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by Daisy Norbury
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JRR Tolkien. No money is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: The Paths of the Dead are a serious trial for our favorite dwarf. Legolas pep-talks him afterward.
"The company now mounted again, and Gimli returned to Legolas. They rode in file, and evening came on and a deep blue dusk; and still fear pursued them. Legolas turning to speak to Gimli looked back and the Dwarf saw before his face the glitter in the Elf's bright eyes. Behind them rode Elladan, last of the company, but not the last of those that took the downward road.
"The Dead are following," said Legolas. "I see shapes of Men and horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following."
-The Return of the King
Gimli forced one foot ahead of the other, willing his mind elsewhere, anywhere other than here and now and the horror at his heels. He had never in his life known such crippling, unreasoning, frustrating fear. Why should dead men frighten him so? Why should every whisper crowd his ears and grip his heart with ice? And as if that weren't bad enough, why was the damn elf so bloody unconcerned?
With the cave behind them, the Dunadain and the sons of Elrond returned to their mounts. Gimli saw that Legolas had halted Arod, and now stood beside him waiting for the dwarf to join them.
Left. Right. Damn ghosts! Left.
Presently he stood before Legolas, visibly shuddering. The elf eyed him. "Ready?" Gimli found his voice more reluctant even than his feet. "Gimli?"
"I can't move." Legolas laid a hand on his shoulder.
"You don't know, Legolas... you cannot imagine this awful dread."
"Maybe not, but I can see how it affects you. We musn't stop here. Come, you will be safe with me on Arod."
Gimli stared into the middle distance. "Safe."
Legolas climbed up and extended his arm. "Forty-three, my friend, and they were alive and far more dangerous." The dwarf raised his hand reluctantly, and Legolas gripped it tight and drew him up onto the horse. Gimli settled and wrapped his arms around the elf's middle.
"I hate that part."
"I know. It's over now. How's your head?" "Fine. Just ride."
Legolas spoke something low to Arod and he strode forward into the blue twilight, following the Dunadain. Elladan rode behind them. Gimli pulled his helm low over his ears, shutting out everything but the pale silk of the elf's hair before him. He pondered once again the disconcerting marvel that Legolas was able to lift him whole off the ground. "You're stronger than you look," he said.
Legolas turned his head to reply, and in that moment Gimli could see tiny glimmers of starlight reflected in his eyes. "So are you." Then something caught the elf's gaze and his eyes moved from Gimli and beyond Elladan to the dark, shifting fog behind them. Awe was in his face, and he spoke with reverence. "The Dead are following. I see shapes of men and horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following."
Elladan nodded. "Yes. The Dead ride behind. They have been summoned."
This only served to feed Gimli's lingering terror. "I did not need to know that."
"It is an awesome sight."
"Doubtless. Just please don't tell me any more about it."
Legolas smiled, laid a hand over the ones encircling him, and rode on.
When Gimli had calmed some, Legolas spoke again. "This is a side of you I have not seen before."
"This is a side of me _I_ have not seen before, and I don't much like it."
"Do you not? Seldom have I seen such depth of courage as I did today."
The dwarf stiffened. "Must you mock me?"
"Gimli, I do not. I walked the Paths of the Dead easily because I have no fear of them. You walked them, overcoming great difficulty, despite your fear."
Gimli was glad Legolas could not see him redden. "It was a simple matter of pride. I couldn't very well let a dwarf be bested at caving by a pack of elves and men."
Legolas chuckled. "Simple pride or not, I am honored yet again to call you friend." He lowered his voice. "And you jest, but I can feel this fear grasping at you still."
Gimli gripped him a shade more tightly. "They're still behind us, aren't they?"
"When will we be rid of them?"
"I know not." "Why must I continue to feel this way? It's exhausting."
Legolas squeezed the dwarf's hands gently with his free one. He maneuvered a thumb into the inner curve of Gimli's wrist. His pulse was racing. "Try to think about something else." Gimli nodded. They rode in silence. --
The company came at last out of the ravine and into the rich Morthond vale. Aragorn bid them hurry to the stone of Erech, and the lights twinkling in the homes of Men sped by. Bells rang in the hamlets below, and those afield fled before the Grey Company in fear. In their haste, the Dunadain and their companions rode like hunters, until their horses were stumbling with weariness. They reached the Hill of Erech just before midnight.
Aragorn dismounted and summoned the Dead. "Oathbreakers, why have ye come?"
"To fulfil our oath and have peace."
"The hour has come at last. Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me. And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart forever. For I am Elessar, Isildur's heir of Gondor."
Then Aragorn unfurled his standard, and the Dead remained silent for the rest of the long night. The company camped beside the Stone, but they slept little, because of the dread of the Shadows that hedged them round. --
No matter how many sharp little stones Gimli removed from his campsite, there always seemed to be one more poking into his back. Or shoulder. Or stomach. Turning over didn't help. Moving didn't help. He sat up with a sigh, found the stone, set it aside, and lay back down. And if it wasn't a stone in his side, it was the knowledge that the Dead were still there, always there, just waiting, he was sure, for the smallest opportunity to attack and overwhelm him. The still winter night might have been pleasant, but They seemed to pluck at his blanket, his beard, his eyes. He was as tired as he'd been on the nights of their long run across Rohan, but could find no peace. He rolled over and bedded his head on his elbow again, growling softly to himself.
A thick black cloud had crept down from the East and covered the stars, and Elrohir lit a campfire against the gloom. Legolas had stretched out on the ground a few feet to Gimli's left to await the dawn and another long day. He was tired and no more troubled this night than usual, and might easily have found rest, were he not keenly aware of the discomfort of those around him, and the dwarf in particular. The shades of the Dead appeared harmless to him: Some fluttered slowly about the great black dome, some huddled together in clouds about the margins of the campsite, some shrank to mere wisps or disappeared altogether. Gimli, however, was substantially less peaceful. He shifted positions frequently, shivered, covered and uncovered his ears, and was clearly far from dropping off. Eventually he sat up to adjust something, and grumbled as he returned to the ground, his back to the elf. Legolas had a short argument with himself and then made a decision. He had no wish to disturb his friend, but concluded that it would be difficult to disturb him any further. He rose into a crouch, crossed the small distance between them (deliberately making enough noise that he wouldn't startle him), made a pillow of his pack behind Gimli's head, sank down, and curled around him. It might not help the dwarf sleep, but it would probably warm him up a bit, at least.
Gimli could hear Legolas moving about behind him, but was taken altogether by surprise when he suddenly felt him wrap around his back and legs. His eyes popped open and he tensed. "Legolas?"
"What... Are you all right?"
"Mm." Legolas laid his left arm over Gimli's side and his hand came to rest on his ribs. The thought edged lazily into his mind that the dwarf fit perfectly into his protective circle. "You were shivering." Gimli considered this. He supposed he probably had been shivering, but it wasn't with cold. He'd been doing his best to think about something else, but still the Dead weighed on his mind. "Oh, that's all right, I'm not really cold. It's just... them."
This wasn't exactly what Legolas had hoped to hear. He was comfortable, and enjoying it. And noticing that the dwarf's tangled hair smelled like earth after rain. He was silent for a moment. "Should I leave?"
Should he leave? Well yes, he didn't need to... Gimli felt the elf's warm breath on his crown, and the surprising heat radiating from his arm right through the blanket and shirt and into his skin, and the thought stopped half-finished. He _had_ been cold, he realized, and just ignoring it. Now Legolas' body held a band of warmth against his side and down his back as far as his knees, and the rest of him suddenly felt the colder for it.
"No." Then, "Here. Share the blanket."
"You keep it. I do not feel the cold."
"It is large enough to cover us both."
Legolas rose on his elbow and pulled the blanket around them, and then settled against him once more. "Try to sleep."
Legolas let his mind drift. He was aware of the rows of Dunadain around them, some sleeping fitfully, some staring up at where the stars should have been. Arod and Hasufel and the others stood together asleep, their breath steaming into the night. He had the impression that the valley had been washed with rain recently, and the farms and fields around them creaked and brooded with the fear of the "King of the Dead". And underneath all that, he was aware of the slowing rhythm of Gimli's breathing. The dwarf was beginning to relax.
Gimli knew from experience that _trying_ to sleep was useless, but he appreciated the sentiment. It was much easier to ignore the Dead with Legolas wreathed around him. They had stopped plucking at him, and in their place was a calm and growing warmth. His wound was quiet, and no stones troubled him. Dwarves are great connoisseurs of the concept of "snug", and it occurred to him that this was the first time he'd felt it since he left home the previous autumn. It also occurred to him that he hadn't touched this much of any one person since... hm. A good long time, anyway.
Legolas was deliberately not musing on what should have been the very peculiar notion of bedding down with a dwarf. "No," he thought, "not _a_ dwarf, _this_ dwarf." And nothing- not the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, not miruvor on the mountain, not the golden hush of Lorien or the grace of its queen- nothing on this long, difficult journey had felt anything like this good. He had all but forgotten that anything could. He nuzzled into Gimli's mane and his hand drifted up from his ribs to the space just over his heart.
The distraction of the day's horror had numbed Gimli quite effectively up to this point, but now the elf's soothing touch was making him aware of his body, which, at the moment, he'd prefer not to be. Hardy they may be, but even dwarves have limits. A profound weariness seeped into him, and an ache that pummeled right through muscle and down into bone. He felt as though the very earth below were pulling on every limb, and there was nothing left to him but weakness. The idea of yet another day of this mad quest made him want to crumple into the road and stay there. It was in that moment, when he thought himself abject, least worthy, that he felt the elf's face in his hair and hand on his heart.
Earth after rain, yes. Leather, smoke, stone, sweat... strength... loyalty... kindness. Legolas remembered that he couldn't actually _smell_ loyalty or kindness, but they were there, just the same. They were there and they were tugging at him. He was too honest to believe that he was here on the ground with Gimli, sharing a blanket, entirely for the dwarf's benefit. Not anymore. And he was beginning to doubt his own intentions in approaching him in the first place. The knowledge that it was nearly time to face up to something stood just at the edge of his consciousness, tapping its foot and looking impatient. Legolas ignored it. He dozed.
Gimli lay in puzzled wonder that this foreign creature of woodland and starlight (who, though he had fought beside him and seen him in a few of his more valiant moments, had also definitely seen him at his worst), this immortal, unfathomable thing, this elf's regard for him had all the appearance of- what? Friendship? Obviously. More than that. Affection. He lifted his right hand to his breast and wove their fingers together. Gimli was exhausted, and knew that tomorrow promised to be difficult enough on a full night's sleep, much less the four hours he'd be lucky to get. On the other hand, he was well aware these days that each night could be his last, and was reluctant to waste what might be his only opportunity to enjoy this kind of closeness with Legolas. He opened his eyes. The campfire had dwindled to embers that cast an orange glow over the company, but there was no other light. He shifted and turned, lowering his back to the ground, but did not disengage his hand from the elf's. Legolas appeared to be staring into the fire, but his expression was slack and Gimli could tell he had slipped into the netherworld of elvish sleep. His face was very near, and Gimli discovered that if he leaned his ear in close to the elf's chest, he could hear the soft thump of his heart.
Legolas blinked. The fire was nearly out, and the night still a deep black. He could not tell how long he had slept. Gimli lay in the warm space before him holding his hand. His eyes were closed and his breath slow and steady. Firelight glinted off the copper fuzz framing his face. Legolas quietly propped himself up on his elbow. He'd have been very sorry to wake the dwarf, now that he'd finally fallen asleep, and... well. The time for facing up had come. He knew what he felt. Legolas allowed himself the luxury of staring. Gimli's face was usually, in his limited experience, a canvas for his emotions, and the world had been a harsh mistress this year. Rarely had he seen him wearing less than irritation, and rage and pain were more common. Sleep erased them all, and left him thoughtful. Serene and open. Absurd as it seemed to him, Legolas knew that there was nowhere else he would rather be than right here, right now.
Gimli was not, in fact, quite asleep, though he was much closer to it than he had been at any other time that night. He felt Legolas move and do something with his other arm, but thought nothing of it. He didn't know if the elf's regard for him was affection or love or just simple elven friendship, but decided that for the moment, it didn't matter. The chance to share some comfort with him was answer enough for tonight, and he was happy to do no more than lie still in their cocoon. Then he felt Legolas lift their hands just a fraction off his chest, and stroke the pad of his thumb slowly along his palm from his wrist to the base of his fingers. Gimli was about to open his eyes and let his question shine up out of them, but stopped when he realized that he was a little afraid of what might happen if he did. And then subsequently realized he was more afraid that it wouldn't happen if he didn't.
Legolas had been gazing down at him with a small smile, but it faded when he saw Gimli's eyes drift open. "I'm sorry. I did not mean to wake you." "I wasn't asleep."
They stared at one another.
The last glowing ember of Elrohir's fire flickered and died.
The afterimage of the elf's face floated in Gimli's vision, and he raised his hand to the blurred edge of its cheek.
Legolas turned his head slightly and brushed his lips into the hollow of Gimli's palm.
The darkness was complete: a starless night at new moon, an unlit cavern deep underground. The tips of the dwarf's fingers slipped into the space behind the elf's jaw, and he drew them lightly down the length of his throat to his collar. Gimli drew a deep and shaking breath in through his teeth. Legolas listened, head low, followed the sound of the dwarf's breath to its source, and stopped it with his mouth.
Legolas was a bit surprised at the warmth of Gimli's reception. It had become obvious over the past two minutes that he was welcome and the dwarf was, if nothing else, curious, but he hadn't been expecting the kind of unreserved delight that greeted him in Gimli's mouth and hands. It felt like a gift. It humbled him.
Nothing had changed, not really, but suddenly everything was different. Gimli found the elf did not taste of pine or spice or river water or any of the other elvish things that he'd been unconsciously expecting, but just of himself- flesh and heat and salt. Just a person. No different from a dwarf. He is not some demigod vacationing in Middle-earth. For all his stillness and unearthly beauty he is a living, physical thing of blood and bone, effort and need, pain and joy and anxiety. Just like me. And I love him. And- Mahal, of course I love him. Why didn't I see it before?
Legolas disentangled his lips from Gimli's and sat up, pulling the dwarf up after him and into a hug. He found the bare space between his beard and hair and pressed a kiss into his neck.
Legolas discovered he had no idea what to say. The dwarf threaded his fingers through his hair.
"I'm not helping you sleep, am I?"
Gimli felt for the elf's ear with the tip of his nose and whispered into it.
"Oh, I think I can cope."
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Issue No.: 2.6
Site Last Updated: 11 May 2003