, the horses chewing their bits or dropping their heads to lightly graze. Legolas, catching Aragorn's searching glance back toward him, urged Arod up to stand in the front rank, where Elrohir was also.
"No one," Elrohir was saying. "Not at the ford, nor in the street of the town itself. Not only no soldiers, but no fishers or farmers, no elders or children. As far as I can see, Calembel lies empty."
Aragorn squinted toward the distant smudge of buildings, as if the trace of elven blood he bore from his distant ancestor could grant him more sight. Legolas looked carefully himself, but just as Elrohir had said, the town and its environs were strangely empty, the Ciril flowing peacefully away from the deserted ford.
"Ride forward to bowshot distance," Aragorn ordered the company, and as they approached, he sent three mounted scouts ahead to reconnoiter, two splitting to flank the town and one to explore the ford. Legolas he asked to ready his bow, and although he had shot from horseback before, this time Legolas slid to the ground, an arrow ready in his drawing hand. Gimli stayed on horseback for some minutes more, fidgeting, until finally he leapt down and drew his axe. He stood staring into the distance as the scouts disappeared into the town or over the bank down to the ford, and his knuckles were white on the haft.
The sun sank behind them, obscured by the Pinnath Gelin peaks in the distance, and the thick red light bathed Calembel in foreboding. The presence of the Dead to the rear, so mild at noon, began to build again; Legolas could hear it in the restlessness of the horses and see it in the increasingly–wary eyes of the Dúnedain. It was as if the dead themselves, while made of incorporeal shadow, carried with them burning, beating hearts that bled out that sunset light onto the grass and the riders and the still, silent town.
But the first scout returned even before the last red ray had given way to full dark, and eventually all three were back safely and without alarm. It was clear that the fighting troops had left some time ago to join with Minas Tirith, and Aragorn seemed cheered by the news.
"I would be more worried if they were still here," he said. "Even though I know they need to look after their farmland and homes. For this is the last ditch; Minas Tirith has her back to it and cannot be driven one more step without a final fall. All Gondor is needed, and we'll pick the farms and fish back up afterward, should we be so fortunate."
The rest of the tale was stranger, but from evidence left behind, including a scattering of hastily–written handbills, the scouts reported that the rest of the population seemed to have fled because of the Grey Company themselves. Sight of the dead men emerging from their mountain and reaching the stone must have been visible from a distance, and messengers ridden eastward even as the company tried to sleep; the remainder of Calembel had fled and been carried to wherever their safe hiding place was, to escape, as they thought, the approach of the King of the Dead.
"And so you are," Legolas said, smiling. "If not in the way they think."
But Aragorn didn't smile back; his eyes were pitying. "I suppose so. But I wish it hadn't happened," he said. "The old and the sick, those who couldn't fight but were at least safe at home. Now what will happen to them? For of course we have to move onward quickly, and can't spare any time to find them and spread the truth."
"It would be worse for us to waste time comforting them," said Elrohir. "It is too late for that, and letting the fearful keep us would turn them into weights about our necks."
Aragorn nodded, though he still looked on the empty town with more compassion than did Elrond's son. "They can't help it," he said, "but I am sorry for it."
During this conversation, Gimli sheathed his axe and moved to Arod's side. He stood with one hand stretched up to the horse's withers, watching Aragorn and Elrohir with a stolid gaze.
"Come then," concluded Aragorn. "To the ford, and the quicker we move on, the quicker we can earn them a peace to come home to."
Legolas bent to give Gimli a leg up and then leapt up himself, and the company trotted to the river crossing. They paused long enough to fill water bottles and skins, and the horses had a few minutes to drink and lightly graze from the grasses of the slope and the cress on the banks. But at Aragorn's wordless gesture, the riders remounted and the horses wheeled as one into a formation heading southeast.
The last of the lingering dusk was gone, and they rode more carefully in the darkness. Legolas enjoyed it at first, a proper starry sky out in the open, offering him thousands of memories to relish should he care to. Were this a pleasure–jaunt, he would have sung away the hours without care or worry.
But as the stars turned in their courses and the night sky's inky blue eased gradually to ash–black, he became aware that this night had nothing ordinary about it. Elrohir seemed to notice it too, and looking to the rear, Legolas could see Elladan riding up closer than had been his wont, with the dead bunching behind him into an uneasy mass of silver wraiths. It was something about the darkness, Legolas thought. Something strange about the way the sky, having changed to its ordinary spangled black, now seemed to be going darker still.
Another darkness was somehow seeping overtop of the sky's own darkness, something chill and rank and grasping. Like the corruption of a corpse left flyblown in the sun, oozing down over the rock beneath it to spread and stain and contaminate. And it seemed to film over even the stars themselves, filtering their light into something sick and nauseous. Legolas felt it to his bones, and he knew the twin brethren did as well.
It wasn't long, though, before the feeling reached the rest of the company. First the horses, their eyes rolling and flashing white; then the Dúnedain, muttering to one another and loosening their swords in their scabbards as if the new darkness were something to strike and defeat. Aragorn rode stiff and wary, his entire frame alert to nothing anyone could name.
"What is this?" Legolas gasped, turning his head to Gimli. The very air tasted sour in his mouth.
But Gimli neither answered nor lifted his bowed head; he sat like a stone, his only point of contact the tight fists gripping Legolas's cloak by the very edges. The Gimli of the daytime past who was still willing to speak his thoughts, even if only slightly, was gone now.
All the while, the new darkness mounted. Legolas could not stop himself from remembering the approach of the Balrog—almost fully remembering it, having to constantly remind himself of where and when he was, to stay away from those moments. Rapacious cloud and flame, razored darkness spreading from wall to wall, and he himself crying out, helpless not to give in to his terror.
A sudden burst of hollow, moaning sound made him start, sending an ice–cold jolt up and down his spine, and for the first time Arod lost all hold on himself. The horse twisted and leapt sideways, squealing, as if he were a green colt confronted with a viper; Legolas felt Gimli's arms lock instantly about his middle as they hadn't in days, and as one they rode out the bucking with Legolas's back tight against Gimli's chest. Legolas began speaking to Arod at once and did not stop, Sindarin and Common flowing and braiding together with no regard for which was which; he could feel all through his body that at any moment Arod might lose himself, might bolt and flee into the dark, unable to stop even at a cliff's edge.
Little one, companion, come back, come back, wake to us, Legolas chanted, one hand threaded into Arod's mane where the hair was rising stiffly as if before a lightning strike. He could hear and see the Dúnedain similarly struggling with their horses around him, arms flexing mightily, some carried away by momentary panicked gallops and twisting in circles as they shortened one rein.
The moaning sound built to a painful pitch, then fell abruptly silent. And Legolas saw at last that it was the Dead: their ranks, mounted and afoot, armed and bannered, all glowing in sickly grey, were surging forward. Their eyes shone a greedy bright silver. Like wind, like water, like the empty froth atop a wave, they swept forward and among the panicking horses and passed them, streaming down the long slope and toward Aragorn, who still led the way.
Aragorn had kept his head, while his horse, though prancing and turning uneasily, was striving to master himself as well; Legolas could see Aragorn bent over the horse's neck, his lips moving, and knew he was surely speaking as Legolas himself was. But there was no sound to be heard, and even the cries and hoofbeats of the horses were growing muffled and far away, beneath the stifling winds of the passing spirits.
As the wave of dead men gathered and crested, ready to pass over and around Aragorn, he sat up straight. And to Legolas, he seemed all at once to have gathered a mantle about him, a solemn fire that battled with the spectral fog and cowed it. Even to Legolas, if only for a moment, it felt old, rooted in the deepest strengths of the world and beyond.
Aragorn flung up one hand, sitting solidly at the center of his power like a white–hot ember. "Halt!" he commanded.
As if the word itself created the action, as if the spirits depended on Aragorn's living breath for their very animation, the Dead stopped immediately, thundering down and roiling back like the great wave they had become. Not a wisp of their smoke and dread touched the hem of Aragorn's cloak or the hoof of his horse.
"To your positions!" Aragorn ordered. And the wave receded at once, back through the company and their settling horses, bubbling flat against the grass like thick ground–fog. They regrouped well behind Elladan, whose face was pale and startled.
Arod turned one more circle, slowly this time, trembling down deep and blowing foam from his mouth. Legolas hummed to him and encouraged him to walk ahead, and gradually the horses regrouped once more into a loose formation, though clearly on edge and as wary as if alone among wolves.
Gimli's arms were still tight around Legolas's middle, frozen and motionless. That had served well to keep them both centered and balanced together on the leaping horse, but now Legolas was finding it hard to draw a full breath. And there was the strangest feeling thrumming all through his back, a resonance or vibration perhaps; at first he thought Gimli shivered, but it was more solid than that, deeper and purposeful. Almost a sound, but nothing he could grasp, no matter how hard he listened.
He laid one of his hands over Gimli's, which was clenched and cold as his sleeve of mail. "Gimli. Gimli. You can let go." He patted Gimli's hand. "The air tastes thin enough, without you pressing it out of me."
Gimli stirred and the strange resonance ceased, but he didn't let go. His grip eased slightly, though, and that was good enough for the moment. Legolas could breathe. He wouldn't want to breathe in too deeply in any case, as that strange extra layer of darkness still floated above and around them. He had almost wondered if the Dead were somehow responsible for it, but it had not changed since their obedient retreat.
So Legolas relaxed into Gimli's firm hold, and, now that he had the leisure, regarded Aragorn. That power had subsided in him, but Legolas could still sense it, banked at need beneath a warm layer of ash. There was something heartening in the thought, and in noticing how with each new land they came to, Aragorn's rightful kingship seemed to rise further and have more effect. He was lord of men in deed as well as in word, and over the dead no less than the living. Legolas mused on this bit of hope, despite the slimness of their chances.
Aragorn had noticed Legolas watching him, and he circled back to ride nearby, with Elrohir now taking the point position. Aragorn's horse pulled fretfully against the bit, starting from trot to canter and back again, and only reluctantly slowing into a walk.
"I wonder if they were as energetic when they were alive," Legolas said, striving for cheer despite the strange, decaying feel that remained in the air.
Aragorn smiled with faint ruefulness. "I can only hope they'll have as much fire ready for the battle." He checked another attempt by his horse to trot. "Is all well here?"
Legolas glanced down at Arod, where sweat gleamed on his tightly–held neck and strings of his mane clumped wetly together. "He's all right now, the poor panicked fellow." Gimli's hands loosened at his waist and drifted back to grip his cloak again, and Legolas felt strange, struck with something hollow beneath his ribs that didn't bear acknowledging right now. So he leaned to pat the neck of Aragorn's horse, who accepted it amiably enough despite his obvious tension. "It's a good thing this land rolls so smoothly. Had this happened in the hills, I couldn't have vouched for our chances."
"True." Aragorn rubbed his jaw, considering. "I know the countryside well hereabouts, and the road is good; we'll let them go a little, to stretch their legs and forget."
He looked over his shoulder at the rest of the company, presumably including the spectres far to the rear. Legolas wondered if he could see them clearly in all their shapes of ghastly walkers and riders, or if they existed for him more as fear made manifest, like the distant shredded mist of mortal dreaming as Legolas understood it.
Then, with a quiet command and a gesture from the shoulder, Aragorn was summoning the company forward, the horses easing from uncertain, jumpy walking into smooth trotting paces. Legolas felt right away how this helped channel Arod's fear through his muscles and burn it in movement; he knew well how much safer a horse felt when he was moving forward and using some of the speed he was born for, especially in a herd of companions all doing the same. But this effort was controlled, an interested and concerted effort that kept them engaged instead of letting them run panicked. Despite the strange new darkness and the continued presence of the Dead, the mood settled and calmed, and they rode on beneath the night sky with something more like hopeful intent.
Legolas watched the hours of the night wheel by in a mixture of hope and unease, the sky overhead still clotted and disfigured with that darkness that was more than darkness. The company was quiet but for the movement of the horses, until he again noticed Gimli saying something to himself, the sound subtly growing, this time loud enough to hear. Or perhaps he was not saying, but singing—it was hard to identify, this penetrating thread that shivered through him, weaving on and on.
"What is it?" Legolas asked, fascinated.
The sound stopped abruptly, in a jagged halt, and long seconds passed. "It was in my own tongue," Gimli said at last. "It was nothing."
"A strange language, to have so many words for nothing," Legolas smiled.
Gimli did not reply at first, and Legolas expected him to settle back into the strange silence that had been creeping up on them since they had entered the Dark Door. But then he spoke, his voice low and strained, with a hesitancy that was unlike him.
"We do not...speak of it," he said, and something in the hanging tone of the last words told Legolas that the next words would have been to outsiders. And as much as Legolas found himself wishing he were no longer one of those outsiders, it had become clear that he was, and ever would be. At this realization he felt an actual physical pain, tight in his chest, that surprised and unsettled him. Who was he, he thought fiercely, who had this strange and ill–advised journey made him become, that he could feel so deeply and so sharply over nothing more than someone else's secret? He was a prince of the wood, long–lived and strongly–rooted as the tall and upright tree; he had secrets of his own, and was not to be swept from his foundation by the turbulence of mortals.
"Of course," he said carelessly. He lifted his chin and mused upon the stars, or what he could see of them in the murky overlay. "That seems best."
There was no further talk between them for some time.
It must have been midnight or thereabouts when they encountered the first sparse signs of mill and farmland on the outskirts of another town: Ethring, where they would ford the next river. One of the Dúnedain gave a low whistling call and leapt from his horse, and they all slowed as one, Aragorn circling back. He spoke briefly to the man afoot.
"Danleith's horse needs seeing to," Aragorn told the company. "We'll hope it's no more than a stone lodged in a hoof. This is a good time to look after the mounts and be ready for whatever we might find at the river."
Legolas slipped down at once and stretched his muscles, giving a great breath in and out. Gimli followed more slowly, dropped the pack, and stood with one hand on Arod's side. The company was spreading out and dismounting, and there were muffled sounds of harness and buckle.
"I will see to Arod's feet," Legolas said at last. "Unless you'd care to learn?"
He inwardly cursed himself at once for having said that; Gimli had surely traveled many a league on ponies before being put unwillingly on the back of a tall steed of the Rohirrim, and his knowledge of forges and metal was likely to include both horseshoe and shoenail.
But Gimli showed no sign of affront or grumbling, nor even a mock–insulted jest, and Legolas missed it. He simply said, "Let us each do what we're best for. I might have seen a springhouse, or perhaps a well." One hand was already reaching to slip the water bottles from their clever lacings, and he turned to trudge back toward a shadowy cluster of outbuildings they had ridden past.
Legolas stopped himself from watching him go and instead turned to Arod, who had ducked his head to lip at one of Legolas's pockets, his eye glinting in the feeble starlight.
"Easy, there," said Legolas, although Arod seemed not to need it. He was calmer now, and as Legolas laid his hands on the dappled hide and began to look him over carefully, Legolas felt calmer as well. Arod's legs were warm and flexible, nowhere hot or strained, and his shoes still firmly seated. His hooves were easily cleaned out and had no stones or other hard debris that might have bruised him. The hide beneath the saddlecloth was smooth and sound. He seemed none the worse for the journey, despite the advent of the strange darkness. In fact, while his hooves were being scraped out, he spent some time amusing himself by leaning more and more of his weight against Legolas, until Legolas laughingly swore and thumped at his haunch.
"Now I know you've come to no harm, you insolent creature," Legolas said with a fond smile. Arod innocently blinked at him and lowered his head to graze, nipping up juicy hunks of the spring grass and briskly tearing them free.
Comforted, Legolas turned to look after Gimli. The buildings were still and silent in the distance, and he presumably had already reached them and gone inside or around behind where Legolas couldn't see. Surely it wouldn't take him long. But, Legolas thought as he started to stroll in that direction, another pair of hands never went amiss—someone to work the pump, or pull the well–rope. Let him be Gimli's cupbearer for a time, and see if the old ease between them might be rediscovered.
His own footfalls sounded loud to him as he walked, in the muffled oddity of the new layers of darkness. He heard none of the usual nightbirds or insects and little of the rustling of plant or grass. Instead he heard his own breath, his step, even the beat of his heart, all borne down and squeezed beneath the strange oppressive sky.
As he approached the buildings, which as he drew closer looked like a few storage sheds around a little mill, he became aware of more sounds, one after the other. First a deep, low breath overlapping his own, and he had heard that in his sleep so often by now that of course he knew it was Gimli without even thinking. But quickly following that sound came a fainter cluster of new sounds: a mass of quicker breaths, lighter and faster; rustles of half–damped movement; a voiceless shhhh–ing hiss.
Legolas picked up speed at once, dashing swiftly into the midst of the buildings and turning the corner. He saw Gimli before one of the sheds, his shoulders tense and braced, his axe lifted in one hand and his other hand on the latch. And just as Legolas skidded to a stop and drew forth his knife, Gimli flung the door open and fell into a fighting stance.
Inside the shed, kneeling and clinging together, were a cluster of people—eight, Legolas's eyes told him, and then, no, nine, there was someone laid out behind the rest of the group. Humans, not surprisingly. They were worn and begrimed, draped in blankets and shawls, their eyes great with terror. Except for one of them, actually, who crouched slightly in front of the rest, and gripped a pitchfork; in that one there was more than terror, there was ferocity and tooth–baring determination.
"Come then!" cried the one in front in a thin, strained voice. "You think the women and children of Ethring such easy prey, come you now and learn better!"
Gimli, who had stood frozen, his axe wielded but unmoving, shivered as if awaking. His weapon lowered very slowly to his side. Legolas sheathed his knife and came forward, also slowly, his hands open.
The one in front—Legolas had trouble understanding the ages of men, but she was certainly young and gangling, somewhere in the middle of maturing—still held the pitchfork tight, aimed at Gimli's eyes. Behind her were three old women, with the signs of mortal age that always fascinated and unnerved him: two were wrinkled and grey, but still broad and upright, while the third held between them was smaller, bent, her skin a creased and delicate mass of lines and her hair soft and white and fine as dandelion seed.
To the side were four little children, three in braids and one with a cropped head, holding hands in pairs. They were staring at Gimli, mesmerized, and one of them was even beginning to smile. Legolas wondered if Gimli was so very different from the sort of enemy they had feared, and further if it helped that he stood even shorter than two of the old women and their fierce young protector.
He stepped up to Gimli's side and glanced over at him. Gimli's expression was soft and puzzled, hapless, as if he had stumbled over a basket of kittens and knew not what to do with them heaped miaowing around his heavy–booted feet.
"Well?" demanded the girl in front, jabbing slightly with her pitchfork, and here was no kitten indeed. Once into her full growth, and Legolas would not have given odds for anyone fool enough to underestimate her.
"No one has come to prey on anyone, Lady," said Legolas peaceably, and she squinted at him in suspicion.
Gimli cleared his throat. "And if they had," he said, "there's no doubt you would teach them something. As for me, I'm not eager to learn." He stepped back from the door, leaving them plenty of space, and bowed with that natural courtesy Legolas had always seen in him.
The pitchfork remained where it was, but Legolas saw her swallow and seem for the first time uncertain. Perhaps it was easier to know what to do when the monsters were clearly springing, than when it was two easy–spoken strangers who nevertheless rode armed by night.
Legolas moved well back with Gimli. "May I ask why you're here? And what of Ethring?"
At this, one of the little ones looked up at him. "Who's she?" it piped suddenly. "Amma, who's she?"
"Hush," said one of the grey–haired women at once. "Remember, hush!" The child looked abashed and pressed a grubby hand over its mouth.
Legolas smiled, and now bowed in his turn. "I am called Legolas, an elf from Mirkwood. And my companion is Gimli of the Dwarves. We ride in haste to a battle far off, and hoped only to fill our bottles at your well."
The girl eyed them stonily. "Bregeth, you may call me if you must. And there's no well in here."
"Bregeth," Gimli said, and then hesitated, and cleared his throat again. When he next spoke, the restrained and courtly tone had given way to something both gruff and worried: "Come now, why on earth are you hiding in there? Are you hurt?"
The girl lowered her pitchfork, but remained wary.
"Cansûl is hurt," blurted the talkative child. "He got hurt and he can't get up—"
The same grey–haired woman reached over and quickly pulled the child close to her, bending to whisper into its ear for a long time.
Gimli didn't come any closer, still leaving plenty of room, but he bent his head and lowered his voice as best he could, addressing the girl: "Is he alive?"
She shrugged uncomfortably.
"Won't you bring him out? Or let us do it. My friend here has a cooling touch." He didn't look over at Legolas as he said this, but Legolas cast a glance his way anyway.
Legolas felt for the girl, whose leadership was clearly burdensome as she silently struggled with the question of who to trust and how. But at last, she set her jaw and said sternly:
"They say the Dead don't bleed. Show me your blood, and I'll grant you're living creatures."
This time Gimli did look over at Legolas, who looked back at him, surprised. Then Gimli unhesitatingly pushed up his left sleeves of leather and mail, ready to slice the blade of his axe across the back of his forearm.
"Wait," Legolas said abruptly, drawing his knife. There was something in him that disliked the sight of Gimli's broad axe pressing against his bare skin. Gimli looked up at him, brows raised, and Legolas muttered, "We don't need so much blood. This is finer."
Gimli at once held out his arm to Legolas, steady and unflinching. Legolas clasped Gimli's hand and used the gleaming blade to nick first Gimli's forearm and then his own. Their blood welled, dark under the contaminated night sky, but red enough to prove them.
Bregeth nodded, and as if an order had been given, the rest of the group began filing out through the door. She leaned her pitchfork against the outer wall and went to the figure lying on his back in the depths of the hiding place, to slowly help him to his feet. Or his foot, rather, for only one was booted and the other bare, bandaged from the ankle up to the knee. He was thin and flushed, and leaned on her as they squeezed through the doorway. Furthest back in the shed, Legolas could now see the shadows of two goats and several roosting chickens with their heads tucked into their wings.
The injured man sat down heavily and gratefully a short way outside, and the rest of the people stood around him. Legolas didn't feel any kind of confidence in his 'cooling touch,' but he knelt to the man nevertheless, pretending ease. "What happened?"
"Injured in battle, my lord," the man said with a rounded countryman's accent and no hesitation at all on those last two words. "S'pose it's the same war you're heading to, and may you bring us luck. The worst–off are still out there, but those of us who could walk were sent further back, home if we could manage it. There are other—"
He stopped at once, jerkily, and Legolas looked up to see Bregeth staring a warning as effective as if she had delivered it with a kick.
"I see," he said, laying his hand gently on the man's foot. It was warm to the touch—too warm, if he was any judge of men and their ills. This made him think of Aragorn and his Dúnedain, and he looked up for a moment in their distant direction, but the buildings blocked the line of sight.
"That is cooling," the man said gratefully, and a ripple of relief seemed to pass among most of the people. The littlest children still hung on to each other's hands and stared, mostly at Gimli.
"Have you enough to eat?" Legolas asked, grasping for ideas.
"It's not so bad," the man answered stoutly. But Bregeth spoke up: "Most of the ready supplies went with the rest of our folk. And Cansûl would keep giving his share to the little'uns."
"Gimli," Legolas said, rising. But before he could even finish his thought, Gimli had knelt by the man's side. He pulled something from his pocket, one of the little apples he'd traded for. "Get this down you," he said bluntly, brooking no hesitation. Cansûl obediently took the apple and bit into it under Gimli's commanding gaze.
Legolas threaded among the people and went back around the corner until he could see the company in the distance. As he had expected, some of the noise had caught their attention, possibly thanks to Elladan at rear guard; two of the men were moving toward the buildings, attentive and with weapons drawn. Legolas lifted an arm to them and signed that all was well, then waved the gesture that called for Aragorn, but without urgency. They signaled assent and turned away, sheathing their swords.
Feeling better, Legolas returned to the little group of refugees, who were murmuring more comfortably to each other while they watched Gimli chivvy their sick man into eating his fair share. One of the children actually reached out as if to tug on Gimli's beard, but had its hand pulled away by an old woman just in time. Bregeth had picked up her pitchfork again, but not aggressively; now she leaned on it as if it were a shepherd's staff.
It was hard to say precisely when things turned so wrong. As with many disasters, it seemed to strike out of nowhere, moments ticking by in painful slowness while at the same time flashing by too quickly to stop.
First, one of the other shed doors opened, revealing more men and youths who began walking and limping out to join the rest. They were thin and haggard, haphazardly bandaged, some releasing what sounded like long–suppressed coughs. This must have been at least some of the other walking wounded that Cansûl had almost revealed before Bregeth had stopped him. Legolas wasn't sure if she was glad even now that they had come out of hiding, but he could see her swallow it stoically; the damage was done and no help for it.
The wounded men joined the group and swelled it into a crowd, all standing circled round the little tableau of their comrade, his apple, and the strange dwarf who kneeled by him, armed and armored, a man's heavy breadth across the chest and shoulder but short as a child. They stood silent, staring, some amazed and some suspicious. Many were sickly pale from their wounds, as well as their long journey and short rations. The only light that caught them was the wavery starlight and the light from the gibbous moon high overhead, filtered and made unwholesome by the new darkness that had crept from the east, washing over them like tainted water. And Legolas saw Gimli look up and away from his patient for the first time to see them looming all around him. His eyes widened, and then widened more, until they showed white all around the iris. Legolas could even see the pupils constrict. Belatedly, Legolas was about to speak, when Gimli acted.
"Back," he choked. His voice was tight and strangled. "Back, back, back!" He shot to his feet and brandished his axe in one smooth motion. "Stand away! Foul things!"
The refugees had frozen for an instant at first, and then they began to scramble back as best they could, the crowd milling and jostling as stronger caught weaker and the oldest lifted the youngest. Legolas himself stooped to catch one of the children, who had tripped and nearly gone face–first onto the ground. Gimli spat out something guttural and hard in his own language that Legolas had not heard before and charged forward—thankfully not leading with his axe, but ducking one shoulder and shoving a straggler aside, knocking him down. Gimli dashed out from the middle of the dispersing ring and ran to a shed at the far side, bracing his back against the wall there, gasping for breath and hunching in on himself like a cornered animal.
Everyone was silent; even the child that Legolas set on its feet again did not cry. They all stared and shivered, clinging to each other. The clearest sound was Bregeth's quick footstep as she leapt to the front of her people with the pitchfork. She pointed it again, her knuckles gripping white.
Legolas stepped out before her, paying no attention to the sharp tines so close to his back, all his focus for Gimli. He held out his open hands and looked deep into Gimli's eyes, to see if he could find him. "My friend," he said quietly. "My friend."
Gimli's eyes stayed pinpoints for long moments, his entire body bristled and his axe high. Then with a pause and a rush, like the last of an ice–dam melting at the top of a waterfall, the ferocity gave way to a flood of dazed horror. His axe dropped from his hand with a heavy thud. He stood staring, his arms hanging down, a trickle of blood spidering its way from his nicked forearm across his wrist and hand.
Legolas carefully drew breath to speak again, but as he did, Gimli whirled and ran, his powerful legs going doubletime to carry him away with the same deceptive speed Legolas had seen as they had hunted orcs across the plains. He fled round the corner and disappeared, his footfalls fading into the distance; glancing around, Legolas saw everyone's attention held by the abandoned axe in the dust.
He had very little time, and the situation was balanced on a dagger's tip. Only too well could he imagine Aragorn striding all–unknowing into their midst, his kingliness masked by the dirt and wear of journey and battle, and the refugees giving way entirely and scattering into the darkness, worse off than they'd been before in their hiding place with the goats and the chickens.
So all Legolas could do was follow his instincts and be quick about it: he sank crosslegged to the ground with his open hands on his knees, and caught the eye of the most active of the little children. As he'd hoped, it smiled back at him, its fear as much a passing thing as its ability to hush had been. Some of the others were looking at him now too, and though they were shaken and wary they made no move either to run or to attack.
"People of Ethring," Legolas said quietly. "The leader of my company is coming: a man, fighting on the side of your Gondor and of all good folk everywhere. He can help you, if you will it."
They looked down at him, Bregeth grimly clutching her pitchfork and Cansûl shakily supported by two of his fellows, the half–eaten apple clutched forgotten in one fist; others around them began to whisper together. Legolas heard approaching footsteps reach the corner of the buildings and knew he had done all he could for the moment. Now he slowly turned his head in that direction, to warn those who couldn't hear as well, and in a few moments Aragorn stepped forth out of the darkness.
Aragorn had wandered among his people a long time, as the lives of men went, and Legolas had hoped that this had brought understanding of them in all their kinds and states. Instantly he knew that his hope and trust had not been misplaced, in this as in all other things. For Aragorn paused at the edge of the courtyard, his eyes quick and observant. He must have sensed the fear at once, the edge of chaos and panic in the air, and the desperation of refugees alone before heavily–armed strangers. His stern face softened, warming with compassion, and Legolas remembered how he had tended to Frodo and Sam so gently in the aftermath of the horrors of Moria.
"I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn," he said calmly, drawing his cloak close about him to cover his war–gear as he came forward. "We are but passing through Lamedon on our way to fight Gondor's enemies. Are you from Ethring? And where are you going?"
The crowd was silent, even the children, who did not seem disposed to smile up at this great dark figure. Finally Bregeth, who held her pitchfork at the ready across her chest but did not point it, said bravely, "Are you not a dead man, then?"
Aragorn shook his head gravely. "As live as you, Lady. It's a long tale and we haven't the time, but believe me when I say that the Dead are not coming to harm you. This I swear on the White Tree."
Legolas suppressed a smile. It was hard to tell the truth in a situation like this without causing panic—after all, the Dead were riding abroad, and they would soon be upon and past Ethring. But Aragorn had managed it, and Legolas cast a wry glance up at him, which was very briefly returned.
Bregeth seemed mollified enough, and Legolas noticed she made no demand to see Aragorn's blood. Instead she said, "Well then, my lord: it's true we're from Ethring, following the rest of our people to sanctuary. Messengers said the Dead King was coming, like was foretold."
"Now you can tell them that isn't true," Aragorn replied. "You can tell them to come home and be ready, for everyone may be needed in one way or another to foil the Enemy." He glanced behind her and said, "That man shouldn't be on his feet—sit him down, and let me see."
The crowd shuffled and breathed easier at the tone, both calm and matter–of–fact. Cansûl was settled to the ground again, and some of the other wounded sat or lay down with suppressed groans as their compatriots helped them.
"Legolas," Aragorn said, coming closer. "We need fire and water, if you would."
"Of course." Legolas rose, turning toward the little building Gimli had noticed as most likely a well–house of some kind. He felt a touch on his sleeve and looked down, surprised, to see one of the grey–haired women standing by him.
"Let me help, my dear," she said. "You ain't from round these parts and may not know where things is kept."
Legolas blinked at her, at her eyes so faded–pale in such a strangely careworn face. "I— Yes. Very well."
She took his arm unselfconsciously and led him to the structure, which did indeed house a well and a pump, with buckets and troughs and other supplies. Under her direction Legolas fetched water and filled a washtub, built a fire in the courtyard with sticks carried by two of the children, struck sparks to kindling, and set the tub to heat.
The old woman dug muttering through a chest against the well–house wall and emerged with a stack of cloth, coarse but clean, which she carried to Aragorn.
"Thank you, mother," he said. He unwound the bandages and laid his hands on the foot and leg, and then felt the man's forehead. "Not so bad," he concluded. "Once you can get proper rest and food, and keep clean. I know it's not so easy on the march." Cansûl grinned sheepishly at him and rested easier.
Legolas brought a bucket of water once it was hot, and Aragorn quickly but gently bathed Cansûl's wound and the wounds of several of the others who were worst off. The last of the dried athelas leaves from his pouch had some time ago crumbled to dust, but he put the remaining pinch of dust in the water and breathed upon it as the steam curled up. And whether it was this, or his calm skill, or the touch of his hands, everyone seemed a little better for his efforts.
"Rest now," Aragorn said, settling back on his heels among the listening crowd. "And when you can, return to your homes."
"Not to sanctuary, my lord?" Bregeth asked dubiously.
"No need," he said. "The King of the Dead is not coming for Ethring, and so I have sworn. Get yourselves home and send messengers to the sanctuary when you can. We must ride east."
"To help the Lord of Lamedon, sir?" asked one of the wounded, a brown–skinned youth with bandages up his hands and arms. "He led us east, sir, and last I knew they rode for the Gilrain."
Another voice chimed in at that: "To Linhir, my lord, if you know it."
"I know it," Aragorn answered. He patted Cansûl's knee and stood up. "We will do our best," he told them, looking all around in turn. "We will do our best for Gondor and all the free peoples, and so will you."
A few replies jumbled together, "Yes, sir," and "My lord" and "Aye". Aragorn nodded and took a step back, almost ceremonially. But before he could turn, Bregeth came to his side, pitchfork in one hand.
"My lord," she said uneasily. "I was thinking we ought to wait for dawn to travel. But there's something...wrong with the sky, isn't there, sir."
Aragorn squinted upward a moment, then looked down at her gravely. "When a shadow covers the sun, the sun is still there, waiting to come forth again. Just so with this." He nodded to her, and she nodded stalwartly back. Then Aragorn turned away at last, Legolas falling in beside him, and they departed. As they passed the shed on the far side, Legolas stooped quickly and retrieved Gimli's axe.
In the darkness Legolas walked at Aragorn's shoulder, leaving far behind the crackling fire and the little group around it, who murmured to each other without any further sound of panic. And only Legolas heard Aragorn's voiceless sigh, as a man on a long path who felt anew the weight of the burden he carried. After they had gone a little further, their comrades and horses ahead in subtle shadowed groups, Aragorn said at last, "I saw Gimli rushing back as I came. What happened?"
Legolas shook his head. His thoughts of Gimli were still dangerously roiled, like rapids full of mud and rocks that threatened a grinding death to any who missed his footing.
Aragorn eyed him closely for a moment, then let it lie; Legolas bent his head and wiped dust from the axe blade with his sleeve, over and over. They skirted the faint and swirling mass of the Dead, who stared at them from their ranks with eyes like pinholes of misty fire. And at last they reached Elladan at the rear of the company, who stepped forth to talk with Aragorn, and Legolas turned toward Arod.
At first the horse's silhouette seemed strange, as if his head had enlarged and changed shape, reaching all the way to the ground from a neck held level. But as Legolas neared, he saw that it was a combined silhouette. Gimli stood facing to the east, his arms crossed tightly over his chest; Arod stood behind him with his head hooked over Gimli's shoulder and his neck resting comfortably on it. Arod was asleep on his feet, one rear leg relaxed with the hoof balanced on its tip, his eyes closed. Gimli's eyes were open and his pupils back to normal, though his gaze was fixed and far away.
Legolas approached slowly and stood by Gimli's free shoulder, holding the axe in both hands. "There was no harm done," he offered. "Everyone's all right."
Gimli nodded, his eyes still fixed on the dark eastern sky. "I suppose Aragorn saw to them."
"Oh yes." Legolas smiled, feeling a warm sense of relief. He had feared Gimli might still be lost, somehow. "You know how he is. A few words, a touch, and the most downtrodden village mouse feels ready to walk through fire."
"Aye," said Gimli. "He weaves his own kind of spell."
Legolas hummed thoughtfully.
"...On the timid and the coward alike," Gimli finished.
"Have a care," Legolas said, taken aback. "They're no cowards."
"I know they're not."
Legolas stopped catching glimpses of Gimli from the side of his eye and turned entirely to look at him. Gimli stood just as he was, calm and solid, Arod's head nodding peacefully over his other shoulder. "Gimli, what are you saying?"
"Thank you for bearing my weapon back from the field."
Legolas's brows knit together and he groped for something to say, some guidance through this strange morass. But he was forestalled by a fresh stir of sound from the company, and looked up to see Aragorn remounting in the lead.
"We shall cross at the Ethring fords and ride down–country toward the mouth of the River Gilrain," Aragorn said, his voice carrying easily. "The Lord of Lamedon went that way with all his troops, and we may be in time to help them yet."
Gimli ran one hand over Arod's muzzle and stepped out from beneath him; Arod snorted and shook his head lazily, his mane flapping to and fro. Legolas bent numbly and dutifully to give Gimli a leg up, and Gimli settled astride, eyes still fixed on the uttermost east.
"Gimli," Legolas said, looking up at him. "What ails you?"
"Just as I said," Gimli replied, and his calm was the calm of a lone figure on a precipice who cannot be reached....who dare not be reached, for fear of a finger's touch sending him over and down.
After a moment Legolas silently held out the axe, clean from dust and glittering uneasily in the feverish starlight. Gimli's hands closed over the haft and took it, to sling it round him again.
Legolas scrambled up into his place just as the horses first began to walk and then to smoothly pace at Aragorn's command. Gimli, though behind him on the very same mount, had never seemed so far away.
The ride to Linhir was a nightmare, if Legolas understood the concept aright. Granted that the dark Paths themselves had been a horror, and before that, Moria and the sight of a creature that in ages past had savaged even the mightiest of the elven–lords. But from what he had heard from mortals about nightmare, it seemed that a common part of the experience involved not just fear and hopelessness, but helplessness, able neither to fight nor to fly, trapped in the dark world where you could do nothing and could count on nothing but more of the same.
They rode in forced–march order, as before, taking time afoot every quarter hour. Forward they went, on and off they went, and beneath them unrolled the endless country of men where not a man was to be seen. Everyone had fled and hidden as best they could at the rumor of their coming, and to Legolas's eye in his darkest moments the empty land seemed like a prophecy of what was to come when the shadow in the east prevailed.
Much more to his mind, though, was Gimli—Gimli, who rode and ran with him and yet was lost to him.
He will feel better with the sunrise, Legolas told himself during the hours before dawn, riding when it was time to ride and running when it was time to run, all the while watching Gimli stoically doing the same. Gimli's features were wan and set in the sickly nightshadow, and his eyes far away.
And then the time for dawn came...but the dawn did not come. There was no sunrise; the sky only lightened sluggishly, as if unwilling, turning the morning into a murky twilight. The air was heavier than ever. Legolas could taste it on his tongue, bitter smoke and metal, and it felt wrong and sickly going down into his lungs. Gimli still stared resolutely ahead, southeast now, but Legolas despaired at him ever finding the sun he must have been seeking.
At some point shortly after the sunless dawn, Gimli, running by Arod's side, took hold of his mane and convinced him to stop for just a moment by the fenceposts of an abandoned farm. Some spring sowing had been done, and the furrows of earth waited quietly for their masters' return, if ever there were sunbeams again to draw the crops from the ground. Gimli clambered quickly up the fence and got himself to Arod's back, and Legolas followed without thought. The instant they were settled, Arod hastily veered back into formation again, stretching his chin out as he lengthened his stride.
Legolas brooded. Despite his preference for night sky and starlight, now he felt the lack of this day taking root inside his head, his thoughts all going a cramped grey. What could come to heal Gimli now, he wondered, and he felt that nightmare helplessness all around him. The events of the midnight encounter persistently crept up as waking memory, which brought him no rest and little but sorrow.
"Gimli," he said at last, without turning his head.
"Aye," Gimli said quietly.
Legolas didn't answer, but only reached back behind himself where one of Gimli's hands gripped his cloak. He folded his hand over Gimli's, tugging it free, and drew it forward.
Gimli said nothing, and didn't resist. Legolas pulled Gimli's arm warm around his waist and held it there, where it remained, without struggling but without rest.
Legolas waited for the space of a few breaths, feeling this strange, distant tension, grieving it. "Gimli," he said again. "You're wounded. Let me help."
No argument came back, no reassuring gruff talk or the honest tears Gimli had never before been ashamed to shed, as in his warm and open sorrow upon leaving Lórien. Instead, evenly and gently, Gimli answered, "There is no help."
Legolas kept Gimli's arm where it was, their hands together at Legolas's belt. Legolas strove to think of words that would serve, some argument. But everything he thought of crumbled like spent ash before he could even muster the hope and the effort to say it aloud. The shadowed sky pressed from above, the Dead pressed from behind, and all at once Legolas remembered the armed man lying dead in the open chamber of the Paths, having spent the last moments of his short mortal life slashing and clawing at the door in the stone that would never open.
He bowed his head. With one hand he pushed back Gimli's sleeves, and with his free hand he pulled a cloth from his pocket and pressed it to the dried cut marking Gimli's muscular forearm. Gimli didn't twitch as Legolas wrapped the cloth around his arm and tied it. Legolas found himself lingering ridiculously long over the tying, fashioning a complicated knot traditionally used in his homeland for marking the safest paths through tangled labyrinths of overgrowth, particularly in the worst parts of Mirkwood where evil denned. You knew who had tied it and when, you knew what to beware of and how to get out alive.
He felt a moment of satisfaction as he finished it—the knot was a good one of its kind, and it rested against Gimli's arm like a beacon keeping him always in sight. But once Legolas let go, and Gimli's hand slowly moved out of his grasp to return to gripping his cloak instead, the current situation bore back in on him and the nightmare continued.
Perhaps the worst of that moment was the sheer gentleness in Gimli's withdrawal. He wasn't being stubborn, or urging Legolas to a contest of ideas. He wasn't fighting. There was nothing for Legolas to argue, or persuade, or jest his way through. It seemed that Gimli had simply given up, and the distracted lassitude in him as he drifted further away from Legolas was more crushing than any conflict could have been.
The rest of the company were all feeling the lack of sleep now. Not the horses, who were made to withstand several days without much of it, but certainly the riders, who couldn't doze for long as they rode before it was time to dismount again. They withstood it better than any other mortals Legolas could have imagined, but still, the dark, proud heads took turns nodding here and there, even Aragorn's, when he fell back slightly from the vanguard to give himself a moment's rest of sorts.
Legolas slept in his way as best he could. It was not the riding nor the running that truly kept him from it, nor even the unearthly spreading darkness that made it seem as if their haste and determination might already be fruitless. Instead, it was that every time Legolas tried to settle open–eyed into a dream, seeking some memory that would let him rest, what rose instead was something from his journey with the Fellowship and with Gimli. He had so much more of a long life to harvest as a cushion for his mind, but it was this past handful of months that overshadowed all the rest—the mere flick of an eye, a passing second among the long, long years, like the moment that blows one piece of grit over the leaves of a towering tree before it is past and forgotten.
This is what comes of associating so closely with mortals, he told himself, and it might almost have been his father's voice. Never had he been such a hostage to the tiniest moments of time and the sharp losses they brought. Were he still that Legolas at the Rivendell council, he would extract himself from these rapids and keep himself aloft where he belonged. One might feel a little sorry for those who were pulled under by the currents, but it couldn't be helped.
But he was no longer that elf, and he wasn't sure he ever could be again. In fact, he felt internal misgivings about whether he would even want to try. Because this wasn't "mortals" in trouble, being dashed against the rocks of their own lives and then vanishing. This was Gimli. Gimli was mired to the neck, in a way he would not acknowledge and Legolas could not understand. And Legolas would not leave him there alone.
They ran and rode in silence, the little bandage and its knot showing now and then as Gimli moved. Legolas stayed close, and strove with all his might not to bend to despair.
The sunless day turned a sullen red at night, and then fell like a toppling stone into the same sort of thick, choking darkness that had come on them the night before, and that had presaged this spreading shadow. Running took more effort now for the men, and Legolas noticed that even Elrohir at the front flank and Elladan at rear guard showed some signs of strain. But the horses kept up their pace without slowing, eyes and nostrils flaring wide, goaded by fear of this great unseen predator on the wind.
Arod found it increasingly difficult to stop for remounting, even with Legolas singing softly to him. So instead they developed a moving leg up: Gimli would run with one hand on Arod's side, and at the right moment would leap mid–stride. Legolas, stooping behind him, would seize his shin and heave him upward, and Gimli would pull himself astride the saddlecloth. There were a few miscalculations, leaving Gimli tumbling on the ground or clinging to Arod's mane as he slipped over on the other side. But before long they had it well in hand, as if they had traveled together for years. Legolas knew just how Gimli was going to jump before he did it, and Gimli knew when Legolas would catch and lift him mid–stride without even looking.
This got Legolas through the long night, giving him embers of hope to warm himself by. They grew by the hour, each time he, Gimli, and Arod completed the remount as a well–meshed team, and Gimli was sitting securely back to leave room for him. The far–off, drained look never left Gimli's eyes, but there was a stubborn power in his body that showed he wasn't gone for good. And most importantly, he was willing to trust Legolas. He couldn't—wouldn't—speak of his trouble, but he was still here in Legolas's hands.
The next morning—if morning it could be called, as the sunrise was still grey and lowering—at first brought little change. The sickly cloud–shadow from the east showed no signs of abating; an occasional rabbit or bird startled from the grass, but soon huddled down again, as if confused by the day that was never quite day. However, in the afternoon the embers of hope were suddenly fanned to flame: Legolas had just dismounted when he had a sense of something troubling the air just beyond the threshold of his hearing. He listened with his eyes closed as hard as he could, but nothing quite resolved; so he let Gimli and Arod run on without him, and dropped flat on the earth to press his ear there.
It was not his custom, more Aragorn's, but he did his best to concentrate on the vibrations making their way through the ground and translate them into facts. There were many feet striking the earth, men and horses, and around them hung a bright din of shouting and battle–cries. Everything felt quick and fresh, as in the early surge of attack.
Legolas leaped up and ran fleetly, passing the rest of the company until he reached Aragorn, afoot next to his horse. He reported his news, and Aragorn brightened.
"Then we're not too late," he said. "It's not the defense of Minas Tirith, but every battle won here is another fresh troop of fighting men to send to her gates."
He signaled to the company and passed the word. They began checking their straps and their weapons, and a grim eagerness spread among them at the prospect of battle. Legolas smiled at Aragorn and returned to his place in formation.
There he found Gimli already unslinging his axe as he ran, and laughed. "No need to rush! Since it isn't wise to come to battle with the horses already exhausted from a gallop, I'd say we may still have two hours before you get to cleave your first head."
Gimli put away his axe and scowled, which was the sweetest sight Legolas had lately seen. "You and your ears. You get a body stirred up too soon."
"Well," Legolas said, "this way you get to savor it all the longer. Like knowing a fine meal is laid out for you at the end of a journey."
"Yes," growled Gimli, his fists clenching. "Hand me the carving knife, and pour me great goblets of red."
Before long, Legolas could see the combatants themselves in the distance, perhaps six leagues or so, struggling together before the great grey ribbon of the Gilrain. Elrohir and Elladan eventually began to gaze far–off at the battle as well, and soon the cries and horn–calls and clash of arms came clear.
Legolas felt a new glow of satisfaction begin to build within him. The exhausted company was transformed, and even the Dead behind them seemed to be absorbing some fresh power. The dull spreading shadow over the sun suited them, picking out their ranks with a silver glimmer. Legolas could see them more clearly than ever, marching or riding with uncanny speed across the trampled earth, bearing their ghostly weapons and banners, their eyes burning with hunger for the upcoming feast.
At last, Aragorn called for a final remount. He eyed his troops, living and dead, with fierce satisfaction, and Legolas couldn't help but smile at him and reach back to thump Gimli on the leg. The unified morale was palpable, linking all of them together through the air with an invisible cord, and Aragorn son of Arathorn, Isildur's heir, had tied the knot.
"Pelargir still waits. Now let us clear the way!" Aragorn commanded, and signaled the charge.
Legolas felt Arod's muscles bunch and surge beneath him, leaping forward with gladness as if all the journey to that point had been a rest–cure. He gripped his bow and kept a hand free ready to swing Gimli to the ground, where an axe–fighter could best thrive.
They swept forward in a flying wedge, hooves pounding, and once they had passed some of the barns and silos on the outskirts of Linhir, the battle at last came entirely into view. Men fought men, the wavering livery of Gondor contesting a few different symbols of Mordor—or no official symbols at all, where pirates and brigands had temporarily come into alliance to knock down their historical foe.
Aragorn lifted his sword and Legolas nocked an arrow, but before the Grey Company was close enough to join battle in earnest, the confused masses of fighters roiled and scrambled round, and began to flee.
And it was not only the troops of Mordor who fled. Tall men wearing the symbol of the White Tree, or bearing Gondor–style shields but with devices presumably of Lamedon, blanched at the sudden onrush and fell into a retreat. Some could be heard calling or whistling or blowing orderly retreat calls, but some, maddened by shock in the midst of battle, just ran. Sometimes they even dropped their spears or shields to the ground, clattering unregarded.
Legolas, frowning, looked back, and saw the Dead gleaming ice–bright in the shadows. Their spectral weapons and standards were high, their jaws stretched in soundless war–cry. He could sense a chilling wind rolling out before them, through and past the company, covering and choking the combatants like smoke from an onrushing plainsfire.
He saw Aragorn noticing this too, and gesturing with one mailed arm toward the largest group of enemies fleeing back toward the river. The company set forth after them, disregarding the allies who scattered this way and that, cries of "The Dead! The Dead! The King of the Dead is upon us!" echoing in their wake.
As best Legolas could tell, the enemy they pursued looked to be a mixed mass of Umbar privateers and Haradrim, who ran and rode keening of disaster. They mostly kept their heads well enough to make for the ford, and Aragorn's arm gestured for flanking maneuvers that would keep them from it.
But when the galloping wings of the company reached the rearmost of the enemy at the riverbank to cut them off from the ford, neither Southron nor pirate turned to face or fight them. They only fled, and many flung themselves into the river up or downstream of the ford and were drowned, trampling each other in their blind panic. Dead men choked the water, with a few half–dead ones scrambling up the far side.
Pathetic remnants of the enemy army were galloping away across the river. The company rode in good order across the shallow center of the ford, and they could have caught up to the rearmost stragglers of the foe. But Aragorn signaled otherwise, regrouping by the riverbank; the Dead swept eagerly some distance after their prey but eventually returned, reluctant but obedient.
"We won't run each of them down one by one," Aragorn said, bending forward to pat his horse's shoulder. "We know where they're going: back to the Anduin. There we shall meet them once and for all."
The grim joy of the battle–charge was gone from his face. He looked weary again, and pitying, as he looked back across the river at the fallen weapons and shields of Gondor, the White Tree trampled in panic into the mud.
"Well," said Legolas, "at last we have turned one of the Enemy's weapons back on him. His shadow tries to frighten us, but it is you who holds the power of fear."
Aragorn nodded, though he did not seem comforted. "I knew the fealty of the Dead Men bore a cost," he said. "But I admit, I did not foresee this."
They all considered the empty battlefield for a few moments in silence, the cloud–shadow glowing red where the sun sank toward night. Then Aragorn looked up; Legolas followed his gaze and noticed a rider coming forth from a scattering of men on the upslope of a hill. He was a big, full–armored man on a stocky brown charger, and just behind him rode a herald bearing two standards fluttering on one staff: the White Tree, and a pennant of Lamedon.
The rider came forward, straight for the Grey Company. He only paused once: the herald's horse shied and sidestepped, and the herald drew rein and followed his lord no further. The man stopped and conferred with him, then took the standard and continued. The herald sat watching, cringing in his saddle, his face to Legolas's eye a pale mask of terror. But the lordly rider came on.
At last, stopping on his own side of the river, the man drew his sword and called in a deep, ringing voice, "Strangers! Send forth your champion, to contest this ford in the rites of single combat! Angbor, Lord of Lamedon, challenges you!"
The Dead shifted and whispered from their positions, but Aragorn lifted his chin and they fell silent. Then Aragorn raised his hand palm out toward the Lord of Lamedon and rode back across the ford with Halbarad, brandishing no weapons.
As Angbor and Aragorn reached one another, Gimli suddenly burst out under his breath, "Curse them!" Legolas looked back at him in surprise, but saw Gimli wasn't watching the parley. Instead he was turned to look off past the Dead, where soldiers of Mordor still dwindled in the distance.
"Curse them," Gimli said again. He was restless and strained, his voice desperate, his axe still in his hand.
"I'm sure we'll catch up to them sooner rather than later, if it's a fight you're lonely for," Legolas said soothingly. Then he smiled to himself. "Unless our new friends keep doing our work for us, and we just frighten the whole army off away east and into the fiery mountain."
Gimli only shook his head.
"Now there's someone who won't be frightened away," said Legolas, turning back to watch Aragorn and Angbor in conference. Angbor's posture hadn't changed—when he had thought he was riding alone to challenge the King of the Dead, he'd sat straight–backed and resolute; and now that he spoke to the true King Returned, he looked just the same.
"No," said Gimli. He sounded spent and weary, leagues away from the dwarf who had called for battle as he would for a banquet.
"Look, though," Legolas said, scanning the slope of the hill. "See, his people didn't go far." Angbor's soldiers were slowly gathering behind the herald, and more were emerging from hiding places. "How they must love him."
"They would have let him fight alone," Gimli said.
"He chose it," Legolas answered. "Who knows them better than he? I'm certain he trusts they did all they could."
"All they could wasn't enough."
"It was what was," Legolas said simply. "But they'll be with him now, you can see it in their faces. And it is said, hard–learned is well–earned." He watched the herald forcibly shake off his timid posture and begin riding down the hill, leading the growing remnants of his lord's troops, a new resolution in their every stride.
"Elves have a saying for everything." Gimli shifted behind him, and Legolas could hear the sound of his axe being reslung. "Isn't there a saying about not trusting a cracked branch, for it's forever weak in the same spot?"
"No." Legolas looked back at him. "Should there be?"
"Of course," said Gimli.
They let the horses drink deeply and walked them a short distance east, off the road where the grazing was fresh and untrampled. Full night found the company stretched on the ground, near the horses dozing head to tail.
Legolas tried to let himself rest, but his mind as well as his gaze kept straying to Gimli, who lay with his face in his arms.
At last, he said quietly, "You aren't sleeping."
"How would you know?" Gimli said, muffled. "Sleeping and waking are all one to you."
"Not...precisely," Legolas admitted. "But I may have learned a few things, next to you these past months."
"Aye, I suppose." Gimli turned onto his side and they looked at one another. Legolas saw dark hollows beneath Gimli's eyes that he hadn't noticed before.
"If you aren't sleeping, what are you doing?"
"Thinking, if you please."
"It doesn't seem to be doing you much good."
Gimli sighed, and passed one hand over his chin and beard. "Meddlesome elf."
Gimli almost smiled at that, his eyes creasing, and Legolas warmed inside.
"You speak as if any of us are doing ourselves much good," Gimli said. "But that's not our purpose, now is it."
Legolas looked over at the still shapes of the Dúnedain, resting two by two. "Not the chief purpose, no, but they know when to loosen the rein."
"It feels so long since I've ridden with reins, I may have forgotten how they work." Having said this, Gimli made as if to turn onto his face again. But Legolas reached out and grazed the edge of the bandage with his fingertips, where it just showed at the edge of Gimli's sleeve.
Gimli paused and stared at him for a few moments. He was unreadable, but he seemed to be seeing something in Legolas's face, and Legolas wondered what it was.
"All right, I'll tell you something, if you'll leave me be," Gimli said, low and quick. "I'll tell you what will make me better: give me those Mordor soldiers, full–armed and ready, facing me in the battle–line. I'll be better then." And he pulled away from Legolas and lay face–down again.
Aragorn roused them well before the night had gone, while the moon still hung overhead behind Mordor's dirty scrim of shadow and smoke. He seemed to feel a renewed pressure, and after some walking to get the horses well warmed, he signaled the company into a canter, which they alternated with a short gallop when the ground was at its smoothest. There were no more forced–march dismounts, only focused haste, and the horses were fresh and ready to give their hearts to the run. The Dead drew closer behind, perhaps encouraged by the new speed, and tumbled and sparkled like the froth of river rapids.
The Lebennin plains swept by, featureless in the shadowed night, stretching to flat horizons. Legolas felt heartened as he had not in days. He trusted to battle ahead, which would help Gimli; they would once again fight side–by–side, where they were not divided, and that cheered him. And though the glories of the long Lebennin grasses were hidden in the darkness, he could picture them as the songs of his home drew them, and imagine that the wind streaming through Arod's mane and kissing his own face were those bright winds from the unknown and unknowable Sea.
It rang clear during that pell–mell rush toward the great river: he and Gimli, and faithful Arod with them, following Aragorn to whatever came. It all felt so simple.
They kept up what pace the horses allowed, through the sluggish dawn, the grey day, and then one more night. Sometimes they saw Mordor troops in the distance, but they were always fleeing away, at full breakneck speed and careless of their own mounts. The signs of abandoned battles grew more frequent, the earth churned up by boot and warhorse and wheels of carts. It felt as if the company were herding their enemies like driven prey, beating them from bush and covert, toward the killing ground.
As the night waned, and signposts along a well–traveled road announced the nearing of Pelargir and the river, Legolas felt Gimli drawing himself together. One of his hands was around Legolas's waist where it used to be. The other hand trailed about, from belt to cloak to checking weapons. He didn't say much, but he seemed alert and alive.
But it was now, just when it had seemed so simple, that the joyful clarity in Legolas's heart came to a stumbling stop, step after step.
He among all the company caught initial sight of the Anduin, so broad and black, casting off dull sparks of reflection when star or moon was able to struggle through the cloud. And at that moment, far in the distance came a keening cry, high and thin. He had heard the calls of many a beast and bird in his long years, but never this one. He knew it, though. It seared into him, piercing his listening ear and raising a shiver. His grip went slack on his bow.
The gulls. The Sea.
Laid over the running horses before him, then fading in to obscure them entirely, he saw something from his race's long memory that his own eyes had never beheld. A great rising wave, but in the shape of a speaking figure, the tossing white curl of foam at the top its cascading hair, its body and limbs a dark glowing green. One translucent hand, alive with swimming fish within it, reached out in a gentle, beckoning gesture. And Legolas remembered the call that his people had brought echoes of down in song, the voice of the great sea–lord who loved them so and wanted to carry them on his broad back to the far lands of changeless rest, where waited his majestic kind with open arms.
He was so beautiful, his promised embrace so deep and so sweet. Legolas had visions of cream–white sails, and turquoise currents, and a far green shore echoing with song.
And yet, he fought it. He struggled out of the vision as best he could, the muddy grey night before him and the bright prospect within him fading from one to the other and back. It was wonderful and terrible at once, this new thirst to find the Sea and hear the call. For it promised such joy, and such a balm for the melancholy of the Middle–Earth–bound immortal doomed to watch the fading years pass him by. But—this world, this Middle Earth—he would have to forsake it utterly, and he was coming to realize that it held something more dear to him than he had ever dreamed of losing.
Groping in his half–blindness, he laid one hand over Gimli's where it held on at his waist. Gimli's skin was warm, roughened from wind and work, easy in its strength. Beneath was the beat of his blood, the heat of his life, receding from Legolas with every moment, his mortal current rushing him past and away.
Loss, said his hand and his heart. Loss, said the call of his soul.
The next cry of the sea–birds, closer now, slid into him like a thin blade. He bent forward over the pain.
"Legolas!" said Gimli. "Look!"
Blinking the new visions away with force, Legolas at last did look, and saw the shadows of ship upon ship at Pelargir. Ships were silhouetted against the sky, dozens of them both small and great, the clouds flickering orange from boats that drifted afire. Some were sailing away and the rest swarmed with people, unshipping oars or hauling ropes or climbing to unfurl sails, the fleeing droves of Mordor clustered thickly over the woodwork like ants. Not all of the enemy had reached the ships, however. Massed before the river was an enormous crowd of Haradrim, their officers shoving and snapping the columns into order out of the chaos of flight.
Aragorn signaled a trot, then a walk, and the company rode slowly across the abandoned battlefield. Land and road and buildings all bore the scars of hard–fought defense, including a scattering of dead men. No living defenders remained, however, or at least not in open sight. The onrush of the King of the Dead had brought all to chaos, and they were presumably fled or hidden with their fellows. The horses picked their way delicately over strewn corpses, undisturbed.
At last, the Grey Company reached battle–line distance and halted side by side in perfect formation, these few travel–stained wanderers facing an army. Gimli made a noise under his breath, no words and barely any sound, an eager rumble Legolas could feel through his back.
Someone among the Mordor troops began to laugh, and it spread, carrying a hysterical note of relief, rippling through their lines like the call of jackals. They slapped one another's shoulders and bared their teeth. But Aragorn reacted not at all. He regarded his foes with the stern face of the kings of old as Legolas had seen them at Argonath, and then his ringing command rose over all sounds of fire, and sailors, and laughter.
"Now come!" he cried. "By the Black Stone I call you!"
His voice echoed in what seemed a sudden silence, as if all the air were suddenly gone. And then, at long last, the Oathbreakers fulfilled their oath.
Legolas felt it like a stormwind, like ice, a growing pressure that swayed him forward nearly onto Arod's neck. The horses, despite their practice travelling with such a force at their heels, jumped and circled and reared, ears flattening. The Dead rushed between and through them all, and set upon the foe with the desperate eagerness of starvation. Their spectral voices thrummed beneath the louder sounds of the Haradrim and the sea–raiders as they fled, or fell, or screamed.
Aragorn gestured an order to flank and support the main advance, so at last the members of the Company separated and rode into battle wherever seemed good to them. But it was not the battle Legolas had expected.
"Faster, faster," Gimli said furiously, as Arod galloped toward a knot of men armed with cutlasses. Before they could engage, however, the pirates were already scrambling backward and then running for the river or for the little boats tied at the quay. Some fell, dying in their terror as the Dead overran them; some leaped and dashed themselves upon or between the boats. Their weapons lay strewn on the ground, unbloodied.
"Over there!" Gimli shouted, much louder than was necessary sitting this close, gesturing frantically at a scrum closer to the center. Legolas paused, though Gimli pressed him, watching the ebb and flow of men to guess where their skills might actually be needed.
"Come," he said to Arod and Gimli both. And with a touch, Arod whirled on his haunches and galloped for a company of Haradrim further along the flank, separate from the main army and gathering around a standard.
They shouted defiance to the single horse dashing toward them, and even seemed inclined to laugh again—until Legolas gripped Gimli's arm and lowered him running into battle, and Legolas's bow began to sing.
Legolas scarcely had eyes for anyone else after that; first on horseback and later on foot, he drew, aimed, and shot almost mechanically with more than half an eye on his friend. He had so wanted to see this, Gimli with his feet planted wide and solid, like the stump of a great red oak, swinging his axe in a mighty effort powered by shoulder and hip. His face glowed with ferocity, even if also with something more brittle beneath.
I'll be better then, he had said, and in some ways he did look better. He looked determined rather than uncertain, and trusting his own power and skill as he ought. Legolas was glad—or rather, glad and sorrowful at the same time, still privately reeling from the sound of the gulls. Their cries continued to echo overhead, stirred up by the chaos, the fires, the strange abundance of splashing and sinking bodies in the water. Legolas savored the sound, and quailed before it.
The sun rose behind its gloom of cloud, and the wide Anduin echoed the sky's change from black to grey. It felt as if they'd scarcely begun their battle when he at last looked round to find the sky as light as it ever got and the rest of the enemy altogether gone. Uncanny, but true: as far as Legolas could see, all of them were either dead, or scrambling and shrieking incoherently in the southern distance, presumably fleeing back to their homes or wherever felt far enough away from both Mordor and the West. Legolas, slinging his bow across his back, watched Gimli; Gimli in his turn looked unseeingly into the middle distance with his axe held out poised before him until the muscles of his arms began to quiver.
"Come," Legolas said, more softly than he had before their charge. He stepped close to Gimli and put a hand carefully on his shoulder, feeling a twitch deep in the muscle like a static shock.
They stood this way for a long moment before Gimli lowered the axe and looked up at him, his eyes dazed. "Where?"
"Wherever Aragorn has gone," Legolas replied. "Where else?"
Gimli managed a faint but genuine smile. "Where else."
Together they walked back toward Arod, who stepped and danced uneasily near the spot where Legolas had finally dismounted. Legolas's troubled heart warmed to see their faithful friend trying so hard all on his own not to give way to his need for flight, now that the Dead roamed at will and his riders were not with him.
Legolas opened his free hand, the other still on Gimli's shoulder. "Wind's child, West's child," he said, almost chanting, in a loose translation of a lay of Oromë the Hunter that reminded him of the Rohirrim. "Faithful friend of the forest–lord."
Arod snorted and side–stepped, tossing his head, coming closer. As they reached him, his tense neck relaxed and lowered, and he lipped softly at one of Gimli's sleeves.
"Eh, lad," Gimli said. "Now then." He rubbed Arod's cheek and brow, his fingers dark against the dapple grey. Arod gave a great sigh from well within his chest, and his restless feet stilled.
The three of them stood close together for a time, quiet, each dwelling on his own thoughts. At last, though, Legolas sensed something, a wind without wind, just as Arod's head went up and Gimli shuddered. It was a current of the Dead flowing smoothly all about them, spread far and thin like a glistening flood over a fen. It seemed to Legolas that they would gladly keep going, slithering along the riverbank after the maddened retreaters or even diving down beneath the Anduin to poke at the corpses of the freshly drowned. He mused uneasily on the forces unleashed upon the world by the Fellowship's desperate work against Mordor.
But even as he thought this, a great music of many trumpets sounded, in a high and caprioling command for an army to regroup. Arod and Gimli started, and they all looked up toward the center of the sound.
Legolas laughed and lifted his hands. For of course it was Aragorn, with his careful eye for all his troops, including the ghostly ones. He stood high on the prow of the biggest ship with men and torches around him, and there he glowed as if in a golden orb.
The Dead obediently receded back across water and land, drawing together in a tight silver and grey formation at the riverside, a cloud descended to earth and thick with impending rain. Their spectral banners floated, and their weapons were held in salute to this their last general.
Aragorn wasted no words: raising his hand he called to them, and he freed them, the broken Oath at last made right. And on the instant, the ghostly king cast down his weapon and made obeisance, and he and his folk were gone.
Legolas had become accustomed to their ill, heavy presence, and it felt both strange and freeing to be shut of them entirely. Mordor's shadow still hung in the air and kept the day chokingly dim, but the departure of the Dead cleared their own added shadow from the ground. The very air felt lighter between his teeth. He turned to say as much to Gimli.
Gimli was still on his feet, but not entirely through his own power. He had collapsed forward against Arod, who stood still and supported him. Legolas took his arm at once.
"Gimli. What is it?"
Gimli pressed his forehead against Arod's patient shoulder, staggering slightly as he found his footing. He looked up, blinking. "I'm...awake," he said. "I'm awake."
Legolas intended to jest at this, smiling down at him. But his smile fixed and faded as he watched Gimli's face. Gimli looked pale and ill, and this without the spectres there to haunt him.
"Sit you down," Legolas said, but Gimli shook his head.
"I just— It was nothing. And it's over."
Legolas eyed him closely. "At the Hornburg, a head wound left you laughing."
"Shall I laugh, then, to prove it?" said Gimli.
"You'd laugh with a red–hot nail in your heel," Legolas said, grudging and respectful. "I can't see that it would prove anything."
Gimli nodded sharply, as if his point were made. He still looked unsteady, and Legolas added after a moment, "Remount, at least, and we'll be ready for Aragorn's next command. Perhaps it's time to ride for Minas Tirith."
After a suspicious hesitation, Gimli accepted the leg up, and Legolas went a short distance and retrieved the pack that had been cast aside before the fighting began.
"Here," he said, handing it over. "And before you don it, perhaps drink some of the water. We can refill before we ride."
The only answer was some muttering about elves and nursemaids, which Legolas turned his back on. He left horse and rider behind him and made his way toward the riverbank where Aragorn had disembarked, surrounded by unfamiliar men. They were ragged and dirty, some limping and barefoot, and here and there a wrist or ankle bore the remains of a shackle. Slaves from the belly of the Corsair ships, then, newly freed and joyful. Legolas savored the sight of Aragorn's tall form among them, looking every inch their king indeed. Beneath the upwelling of hope, though, was also a melancholy pang: Aragorn son of Arathorn, Isildur's Heir, was rising to claim his birthright, and Legolas would lend his last bit of strength to the King's battle against the darkness. But never again would it be just the three of them, running to the end of their endurance and sleeping round a tiny fire, taking watch by turns, sitting hidden shoulder to shoulder in the grass.
Aragorn caught sight of him and smiled as Legolas wove through the crowd.
"That battle was a long time coming," Legolas said. "I hope it satisfied them."
"It did their honor, at any rate," Aragorn replied.
"A shame we can't have them as allies for a bit longer, but I suppose even their debt only owes the one payment."
"They have paid in full." Aragorn regarded the ships with grave satisfaction, craning his neck as he eyed the sweeping masts on the grandest ones. "And it's done us a better turn than just the one fight won. Now we have a fleet, mostly undamaged, to sail to the relief of the city."
"When do we leave?" Legolas asked.
Aragorn looked away from his fleet and into Legolas's face, his eyes searching. Legolas felt as eager to follow Aragorn as always, to whatever end, but he had the uncanny feeling that Aragorn was somehow seeing beneath that to a quieter wish he hadn't intended to share.
"Not even the Rangers of the North can sail one great ship apiece," Aragorn said. "First the vessels need crewing."
Legolas looked at the small groups of men around them, some staring directly at him with open curiosity and muttering to their friends. "Well, I'm no sailor myself—" he began, just as a gull overhead turned soaringly on a wingtip and gave a thin cry.
Ulmo beckoned, the white ships soared, the Straight Road unrolled before them
Aragorn's hand was steady on his arm. "Are you all right?"
Legolas swallowed. "Of course."
"I sense there's a story to be told here."
But his tone was gentle, leaving space for Legolas to answer or not as he chose. So Legolas only smiled as best he could and said, "We'll need some tales to get us through our leisurely cruise, I have no doubt."
Aragorn let him go, with a little smile of his own. "Rest till then, my friend. Horses and riders alike are not meant to go so long without, and we face harder fighting before all is over."
Legolas waved that off. "I'm as rested as I need be. But I had hoped that Gimli..."
Aragorn glanced past him into the distance. "How is he?"
"Wounded, I think," Legolas said without any hedging. After all, this was Aragorn.
"You think," Aragorn said, puzzled.
Legolas spread his hands, but had no answer he could put to words. Aragorn looked back from Gimli to him, and simply nodded, undemanding. "A full night's rest. The assistant harbormaster here—he took over when they killed the master—he'll show you the paddocks and the laborers' cottages."
"You haven't slept much either, that I noticed," Legolas said. "And yet the crewing remains to be done, and whatever else goes into—"
The white sails, bellying out as if taking great gulps of wind, reaching ahead for the Undying shore
"—goes into readying a sailing fleet," he managed.
A faint frown of concern touched Aragorn's eyes, but he only said, "Look around you, my friend. The men of Pelargir are even now coming forth to reclaim what's theirs, and their neighbors from Lebennin and the Ethir will join them. And wait and see the riding of Angbor of Lamedon, whom I call fearless, and who I have no doubt will arrive with his horsemen before our supplies are aboard."
Legolas bowed his head at last in acquiescence. Even as they had been speaking together, he'd noticed an increase in the noise and the crowds of men. Men stood and talked in energetic groups, free ones helping remove the last shackles, captains and marshals sought out by their troops, brawny workmen bearing timber on their shoulders and tool–cases in their hands. Shouts rang from the ships, where mallets began to hammer in confident rhythm.
"Rest," Aragorn said again, "and recover. I need you both."
"You'll have us," Legolas answered at once. "As far as your road goes."
They clasped hands, and Legolas turned away.
With the new harbormaster's nervous help—his gaze flickering from Legolas to Gimli and back again in a sort of curious awe—they found the rest of the Grey Company's horses together in a great paddock abutting a row of warehouses. Arod walked at Legolas's shoulder with his head drooping, and Gimli slid heavily down outside the gate.
"A proper rest, now," Legolas chided Arod. "You've done more than one steed's work these past days and nights, and for now your time is your own."
Arod whuffed soft breaths into Legolas's neck and ear, and Legolas untangled a snarl from his mane before stepping back to unstrap the saddlecloth and drape it over the fence to air.
Gimli patted Arod's chest. "Well."
Arod ducked his head for one comfortable scratch against Gimli's armored side. Then he ambled away into the paddock, where he seemed to be heading for the water trough—until he dropped to knees and haunches and heaved himself over onto his back for a thorough roll in the dirt first. Clambering to his feet he gave an enormous shake, dust clouds rising, and looked satisfied.
They closed the gate and departed, walking side by side in silent thought. The hut set apart for their use was furthest from the water, for which Legolas felt ridiculously grateful. It wasn't as if they could be far enough away to muffle the gulls from his senses, but every step from the birds and the ships was at least a step showing he was still master of himself and not a helpless slave to the thought of the call. He had so much else to think about. So much else to care about.
"Masters?" came a voice from behind them just as he laid his hand on the latch.
They turned to see a dark young woman in the breeches and jersey of a sailor, holding out a blue cloth bundle. She had been smiling, but something about their faces seemed to take her aback. "I, uh— Would you— If you please—?"
Gimli reached out and accepted it. "We thank you." He didn't smile, but his tone was quiet and courteous.
Before Legolas could add anything, she had darted a knuckle to her brow and gone, half–running back to a few other sailors lifting a great coil of rope onto a handcart.
"What is it, do you suppose?" Gimli weighed it experimentally in his hands.
Legolas caught the scent of cold roast meat, among other things, but kept it to himself. "Shall we see?"
The hut was small and violently tumbled about, as if the last people here had left unwillingly and in a hurry, but at base it was clean and quiet. They set the rope bedstead and straw–tick to rights, shook and spread their blankets over it, and stood up the little table and one sound chair. A second chair lay in splintered pieces across the floor, which Gimli gathered into a neat pile.
"The chair for you, Master Legolas," he said, dusting his hands. "These mannish tables are high enough for me standing."
But Legolas forestalled him and sat on the end of the bed. "Too late, Master Gimli. Now you'll just have to climb to it. Pretend we're back in Lothlórien."
They met each other's eyes, smiling, but beneath the jest Legolas felt an abrupt pain with his memory of quiet times with Gimli in the Golden Wood, and how—despite their unknowing grief over Gandalf—they had found a moment of peace there that had seemed to linger.
The cloth proved to contain cold roast meat indeed: salted pork, rinsed fresh. Also there was a little wheaten loaf and a slab of hard yellow cheese with a sharp and nutty smell. From Gimli's pack they retrieved the water bottles, and set to their meal sitting upright to table as if the past nights' endless journey had never been.
"Your fair share," Legolas said when Gimli tried to nudge part of his bread onto Legolas's half of the cloth. "Don't make me report you to our commander; we'll end up scrubbing out the barracks."
Gimli took the bread back and worried it into pieces with his fingers. "Will Aragorn rest, do you think?"
Legolas in fact doubted it, but said lightly, "Once the work is well begun, I'm sure his kinsmen will see to it. The people here are born and bred to the river; they know what to do."
He sounded as reassuring as he could, and Gimli nodded, but Legolas suspected it was only with hope rather than belief. "I tried to sign on for the work myself," Legolas added, "but he wasn't having it. You and I, my friend, are in reserve."
This clearly lay heavy on Gimli's shoulders, as he struggled between his bone–deep senses of exhaustion and duty. Legolas knew his dilemma, but he himself had an extra spur that had made his own decision easier: someone had to look after Gimli.
"We can keep the nightwatch as we sail upriver," he said, idly pushing the leftover cheese toward Gimli. "What else is there for him to do onboard then but rest and wait?"
"Aye," Gimli said begrudgingly. "Even the horses can only stand in the hold, I suppose."
"That will be something new for them."
"I hope they'll take to it well." Gimli arranged the last of the bread and cheese at right angles in the exact center of the cloth. "Boats are trouble enough without a stampede aboard."
"I have no worries for our Arod," said Legolas, smiling fondly.
"Nor I," said Gimli. "His courage is well–proved." He fell silent and bent his head over the cloth, tying all four corners into a graceful knot that left a tidy loop as a handhold.
He seemed subdued, but Legolas did not press him. Instead he rose and stretched, and bent to remove his shoes and stockings.
"Ah!" he said, wiggling his toes. "I've been looking forward to this."
And while Gimli leaned his elbows on the table and his head on his fists, Legolas spent time hanging up his cloak, setting aside his outer tunic and bracers, making sure their weapons were all set back neatly in a corner, and feeling his pockets for a comb, all the time pretending not to watch him.
At last, Legolas sat back down on the side of the bed and began to unwind the braids at his temples. "From sitting a horse all night to sitting a chair all night? Why Gimli, I thought you could be trusted to take better advantage of a comfort."
Gimli turned his head only far enough to squint one eye at Legolas. But Legolas felt it was at least a squint in the playful spirit they were accustomed to, so he added, "Come now, you got the battle you wanted, and don't they say that for the Dwarves a battle is as good as a holiday?"
He knew he moment he said it that he'd mis–aimed, and the edge of humor in Gimli's eye faded like a guttering flame.
"That's what they say," he said heavily, and stood up from his chair. His cloak joined Legolas's on the wall, his boots by Legolas's shoes. His stockings, mail, helm, and other pieces of his kit gradually assembled on and over the chair, like a ghost dwarf standing sentinel.
At last, all the layers removed down to just his shirt and trews, Gimli looked surprisingly vulnerable. Legolas hadn't seen him so unarmored since Lórien, and even then, he'd carried some inner barrier with him, some cover of his own between skin and soul. Now, though, he seemed raw and exposed, open to anything that might harm him, and Legolas was seized with a desire to wrap him and press him as if he'd just been fished naked from drowning in icy water. He knew it was ridiculous, such an urge toward this powerful dwarf with his hardened muscles and experienced eyes, but it burned inside him nevertheless.
He lifted his comb with careful deliberation and put his hair more to rights, concentrating on that alone until he felt more settled. Then he glanced up to where Gimli still stood, unweaving his own thick braids with both hands, and said, "No mirror here, as I suppose should be expected. Shall I?"
Gimli's hands tightened, but his voice was calm: "I can do it all on my own."
"Of course," Legolas replied easily. "You can and you always have. Though it can also be a balm, giving over to the efforts of a friend."
Gimli rubbed his hands over his face without answering, and glanced up from under his brows; Legolas drew loose strands from his comb, unconcerned. At last Gimli shrugged and came to him, settling on the floor with his back to the bedstead and his shoulders between Legolas's knees. "None of the elflocks, now," he warned, and Legolas could feel the richness of his voice up through his legs. "No curlicues. Some of us haven't an immortal lifetime to sort through the tangles."
Legolas lost his idea for a return jest at that last, so he simply laid his comb aside and threaded both hands into Gimli's hair.
It was thick and strong, a deeper and more burning chestnut than any lord's most prized blood horse. Legolas had never given a close look to Dwarvish braids, and as he finished unwinding them he learned and savored the new turns and tricks. Then he combed the long strands out with all his fingers, over and over from scalp to end, the shining mass spilling across his lap.
He wanted so much to speak while he had Gimli this close, sitting trustingly between his hands. But the feel of the tumbled hair on the soft shoulders of the fine woolen shirt, all of Gimli so unbound and unprepared...he felt it wouldn't be fair, quite. He held his tongue and worked on new braids along the pattern of the old ones, taming the grand mane back into something more contained and stern. At the last, though, he couldn't entirely control his fingers: he wove a dash of his favorite pattern into the bottom of one of Gimli's braids before he brought them together and tied everything neatly off.
"There." He laid his hands on Gimli's shoulders and they sat quietly for a moment, his thumbs on the nape of Gimli's neck.
"I dared not try my comb in it. Bite the stone if you'd lose the tooth, they say."
"Oh do they." Gimli's shoulders moved in a huff of breath. "Elf–sayings."
Legolas could have sat that way all the night long, until the summons came from the ships, with Gimli warm beneath his hands. But he knew too well that the quiet between battles was the time to strip the bandage, however painful.
"Gimli," he said, bending slightly.
A pause and a hearty scoff. "That scratch? Why, you did that yourself, and I could say the same to you!" His shoulders were tightening now, knotting up beneath shirt and skin.
"You know what I mean," Legolas said, undeterred. "Please show me."
Gimli muttered something furious and indecipherable, and Legolas could feel him ready to move away and go back to his corner, as if he were the dwarf–figure over the chair, empty and ready for anything. At this Legolas felt the onrush and terrifying pull of both currents at once, the opposing directions about to tear him in two: Gimli cocooned in his mortal life, pelting away toward its short and certain end; he himself, doomed one day to be summoned West and beyond West by the sea's remorseless call.
His hands tightened suddenly and uncontrollably. "Gimli. Please. I don't know how much time I—"
He stopped himself; he hadn't meant to say that, to bring his own pressures in among Gimli's trouble. But of course he knew Gimli was always listening, perhaps especially when he seemed most taciturn. The great shoulders had not relaxed again, exactly, but he was no longer pulling away.
After a minute, though, he did slide from beneath Legolas's hands and rise to his feet, glancing back at him with a face gone studiously blank.
"As we're back to civilization at last, or something like, I thought we could do with a bit of wash–water."
Legolas made himself nod.
"Were there proper sun, we could've had a swim." Gimli turned away, stepped barefoot into his boots, and went to the door, but paused with his hand on the latch. "Though...perhaps not. With the bodies."
Legolas nodded again, and watched him leave.
He sat for some unknown time, his hands on his knees, his hair hanging unbraided. For the elves, time largely seemed to fly, especially in the waxing and waning of many of the beloved things of the world that were not the eternal stars: trees seeding and stretching to the sky and greying into bare–limbed skeletons; land shaped by the bends and falls of rushing rivers, rising or crumbling in turn. But his time now, sitting in this homely little room with his eyes unseeing, slowed to nothing. It felt as if Gimli had been gone for an age and were already a memory, the one brightest and most cherished moment of his life, gone blazing over the horizon like a comet.
Had Gimli not returned, he would not have been at all surprised. He would hear the horn–blasts or the cries of sailors, he would draw on his tunic and quiver, he would go to board the fleet of the King and strive to fight well in his service. He would watch Gimli's back, welcomed or not, and see to it he lived as long as any mortal could hope to do despite the rising shadow.
And all that time and after, he would grieve, more than he thought possible. He had lived long and understood the sorrow of the passing of the years and the fading of the Firstborn. But he had not truly known the depths of his own loss. Not yet.
Even as he faced the enormity of that knowledge, he castigated himself. His thoughts kept straying, his sorrow more for himself than for his friend, though he knew Gimli suffered. And it had been much like this since he had first realized anything was amiss: not asking, what ails Gimli? But asking, what does Gimli's wound mean for me?
How he had scoffed, when some of the Dalesmen who came trading to Mirkwood had admitted to old human tales about elves, as creatures with nothing where their hearts should be but ice, or sawdust, or a perfect living bramble the size of a child's fist. But as he had been going, perhaps he could prove them right.
He saw before him some of his memories of Gimli, unearthed from where it turned out he had been jealously storing them like rations against future famine. He saw Gimli grieve at his kinsman's tomb, and fight with the reach and drive of ten against the foul creatures who dared come there. He watched Gimli lift his eyes and bare his soul to the fearsome Lady of the Wood, to find his offering rewarded. He sat with Gimli in their little boat, Lórien receding, and clumsily offered the spurious comfort of elven–memory as a sop for Gimli's open tears.
All of this and more he relived, sitting still, his hands open and empty. Until the latch clattered, the door creaked, and in strode Gimli through the late afternoon light with a bucket in either hand and some rumpled fabric draped round his neck. His hair and beard, his shirt, his skin and his trews, he shone like warm earth and autumn sun, oak leaves and bark, copper and topaz and amber.
Legolas didn't realize how he was staring, taking and drinking the sight of him, until Gimli thumped the buckets down and said, "Couldn't help it, there was a line for the closest pump."
Legolas nodded, hoping it came across close enough to "Oh certainly, that's all right, think nothing of it."
"And there were offers to squire and valet us, if you can believe that," he continued, kicking his boots off again.
Legolas made a noise of some kind.
"Aye, indeed." Gimli unwound the fabric, which proved to be two pieces of linen toweling, and tossed one at Legolas where it draped uncaught over his knee. "But I thought their energies best spent on the ships, if we're supposed to be lying about in here conserving our strength till the call to arms."
With no ado, Gimli unfastened his shirt and pulled it off over his head, tossed it in the direction of the chair, then stooped over one bucket and began a brisk but effective wash. Water glinted in his beard, gleamed over his face and ears and neck, sparkled in the hair of his chest and trickled down to dampen his waistband, and Legolas looked around the little room twice for his own bucket before he found it near him right where Gimli had so kindly set it.
He slipped from his undertunic and swiftly washed with perhaps a little less splashing, but still felt refreshed, even working from a pump and pail rather than living water in a flowing stream. He wondered when he would next have the chance to swim, when there would be the peace and the untroubled body of water in which to
The beckoning hand as dark green as the underside of a wave and glittering with darting fish
do so, and whether Gimli would be with him.
He took his bucket to set by the wall, hanging his towel and his undertunic to air, and sat barechested on the side of the bed to watch Gimli. Gimli had been washing with no attention to the bandage on his forearm, but now he eyed it curiously as it darkened with water.
"This is a fine thing," he said, unexpectedly, and lifted his arm in a closer study of the knot. "What can you tell me of it?"
Nothing, Legolas thought, flushing. I can tell you nothing, for that is what we tell the curious trader or the carter lost in the wood, anyone lucky enough to stumble on our hidden paths and come out alive, who might have the eye and the mind to see these knots that are more than knots.
Gimli looked up at his silence, saw his face, and nodded in perfect amiability. With no further word or change in his demeanor, he slipped the bandage reverently down over his wrist and off, to wash beneath it and lay it aside.
And Legolas realized that he could have said that very thing to Gimli with no struggle. Who knew better the nature of a secret than this son of Durin, with so many of his peoples' customs closed and protected in the deepest heart of his ancestral mountains?
At that, he thought he might see a way through, or at least he was determined to try, and his tongue unlocked itself.
"Might I trade it to you," he said carefully.
Gimli looked at him a long moment, wary. "For what?"
"I will tell you of it, what it means and how it's made. And you tell me what you were chanting, as we rode before the Dead."
He felt that having said it, there was no going back, as if he had shot an arrow or leapt from a great height. He would hit or miss; he would land or die. So he simply looked his need at Gimli, watching the oak–dark eyes struggling with stubbornness and fear.
"It is not something for sale," Gimli said at last, but his stern anger sounded uncertain, a barrier poorly propped up.
"Not sale. More...a gift, for a gift."
Gimli unfolded his towel and buried his face in it, as if drying himself, but he breathed a long time behind his hands. When he emerged, Legolas saw a tentative willingness there, and his heart leapt.
He held out a hand to Gimli, before he could convince himself otherwise. And Gimli approached on quiet bare feet, to lay a sun–darkened hand in his own pale one, their fingers clasping. Legolas marveled at the feel of it—they had touched hands before, but this was something greater.
"Very well," he said, and couldn't help smiling.
Gimli didn't smile, but the tension in him seemed to ease slightly. He retrieved the bandage and came to sit beside Legolas, the cloth draped over his open palms.
Legolas drew a breath and put his hands on Gimli's, bracketing the knot delicately between two fingers.
"It is a warning," he began simply. "And a guide. It shows us who, and when, and what. And most of all, where. These are paths among old, old dangers, such as even the eldest among us have never yet entirely defeated. We pass through them with the skills of hunting and war, but most of all with skills of knowledge."
Gimli looked intently at the design, his brow furrowing.
"Here," he said, touching a link with one deft finger, "and here," touching another, "these turn and reverse in echo of one another. And they frame the whole."
Legolas nodded, his throat dry.
"What do they say?"
He was glad Gimli wasn't looking at him. "They mean me. Mine."
Legolas hesitated. "Well...yes. And..."
Gimli kept his gaze averted, tracing the edges of the possessive line in the knot with uncanny precision. "And."
"Mine," Legolas said, a warmth blooming in his cheek.
There was no sound, just Gimli's fingers drawing slowly along the frame–line once more, before moving carefully to the moon–line. "And this?"
Legolas cleared his throat. "When," he said. "Point of the moon, and when in the rise or set."
"And this?" He touched the foe–lines, where Legolas had webbed and snared them.
"What the danger is."
"Hm. Practically a tangle, this 'un."
It was on the tip of Legolas's tongue to set out some of the intricacies of the foe–lines, and what he had been trying to do there. But in the end he just said, "That was...complicated."
"Jagged, I'd say." Gimli teased out one bend of the foe–lines to examine more closely. "Feels like fear."
He laid one brown thumb atop the path–line. "This is clearest, to my eyes at least."
"I'd hope so," Legolas said more lightly. "It tells you where to go."
"Rather the best," Legolas temporized. "The best way to proceed from here, as far as the maker knows."
"So the safest isn't always the best," murmured Gimli.
They sat together in quiet, both looking at his hand curved over the knot. Then he suddenly looked up and caught Legolas's unprepared gaze. "What does this say, then? For the best way out?"
"It says...it says..." Legolas nearly stammered. Then he simply laid his finger on the knot, and with Gimli watching intently, traced very slowly along the path–line, to where it joined the possessive frame–line and became one.
He waited, to see if Gimli would make him say it aloud, to unravel the connections woven in his heart. But Gimli only nodded several times, very slowly.
Then he laid the knotted cloth reverently over his knee and sat up, squaring his bare shoulders.
"When the rocks fall underground," he said, "and you can't get out the way you came, the most important things are two: the air, and the way. The air keeps you living, and it leads you to new ways out or in. Out for you, and in for those who are looking."
Legolas cocked his head, listening. He could picture Gimli first hearing these simple words, young and eager, his beard perhaps scarcely long enough to braid. When the rocks fall—not if, but when, for they do and they will.
"So you follow the air," Gimli went on, more slowly now. "You can...taste it, in sips like a trickle of clear water." He touched his own mouth with two fingers, his lips parted just slightly. "And as you do, you sing."
But that word didn't seem to satisfy him. "Not sing, it's...chant, maybe, or speak. Or hum." He shook his head. "None of those. And all of those."
Legolas nodded his understanding. Common speech was flexible and comfortable, and best for bringing the different peoples together. But he knew well the secret corners that it could not illuminate. "I heard," he replied. "From you. I heard none, and all."
Gimli's gaze dropped, and he fidgeted. But he went on: "It's not like a poem. Not really. Or perhaps..." He shrugged brusquely. "The words are more to suit the sound. They follow the shape and taste of the air—" He raised counting fingers, one after the other— "They send out the sound for those who are coming. And they echo back from the stone before you, they turn the shapes into sound. Openings, crevices, new ways, pits in the path... No matter how dark, there are still things you can see."
All the while Gimli spoke, Legolas saw more and more. The stifling blackness of the underground, dust settling from the rockfall, the torches and candles out. The line of dwarves, each with his hand on the one before him—on his shoulder, perhaps, or hooked in his belt. And the deep, thrumming sound, and the sound below sound, sending out words like seeking fingers, grasping the thinnest thread of air, tracing the wall and floor and roof.
I am lost, I seek the way, it said. But also: come find me.
He reached out and took Gimli's hands, folding his own around them.
"I see," he said. "Now I can see."
Gimli met his gaze at last, steadily. He seemed a little pale, as if the telling had worn him down. "And I."
"A fair trade, then?"
He said it lightly, or tried to, but Gimli considered the words like a solemn treaty. "There might be more," he said at last, as if admitting to something.
"But not for trade," Gimli hastened to add. "You kept to your bargain, even and done."
"Even and done," Legolas echoed, and pressed Gimli's hands in his. He felt Gimli's hands move, uncurling, sliding his fingers among Legolas's to mesh them together.
"The—" Gimli paused, as if seeking a word that would not come— "The chant, as you called it. It's for rockfall, or a path otherwise broken and lost underground. But..."
This pause was long, and less comfortable. Finally, Legolas said, "But this time, it came to you as we rode above the earth. So tell me, Gimli. Tell me about this rockfall."
Gimli clung to his hands, almost tight enough for pain. "I thought I could," he said harshly, "but now I'm not sure. It chokes me."
Legolas leaned closer to him, feeling a great longing to help Gimli and yet pain at his own selfishness—above all he wanted to draw the terrible splinter and let air in to the wound, yes, but it was also something he wanted purely for himself. Since it had come to pass that this was the one for his soul, let him have what he could. Something to take with him after the comet's passing, after the rapids went one way and the Sea another.
"If you are choking for breath," he said very softly, "why not follow the air."
At first Gimli blinked at him in wonderment, frozen. But then something new dawned on his face, warming the well–beloved features like a wash of firelight, and surely he understood. For he held Legolas's hands with hands that suddenly trembled, and he parted his lips slightly, as if to breathe and to taste. And Legolas, welcomed, leaned the rest of the way to kiss him.
Gimli's breathing calmed, gradually, as if Legolas truly had brought him the touch of air that showed the way. His trembling eased. And when they leaned back again and regarded each other, he gave a nod, as if something had been agreed upon.
Very gingerly, as if to keep from disturbing something new and fragile, Legolas moved back onto the mattress. He stretched out on one blanket and drew Gimli down unresisting to lie beside him, pulling the second blanket up over them both. The straw rustled inside the mattress and the ropes creaked as they settled in, on their sides and facing, their hands loosely tangled between them.
Legolas seemed to float between strands of his life, reliving their journey with this new story laid overtop. And he didn't ask again, for part of him already knew, but after a time Gimli began to speak with his voice low and hushed.
He told Legolas in halting words of his journey through the Paths, from the moment that Legolas had coaxed Arod through the Dark Door and Gimli stood alone. What the road had done to him in there, things he had never known could happen, unmaking him until he was blind and lost and crawling in the dirt. He had thought himself ready for any challenge, let alone the familiarity of finding the way through dark tunnels. But he was wrong, and he had had to face his failure without being able to right it.
The Gimli who had first set out from his kin in the mountains was not the Gimli who had emerged from the Paths, dusty and angry and ashamed. His fear had ridden right behind him ever since, banners and weapons high, breathing fetid ice on the back of his neck. And no one, not down to the faithful beast who carried them both, had failed in courage as deeply and irrevocably as he had himself.
They lay quiet for a time, Legolas giving space to the tale, passing his thumb idly back and forth over the curve of Gimli's fingers.
"Then, the people at Ethring..." he said at last.
Muscles flexed at the points of Gimli's jaw. "I looked up...and I saw them all around me. Or... I didn't see them, not the people as they are."
"Nor did you see me, I think. Or not entirely."
"I was back there." Even in this latched and safe little room darkening peacefully down to night, his eyes and his voice were still haunted. "I was back in that place, having failed utterly, with no hope and no way out."
"They struck you on a fresh wound, unknowing."
Gimli scoffed. "No wound. Just the truth." But he didn't pull away; he held their linked hands against his chest, and Legolas could feel the reverberations of his voice. "A truth that's hard to swallow, like a dose with hard edges. It'll take time, and pain, but down it must go."
"Must it though?" Legolas asked, discontented. He didn't like the very firmness of Gimli's belief in his own failure; it was sounding too plain and solid for comfort.
Gimli's eyes searched his, and strangely, they looked almost pitying. "Aye," he said. "I thought perhaps it might not be so...but then it was proven, twice over."
Now it was Legolas's turn to scoff. "Absurd. I was not with you in the Paths, so I didn't see, but I was most surely with you the rest of the time. Do you think—" he hesitated slightly, again feeling slight heat rise in his face, but pressing on— "Do you think I wasn't watching you, always?"
"No, now I'd never think that," said Gimli matter–of–factly. "But I know how it was, in here." He pressed their joined hands firmly to his heart. "I thought the weakness would leave me once I'd had a proper battle, and it didn't—"
"But you fought well," Legolas protested. "It was an enjoyment to see."
"It didn't matter. I could have been back at the Hornburg, slaying forty–three orcs—"
"Forty–two," Legolas couldn't help but mutter.
"Yes, yes. But it wouldn't have mattered if I'd knocked down all these Southrons and drowned every ship. The weakness remained."
"Why wouldn't it, with the Dead still so close behind you? Nay, but all around you! I admit I didn't feel them as you did, but for you it was like being covered in marsh gas, no wonder you couldn't—"
"Ah," Gimli said. "But then Aragorn sent them away, off to wherever men go after."
"And you collapsed," Legolas said triumphantly. "It shows there was something more to their effect on you."
Gimli shook his head, though, and pressed half his face into the mattress so that only one eye showed. "I clung to that hope as well. But they left—and I could still feel the weakness. So the last excuse was gone, and I knew that it was I who had failed: I whose image of himself was simply wrong, puffed up with tales and self–regard."
"I know it isn't good to hear, especially if you'd thought otherwise." He lifted his head again, and smiled sadly. "This won't mean much to you, you who do not dream, but... it was like the nightmare that you wake from, and as your head clears, you come to realize that part of the dream was still true all along. I woke from the nightmare of the Dead, and still saw the Gimli who failed at the test. The Gimli I am."
Legolas would have kissed him then, but for the fear he would have taken the kiss as agreement, or even charity. So instead Legolas freed one hand and stroked his fingers up from beard to strong cheekbone, cheekbone to temple.
"Well," he said, smoothing the lines of Gimli's brow, "that isn't who I see."
"You see what you wish," Gimli said, and closed his eyes briefly as Legolas touched each eyelid in turn.
"I see what I see," Legolas countered.
"Of the one who lived it, and the one who watches, who to believe?" Gimli asked, though it wasn't a question.
Legolas let his wandering hand come to rest lightly on the side of Gimli's neck, where his pulse beat steady and strong. "You might as well ask which is more accurate: the sight of you when I look, or your reflection in a mirror. Just remember: the mirror image reverses."
"Eh now," Gimli said, "you'd talk the chain off the bellows." And he moved in to nip at Legolas's throat, tender and demanding. The touch of his beard was still wonderfully strange, raising a shiver.
"Cold?" Gimli asked against his skin, and tugged the blanket higher.
"Not quite," he answered, the blood heat of Gimli's chest and belly setting his heart to thumping. "You do think of the oddest ways to win an argument."
"Do I win?"
"Well. At the moment, I can't argue with you," Legolas said, daring to slip his hand round Gimli's waist.
"Can't," Gimli said wryly. "One for the tales, surely, for I've never seen the time you couldn't manage it."
"Won't, then." He toyed with the waistband of Gimli's trews and stroked the small of his back where the muscles arched down to the groove of his spine.
Gimli sighed, which at the end turned into a laugh. "If you would," he said gruffly. "What would you say?"
The laugh emboldened Legolas at last. They had had many a grave time together, and even tears, but he had come to find that their souls met most deeply in shared laughter. And so he pressed in close, and kissed him again. Not for healing, this time, but because he would, and Gimli wanted him to.
"So that's what you'd say, eh?" Gimli murmured eventually, when his mouth was released. "Part of your elf language I never did learn."
"There is yet time," Legolas said. "And I know you learn quickly."
"Hmm." Gimli leaned back, dubious. "I wonder how well you tutor."
"Gimli! After all my efforts, with you now astride a tall horse like any mannish knight."
"To the dust with your efforts! Arod taught me that himself."
Legolas bowed his head where he lay, the straw crackling loud in his ear. "I concede it: you are right, and our friend is a scholar indeed." He stayed where he was, better able to see Gimli now that they weren't quite as close. The room was very dim now, and the clouded sunset light no longer filtered in. Soon it would be dark. But Gimli had brought a sunset's warmth with him, his hair and beard and eyes, afire with life.
He stroked one of the braids that led from Gimli's lip down into his beard, still faintly damp from the washing. "I didn't have a chance to reweave this," he said. "Quite untidy."
Gimli grunted. "It had better wait."
"I can see it getting untidier first."
It did get untidier, as did the both of them, and the trews and leggings were eventually cast from the bed to land haphazardly over table and chair. The sentinel dwarf of armor and cloth vanished in the night's utter dark, and they clung together, not lost in the blackness, but burrowed and safe–hidden in each other's arms.
Time meant little, here without stars or moon. But they played at love for a long while, and lay tired and warm, their hair mingling fair and ruddy across the blanket.
"You will sleep, then," Legolas said, combing his fingers through a mixed handful of gold and copper. "And none of your nightmares."
"Agreed. And you'll...do whatever it is you do," Gimli said, his voice yawning and muffled in the mattress.
"Sleep!" Legolas insisted.
"As you say." Gimli peered at him. "Perhaps you'd do me a kindness though."
"Perhaps I would," Legolas said, smiling reminiscently.
"Can you manage to close your eyes, if you please! It gladdens no one's heart to wake and think himself lying beside a dead body."
Legolas tutted him. "One must grant," he said, at his most elven, "that this body has already proven itself otherwise."
Gimli leapt upon him, solid and strong, to wrestle and roll them both over amid laughter until they lay nested on their sides. Legolas lay comfortably with Gimli's arms round him from behind, much as when they rode, though admittedly even closer.
"There," Gimli said into his hair. "Now keep them open, or deign to close them as the lowly mortals do. It won't matter for I won't have to see."
Despite his weary comfort, Legolas felt a sick twinge at that, and the voices of the seabirds again resounded in his head. He had meant to keep it to himself, but it was so hard to hide secrets from Gimli now. So he spoke into the dark, again feeling selfish:
"Do you remember the words of the Lady Galadriel?"
Gimli sighed in memory. "How not?"
"You remember hers for me, then."
"Hm." Gimli shifted behind him, thinking. "Beware of the sea, she said."
"I heard the cry of the gulls," Legolas confessed, and suddenly was near to weeping.
"What does it mean?"
Legolas found himself stumbling through what had happened to him, telling what he knew of the sea–longing, though there was neither time nor leisure to sing any of the songs of Ulmo and the loving unquiet he brought.
"So," Gimli said slowly, twining a lock of Legolas's hair around one finger. "You're telling me you're leaving."
"No," Legolas insisted.
"You're telling me you want to leave?"
"No!" Legolas laid his hand over Gimli's restless one, but still could not turn to look at him. "I don't want to leave. I don't feel it now. But I will."
Gimli considered this for what felt like an age, and Legolas wished he had been able to keep it to himself, to let them have this one careless night.
"You don't yet feel the true call," Gimli said at last, "and you haven't seen the Sea."
"The gulls tell me I will," Legolas said hopelessly.
To his surprise, Gimli chuckled, a low genuine laugh that Legolas felt all through him.
"I see what it is, my poor elf," he said gently. "And I'm sorry for it. You're having to face an ending now, where you never had to before. Or not so clearly, anyhow. An ending with me. An ending with this Middle–Earth you have loved so long."
Legolas wanted to contradict him, but he knew his voice would waver, so he only shut his eyes against the threatening tears.
"It's all right," Gimli said, and his voice was easy and loving. "You'll find that mortals already face endings, from the moment they wake. You and I will have the time we'll have, and maybe as we go you'll learn a little something of this mystery from me. Among other mortal habits."
"Like closing my eyes to sleep," Legolas managed, opening his eyes to the dark.
"I can hope," Gimli scolded. He tugged on Legolas's hair. "So how about waiting to borrow trouble, then."
He wrapped them closer and mumbled a long string of unfamiliar words into the back of Legolas's neck, rhythmic and melodious. Legolas let his mind ease into the sound, drifting into dream, and the feeling of Gimli against and around him kept him grounded all the night long.
The sun did not wake them, as it had enough trouble with the thick cloud–shadow still rolling from the east. But grey, muffled light did seep into the little room, and they woke rested and calm. Barefoot and wrapped in blankets they divided the last of the food, then quickly combed and braided and dressed back into the neat and fierce pair they presented to the world.
"And what shall I do with this?" Gimli said, lifting the old bandage and its knot. "I needn't wear it, for I'm not wounded anymore."
Legolas hummed noncommittally. "You know I disagree."
"It was failure and truth revealed," Gimli scowled, "not a wound."
"It was a wound that can heal," Legolas insisted. "Not a truth."
They bristled at each other, like old times, until Gimli abruptly laughed. "Hark to you!" he said with rueful delight. "As stubborn as ever. A sylph of the elvenwood, trying to coax me out of the ground like one of your green growing things."
Legolas smiled. "Letting in the light and air are good for green growing things," he said archly. "And for delvers lost in the dark, and for wounds as well."
Gimli swore and grumbled in his chest, but his fingers as he tucked the knotted cloth into his pack were careful and cherishing.
They walked from the hut into a teeming, bustling waterfront of people. Legolas had heard the growing crowds at the edges of his sporadic attention in the night, but had eventually put them aside for more important things. Now here the crowds were in truth, and he rejoiced in the difference between people ruled by fear and uncertainty, and those ruled by sense and determination. Everyone moved with purpose, and hope had dawned again in their eyes even under the pall of the morning with no dawn of its own.
Briskly, then, Gimli and Legolas went to retrieve Arod, himself rested and fed. They found Aragorn at the flagship, and before long they were all aboard and sailing to the relief of the burning city. At first Aragorn's attention lingered now and then on Gimli, amid all his other worries—until Legolas managed to catch his gaze and silently ease his mind. Then Aragorn leaned on Legolas's shoulder a moment, his face grave and drawn but a light in his eye.
"Very well," was all he said, and from then on he threw himself into matters of oars and wind, fire and sail, confident that his close companions both stood staunchly behind him, together.
Then came the victory and grief at the Pelennor, where again Legolas watched Gimli fight like a rooted whirlwind and yet still doubt himself. He did at least tell his tale and his shame to Merry and Pippin, much as he protested at first against it, and Legolas was heartened. The wound seemed clean and still airing, and he felt it would continue to heal, whether Gimli agreed or no.
They had two days of momentary peace together, housed with Aragorn in his camp outside the city, and walking the streets together with much to hope and to plan. The choking cloud–shadow was gone and the spring sun returned, and at night the waning moon showed its diamond sickle clear amid the stars.
And then the Captains of the West mustered their forces for the final march. Among the remainder of the Fellowship at the front of the army, Legolas and Gimli rode again on Arod, who held his head high. His grey coat was curried smooth and shining, and in his combed mane here and there were small braids and subtle knots, with messages two pairs of eyes knew well how to read.
"This could be one of those endings you spoke of," Legolas admitted, several days into the march. Since the moon had dwindled and vanished into new, he had felt increasingly uneasy.
"It might," Gimli said from behind him, with no hesitation. He rode now with both arms snug round Legolas's waist, thumbs tucked comfortably in Legolas's belt. "Just tell me I'll have room to swing, to leave some heads at the Dark Lord's own threshold before it's over."
"If it can be managed for you, this is the host to do it," Legolas said. He stayed cheerful, to match Gimli's calm readiness. But within, his misgivings were growing—though they were strangely formless, and he kept them to himself.
At night, he laid on his back next to a slumbering Gimli and gazed upward into the Kindler's sky. All those former nights under the grim shadow without any stars, he would have thought he'd be more grateful now to bask beneath them. But when he released his mind into them to summon a waking dream, the burning points kept drawing pictures he could not quite grasp. A memory that was not memory; a taste in his mouth of blood, and mud, and fury.
He didn't tell Gimli. He couldn't imagine how to put it to words, in any case, and there were enough endings clear before them without adding a puzzle as well. But as the moon returned, waxing from sliver to crescent, the additional light brought him neither comfort nor ease. Not even Gimli beside him could soothe his heart, by the time they had almost approached the end of Ithilien where the dead lands began. Instead, there was something about himself and Gimli and the rest of the great company lying there, quiet ranks of bodies beneath a pitiless scrim of sky, that made him feel feverish and choked. He pressed his hands to his eyes and waited for dawn.
In the morning, he went silently to the horse–pickets and made his way among the sleepy horses to find Arod, who shook his head and stamped lazily to see him. Legolas spent some time stroking his neck, leaning against him, trying not to think. Arod seemed chipper and unaffected, taking an experimental nibble at Legolas's tunic or rubbing his forehead idly on Legolas's shoulder. He followed Legolas back to Gimli with a comfortable expectancy, accepting his saddlecloth and then his riders as if he were being decorated for a parade.
Legolas was quiet as they approached the end of living Ithilien, swallowing against the taste rising anew in his throat. He could sense Gimli watching him closely now, but nothing was asked, and he didn't know what he would answer if it were.
Riding out into the blasted lands, Arod stepped evenly, head high and calm, as did the rest of the horses in the vanguard; they had all seen worse, these veterans of the passing of the Grey Company and the terrors of Pelennor. But Legolas flinched and began to tremble, staring to the northwest where they were turning. At last his eyes and his mind finally focused, and finally saw.
Out there were the marshes. And he had never been anywhere near, not in all his life, but he knew them. He knew their stink, and their rot, and the greasy mud that never let go. He knew them now from below, staring up through the filth and murk, the sky forever beyond his reach.
His mouth filled with water, his eyes with mud.
It was Dagorlad. The plain stretched out at the foot of the Emyn Muil, covered with the first waves of dead from the Last Alliance. Thickly lay the band from Greenwood, valiant and rash, slain in their first daring charge. And among them
he knew his own face. He sank to the bottom and was gone.
He saw nothing but that, tasted nothing but that, though around him dimly he also heard what might have been the voices of men. Not the seasoned knights of the Last Alliance, but raw young men, up–country men, shocked and horror–stricken, crying with fear and shame.
Time might have passed, but who among the dead beneath the rising mud and the sinking weeds would have known it. The dim voices quieted, now, under the calm, commanding tones of Aragorn his friend. He was distantly glad for it, to hear how the hand of the king remained the hand of a healer, even when the hurts were within rather than without. But he still lay where he was, far beyond the hand's reach, choked in a long, long darkness.
This was not the end he had looked for.
"Legolas. Listen now."
The tone of this voice was low, gruff, and comfortably demanding. It cut through the glutinous murk somehow, and from far down, Legolas listened.
He heard, not with his ears, but through his body and bones. It was a song, or a chant, or a hum, droning rich and deep.
It reached him even through the smothering marsh, slicing the thinnest of channels, where trickled the finest filament of air, cold and sweet.
Taste, said the voice humming through him, and follow, and he did. He sipped at the droplets of air and wove along their path, around the deep pits and among the jumbled boulders. Away from the rockfall, back to the light.
He opened his eyes, not to the evil slough of a thousand corpses, but to Arod's calm ears and the ridge of his mane. He still sat astride, but only barely, and Gimli's arms were hard around him forcibly holding him on.
Legolas leaned to the side urgently and retched and spat upon the ground, bringing up nothing. No mud, no sour yellow water. Gimli supported him, and when he finally settled, clinging to Arod's withers with trembling hands, Gimli patted his waist.
"Back, are you?"
Legolas managed a nod.
"Aragorn has sent some of the lads against Cair Andros, so they needn't go further."
It was a bare statement of fact, but Legolas's face grew hot. "We are not riding to Cair Andros," he hissed.
"Aye," Gimli said peaceably, and then the vanguard was moving again. They rode with it, and from the glances Legolas stole left and right, it seemed that no one else had noticed what had happened.
The ride from here was quieter, the troops cowed and grim. The land was sick; the very air seemed empty of life. Legolas spent the time seething at himself, elf–prince, he who had wavered with the greenest Lebennin farmer. Nothing had approached or attacked, and yet he had entirely collapsed. He itched, restless, and wished Gimli would not hold him quite so firmly.
"Let me down," he said suddenly, tapping Gimli's hand.
Gimli let go of his waist, but took a quick fistful of his cloak. "Just one moment."
"What," Legolas said, hearing himself snap without quite meaning to.
"You said yourself we may not have the time," Gimli said, his voice pitched just for Legolas to hear. "So I don't have the luxury to give you the room you gave me."
"Instead I'll give you something else you gave me," Gimli continued. "I'll tell you you're wounded, and you don't know it. You've seen how someone struck deep will keep walking, even run, while the blood soaks through. You saw me."
Legolas breathed in carefully, the prickles of shame and anger still running through his neck and shoulders. But he could hear Gimli speaking, the steady lifeline of his voice, and finally he answered: "So you admit it then."
"Oh, yes, perhaps you were right that time," Gimli growled. "Perhaps, mind. And perhaps I'm right this time."
Legolas leaned against Gimli slightly, and the tension in his back seemed to begin wicking away, as if Gimli were helping lift it, or drying it from him like someone hauled from icy water.
"I should have this written down for the loremasters' records."
Gimli snorted. "Only you would go this far, to show me to myself."
"Only you," Legolas said more seriously, "would be able to come down after me and sing me out."
"So you heard that."
"Tell me, then," Gimli said.
Legolas heard Gimli's own words, it chokes me, and swallowed against the pressure of mud in his mouth, in his throat. "I can't."
"Not now," Legolas managed. "I can't think of it now. It mustn't happen again."
Gimli shrugged. "I'll always come find you," he said in a purely matter–of–fact voice, no airy promise.
"Later. Not long."
With no further pressing, Gimli put his arms back around Legolas's waist, and they rode on in quiet. Legolas could feel Gimli's heartbeat and breath circulating through his own body, as if the lifesaving sound had made a new path there where Gimli might walk. He tried to match his breath to Gimli's, tried to slow his tripping heartbeat, but he only failed and failed again.
After a time, Gimli let go of him. Legolas sat the horse without further trouble, which offered a pale thread of comfort, but there was no other hope to be had, and the ride promised to be very long. He listened in a daze to the sounds of Gimli shifting around behind him, his pack rustling, a satisfied noise.
Then Gimli's arms slid back into their place, firm and warm, digging with comfortable possessiveness into Legolas's belt. Legolas drew in a slightly easier breath, and let himself reach back to trace his hands along Gimli's sleeves, drawing the circle that held him at its center.
But when his touch drifted over Gimli's wrists, something was different: on Gimli's right wrist was the knot, wrapped snug. Legolas let his fingers dwell there, feeling the snarls of the foe–lines, as airless and clutching as swamp mud. But around them he felt the strong flow of the frame–line, and the insistent weave where it drew the path–line to itself. And as he drew his numb fingertips along the path, its reality so solid under his touch, he could feel the heat of Gimli's skin through the cloth.
There was nothing he could say to express the feelings that welled up in him, the amazed and tender gratitude that rose even above his fear and shame. He could only touch, pressing the cloth to Gimli's wrist, gripping him tightly. For a moment he worried that his cold hand misjudged and held too hard, for he knew he was clinging as if to the last spur of rock at the edge of a cliff. But there was no flinch at all, of course, and although he could not feel safe, not yet, still he knew that Gimli was there with him.
He held to Gimli and to the hope he could not muster for himself, and waited for the chill to fade.
It didn't, not altogether. But by the time the army stopped that night, he felt that he at least seemed centered and calm again to the others around him, the troops of men who settled themselves into watchful groups around such little fires as they could manage to fuel.
"If I could only learn from you, grey scholar," he said to Arod as he knotted a picket–rope for him. "Look at you today: not a shiver, not a white to your eye."
Arod nosed the barren ground, as if hoping to somehow find grass growing there, and raised his head disconsolately.
"Aragorn brought a few provisions for you by packhorse," Legolas reassured him. "Not a banquet, but enough to wet your chin and give you something to chew."
Nevertheless, he slipped a hand into his pocket and offered Arod a little carrot he'd been gifted with from a Minas Tirith kitchen garden. "It survived to come up clean and sweet, even with the days of shadow." Thus may we all, he thought, but though the words were hopeful his spirit was not. Arod crunched the carrot down approvingly, and Legolas left him waiting for the rest of his supper.
He returned past Edreintir, who nodded to him, and he found that Gimli had been trading yet again, wrapping up a few little objects.
"No blanket for me tonight," he said to Gimli's bent head. "I'll watch rather than sleep."
But Gimli nevertheless finished untying the blankets and held them out to him.
"I'm not sleeping," he said again.
"Of course you're not," Gimli said, and tossed the blankets into his arms in a heap.
Legolas peered over them. "Well then—"
"We can use them to sit on as we watch, of course. Haven't you seen the ground here? Horrible." Gimli picked up his axe and struck out for one of the few little rises where a watcher would best be stationed. Legolas trailed behind him.
For the first part of the night, though, the blankets lay unregarded and they stood to watch with weapons drawn, while the sounds and flickers of unclean night creatures came to them through the dark. Mordor's seeping fog and smoke had clouded the sky; Legolas could no longer see the distant circling of the Nazgûl who had been shadowing them so high and far off for days, but he knew they were still there, passing and wary.
It should have brightened him, at least a little, to know that the great servants of the Enemy had learned to beware Aragorn and his host. But even with Gimli nearby, watching keenly in the other direction for any sign of danger, there was no brightness to be found.
After midnight, as Legolas was looking thoughtfully at the army of the King—some sleeping, some huddling together, some standing with the picketed horses—Gimli rustled around behind him.
"There," he said. "Sit."
Legolas turned. Gimli had fashioned a sitting–place from both folded blankets, and had a few things to eat spread out before them on the blue cloth from Pelargir.
"What," Gimli said to Legolas's stare. "We can watch and be comfortable."
"You truly have learned from the hobbits," Legolas said dubiously, settling in.
"Their ways have much to offer at times like these." Gimli untied a flask from his belt that Legolas hadn't noticed before. "Try this."
Obediently, Legolas uncapped it and sipped. A rich, round sweetness filled his mouth, speaking of warm sun on terraced vines and a bright frost to nip out the bitterness.
"Not the sort you're used to in the wood, I know. But Edreintir's brother met the Steward's vintner—"
"Wine, Gimli!" He drank again, savoring. He'd never had any precisely like it, but it still sang to him of home, the barrels of the Lakemen, their creative vintages, their delight in trying new wines and cordials for the board of the Elvenking.
He licked his lips and blinked the vision of forest and hall from his eyes, to see Gimli regarding him.
"Oh," said Legolas. "It's later, isn't it."
"Have another drink," Gimli said, and Legolas did, holding the flask tightly to keep his hand from shaking. The quiet between battles was the time to strip the bandage.
"Now tell me what happened."
He couldn't meet Gimli's eye, so he sat looking out into the misty dark as if it had some answers.
"You know," Gimli said at last, "wounds are better for the light and air."
Legolas lifted one brow and turned his head enough to catch the wry warmth in Gimli's expression. Then, he began to speak.
First, it was the mire, and the suffocating, stinking ooze all around him and through him. The failure, the hopelessness, the rage and the rot. Trapped and slain, sunken forever, lost and far away.
Then he had to put his head on his knees for a minute, and tasted another sip of the wine. It flowed into him like a cool, spicy breeze of early autumn.
When he could speak again, he told Gimli what he knew of Greenwood's part in the Last Alliance, and the Battle of Dagorlad, the greatest fight of the age. He had heard of it from his earliest days in tale and song, but the songs grew heavy, and peaked in great pain.
"My father's father," he said. "Oropher. He and his people were cut off from the main forces and trapped there." He wouldn't look anywhere near the direction of the marshes, not at this moment. Instead he fixed his gaze on Gimli's knee, his boot so carefully burnished and repaired, his calm, capable stillness.
"He was slain. Most of them were. They charged too soon, too fiercely, before the rest. Thus were they destroyed, struck down, though eventually the greater battle itself was won. And there they remained. There they rotted."
Gimli's silence was considering. At last he said, "Was it the memory of the songs that seized you?"
"No," said Legolas, shuddering. "None of our songs are like that, full of such strangling horror."
"And yet, he was your grandfather," Gimli mused. "Your close kin strove and suffered mightily here."
"He was mighty in truth," Legolas said. "I am told he burned to fight, and to lead, and never to submit."
They sat in thought. Legolas worked his jaw and tongue against the taste of the mud that threatened to rise, and took another drink.
"They say," he said when his mouth felt clean again, "that sometimes in those marshes can be seen, beneath the water, the figures of the dead."
"Surely, though, it was an age ago."
"Yes. I don't say they are still there...quite. Not they themselves. But..." He held out the flask to Gimli in silence.
Gimli shook his head absently. "And you saw them. Or what there still is of them. Their...echoes."
"His echo. I didn't see—I was."
"There is still that in him which lives in you," Gimli said. "And now you're carrying on his work."
Legolas capped the flask and laid it down. "Carrying his wounds," he said, dissatisfied. "Oropher fell fighting. I...only fell."
"No, you didn't." Gimli offered him a handful of new radishes; someone else had apparently seen the benefits of the kitchen gardens.
"Thanks to you." Legolas bit into a radish and savored its peppery crispness.
But Gimli waved that off. "It's not a question of thanks," he growled.
"It's a question," Legolas said insistently, "of who's with you now watching your back, this close to the Enemy. And it turns out it's someone who can't bear to be so near. Someone who doesn't know when the echoes might next rise up to claim him."
Gimli was frowning now, leaning forward, ready to argue. He opened his mouth abruptly, but then took a breath and snapped it shut again. Instead, he lifted a radish in his cupped hand and rolled it on the blanket like he was playing knucklebones. Apparently pleased with the radish's score, he looked up, and now he had a faint smile.
"We rode northwest toward those cursed marshes for some time after your rockfall," he said reasonably, "and your kin never troubled you to the same depth again. Maybe it's indeed like an echo, but a cursed loud one—the first blast shocks you, sickens you, might even knock you down. But from there it's just numb ears, and pain."
"You weren't there," Legolas said. "You didn't—you weren't him." He rubbed his eyes.
"Well, I can't argue you from it," Gimli said. "Can't argue lost miners out of a maze, either. You reach, and they reach." He held out both his hands, and clasped them strongly palm to palm. "That's what you did. And then you kept your head and rode on. That's what I saw."
"Not what I saw," Legolas muttered.
Gimli ate his dice–radish and said innocently, without looking at him, "They say the mirror image reverses."
"Unfair!" Legolas couldn't help but smile. "Again you stick me with my own darts. You're a perilous companion."
"I might find you convincing now and then, is all," Gimli said.
They sat quiet for a while, keeping watch, finishing off the last radish and dividing a piece of the sharp yellow cheese. Surprisingly, Legolas felt a little better, and as if he might eventually be better still. But was there an eventually to be had? He thought not.
"Well," he said at last, regretfully, "wounds, and green growing things, and even lost miners, they all need time to take the air and make the progress. But that's something in very short supply. We're here, Gimli, at the very doors and the very end."
Gimli shrugged, gathering up the cloth. "In matters of time, my elf, perhaps you'll learn to let me be the judge."
Legolas must have looked far too dubious, for Gimli shook his head impatiently. "We have the time there is," he said. "So, we use it."
"How?" And despite himself, Legolas heard honest hope in his voice, as if there really could be an answer.
"As ever," Gimli said. "Put a stake in the ground for the green leaves to twine on. Open to the air, taste it and follow. And the wound—" He took Legolas by the forearm, his grasp warm and tender. "You comfort it. You bandage it. Maybe you even tie it a knot."
Legolas met his eyes, their good–humored depths, the love and energy and wisdom there. "The best path out."
"Aye, and not always the safest," Gimli said.
Legolas clasped Gimli's forearm in return, and gazed long at their hands. The rapids ran fast, dizzyingly fast, but he had something to hold to. Memory rose to him—not his grandsire's, but all his own. And in every memory now was Gimli, elf–friend. His friend.
"Yes, this is the path," he said slowly, half in dream. Then, on a sudden rise of worry: "If I can keep out of the mud, and not take you down with me—"
Gimli twitched one of his braids, a sting of pain at his temple, and Legolas started, looking up. Gimli was grinning.
"Up with your beard, Durin's son," Gimli said cheerily. "Someone wise said that to me once, though I forget who."
Legolas resisted only a moment more, feeling himself being forcibly pulled from his remaining doubts, like being pried loose from swampwater sticky with rot. The fears were answerless, all the paths unmarked—but he tightened his grip on Gimli, who held firmly to him, and he was as it were yanked free all at once, head over heels, breathless. He barely tamped down the urge to seize Gimli bodily and bowl him over upon the blankets, to roll and wrestle as they had at Pelargir.
"Oh, Gimli," he laughed, his heart light. "What is to become of us?"
"Well, who can say," Gimli answered. "But let us ride together awhile longer, and find out."
That they did, to the very gates of the Dark Lord's land and into the birth of the new age. And side by side they found their own ending, and even an ending beyond.