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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: Face it, folks, as strange as it may seem to those who do not know them, Gimli and Legolas are inseparable. The Battle of Helm's Deep takes a turn for the worse for the elf and dwarf. *Slash!*, if you're into that sort of thing, but heartfelt slash.
CHAPTER 1: RETREAT
There came a blare of trumpets, then a crash and flash of flame and smoke. The waters of the Deeping-stream poured out hissing and foaming: they were choked no longer, a gaping hole was blasted in the wall. A host of dark shapes poured in.
"Devilry of Saruman!" cried Aragorn. "They have crept in the culvert again and have lit the fire of Orthanc beneath our feet. Elendil!" he shouted, as he leaped down into the breach; but even as he did so a hundred ladders were raised against the battlements. Over the wall and under the wall the last assault came sweeping like a dark wave upon a hill of sand. The defense was swept away. Some of the Riders were driven back, further and further into the Deep, falling and fighting as they gave way towards the caves. Others cut their way back towards the Citadel.
Gimli hewed a two-handed stroke and laid an Orc before his feet. He regarded the thing with grim satisfaction and blew out his breath, misting the chill air. "Twenty-one!" he shouted to Legolas, who was whetting his long blade upon the wall above him.
"Good!" the elf cried. "But my count is now two dozen. It has been mostly knife-work up here."
The dwarf approached him and stood leaning against the breastwork. "There are so many," the elf sighed.
"Not so many now," Gimli grinned fiercely as he shook the steaming black blood from his blade, spattering the ground.
"Our count is only a few leaves in a forest. It is disheartening," the elf replied. "It will not be long ere we are awash once more in the tide of our foes. I would that there could be better light for shooting!" The elf fingered the fletching of a long arrow with his fingers and his eyes glittered in the darkness.
"Dawn shall be a long time coming, I think, and the night dark indeed," Gimli said. "But this is ground which I could defend and be content. There is good rock here," he said, "and this country has tough bones. I feel it beneath me. Give me a year and a hundred of my kin and I would make this a place that armies would break upon like water."
Legolas gave him a vague smile and stared out at the vast horde which clamored beyond the wall. "I do not doubt it, my friend," he said, "but I do not like it here. It is too confined and the greyness of it does little to lift my heart. Men build their fortresses and towers to last, but I do not see how they can find them habitable. This is a bleak place."
The elf and dwarf ceased to speak as the echo of Aragorn's voice sounded far along the battlements, signalling their doom. They heard the warriors take up his cry for retreat, their hoarse calls ringing out through the thick, smoke-filled air. All took to their heels, leaping from the heights to get to safe ground.
Those with whom Legolas and Gimli stood were the last to withdraw; they kept their places as long as they could to buy time for their comrades to get to safety. The fighting was vicious and hot and the number of orcs crawling and scrabbling over the stones multiplied. When the trumpets sounded, they knew that the game was up and it was time to give way and fight later. Theoden's men raced back, some battling their way for the Rock, some cutting their way to the caves, stumbling over shadowy shapes and dispatching enemies as they went.
Legolas remained at the wall, an arrow kept nocked at his bowstring, and he fired at the orcs who would trip up the heels of the retreating Rohirrim. Gimli stood beside him, his axe held high, and they watched as the black host advanced. Men darted past them, momentarily pausing to look at the two fighters who were oddly out of place amongst the horsemen of the Mark, but danger and death were nigh and there was no time for such wonderment.
Legolas fired one last arrow into the breach and caught an orc through the throat. "Come!" Gimli bade him; he tugged at the elf's sleeve and lowered himself down onto the parapet. "All who can have now got safe within. It is time for us to follow!"
Legolas nodded at last and slung his bow over his back.
Even as he turned, there was a great shout from outside the walls and the evening sky lit up like a frozen sunrise. Sheets of harsh white light shot through the air, crushing rock and foundation where they struck, drawing screams from orcs and men alike who had hesitated and were lost.
"Gimli! Legolas's voice rose with alarm. An orc lying motionless among the slain had crept behind the dwarf as he gazed in horror at the forces of Orthanc tearing into the Helm's defences. It now grappled savagely with him. Gimli twisted, trying to break its hold, but the thing had grabbed him from behind and he was having an difficult time shaking it off. He twisted and turned, growling fiercely as the orc snarled and snapped at his neck and sought a firmer grip on him. Gimli wrenched his shoulders and spun the creature around. With a fluid motion, Legolas unsheathed his knife and cast it, burying it deep within the orc's back. It fell limply over Gimli and he heaved it off in disgust. He kicked it once in the face and bent to retrieve the elf's blade, tearing it from the bone and flesh with a jerk of his wrist. The dwarf lifted his head to shout up at his companion.
But his words never came.
A flickering shaft of light blew away a piece of the wall above Legolas with a plunging roar. The elf jumped nimbly from under the crumbling stone, but even as he moved the white fire shattered and flared out from the wall's surface behind him, striking Legolas, flooding through him.
He stiffened with a wordless cry. His body arched and he flung his arms wide. He was engulfed by the unwholesome light and he disappeared in its blinding flash.
"Legolas!" Gimli's deep voice boomed. There was no answer, or if there was, it was drowned by the rushing noise of the sorcerous blasts and the sound of the hollow, distant horns. The dwarf cursed fervently and stumbled forward, kicking aside corpses and debris in a frantic effort to reach the elf.
The harsh light gradually faded around him and Gimli blinked and squinted, trying to see past the afterimage which lingered before his eyes. The air was charged and he could feel it prickling his skin, raising the hairs upon his neck. He picked his way towards the place where he had seen Legolas go down, his axe in one hand and the elf's white knife clenched tightly in his other fist.
Gimli found the elf still upon the wall, on his knees amongst the rubble, his bow cast down beside him, his arms wrapped tightly about his body. "Legolas!" Gimli cried, and he rushed to his companion's side. His heart was in his throat as he knelt beside the elf, putting strong hands upon his shoulders.
"Legolas! Ai, Legolas! Are you wounded?"
Legolas gave no answer. He remained kneeling, his head down, his silver helm lying beside his feet and his black hair spilling over his face.
Gimli cursed and rose to his feet, casting about for help, but there was none to be had. Those men who could had fled to the caves or up the broad stairway to the Hornburg. The dwarf bent and wrenched one of the elf's arms free and forced it around his neck. He reached out and scooped the elf's bow from the ground, stowed his axe and the elf's blade on his back, then he heaved and lifted Legolas to his feet. His mind was a tangle of despair and confusion, but he knew this place was not safe. Black arrows skittered over the wall and clattered upon the rock, and Gimli cast fearful eyes towards the skies, waiting for another blast of wizard sorcery, or worse. He clumsily helped the elf down from the heights. Legolas was struggling to walk but could not; he kept falling to his knees, and Gimli was all but carrying his much taller companion across the now abandoned ground behind the Deeping Wall. The elf had not spoken; his breathing was ragged and harsh in Gimli's ear against the silence of the aftermath of the battle.
No good, Gimli thought. They could not make it as far as the caves or gain the stairs. It was too far and there were no one left to assist them. Only the dead or dying were there now. He looked desperately about the Deep for refuge.
His eyes lit upon a series of abandoned guard houses on the far side of the battlements. Most were still intact, and they were away from the culvert, shadowed in a corner of the west wall and a small blocked stairwell. Gimli tightened his grip upon Legolas and led him toward the buildings, hoping against hope that no more enemies lurked nearby, praying they could reach them without having to fight.
It was slow going, but nothing hindered their flight. The battle seemed to have moved away from the culvert to the Gate where the wall had been breached and there the forces were gathered. Explosions sounded from far off, but nothing stirred amidst the wreckage that littered their path. Gimli reached the guard house that was furthest in and the less exposed and he dragged Legolas within.
He swept the door shut behind them. The small house was confined and dim, but there was a low pallet on the floor and a store of water. A thick layer of dust lay over everything from the blasts and chaos that had surrounded it, but it looked a haven to Gimli's eyes and he deemed it would serve.
Gimli supported his comrade-in-arms as he hung weakly from his neck, on the verge of collapse. The elf's bow clattered to the floor, and the dwarf pulled and heaved Legolas to the pallet and gently eased him down. There was little light in the room, but there was enough from the cracks in the door and a small window near the roof that he could see the elf's face in the new moonlight, ashen pale.
Gimli barricaded the door with a few pieces of wood and a sturdy looking storage chest, then propped his axe in a corner nearby within easy reach. He fetched water in a cup from the keg upon a small table and carried it to the stricken elf.
He trickled some into his mouth. Legolas stirred and choked but managed to swallow a mouthful. The elf drew a shuddering breath and reached forth to grasp for the dwarf's hand and tilt the cup further; he gulped at the proffered water until it was gone. A spasm of pain tore through the elf and wrenched a groan from deep within him that disturbed the dwarf. There was no mark upon his friend, no physical wound that he could see, yet Legolas was clearly in agony. At a loss, Gimli cast the empty cup aside and sat close by, placing a weathered hand upon the elf's arm to comfort him as he considered their plight.
Legolas moaned and licked his lips, then his eyes flickered open and his body tensed. He focused upon the dwarf's face hovering next to him and relaxed a little.
"Gimli..." he rasped. "Are you hurt?" His strange, elegant eyes were shadowy and vague, and he looked with confusion about him, trying to comprehend where he was.
Gimli grimly shook his head. "Nay, I am uninjured, Legolas. We are safe here for the moment I think. You took a bolt of that hell-fire born of Orthanc, my friend. I thought I had lost you," he said quietly. He cleared his throat and recovered his composure. "A fine mess we are in!" he said. "I only hope this place proves to be secure. Lucky for you that you had a stout son of Durin there to take you from danger!"
Legolas gave him a slight smile and he closed his eyes. "Luckily for you... I was struck down," he murmured. "Two more... and I would have soundly beat your score, Master Dwarf." He placed an unsteady hand upon his breast and sighed. "What of Aragorn?"
"He managed to retreat, I believe. They will marshal their strength within the Citadel and move at dawn, if the orcs do not manage to break through the inner defenses."
The elf nodded and made to reply, but pain tore at him again and he convulsed, his head lifting from the pallet. He choked back a cry and clutched at Gimli's arm desperately, clinging to the dwarf as the spasm shook him, seeking solace from his companion's presence.
After an interminable moment he sank back, his body quaking violently. Gimli's heart surged with empathy and he let the elf rest against him, lending him what strength he could, unable to think of anything else he could do to help him. He felt wretchedly helpless. "Legolas," he said gruffly, his voice thick, "what it is that ails you? Where are you hurt?"
Legolas gave a shuddering sigh and quieted, cradled in Gimli's arms. "I am sorry, Gimli...." he breathed finally. "The pain is... so strong. Let me rest. I will be well. I do not mean to be such a burden.... I will be well." He pulled away from the dwarf and sank wearily back to the pallet.
Gimli hesitated, then reached out and gently brushed away the unsettling tears of exhaustion that trickled from the elf's eyes. Legolas looked up at him with chagrin. "It feels... like searing ice slicing into me, numbing me, Gimli... it takes my breath from me and pierces me through. A trifle of Saruman's black corruption, I should guess." The elf swallowed and tried to laugh. "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, we've been told..." he said with a wry smile. The elf broke off his jest with a gasp. "I know not what to do, Legolas!" Gimli frowned and tugged at his beard in frustration. "Foul sorcery, and wizard tricks! A sword thrust, broken bones... such injuries I understand, but I cannot ease you when I know not what has been done to you." He took up the elf's hands in his rough ones, feeling them tremble. He bent his head and anger welled up within him, mingling with his fear. "Cursed coward!" he cried. "Holed up in that tower, too afraid to come down and fight! I swear, I will... I...." he sputtered with fury.
Legolas had closed his eyes. It seemed the hurt had become too much; the elf let go and slipped away into blessed unconsciousness, though his breathing was shallow and quick and he looked to be in distress even as he rested.
Gimli looked at him and he shook with suppressed emotion. This was the final injustice of this cursed quest and the dwarf's heart burned with rage at the sight of Legolas laid low, this fair child of the forest struck down by the foul hand of a sneaking traitor casting spells from afar. The elf was not going to die, Gimli decided. He would not allow it. Not in the middle of this foul, filthy battle, here in this dark fortress the elf hated, not after all they had gone through. It wasn't right and he would not let it happen. He clenched his teeth in frustration and swallowed the urge to march out and bury his axe up to the hilt in Saruman's miserable flesh.
Gimli sighed and felt exhaustion begin to settle into his shoulders and his back, as well as the ache of various bruises and scrapes earned in the battle. The glow of the moon filtered through the dingy little window above their heads. He felt tired. He wished Aragorn were here. He might have known what to do. Gimli certainly did not.
He wished also for a bath and a comfortable bed and cold ale, but knew he wasn't likely to get any of these things for some time yet to come. He shifted his position on the floor to keep his legs from cramping up and berated himself. He was a dwarf, after all, and could do without a few comforts on the battlefield. He had seen worse times than this by far! and yet a weariness weighed upon his heart that he had difficulty shrugging off. Even had he wanted rest, sleep would not have come to him. He could not stop his gaze from constantly wandering to his stricken friend. He feared to close his eyes lest Legolas should wake -- or worse -- lest Legolas never wake again.
He found himself staring down once more at the elf's form beside him, seeking reassurance in the slight rise and fall of Legolas's breast that marked him as still among the living. Gimli felt panic well up within him when it seemed to him for a moment that Legolas had gone terribly, terribly still. His own heart lurched and the elf's name stuck in his throat, but the dwarf breathed a ragged sigh of relief when Legolas shifted and murmured softly as he came back from whatever black dreams he wandered. Gimli reached forth and stroked tentative fingers down the column of the elf's smooth neck, feeling for a pulse. It was faint, but steady.
Like a wounded animal, Gimli thought as he watched over him. A proud deer, strength and innocence bound into one being, brought down by a hunter's arrow, his spirit grounded.
He jerked his eyes away from Legolas's face with irritation. He was becoming as sentimental as the elf. If he wasn't careful, soon he'd be out singing to the trees.
The thought of that brought a brief smile to his lips and an unsteady burst of laughter escaped him. He clapped a hand over his mouth and stifled it with a cough. He looked askance at Legolas next to him to see if he had disturbed the elf's sleep.
And as he gazed at him, the dwarf realized something which gave him some small comfort. Legolas seemed to shimmer faintly in the near darkness. This was nothing new, certainly; the dwarf had noticed this before in the nights during their long hunt with Aragorn and he had shrugged it off as yet another annoying quality about his elven companion. He had scoffed then, telling Legolas to cast a blanket over himself lest he keep the other two awake. "Like sleeping next to an enormous willowisp," he had grumbled.
Now, as he sat there worrying and musing in the small room, Gimli had naught to do but pause and reflect upon it.
Perhaps the elves were made up of a bit of the stars they loved and revered, he thought. He had certainly never been close enough to many elves to ever ask, and while he had known Legolas, such matters had not come up. He had not spent much time looking up at the sky ever in his life. He spent most of his life below the ground, and when he was beyond cavern and cave, he kept his attention to matters close at hand. He much preferred the earth; this was what he could touch and feel, and it seemed a waste of effort to be dreaming upon clouds and contemplating the stars. What dwarf would! Such things were far removed from practical life and served no purpose.
But that luminous glow about his companion now gave the dwarf hope, even as he shook his head once more at the strangeness of this eldest of races. It reminded him of Rivendell, of Lothlorien... of Elrond and Celeborn, and the Lady Galadriel, of something more profound that those bound to Middle-earth could fathom. Perhaps one day, Legolas would explain it to him.
The elves were fading, if all that was said was true, but there was greatness in them yet, and he had to admit that there was perhaps more to life now than he had ever understood living with his kin beneath the Lonely Mountain.
Whatever fate held in store for Legolas, he was not meant to die here, the dwarf was certain of that. He could not die here. He would not die here.
Gimli was taken aback by the disturbance he felt at the thought of such a thing happening. Legolas had become such a close friend to him over the miles they had travelled together. That hard-nosed dwarf who not so long ago would have scorned the thought that he'd ever be concerned about an elf had been left behind along the way. There was a time he would have thought anyone mad who told him that without a moment's consideration he would willingly trade his own life for the life of Legolas, if only to have him well and standing there tall once more, dauntless and unaffected and annoyingly light of heart as ever he was.
But that was how it stood. He wanted nothing more than just that, and it seemed now to him that perhaps he hoped in vain. Despair crept back into Gimli's soul and he anxiously kept watch once more over the pale, sleeping face of the elf before him, such exhaustion closing even those eyes -- and yet he shimmered with that light even such devilry as Saruman devised could not quench.
He stayed near Legolas's side, distracted and so lost in thought that he did not notice Legolas awaken until he felt an almost imperceptible pressure of fingers upon his arm. He blinked to find the elf watching him back.
"You... are still here..." Legolas murmured softly, and he withdrew his touch. His gaze was unfocused, as if he were still half asleep.
"Of course I am, you fool of an Elf," Gimli answered brusquely. "Where did you think I'd go?"
Legolas closed his eyes slowly. In a hushed, weary voice, he whispered, "Please... do not leave me."
Gimli was overwhelmed. He bowed his head and felt hot tears form. "I won't." He bent and clasped the elf's hand in his and pressed his lips to his brow tenderly. Legolas moaned at the touch. A compulsion took him and ere Gimli stopped to think, the dwarf lowered his head and gently brushed his lips over Legolas's.
The elf drew in a slight, quick breath. Gimli froze, disbelieving.
Stupidity! Undeniable, unimaginable stupidity. How could he dare such a thing?
Gimli flushed, mortally ashamed, and would have thrown himself off a high tower, had one been readily at hand. He berated himself silently and prayed to be mercifully struck dead right then and there to spare him the embarrassment of facing what he had done.
But it seemed that whatever gods were listening, they were entertained by this turn of events and had decided to leave him to his discomfort. He winced and risked a glance at his companion, feeling his face burn hotter than a forge's fire. He opened his mouth to say something, *anything*, though he knew not what he could say to excuse himself.
To his complete wonderment, Legolas was not looking at him with the loathing he fully expected to see.
Those eyes, *those eyes*, were instead gently curious, pleading, and Gimli found himself bewildered and sinking into their depths. He bent his head and sought the elf's mouth with his once more, harder this time, and with more feeling. Legolas returned the kiss with trembling lips.
The elf had been taken off-guard, most certainly, but caution and reticence gave way to desperate need. For a moment he was lost, caught up in the life and fire he felt in that kiss, and he craved it. Gimli's caress was a tangible anchor and he clung to it, unwilling to let go of it, feeling the bitter chill that had settled into his body diminish at the contact. The dwarf's touch banished the pain and filled him with blessed warmth. He breathed him in; his soul burned and the cold fled from him.
Gimli pulled away, flushed and disbelieving.
"Legolas... Legolas, this should not be," he stammered. "Ah, you are weakened and hurt, and I'm forcing.... I am sorry. I...."
Legolas took in a deep draught of air, feeling his mind grow a little clearer. He silenced Gimli with a single arched eyebrow. "My dear dwarf," he murmured, "It is unlike your kind... to be so timid. It is... most amusing." He smiled at Gimli's indignant expression. "I am not so stricken that I am delirious, Gloin's son. I desired it, Gimli. I... cannot say I have not wished for it. I only fear that you were the one taken by surprise, and I apologize for that."
Gimli sat very still for a moment, considering the elf's confession. Then he chuckled roughly. "A fine pair we make. Apologies and whispered sentiments while a battle rages on outside."
"Even in the midst of war, love and light seek to prevail," Legolas said quietly.
Gimli snorted. "How very elvish. It still remains that I chose an remarkably inopportune time for such an action."
Legolas sighed, then ran a hand over his face and tried to sit up a little. The dwarf took him by the arm and supported him, helping him to rest his back against the wall of the guard house. Legolas was looking at him in puzzlement, and Gimli felt blood rise to his cheeks once more. It was one thing to ponder the elf as he slept. It was quite another facing him awake and aware and staring with those intense, bright eyes.
"Well? I feel already quite foolish, if that is what you are thinking, Master Elf."
Legolas shook his head slightly. "Nay, Gimli. Not foolishness," he said slowly, laying slender fingers upon the dwarf's shoulder. "Something... much more... so much stronger than all of it." He regarded Gimli thoughfully for a long moment, studying him. Then he blinked and seemed to come back to himself. The elf saw the confusion in Gimli's eyes and he lowered his head, his hair falling forward over his face.
"Foolishness indeed, my friend. We are both hopelessly foolish," Legolas said. His hand slipped from Gimli's shoulder. The room seemed colder again to him, and shadows clouded his sight once more. He felt himself falling, falling far from the place he was into nothing. He fought it, but the cold agony seared his flesh and stripped him to the bone. The dwarf reached for him quickly when Legolas stiffened and gave a suffering cry. Legolas slid back and curled defensively upon his side, the stalwart elven prince reduced to whimpering in soft torment as that icy void threatened to claim him yet again. Gimli drew Legolas to him, any awkwardness he felt giving way to concern. The spasm did not seem as intense or as long as the last, the dwarf noted, and he stroked the elf's dark hair, muttering reassuring words. Legolas held fast to him as if he were afraid to be torn away. Finally, spent and shaking, without speaking, the elf settled instinctively against him to rest, seeking his safety with an unquestioning trust that touched Gimli's heart to the quick.
Soldiers on the battlefield, Gimli thought. I would guard his back in a fight. I will guard him now in his sleep. But exhaustion lay heavily upon the dwarf as well and despite his intentions, he was lulled by the soft breathing of the elf gathered in his arms. Before long his eyes closed and he slept where he sat. He must have soundly nodded off, for it was several hours later deep into the the night that he awoke to find Legolas gone.
Gimli started and sprang clumsily to his feet, his chain mail clinking loudly in the dark, leather straps creaking. His eyes rapidly adjusted to the dimness of the small room and he cast a glance nervously around him. He let out a hoarse sigh of relief.
Legolas was standing by the door, pressed against it, listening intently. His knife was in his hand and he was poised to strike. He had moved the storage chest from before the door.
"What...?" Gimli began, but the elf put a finger to his lips and tipped his head. Gimli fell silent and listened as well.
There was a shuffling racket from outside, as if many pairs of booted feet were scrabbling among the stones and debris outside. Gimli eased towards his axe in the corner and hefted the weapon onto his shoulder.
The noise stopped, and an ugly voice muttered a command.
Gimli moved to Legolas's side. He tapped his arm and the elf shifted slightly, carefully sliding behind him.
With a sudden movement, Gimli threw himself at the door, tearing the hinges outward, catching the first orc in the face. The thing stumbled back, stunned by the blow. Another orc rose up at the side and Gimli leapt out of the doorway to meet it. He swung his axe with a force born of much pent up frustration and rage. He cleaved it through the midsection, slicing it nearly in twain. Blood drenched the ground and dripped from his axe. Gimli's face was a mask of fury and he had to swallow the cry of satisfaction that welled up within him at the kill. He whirled back to face the orc with the broken nose and with a wide stroke of his blade he beheaded it before it could squeak.
Panting from his exertions, the dwarf turned to face more attackers, only to find that Legolas had neatly dispatched the remaining two orc lurkers and was carefully drawing his long white knife from the gut of the last enemy. The elf cast a look at him and nodded. They had slain them all with hardly a noise.
Gimli wiped the gore from his axe upon the rags of one of the bodies and grinned. "Still ahead in our game, my friend." He looked cautiously out upon the Deep in the dark. It seemed deserted now, and nothing moved but the wind and the odd fluttering scrap of cloth among the corpses of men and orcs that lay scattered across the battleground.
He glanced upwards. It was indeed past midnight. The sky was now utterly dark. Even the moon had fled, and the stillness of the heavy air foreboded storm. Gimli was wary, heeding the noises in the distance of swords clashing and shouting and small skirmishes still raging on.
"It might be possible, Legolas, to make it to the caves or the Citadel under moonlight, but in this darkness I am unsure of the layout of the Keep and we might well meet foes along the way. Not all, apparently, are following commands and staying with Saruman's main force at the gates. He tugged his beard pensively and studied the elf. "What say you? Do we move on?" The notion of making for the caves was appealing to the dwarf, unsurprisingly, and he recollected Eomer's description of the Agalrond with longing.
Legolas's voice was soft as the night air. "I fear these orcs will not be the last deserters to pass this way seeking easier plunder, and I doubt this place is safer than any which lies ahead. If we do not go, we may be facing worse odds at dawn." He sheathed his weapon and stepped over the orc that lay at his feet. Lightning touched the sky overhead and thunder chased it close behind. Rain began to lightly fall.
Gimli regarded his companion apprehensively, wondering at Legolas's seemingly swift recovery from the malady that had gripped him such a short time ago. He narrowed his eyes and closely watched the elven prince in the dark. His skepticism proved well founded. Though he struggled mightily to maintain it, it was not long before the elf's semblance of strength left him. Thunder crashed once more above their heads and Legolas wavered even as he stood over the bodies of his vanquished foes. Gimli bounded over the dead orcs, sliding through the blood and rain now mingling upon the ground, and he caught him before he fell. He helped Legolas to stand and regarded him gravely.
"Safe or no, you cannot go on tonight."
Legolas protested, but the dwarf shook his head adamantly. Legolas whispered a bitter oath and allowed Gimli to lead him back to the guard house.
"I hate this, Gimli. I hate this weakness." He bit off each word angrily. "I feel as helpless as a child. We should not be here. We should be at Aragorn's side...."
"You should not even have been out harrying orcs like this. We will face whatever the morning brings when the sun rises, but we are staying here until then."
Gimli sealed the door behind them again as Legolas slid shakily to the floor. It had grown chill in the small room. Normally resistant to such things, the cold from which Legolas suffered was beyond his defenses, and now damp from the rain, he shivered moreso in the darkness.
The dwarf felt the night air seep into his bones as well, and his back twinged from sleeping in a sitting position for so long. Even the fray with the orcs had not worked out the kinks. He stretched and yawned, wincing. He looked around at the small, lightless room. It was a poor refuge compared to that which they might have found in the caves, no doubt. He sighed with resignation, then removed his cloak and crouched back down next to Legolas, wrapping it around the elf's shoulders. He was disturbed by the coolness of the elf's skin, and taking his hands in his, he began to chafe them until he felt them begin to warm a little.
Legolas looked at him and his eyes widened. "You are wounded," he said, seeing the trickle of red bright against the traces of dark orc blood.
Gimli lifted a hand to his forehead and grimaced. "Aye. 'Tis shallow. A bit of steel splintered from the armor of that last filthy orc. He was wearing an iron collar, I think. Yet I would say that I came away from the fight better off than did he," the dwarf bared his teeth in a smile.
"Gimli," Legolas said, "If I am no better able to continue at first light, you will have to leave and make your way to Aragorn and the others. It may, in truth, be wiser if you left now and took advantage of the cover of night."
"And leave you here alone?" He sniffed. "A ridiculous suggestion that is, my dear Elf, and no."
Legolas cast him an irritable look. "A plague on dwarves and their stiff necks." He clenched his teeth and stifled an aching groan. When he could speak again, his voice was hardly a whisper, resigned and tinged with bitterness. "A fine hindrance I am upon you. Forgive me."
"A plague now upon elves and their simple wits," Gimli countered. "You are apologizing to me because you are hurt? A hundred thousand apologies you owe me for all the times you have offended me, and you offer me one for this?" He shook his head and rose to fetch water from the barrel in the corner. He tore off a bit of cloth from his shirt and dabbed at the cut above his eye and hastily bound it. "Legolas, my friend, I am not leaving your side. Do you believe me to be that faithless?" The dwarf's tone softened when he heard the elf choke back a weary cry. "This will pass." He took a long draught from the cup in his hands and then refilled it. "The dawn will come, you will heal, and you will be yourself."
There came no answer. Gimli turned and paced back to kneel at the elf's side. Legolas lay beneath his cloak and the dwarf reached out to gently shake him. The elf did not move. He set the water in his hand aside and lifted him. He looked into Legolas's face, and saw that his eyes were dark and empty.
He was losing him.
Gimli cursed his helplessness. Fear rose within him and he gripped the elf's hand tightly in his own. "I will not leave you," the dwarf vowed, his deep voice breaking. "Just do not leave me." He was not sure the elf heard him, or if he did, was not sure he understood. He suddenly needed very much to be close to Legolas, to assure him that he was still there, or if this truly was their time to part, to share that last bit of life with him. With uncertain fingers he caressed the elf's face, then with extreme care and a warrior's expedience, he lightly kissed the cool lips.
Legolas did not respond. Gimli gritted his teeth, hissing his name, and then kissed him again, harder. "Fight this!" he growled. "You do not give up this easily, elf!"
His heart leapt as Legolas stirred slightly, then seemed to rouse a little and his eyes focused. Gimli gripped him severely and kissed him again. After a moment he returned the rough embrace with what strength he had left, passionately matching the dwarf kiss for kiss, feeling the rasping beard against his face, the leathery hand upon his cheek. He gasped a little, and Gimli met his lips lovingly twice more with brief touches of his strong mouth.
Gimli tasted the elf's sweetness, savouring it, and tears came to his eyes. His love for this remarkable being, his comrade-in-arms and dearest friend, flooded through him. He felt the suffering in Legolas and wanted so much to rid him of it. He trailed his hand from the elf's cheek, down the firm muscles of his neck to his throat, feeling his life pulse beneath his fingertips as he touched the hollow there.
Legolas lay still, awareness returning, the aching chill subsiding. He hardly dared to breath, dizzy with pain and emotion. He let the sensual pleasure drive away the dull agony within him, the coldness that was inexorably stripping him of warmth and life now slowing, now holding back. He focusing upon nothing but Gimli's hands and the dwarf's steady presence at his side. He shuddered as the hands moved lower, gently now, running across his soft skin beneath his shirt.
Flawless, Gimli marvelled, stroking the elf's slender body, thrilling at the slight response to his touch, feeling life return for his companion. He watched colour return to his face, felt his breathing deepen. Gimli's brow furrowed. He did not wish to overstep the lines drawn between them, yet the slow heightening of Legolas's heartbeat felt so good to him, so hopeful. He traced Legolas's molded chest, moving downwards, steadily lower.
Legolas remained motionless yet a little longer, but finally he tensed. "Ahh! Gimli... Gimli, I... I do not know if I can...." He swallowed hard and said haltingly, "I am so.... Gimli.... Gimli, please.... ne marioneth n.. nial...." He lapsed into his own tongue.
Gimli lifted himself and kissed the elf reassuringly. "Shhh.... easy, Legolas. I will be gentle. Lie still and let me do this, dearest heart. I cannot bear to see you in such pain. I do not know how else to draw you away from it. I promise I will be so very gentle with you."
Legolas wept, closing his eyes. "Gimli... I need... Gimli, p... please do not let me go."
"Be still, Legolas," the dwarf murmured, a little taken aback by open emotion in his voice, but too far gone to even toy with the idea of retreating. There was no turning back, and none of the doubt, the confusion, the fear. The world was reduced to this small, dark room and the two bright souls huddled there together; pretense had no place anymore between them.
He caressed the elf's body ever so carefully, loosening the clothing that was stained black with orc blood and casting it aside. He drew the cloak about Legolas warmly, tucking it around his shoulders. With a tenderness Legolas would not have imagined from those rough, calloused hands, used to chiseling stone and forging steel and wielding death, Gimli soothed his tired flesh and awakened him to delicate sensations. The hurt and chill were there, insistent, but they were reduced to nothing more than a distant echo at the dwarf's patient touch. When the deadly cold surged to the surface, Gimli refused to let it take hold.
Gimli was pleased to feel the elf cease to shiver. He planted loving kisses upon Legolas's fingertips, his breast, along the nape of his neck... lingering as he went. He removed his armor in between caresses, laying it aside with his boots and belt until he was clad merely in his trousers and shirt, giving himself freedom to move without metal and leather edges digging into the elf's flesh. He felt a tentative hand against his shoulder, and light as a feather, Legolas let his fingers wander across his back. The elf tried to lift himself a little to return the love-making, but he was so weak.
"Nay," Gimli admonished, and pressed his lips to the elf's throat, then to a delicately tipped ear. "Do not tax yourself. Let me give you pleasure, and do not mind mine. This is beyond anything I could desire, Legolas," he breathed, "Be at ease, and just rest."
The Night tarried, unwilling to relinquish his reign to the intrusion of the dawn and the uncertainty of day. Rain pattered still upon the roof of the small shelter, though the rumble of thunder was now faint and moving yet further away. The storm was passing.
Gimli sat with Legolas, lulling him with hushed words and caring strokes that did not betray the worry in his heart. Legolas lay quietly, his eyes open and distant, listening to the dwarf's sonorous voice murmuring first in the common tongue, then in fragments of dwarvish speech he could not understand. It was a language born of strong mountains and solid earth and mirrored pools hidden in the depths of the world and Legolas felt comforted by it and somehow safe, though he could not grasp its meaning. Gimli sensed the emotions coursing through Legolas and strove to heighten them, trying to keep the unnatural chill from the elf's flesh, to distract him from the darkness which threatened to claim him. Gimli grew bolder at the feeling of the elf's lithe, youthful body beneath his hands, but moved slowly, gradually, ever careful, his concern for his injured friend prevailing over his own increasing desire. He enticed Legolas, hinting at greater pleasures to come to tempt the elf back from the edge, yet holding back until he deemed Legolas could endure it.
He was amazed himself, truth be told, at the patience that ruled his movements there in the darkness. Most dwarves were not known to be sensitive lovers, to say the least. But then, he thought, bemused, what dwarf had ever felt such an attachment before to an elf? It was unheard of. Indeed, he was having a difficult time accepting it, even as he took his time and touched and tasted Legolas's smooth skin, rejoicing at the slight tensing and shifting of the elf's muscles at his fingertips. He wanted him. So much so that he was quite overcome by it, and he ached exquisitely. He had loved and lusted before, but this was beyond anything he had ever known. It tore at his heart, built him up and lifted his soul.
"It seemed to me that my choice would remain secret and known only to myself...."
The words were spoken a lifetime ago, in a time and place that was only a dream now to Gimli, far removed from this grim and forsaken stronghold of the men of Rohan. Closing his eyes, he could still remember flashes of golden light amongst the trees. The Lady had looked deep within him at that first meeting and he had not trusted this elf female. She violated his mind and penetrated his thoughts, and though he resisted, he could not deny her. She had tempted them each. A test, Boromir had called it, and to Gimli was shown the Ring of Power upon his own hand, giving him the strength to return to Khazad-dum and scourge the halls of Moria, returning them to their glory in order to claim them for his own. The temptation was strong indeed, but a dwarf is not so easily deceived. He saw the test for what it was and refused outright, proudly declaring once more his loyalty to the Fellowship and to Frodo.
And then the Lady had delved deeper.
As she had bared his mind she gave him a glimpse into her own, and Gimli looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy only to see there love and understanding. Ages of distrust and unreasoning hatred with which he had been raised were stripped from him in a single rushing instant, and he looked upon her and believed. His walls fell.
She had promised him then that all would be well, that the hope he had held within would come to pass if he remained true. What that hope could be Gimli would not have guessed, but in those days in the Golden Wood and these dark days after, the veil was lifted little by little from his eyes, and he saw that the gift the Lady had given him was far more valuable than the lock of her hair. He became bound heart and soul, life to life, through sorrow and joy and beyond prejudice to the brave, impossible, exasperating and noble friend by his side.
And in that, he had found himself. Without Legolas, he could not be. It was odd to find that someone could mean as much to him as that. All that mattered most was here before him. Though Middle-earth should fail and darkness fall, he would not lose this.
He lay for a long while with Legolas in his embrace. Then Legolas made a slight sound, and turned his head slowly to capture the dwarf with a look of longing and questioning desire. The elf lifted a graceful hand from his side and brought it to Gimli's face, hovering over the cloth stained red above his brow, running along the deep lines by the dwarf's eyes, trailing towards the leathery skin of his cheek to touch the rough beard beneath his parted lips.
Gimli was suddenly uncomfortable, realizing of how he must look, bruised and bloodied from the battle, and he was painfully aware of the contrast between his worn countenance and that of the ethereal creature so close to him. He hesitated, unable to believe that it was he Legolas wanted, and old doubts about their differences surfaced in his thoughts and gnawed at his control. He drew back from the elf's knowing touch and flushed.
"You are... so beautiful." The words were little more than a breath from Legolas, hardly to be heard, but they resonated in Gimli's ears and he stared down in disbelief at the elf. His expresson must have appeared comical because Legolas looked at him and he laughed. The shadow lifted for an instant and the elf's eyes fairly danced. The sight was so familiar and so like his friend that Gimli chuckled in spite of himself. The tension fled from him and he lovingly brushed back the elf's dark hair from his forehead. Legolas sensed the dwarf's inhibitions ease, and with great effort he weakly tipped his fair face forward, seeking the dwarf's mouth. All misgivings fled from Gimli's mind and he met the challenge fully, accepting what would be, allowing his tongue to twine hungrily with the elf's. Legolas didn't simply want him; he needed him so much.
They kissed long and deep, pulses racing. Gimli tarried, letting himself be lost within his lover's gaze, as green as brilliant emeralds, as rich as the leaves of the forest. Then he shifted and slid along him, his strong hands running across the elf's arms and along his slim waist until Legolas stirred restlessly against him. Deftly he played at the silken skin behind his knee, then roamed up to a muscled leg, drawing a ragged gasp from the elf. Gimli groaned himself when he felt Legolas respond to his touch; the elf began to swell a little and grow hard.
"Dearest heart...." Gimli's voice was reassuring and deep and filled with the wonder, but despite it all, he was somewhat apprehensive of his next move. He delayed, teasingly kneading his lover's hip, watching Legolas tense and try instinctively to maintain some measure of composure. He looked at Legolas queryingly. With an inperceptible nod, Legolas closed his eyes and gave himself to him. Gimli met his lips once, gently, then caught up the elf's long, slender shaft, bringing the stiffness of the elf's erection to steel. Legolas drew in a harsh breath at the anticipated touch and convulsed, reaching out to clutch Gimli's shoulder. The dwarf flashed a triumphant smile at the elf, and then concentrated and began to slowly stroke him. He took Legolas's hand in his free one, and lifted the fingers to his mouth, keeping a steady rhythm with the other, and then he placed a kiss upon Legolas's palm, pressing his lips to his wrist, then up to the fingertips, taking one between his teeth and sucking upon it tantalizingly.
Wracked with desire, his lover was shuddering uncontrollably, gasping soft elvish words. Gimli ceased and took a moment to caress the tell-tale roughness of the archer's thumb and forefinger, then he squeezed the hand tightly and settled it on the elf's stomach. Very deliberately, almost reverently, the dwarf's touch wandered past Legolas's throat, over his carved chest, down his side to rest upon his thigh. Gimli lowered his head without warning and took the elf in his mouth.
"Uuuunnnnnhhhh!" Legolas cried out, and his body surged. The dwarf held him gently but firmly onto the pallet. "Gimli...ahhhhhhhh...." His fingers tangled in the dwarf's thick hair. His breathing became quick and shallow and he closed his eyes tightly, trying not to lose consciousness. Gimli felt him shaking beneath him and he eased a little. He withdrew, keeping his hand upon Legolas's throbbing member. He touched the elf's arm worriedly, afraid he had gone too far. "Am I hurting you?" he asked. "Have you the strength? I did not mean to...."
"No... I am so sorry... Gimli... no.... ... I am all right. Please, beloved....," he reached out an unsteady hand to caress the dwarf's face, ".. ...slowly. It is.. .... almost too much, dear one...."
Gimli nodded, feeling his soul flare with quiet pleasure at the novelty of hearing endearments whispered from the elf's lips. With infinite tenderness, took the tip of the elf's shaft, sucking gently, paying close heed to Legolas's grasp on his forearm, using slightly more pressure and taking more of him in gradually, pausing now and then to catch his breath and to let Legolas catch his.
The dwarf could feel his own lust welling up within him even as he brought Legolas nearer to his peak. He pushed his desire back as long as he could, focusing upon Legolas and striving to giving him pleasure, but the sight and sound of the elven prince rising in the throes of ecstasy at his touch battered down his self-control. With fumbling hands he freed himself, rock-hard, and he had to summon all his will to keep from spending his passion there and then like an inexperienced youth.
Legolas was moaning now, murmuring his name, moving with him as Gimli stroked him faster and harder. They pressed against one another, bodies sheened with sweat, Legolas gasping for air, revelling in the hot, searing contact, biting back tangled oaths as he neared his release. The elf threw his head back in abandon and groped blindly, touching Gimli's strong thigh and then clasping the dwarf's own rigid member. Gimli stiffened sharply but held back, so aroused he had to struggle to keep from calling out, remembering where they were and that neither of them were exactly prepared just then should enemies be prowling nearby. He stifled a groan and growled deep within, gripping the elf tightly.
He was not about to let Legolas get the better of him in this contest, of all things.
Gimli abruptly withdrew. The elf arched and his breath caught violently in his throat. He clutched at Gimli's loose shirt. "PLEASE! Gimli, melethron nin, please! I am so near...." Gimli ignored the elf's pleading cry and he held back.
Then he swallowed the elf as far as he could, slid his arm around Legolas and purposefully stroked his hand down the full, long length of his lover's back.
"Aaaaauuuhhhhhhnnnnn....!" This final touch tipped Legolas over the edge. He came, hard. Gimli pressed him down, holding him, alarmed at the intensity of the elf's climax. Legolas's essence pulsed from him again and again, and he clasped the dwarf fiercely, his cries choking off as the power of his release overwhelmed him.
Gimli drank him in as the elf thrust beneath him. Legolas's last, wrenching sobs enflamed his body and his mind and he could withstand it no longer. With a low shout, he let go. "Legolas..." he clenched his teeth, there was a moment of nothingness, and then his hips jerked and he exploded in his lover's hand. "Unnnnhhh...! Ai-Mahal...." Gimli shook with the sheer ferocity of those few seconds, then he slumped forward, breathless and disoriented. He felt the traces of passion drain from him as if his very life were ebbing away, and he reeled at the sensation.
It ended, and finally the two descended and sank loosely back to the floor, spent and exhausted. The rain thrummed lightly at the small window above their heads and bided its time, waiting for the day to break.
Gimli lay still for a long while, listening to his heart pounding, feeling his lover's breathing next to him, quick and laboured. He swallowed, then rose shakily upon one elbow to look anxiously at the elf.
Legolas's eyes were shut and his chest was heaving. Gimli drew nearer to him cautiously and touched the elf's soft, black hair, tucking a strand behind a leaf-shaped ear.
Those fathomless eyes opened. Weariness was there, and wonder, and a certain peace. Tears shimmered behind the dark lashes. Gimli moved his hand to the elf's face. Slowly, heavily, Legolas took the knotted fingers and brought them to his smooth lips.
"Legolas? Ah, Legolas... what have I done...." the dwarf lamented, misinterpreting the tears upon his companion's face. He felt chagrined at his boldness now that the moment of passion had passed. He sighed gravely, "May you forgive me."
Legolas was desperately tired and he could not answer right away. It was all he could do to stay awake. He lay for a moment, breathing in the heady scent of iron and leather and sweat upon his lover's skin.
"Gimli," he whispered, when at last he found the energy to speak, "I understand... if you have regrets. I could not hope... that you should find the comfort in me.. that I... needed so much... so much from you, beloved." And to the dwarf's utter dismay, the elf lowered his head in shame. "I needed you... and I thank you for sacrificing yourself. I can ask nothing more of you."
With an angry cry Gimli sat up, shaking away his lethargy. He lifted Legolas in his arms, knowing that the elf was too exhausted to protest. "Legolas, no!" the dwarf gave a stern hiss. "No, that is not what I meant. Of course it is not. What I regret is revealing my feelings for you like this, of all times, and placing such a burden upon you when you trusted me. I fear," he said grimly, "that the light of day will banish any feelings you may have for me, or turn them to distaste. I should not have taken you like that."
"A plague... upon dwarves... I say again. Or one dwarf in particular, anyway. Are you quite certain that blow to your head was not more serious than you let on?" A slight smile played upon Legolas's lips.
"Nay, not certain at all," Gimli said glumly. "I believe I just offered my love to an elf, if he would have it."
Legolas laughed. "I would." He brought a hand to rest upon his companion's solid chest, matching his breathing with his. "Gimli... I've never... never felt so deeply... .. . I do not know that I can ever be without you. Please, do you understand this? That will not change as the sun rises, or as years pass... ever. Do not... doubt that, beloved. I will be... wherever you shall go."
His fair voice faltered and he trembled. Sleep crept upon him, but it was a welcoming, comforting respite, not the chill and deadly darkness he could feel threatening to drag him under before. A faint blush coloured his cheeks and he was breathing easier. The pain was all but gone, leaving only the weariness, and he simply did not have the strength left to resist it. He felt Gimli ease him back and gather him close, and the husky voice at his ear whispered, "Rest, Legolas. I am here with you." The elf went limp in his arms and his strange eyes fluttered and closed.
"I will go wherever you will go," the dwarf murmured.
Aragorn stood above the great gates, heedless of the darts of the enemy. As he looked forth he saw the eastern sky grow pale. Then he raised his empty hand, palm outward in token of parley.
The orcs yelled and jeered. "Come down! Come down!" they cried. "If you wish to speak to us, come down! Bring out your king! We are the fighting Uruk-hai. We will fetch him from his hole, if he does not come. Bring out your skulking king!"
"The king stays or comes at his will," said Aragorn.
"Then what are you doing here?" they answered. "Why do you look out? Do you wish to see the greatness of our army? We are the fighting Uruk-hai."
"I wait for the dawn," said Aragorn.
"What of the dawn?" they jeered. "We do not stop the fight for night or day. We come to kill, by sun or moon. What of the dawn?"
"None knows what the new day shall bring him," said Aragorn. "Get you gone, ere it turn to your evil."
He leapt down from the wall, and the orcs laughed with loud voices. A hail of darts and arrows whistled through the air behind him, mocking him.
"The end will not be long," said Theoden as Aragorn strode into the Citadel. "But I will not end here, taken like an old badger in a trap. I will bid men sound Helm's horn at dawn, and I will ride forth. Will you ride with me then, son of Arathorn? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song - if any be left to sing of us hereafter."
"I will ride with you," said Aragorn.
Taking his leave of the king, he returned to the walls and passed round, rallying the men, lending aid wherever the assault was hot. Blasts of fire leaped up from below shaking the stones. Grappling hooks were hurled, and ladders raised. Again and again the orcs gained the summit of the second wall, and again the Riders cast them down.
Aragorn leaned on his sword, surveying their defenses. This night seemed to last forever. He looked at the pale stars, and at the moon, now sloping behind the western hills that enclosed the valley. He watched the men of the Mark marshal their strength, weary and downhearted, but still with heads high and swords raised. Pride swelled within him, even as he sighed for them all. And always, his eyes swept the battlefield for a glimpse of a flashing battleaxe or the glint of an elven bowstring.
There had been no sign of Gimli or Legolas when he had returned to the Citadel. The last he had seen of them, they were upon the defenses at the Deeping Wall. The men who were there who had escaped Saruman's hellfire and the fierce fighting at the culvert could tell him nothing certain as to the fate of his two companions, and he only hoped they had managed to keep together and had fled to the caves. His heart was heavy, but there was work to be done and he could not afford to let his appearance betray his emotions.
"This is a night as long as years," Aragorn said softly. "How long will the day tarry?"
"Dawn is not far off," said Gamling, who had now climbed up beside him. "But dawn will not help us , I fear.
"Yet dawn is ever the hope of men.," said Aragorn. His shoulders lifted and his eyes grew hard. "We will make them rue the light, Uruk-hai or no. Come! Let us see to the preparations."
Legolas awoke. He remained still for a moment, recalling where he was, letting his dreams melt away to reality. He rose quietly, extricating himself from Gimli's arms without waking the dwarf. He tentatively took a few steps, testing himself. He was relieved to find that the pain was gone, though he felt still a great weakness he had not known before and a strange heaviness of heart that he could not understand. He dressed swiftly, took a draught from the store of water, then walked noiselessly to Gimli's side to sit cross-legged beside him.
With nimble fingers, he tickled the dwarf's beard. Gimli stirred and moved his hand to ward away the unwelcome intrusion into his sleep. Legolas smiled and studied his friend as he slumbered.
Gimli's face was peaceful. The elf absorbed the details of every line in the scarred and weathered face, the dark brown hair, the heavy brow, the long beard. Not fair, the elf thought. His was a face that had seen too many dark caves, too many sorrows, too many battles, and all the hardships mortals bore. But it was a profoundly comforting face and good. There was a strength there that touched the elf's soul.
Then with great deliberateness, Legolas tipped the cup in his hand and emptied what was left of the tepid water over the dwarf.
Gimli came to with a sputter and shout. He sat upright with an outraged expression, and his eyes fell upon the elf. Legolas had thrown himself backwards and stood at a safe distance laughing merrily, quite aware of the peril of a rudely awakened dwarf with an axe within reach. "Good morning, Gimli. The sun has not yet fully graced the sky, but I did not think you would want to miss the fun the dawn may bring for us." The earth rumbled beneath them as if in response and a thunderous blast echoed in the distance.
The dwarf muttered impolite words and shook himself from sleep. He gave the elf a disgruntled look. "It seems you are feeling in better spirits this morning."
"Much better." Legolas gave a slight, mocking bow.
"I am very glad to see you on your legs again, but I would ask that you let a dwarf fully awaken before plaguing him with an overabundance of elven cheerfulness," Gimli grumbled. He yawned mightily and reached for his clothing.
Legolas clasped his cloak over his shoulders, checking his knife and then tucking it back into its sheath, moving slower than was his wont, but steadily. Gimli shrugged his chain mail over his shirt and tugged his boots on his feet. He gingerly fit his helm over his head, trying not to aggravate the wound above his eye. He fetched his battle-axe from the corner, and also Legolas's bow and quiver. He approached the elf.
"I'm stiff and I'm starving, but I suppose I am up for another round of war, if I must be," Gimli stated. He cast an appraising look at his companion. "Have you recovered, Legolas?" he asked seriously. "Do not play games. Are you truly well?" Gimli felt suddenly awkward, faced with the elf standing before him, his bright eyes sparkling as if he had never suffered, as if last night were but a fading dream. The dwarf searched him over and caught still a lingering weariness about the elf's shoulders and upon his face. He thought he should say something more, perhaps, but all seemed so different this morning, so new, and he could find no words to express it.
Legolas sat upon the storage chest before the door. He took his bow from Gimli's hand, then strapped his quiver of arrows to his back. He watched Gimli, noticing the slight flush that had risen to the dwarf's rough face and what became quite concentrated efforts not to look directly at the elf. Legolas paused with a disapproving frown. Then he stood and retrieved Gimli's cloak from the pallet on the floor, shaking the dust from it. He swept to the dwarf's side and hurled it about his companion's shoulders.
He knelt before him and delicately fastened the leaf brooch at Gimli's throat. He looked up, forcing Gimli to reluctantly meet his gaze.
"Do not doubt, beloved." Legolas bade him gently. He lifted the dwarf's hand to pressed it to his forehead, then to his lips. "Be well. I know not what today might bring for us, whether it be death or darkness or light and triumph, but if you will have it, my heart is yours, Gimli."
Gimli looked sadly at the elf. He closed his eyes as if steeling himself, and when he spoke it was with a heavy voice. "I cannot ask it of you, Legolas. I will not. I will not bind you to me."
He couldn't look at the elf, couldn't bear to see those penetrating eyes looking at him, but he heard Legolas draw in a deep breath, and his stomach clenched painfully in response. "You are beyond my grasp, Legolas, and I will not let you pledge yourself to someone as I. Our differences are great. Do not ask me to do this. Love between a mortal and immortal could come to naught but grief; we are not meant to be. Nay, I will not let you do this."
There was silence for an uncomfortable instant. And then Legolas rose to his feet. "You will not let me?" The elf's voice was soft, but his words were hard. "It seems to me you have very little say in the matter, Master Dwarf." Gimli jerked up his head, taken aback by Legolas's suddenly commanding tone. There was no jest upon his face, no hint that the elf would be giving any quarter in this. Legolas stood before him, tall and fearless, every inch an Elven Lord and his pale face shone.
"You do yourself an injustice, Gimli son of Gloin. I threatened the Lord Eomer when he would have insulted your honour and struck you down, and yet now I am to stand by and allow you to disparage yourself? Do you think I would pledge myself to anyone but the worthiest of friends, the bravest of comrades, the brightest soul I have ever known? Have no illusions, Gimli; I choose to give my love not lightly. And yet you would so belittle he whom I love more dearly than my life, and would deny me the right to stand by his side, to share his sorrows and his triumphs as if they were my own?" The elf lifted his chin willfully and in a stern voice said, "I will not give you up that easily, Gimli, to anyone or anything, especially to the doubts that complicate your mind. Set aside your pride and misgivings, child of Durin. I have not yet known a dwarf to lack courage."
Gimli's dark eyes blazed. He drew himself up and made to speak, but Legolas cut him off. "If you refuse me, that is your choice and I shall leave you. But you make that choice out of fear and uncertainty and cowardess."
"Enough!" Gimli barked.
"Does the truth of the matter upset you?" Legolas demanded. "For I speak naught but the truth, lest it be you truly do not care for me and my heart means nothing to you. If so, speak it! I shall leave this place and find death upon the battlefield, if that be my fate."
Gimli stepped forward, shaking with emotion, and stood before the elf. Legolas remained still and unwavering, his expression defiant, as if daring Gimli to strike him. Gimli struggled for a moment, hands clenched into fists, and then he cast his helm from his head to the floor with a smash.
They stood silently staring at one another for a long moment. Gimli snorted and shook his head.
His mouth twitched. Then the dwarf roared with laughter. "Master Elf, at the very least, my life is not dull when you are with me." He tossed a surly glance at Legolas and then turned to retrieve his helm, plunking it back on his head. "Very well then! We are not given to know our destiny, nor what paths our feet must travel, or who we may meet along the way. I have been given companions upon this journey who have become dearer to me than I should ever have guessed they would when we set out from Rivendell. And you, it seems, Legolas, will be the life or the death of me. So be it! Have your way. Though you may come to find it a cruel jest that you are bound to one such as I."
His face grew troubled once more and he lifted his head slowly and somberly to look up at the elf. "I will grow old, Legolas," he said. "I will age, and though my life is not as brief as these men around us, you will still be young and fair when my time has come to leave this earth. Would you be as passionate about your devotion to me even then? Even as you walk the lands still in your prime, bound to a dwarf in his dotage, decrepit in body and mumbling nonsense?"
Legolas arched a delicate eyebrow. "Moreso than you do now? That would be a marvel indeed," he quipped.
Swift and certain, he stepped to Gimli and knelt once more before him. He traced the deep lines running from the edge of Gimli's eyes with light fingers, admiring his weathered face, then bent close and kissed him. "With my heart and my soul, I choose you, Gimli. Will you deny me?"
Gimli swallowed, then answered gruffly. "The Valar protect me from elves and their confounded persistence. I cannot deny you, Legolas." He took the elf's hand in his and held it to his heart. "I am and always shall be yours."
Legolas laughed merrily, blinking back tears. Then he sprang away and swept up his bow. He donned his silver helm and nodded. "Come, Gloin's son. The morning awaits, and we have a game to see to its finish. I feel a little more up to the challenge this day. At this moment, in truth, I believe I could face the forces of Saruman alone and triumph."
Gimli shouldered his axe and pack. "I have no doubt you could, Master Elf, but if you would not mind the company, I think I should rather benefit from trying my axe on a few more orc necks myself. Leave us go. If we tarry longer we will arrive too late and miss the excitement. Let us see what trouble Aragorn has managed to get into without us."
Night departed. The grey stone of the fortress of Helm's Deep blushed pink at the touch of the Sun rising in the East and a wind stirred the air, lifting the smoke and stench of death that hung heavily over the battlefield and upon hearts of the Rohirrim. The new day brought new promise. Even as the gates fell and they despaired, in their darkest hour there was hope.
As the first rays of light sprang into the sky, the orcs ceased their attack. A murmur arose from behind them, off in the distance, and the rumour rippled through their ranks, magnifying as it spread. A nameless terror filled them and they were dismayed and faltered, looking back over their shoulders with fearful glances.
And then the sound of a great horn rang out, blast upon blast from beyond the Deep, as if upon every cliff and hill a mighty herald stood. The orcs cast themselves to the ground, and upon the walls the men lifted their faces to the heights and marvelled at the echoes of the hornblasts through the hills. "Helm! Helm!" the men took up the cry. "Helm for Theoden King!"
Theoden rode forth, thundering forth from the gates upon his white steed, his spear catching the sun's light and gleaming as pure gold. At his side was Aragorn son of Arathorn, and all the lords of the House of Eorl. The men of Rohan cheered at the sight and new strength drove their assault upon the forces of Isengard, and the orcs wavered and fell back. Down from the Hornburg Theoden and his riders swept, driving through the enemy as a wind among grass.
Upon the parapet of the Deeping Wall two figures stood sillhouetted by the sunrise. One was shading his eyes to look out upon the onslaught, standing tall and fair, his back straight and his hair flowing from beneath his helm in the glorious breeze. The second was as stolid as the rock beneath him; he kept both hands resting upon the hilt of the glittering axe that was planted at his feet. Though they spoke not, they knew one another's thoughts, and rejoiced that they were alive and there to see the dawning of a new day.
The horn blew fierce and free, and they watched the Riders cut through the black host, orcs falling or fleeing before their shining spears. The keen sight of Legolas Greenleaf caught the glint of the king's armor and the white flash of Snowmane before the charge, and also, to his great delight, Aragorn upon Hasufel with his sword brandished high. Legolas motioned to the dwarf, and Gimli hefted his axe into the air and gave a shout. He threw one arm about Legolas's waist and embraced him, laughing triumphantly.
Their revelry was cut short, however, by the sudden clamour of metal-shod feet and howling voices as the orcs caught behind the wall poured like rats from their positions outside the caves and the Rock in an effort to find a way to escape the wrath of the men of the Mark. Legolas turned and directed his gaze outwards across the Deeping-coomb, and his expression became one of wonderment. Even as the orcs inside fought to get out, the host of Isengard who were gathered beyond the wall were pressed against the outside to get within. The elf furrowed his brow and cast his gaze further out to see the cause of their fear. His eyes widened. He hissed sharply and tapped the dwarf's shoulder.
"Gimli! Look there! Do you see?"
The dwarf peered down upon the green dale which was... no longer there. Where the plain of grass had been there now stood a forest. He gaped in awe.
"Legolas!" he gasped, "The wood has moved!"
Indeed, the trees and tangled boughs were now rooted rank upon rank just beyond the Dike, looming dark and mysterious. He looked to the elf for an answer, but Legolas had none to offer him. They watched in amazement as the orcs on either side of them cowered in terror of the king and in terror of the shadowy trees. Bewildered, Gimli and Legolas were not given long to ponder the strange sight. Gimli tugged at Legolas's belt to drag his attention away from the queer forest in the valley to more pressing matters. They found themselves above a scrambling mass fighting to clamber over the wall or claw their way through the culvert beneath. The enemy seemed more intent upon escape than confrontation, as its courage failed. A large black orc tore up the stairway and came to a startled halt at the sight of a dwarf standing before it, axe resting casually upon his shoulder and a look of cold amusement upon his face. The orc yelled and threw its arms over its head. Gimli's axe bit deep, spraying black blood over the stones, then the dwarf kicked the thing's body back down the stairs, toppling two more who had followed. Before the others could regain their feet, a sharp whistle pierced the air and an arrow took one in the eye, then the other fell with a shaft through its temple.
"This is futile, Gimli!" Legolas shouted above the din. "Let them flee!"
Gimli sidestepped an orc that barreled past him and plunged blindly from the parapet. "Come, my friend. Let us go below where we might be of some service!"
They fought their way through the teeming horde, though the effort was not great. The orcs were in a panic and paid them little heed, yet Gimli's short stature might have proved his downfall as their foes crushed in on all sides and would have borne him along. Legolas stayed close by his side and the two carved a deadly circle about them as they made for safer ground.
Legolas swept his knife across the throat of an orc that hurled itself wildly at him, and Gimli drove his axe into the soft flesh of another's belly, ripping the blade back out and thrusting the body away from him. Legolas motioned to the dwarf to cut back to the side and away from the rush, then whirled to plunge his blade into the chest of a large hillman who had gotten too close. He wrenched his knife from his foe and the silver of his weapon no longer visible; his blade and forearm were drenched with dark ichor. He stepped over the steaming corpse and pushed Gimli to a recess in the rock wall to rest there for a moment. The heat and noise was stifling and he yearned for freer air. He glanced down at his companion. Gimli was panting from the exertion, and sweat and blood covered his face. The cut upon his forehead had reopened during their flight where his helm had chafed it. Gimli glanced up and met the elf's worried look.
"It is nothing! I am well," he shouted. "An irritation it is, and nothing more. We must get away from this throng!"
Legolas nodded and cast about, judging the flow of the wave of orcs passing by them. He gripped Gimli by the arm and pulled him along, making his way along the wall and keeping the stumbling dwarf from danger.
They found their way at last to the gates and heard once more the horn of Helm ring through the mountains. There they came upon upon a clash of men and orcs which was hot and brutal. There fought Eomer, Third Marshal of the Riddermark, and Gamling the Old, and a gathering of men who had come forth from the caves and the Rock in the wake of the king's charge, and who now strove mightily to roust the remaining orcs from the Deep. There were not many left to challenge Eomer and those who stood with him, but the few orcs that remained were desperate and fighting hard.
Eomer slashed valiantly at the shield of a red-tongued Uruk who sought to skewer him with a glistening curved blade. He cursed and parried the orc's blows, blinking the stinging sweat from his eyes and feeling each clash of metal upon metal painfully jar his teeth. The path from the caves had been a long one and he was weary. Even as he shattered the orc's shield with a well-aimed thrust, his foot slipped and he hit the ground hard, rolling to avoid the orc's counter-strike. He moved too late and he felt steel pierce his shoulder. He screamed, his sword falling from his nerveless hand.
The Uruk howled with lust and moved to attack, lifting its bloody sword into the air to drive it deeply into the wounded man, but it stiffened suddenly and slumped to its knees, a dark stain spreading across the front of its chest where an arrow had punched through. It toppled and collapsed motionless at Eomer's side, vicious eyes glazed and locked in an eternal stare.
Eomer looked up from where he lay, squinting in the sunlight, and found himself reunited once more with Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf.
The dwarf stumped forward and held out a strong arm, pulling the man to his feet.
"Well met, Eomer son of Eomund," he rumbled cheerfully. "I hope you were not plotting to avoid further discussion with me regarding the Lady of the Wood by throwing yourself beneath a sword on a battlefield."
Eomer stared at Gimli in amazement, hardly recognizing the dwarf beneath the grime and blood which covered his face. The man's laughter rang out and he made to speak, but the pain of his wound assailed him and he swayed. Gimli gripped him on one side and Legolas upon the other, and the two bore him away and past the gates.
Ere iron was found or tree was hewn, When young was mountain under moon; Ere ring was made, or wrought was woe, It walked the forests long ago.
"A pretty riddle," Gimli declared. "And still I find myself no more enlightened than ere I did ask my question. I grant you dwarves know little about growing things and the way of trees, but I would venture I am not the only one among us who has never seen a tree uproot itself and move several leagues from whence it stood, Gandalf. If it isn't too much to ask, I should like a better answer. See there! You have confounded even our wise Elf." Gimli motioned idly with one hand. "Legolas!" he called out. "Come and join us, and stand not amazed!"
Legolas paid him no mind and stayed transfixed at the edge of the Deeping-stream, gazing in wonder at the eaves of the forest, heedless for the moment of all else.
"Elves..." the dwarf grumbled from where he sat upon the grass. "If he falls in, I am not much inclined to jump in after him." He turned to look at Gandalf. "I admit, though, that this is wizardry indeed. I should have guessed you were behind it when first we caught sight of the strange forest from above."
Gandalf lifted his head and laughed long, stretching his legs out before him, and he seemed more the Gandalf of old to his companions. There was no trace of the fey and terrible White Rider who had driven the orcs to madness at his coming. There was only Gandalf, a pipe between his teeth and his eyes glowing warmly beneath his bushy eyebrows. He regarded the dwarf with amusement. He had removed his hat and his hair was white as snow in the sunshine and gleamed under the blue sky, as did his robes. Shadowfax strayed upon the field behind them, picking his way over ground which had been trampled black under the orcs' armored shoes to find patches of green grass upon which to graze.
"Nay, this is no deed of mine, my good Dwarf." The wizard's lips twitched. "It is a power far older and far stronger, perhaps, than any sleight-of-hand I might conjure, Gimli. It walked the earth ere elf sang or hammer rang. We may count ourselves lucky to have such an ally. But if you wish to learn the answer to my riddle, I suggest those of you who would understand follow me to Isengard."
"Isengard!" Gimli twisted his head sharply to regard the wizard. "You would have us go to Orthanc?" He straightened with interest and his eyes smouldered.
"I would," Gandalf replied. His face became grave. "We have unfinished business to attend to, and I would not put it off for any longer than is necessary. I wish to speak to Saruman as soon as may be. I must pay him a farewell visit. Dangerous and probably useless, it must yet be done."
"Unfinished business indeed," Gimli growled. "That sorcerer has much to answer for. I should like very much to follow you to Isengard, Gandalf. We waste time tarrying here. How swiftly do we ride?
"Patience, my friend." Gandalf admonished. "Not all have the unflagging endurance of the dwarves, son of Gloin. Once Theoden and his men have tended to their dead and rested, and we all have had the chance to recover, my path and the path of those who would go with me lies now eastward. Give them some little time to grieve. The king and a handful of men he has chosen will come with me as well, as Saruman has done them great injury. But have a care, Gimli. Though his forces may have been defeated, Saruman is not one to trifle with. He is a dangerous foe with more than a few tricks up his sleeve yet, I daresay. I go now to parley, not to fight."
"I will go," Gimli said quietly. He lifted his head and his eyes wandered to the elf standing still by the stream's banks. "Though I cannot say my purpose is merely to parley. I would look upon Saruman myself and judge what I may."
"Master Dwarf!" Aragorn sighed heavily from where he sat before Gimli. "If you truly wish to accompany us to Isengard, I advise you hold still, lest I wrap you from head to toe and send you back to Rohan with the women and children." He turned the dwarf's head around to face him. "Let me tend this wound ere you do yourself further damage." Aragorn ignored the disgruntled look Gimli cast at him and bound a clean cloth over the freshly bathed cut upon the dwarf's forehead.
"AH! Careful!" the dwarf bellowed. "No need to be so testy. It would take more than such an orc-scratch to keep me back, Aragorn," Gimli said sullenly, trying not to move as he spoke.
"Nevertheless, it will pain you and you will hinder us if I leave it. Do not argue."
Isildur's heir found himself struggling to keep the mirth from showing on his face, lest the dour dwarf think he was making light of him. In truth, Gimli's stubborn protests filled him with profound thankfulness this day. Aragorn had never felt so relieved as he had when he had at last sheathed his sword from the slaughter upon the field and turned to see three familiar figures striding down from the causeway to greet him. The meeting of the companions was joyous to behold, and when Gandalf rode up on Shadowfax to join them, their hearts sang with the victory of that fair morning and of dear friends miraculously restored.
Messengers were sent by Theoden to all the corners of the Mark to proclaim the glorious tidings, but even now at the height of their rejoicing, the Rohirrim set about the task of tending to the dead and wounded. Two great mounds were raised upon the field before the Hornburg where the Riders who had fallen defending Helm's Deep were laid to rest. No orc remained alive. Those who were not crushed by the men of the Mark or the forces of Erkenbrand and the White Rider had disappeared into the forest, never to emerge again. At Gandalf's urging, they piled the corpses there were into great heaps near the eaves of the trees and left them to the carrion until it could be decided what was to be done with them.
Eomer had been taken by his king back into the Hornburg in order to rest and be cared for, but the others did not follow. Legolas had refused to enter Helm's Deep again and wished to remain beyond the confines of stone beneath the open sky, and so they stayed there upon the green grass in the dale beside the Deeping-stream to watch the solemn activity of Theoden's men as they took their hard-won ease.
"A marvel, is it not?" Aragorn murmured to the elf as brushed past him to kneel and wash Gimli's blood from his fingers in the running water.
Legolas tipped his head slowly, his sight lingering upon the forest, then he turned to look at Aragorn with shining, inquisitive eyes. "I have never seen such a thing," he breathed. "Know you what they are, Aragorn? Are these the Onodrim of which Gandalf has spoken?"
"I know not, my friend," Aragorn smiled fondly. The expression of the usually composed elven prince was that of an enchanted child, open with wonder and delight. "I could not venture to guess. Gandalf promises we shall know more if we go with him to Isengard."
"To Isengard...." Legolas repeated softly. Aragorn watched disappointed as the fair enchantment slipped away from the elf's face. He looked suddenly pallid, and his jaw tightened as if in remembered pain.
Legolas looked down upon Aragorn's hands and the eddying stream which flowed red about them, and it seemed to Aragorn that his keen eyes grew distant and shadowed as he watched.
The elf remained very still, unquiet, his gaze fixed steadily upon the man's hands for such a long time that Aragorn grew alarmed and lifted them from the stream.
Legolas started and drew back as if Aragorn had dashed him with the cold water. He seemed confused and unsettled, but before Aragorn could say aught to him, the elf swept silently past, making his way back to the others.
Troubled greatly, Aragorn dried his hands upon his cloak and rose to follow.
Legolas had settled himself beside the dwarf, and for a while the elf sat and listened to his companions speak, though he said naught himself. Aragorn could not coax him into conversation and so he left Legolas to his thoughts, though his attention wandered back to the elf's pensive face time and again. Aragorn and Gandalf debated plans for the next day, and the famished companions made a light meal from the provisions. As late afternoon approached, the king rode forth once more to say that his company was preparing to depart. Theoden took counsel with Aragorn and Gandalf, and they left Gimli and Legolas alone to ready themselves for the journey.
Gimli lifted himself from his seat on the grass and groaned at the pull of the muscles in his neck and arms. "Horses again," he sighed. "The parts of me which are not now sore soon shall be."
Legolas did not reply and seemed not to hear him at all. The elf looked still to the forest, but after a moment he asked softly, "How is your head, love? Are you certain you should ride?"
Gimli threw his hands into the air with disgust. "I know not who will coddle me to distraction first, you or Aragorn! 'Twas but a feeble scratch, yet listening to the two of you, one would think I was upon the verge of death."
It was an idle remark, but Legolas glanced up at the dwarf with an expression of sudden, abject terror. The look was gone as soon as it came and Legolas swiftly averted his eyes, but that hint of fright which was so out of place upon his friend's face had not escaped Gimli's notice.
"Legolas!" he exclaimed, and he knelt by the elf's side. "What is it? Surely I was jesting, Elf! That is, lest Aragorn confided in you something about my condition of which I was unaware," he said with feigned gruffness.
Legolas attempted to be light-hearted. "Nay, my friend. I have no doubt you will be hale and whole, though I am certain we will hear your complaints nevertheless for days to come. Dwarves are such wearisome creatures," he smiled.
"Wearisome and impatient creatures. Leave off your glib attempts to distract me and say what is troubling you," Gimli demanded.
The elf paused with uncertainty, as if searching for the words he needed. "I do not think you should ride to Isengard, Gimli," Legolas said finally. "There is a foreboding in my heart and I wish you would not go."
Gimli blinked and stared with consternation at his companion. "Not go?" His deep voice was perplexed. "Legolas, even were I not burning with curiosity to look upon Saruman and see for myself this wizard who been the cause of so much grief, I would not leave Aragorn's side, nor yours, for all the danger that may await me at Orthanc or anywhere else, for that matter. Legolas... surely we have seen much peril upon this quest, but I have never seen you so affected. What is on your mind?" Gimli sat back upon his haunches and studied the elf's face.
Legolas gave a deep sigh and closed his eyes.
He saw before him once again the water stained crimson, red, red blood pooling in the stream to be borne away inexorably by the constant swirling current.... The image haunted him, vague whispers filled his mind, and he felt faintly ill. Fear was not such an accustomed emotion to the elf, and he found he simply could not express this unreasoning dread which gripped him now. He felt foolish for speaking of it, it was absurd and yet the feeling remained.
"I know not, Gimli. And yet I would ask you still not to go," he said quietly.
Gimli took Legolas's hand in his and sat thoughfully for a long while. He let out a tired breath and turned the elf to face him. "Legolas, wherever our path shall now lead us, it will not be easy, and there shall always be risk. We will see darkness before we come again to the light, I fear, but we cannot turn from it. I will not turn from it, not while I still have a part to play."
He reached to cup Legolas's face, caressing his cheek with his thumb to lighten the worry which lay heavily there. "I shall do my best to keep you from harm and to keep safe myself, come what may. You have my word. I have the world to live for in you, Legolas," he soothed. "All will be well. You have had little rest and much strain this past while, as have we all. Be of good spirits. Today we have triumphed against all odds! 'Tis not a day for sadness."
Legolas said nothing, but he nodded. Gimli pulled the elf to his feet and clapped him on the shoulder. "Stay and watch for Aragorn. I will go and inquire if that beast you call a horse is still among the living and come back to you shortly."
Legolas stood by the Deeping-stream, his reason fighting the irrational
panic that would not leave him in peace. "All will be well." He
mouthed the words and willed himself to believe them, but he felt a not
unfamiliar chill stab at his heart as he awaited Gimli's return.
It seemed they had passed from the light of day into a fading nightmare. They could make out little but shadows of the land before them, but what they could see sickened their hearts. Sounds were muffled or distorted by the heavy air and the further they travelled, the stronger was the feeling that they were stepping into naught but emptiness, that the world beyond the borders of Isengard did not exist, and that upon crossing the threshold they would step through that mist and vanish forever.
"It is a blight upon the land and a very travesty to behold. What evil has Saruman wrought within this black place?" Theoden's voice was hushed and filled with disgust, and all around him his men were silent. "I guess now that we have not seen but the least of his dark deeds, though we thought them to be monstrous indeed." No one answered him.
It was a miserable country now, forsaken and dismal. Once it had been a sheltered valley, pleasant and fertile and fed by the strong river Isen, beautiful and flourishing with growing things. At one time the vale was a haven for wanderers lost, and its master a lord of wisdom and knowledge whose sage advice was sought by scholars and kings. Grievous now it was to see Nan Curunir ravaged by the works of the very being who had once made it great.
Orthanc had been a tower of marvellous shape, gleaming black, its walls straight and as smooth as obsidian. Now it jutted at the center of the vale like a rotting tooth. As he had fallen to the arts and subtle devices of the Dark Lord, so had he shaped the place to reflect his disdain for all not of his own creation, striking down what he could not control or could not twist to his own needs, fashioning in the end little more than a child's model or a slave's flattery of the Dark Tower itself. It seemed at once loathsome and to be pitied to those who now suffered to pass through this foul projection of Saruman's mind, through Isengard.
The air above was heavy with fog and rank with smoke and steam, the sun nothing more than a sickly shimmering orb clinging tenuously to the sky. They rode some miles through tangled brush and the stumps of slaughtered trees, choking upon the foul mist and tasting the corruption that smothered the earth beneath the walls of the fortress.
The highway widened as they came nearer to Orthanc, becoming a broad street paved with great flat stones, squared and laid with skill; no blade of grass was seen in any joint. Indeed, there was no life to be seen anywhere but for the clumps of weeds among the pits and thorn bushes which thrived upon the ravaged land and could not be killed.
A tall blackened pillar loomed up before them. Set high upon it was a great stone, carved and painted in the likeness of a long White Hand. As Arod passed by the monolith he shied and danced to one side, tossing his head and whickering nervously. Gimli clung tightly to Legolas from his customary place behind the elf, cursing Arod beneath his breath, and he listened to his companion murmur to the horse, urging him forward.
Arod obeyed and fell back once more into line with the rest of the company, but Gimli noticed that Legolas did not himself look up at the black pillar as they passed. Indeed, the elf had kept his eyes strictly ahead of him, glancing neither to the right nor the left since they entered the foul valley. His back was rigid and his words to Arod had been the first he had uttered since they had left the eaves of the strange woods earlier that day and crossed the Ford. Gimli was uncertain as to whether the elf was lost in thought over his first glimpse of the Ents in the forest, or whether he was still troubled by the misgivings which clouded his mind back at the Hornburg. He caught Legolas casting anxious looks over his shoulder at him every so often and the elf seemed as taught as his bowstring, so Gimli assumed the latter to be the case. He found the elf's uncertainty very disquieting. The dwarf sighed and gripped Legolas's arm affectionately, wishing he could somehow know his thoughts.
Gimli could not resist peering at the White Hand towering over them in the mist, though his gorge rose in his throat at the sight. So marked were the Uruk-hai, the spawn of Saruman who had slain Boromir and taken their young hobbit friends. So marked were those who slew the brave men of Rohan as they defended their homes and their families.
Though they had all but defeated it, the White Hand mocked them still, and they passed by the pillar with bitter hearts.
It was late in the day by the time they finally arrived at the great archway and came to the gate of Orthanc, Saruman's refuge, the one last dark hole in which he had to hide.
To the astonishment of all, the gate lay hurled and twisted upon the ground.
The king and his company sat upon their horses and stared in wonder at the ruined fortress. Deep pools of brackish water surrounded the tower and all about, the stone was cracked and splintered and foundations rent from the earth. Pale water lapped about the wreckage. Saruman's bastion of strength had been torn asunder and all but destroyed by some force beyond their reckoning.
And there, as the Lord of the Mark and his company sat silently amazed at the edge of the ruin, they became aware suddenly of two small figures perched upon the rubble in front of what appeared to have once been a guard house. They drew nearer and they saw that one seemed to be asleep amongst a litter of bottles and bowls and platters. The other was leaning against a broken rock with crossed legs and arms behind his head, and from his mouth there streamed long wisps of thin, blue smoke.
Before the king could speak, the small smoke-breathing figure became suddenly aware of them and sprang to his feet.
"Welcome, my lords, to Isengard!" he said. "We are the the door wardens, Meriadoc, son of Saradoc is my name; and my companion, who, alas! is overcome with WEARINESS" -- here he gave the other a dig with his foot --"is Peregrin, son of Paladin, of the house of Took."
Gimli's thunderous shout should have shaken Saruman from his black musings in his chambers, had that wizard's mind not been occupied with more pressing matters and had the walls of Orthanc been not quite so thick. As it was, the dwarf's voice nearly deafened the sharp ears of the elf who sat not a hand's width before him on the horse. Legolas winced, but laughed at Gimli's words.
"Pippin! Merry! You woolly-footed and wool-pated truants!" the dwarf boomed. "Two hundred leagues through fen and forest, battle and death to rescue you and here we find you feasting and idling -- and smoking!"
A smile lit Merry's face and Pippin, roused by the sound of the dwarf's indignant roar, leapt up with a happy cry and scrambled down from the wreckage to meet them. Legolas dismounted and lent a hand to Gimli, then the elf turned to sweep the hobbit into a warm embrace. "Well met, Master Took. I had nearly lost hope that we would ever find you again."
"Hammer and tongs! I am so torn between rage and joy, that if I do not burst, it will be a marvel!" Gimli growled, and ruffled Merry's hair affectionately. He sized the hobbit up. "I would swear you have grown, if that were possible for a hobbit your age," he said.
The Riders laughed. "It cannot be doubted that we witness the meeting of dear friends," said Theoden. "So these are the lost ones of your company, Gandalf?" Eomer stared at Merry and Pippin with open wonder on his face.
They spent much time before the ruined entrance to Orthanc, trading tales and acquainting the men of Rohan with the habits and manner of the Halfling people for the very first time. Before the very doors of Saruman's dark stronghold there gathered members of all the free peoples of Middle-earth that day, and their hearts were glad.
But the front doorstep of evil was no place to tarry, and Gandalf was anxious to see to the task at hand. "Where is Treebeard, Merry? Did he leave me no message, or has plate and bottle driven it from your mind?" asked Gandalf.
"Away on the north side," said Merry. "He and the other Ents are still busy at their work." A noise of rock shifting and the rumbling like that of an avalanche echoed off in the distance. The men looked with new interest upon the broken remnants that lay about them and the sturdy stonework of the arch that lay now at their feet in small bits, crumbled like stale bread.
"Still inside. He has not left, nor could he. Aside from all that water, Treebeard has posted Ents to watch the doors, though you might not be able to see them. There is Quickbeam there, and to his left another tall, grey Ent. Can you make them out? Well, they are there, nonetheless, and I do not think Saruman would venture out his door if the Dark Lord himself came knocking."
"My dear hobbit, you would do well to use a bit more caution and less impudence," Gandalf rebuked him. "You speak of matters far beyond your comprehension and I will assume that plunder of wine and ale you have before you is exceptionally strong stuff, and your slow wits not merely an unfortunate Brandybuck family trait."
Pippin looked up at the old wizard curiously and piped up. "What is there to fear, Gandalf? Surely Saruman can do little holed up in his tower like this! Treebeard has seen to that. What will he do? Will he shoot at us, or pour fire out the windows; or can he put a spell on us from a distance?"
"The latter is more likely, Peregrin Took, but there is no knowing what he might do, or may choose to try. Have a care! A wild beast cornered is not safe to approach and Saruman has powers you do not guess."
Gandalf then took Theoden and his men to make the circuit of the walls of Isengard to find Treebeard and a fitting place to camp for the night, but Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas remained behind with the hobbits, reluctant to break up the Fellowship now that it had been reunited. Leaving Hasufel and Arod to stray in search of grass, they retired to what was left of Saruman's guard house to find food and drink.
The small house consisted of a chamber with other doors at the far end leading to the sleeping quarters, and a hearth and chimney were nestled in a corner to one side. The hobbits had lit a fire to cheer the room, and the two took it upon themselves to act as hosts, swiftly ransacking the store-rooms to return laden with dishes, bowls, cups, knives and foods of various sorts. Aragorn and the others set to the meal, and being the courteous hosts they were, the hobbits felt it to be their duty to join in the repast, though they had eaten ere the company had arrived.
Being much sated and content to settle themselves until Gandalf and the others returned, the companions moved outside to be beneath the sky, to rest and talk and watch the sun set behind the mountains.
The hobbits told them of their captivity with the orcs, and answered their questions about the Ents, and Aragorn told them the tale of Helm's Deep and the destruction of Saruman's army, to which Merry and Pippin lifted a toast with cups of beer. The sun was gone now and though the mists had lifted, the air grew chill. Weariness that had been staved off by activity now weighed upon Gimli and he dozed where he sat, half-listening to the conversation. Aragorn and the hobbits smoked and spoke quietly for a while, and Legolas lay still, looking up to the sky and singing softly to himself.
The elf's voice wove its way through Gimli's light dreaming, lulling him into abstract thought and deeper sleep. It was said that the Firstborn had learned to sing before they had learned the art of speech. Gimli had never appreciated elvish song, and even now, when Legolas took it upon himself to sing to the trees and the grass and the sky and the bird sitting on the rock over the next hill for hours on end as they travelled, Gimli had to refrain from throwing himself off Arod's back and stuffing his cloak in his ears. He suspected the elf did it to simply irritate him.
But in the twilight, in the space between wakefulness and sleep, when the world slowed and dream and reality became one, his lover's voice soared and seemed to carry with it a depth of understanding and profound beauty that quite took the dwarf's breath away. Though he would never have admitted it, he loved to listen to Legolas sing beneath the stars.
Tonight, however, the song was changed. There was a note of despondency in Legolas's voice which disturbed Gimli and vexed his mind, preventing him from dropping off into slumber. As he listened for a while, the elf's distress became almost tangible; his singing seemed not to be of serenity and contemplation, but a challenge to some unseen threat. Legolas ceased abruptly at last and rose to his feet. Gimli roused himself and watched his companion glide like a ghost silently away from the others.
Aragorn observed the elf as well from beneath the cowl drawn low over his eyes and he shifted as if he would stand, but Gimi shook his head and signalled that he would go after him.
He found him back at the guard house, sitting before the fire in the hearth. The dwarf made no noise when he came through the door, yet Legolas stirred and without turning his head, he whispered, "Tomorrow shall be a long day for all of us, Gimli. You should sleep while you may."
"And how is it you expect me to relax with you moping about as you are?"
Gimli cast his cloak over the back of a wooden chair in the corner and Legolas listened to the dwarf's heavy tread pacing the floor. It stopped, and the elf felt a firm, supportive grip on his shoulders. He sighed and placed a hand upon Gimli's and stared into the flames.
"There is something wrong about you, Legolas," the dwarf bent and murmured deeply at his ear. "You have not been right since the siege, and I worry. You have always been the one among us untouched by fear and uncertainty and now you are almost incapacitated by such dark thoughts. This is more than passing concern for my safety. Something troubles you and yet you will not speak of it. Trust me, please. Tell me."
"There is nothing to tell, Gimli." Legolas motioned dismissively. "There is a shadow upon my mind and though I try, I cannot be rid of it."
"Tell me of it."
"I cannot. It is merely a feeling. A senseless vision that will not leave me in peace. Gimli, please, I am weary. Do not pursue this."
The dwarf touched the black hair, laying a comforting hand upon the elf's head. "Tell me," he insisted. "What do you see, Legolas Greenleaf?"
The elf shook his head in protest, and then gave a tired sigh. He gave in and closed his eyes.
He saw warm red blood... blood... seeping... flowing... Gimli's life draining from his cooling body... dying, dead. The dwarf's face... pale and grey... laid out before the elf's feet. Open eyes staring at nothing at all. No breath, no heartbeat, as still as stone.
The Endless stream carried away the memory of him, and all that he was to those who loved him was vanished and forgotten. All was darkness and there was nothing to see, to grasp. *A mortal's inevitable fate,* a low and melodious voice whispered. *A mortal's doom. He will not leave this place... there is no hope. Failure... darkness... pain without end... horror beyond reason.... There is no hope for any of you. You shall fail and he will die, as they all will, one by one, and nothing will remain. Nothing... an eternal hollow emptiness which devours stars and is by no light graced. This is your doom. There is no hope....*
The voice pounded in his ears mercilessly, filling his mind endlessly with its relentless, dripping words. He had heard it before. It was akin to the whispers which had taunted them as they had journeyed with Frodo and held out against the Ring's taint, but this was a subtler voice and much closer. He had heard it since he was touched by the white fire, but he had been able to shut it out, had refused to listen, dismissing it as fancy born of exhaustion and anxiety. Now the voice seemed to sense that his guard was down and it drowned him unmercifully in its sickeningly dulcet tone. He could not resist it. The cold void opened up, yawning wide before Legolas, and then in a rush it enveloped him. Emptiness around him, and horrible emptiness within.
The elf shuddered and tore his gaze from the fire, a wordless cry upon his lips. He leapt to his feet, a madness in his bright eyes and he tried to flee from the room. Gimli caught him, but the elf forcibly wrenched himself away. His face was proud and terrible in the firelight, desperate beyond reason. Gimli shouted his name and snatched for him, but Legolas twisted from his reach and stumbled backward, tripping over the chair behind him to land sprawled upon the floor in a tangle of broken wood and folds of the dwarf's cloak. He lay huddled there, shaking, his fair face buried in his arms. "U-estel! Pan i-duath... u-estel...."
Gimli was beside himself. Completely unnerved by the elf's sudden hysteria, he stood for a moment paralyzed and confused.
Then he approached Legolas slowly and knelt by him, putting gentle hands upon him and prising the elf's arms from his head. Gimli looked upon him and his face contorted with white-hot rage. "It is still with you," he whispered harshly, realizing. "His poison lies within you still!"
Legolas could not hear him. A low moan escaped him and he tried once more to rise and bolt from the guard house, but Gimli fought against Legolas's strength, heightened then by the fear thrilling through his companion's veins, and it was only with great difficulty that the dwarf held the struggling elf fast. "I should have seen it! I should have known and I should have kept you from this place! I knew better than to disregard the intuition of an elf, but I was a fool and paid no heed. The threat loomed over your head and not mine at all!"
Legolas thrashed and struck him in the chest, and Gimli's breath was driven painfully from his lungs. Winded, he twisted and gripped Legolas's wrists with punishing force, pinning him roughly to the floor in desperation, knowing somehow, certainly, if he loosed his hold on him and let him go that Legolas would destroy himself.
There was a scraping noise at the door and Aragorn burst through it, sword raised, seeking a foe. The elf's screams had brought him running with the hobbits close behind. His eyes settled upon Gimli and Legolas, then he hurled himself to the floor by the dwarf's side to help. Aragorn bent over the distraught elf who fought still to break Gimli's hold and the Ranger placed strong hands upon him, speaking Legolas's name.
Legolas immediately ceased to struggle at Aragorn's touch. His breathing was rapid and his heart was beating so hard they could see his pulse leaping at his throat. His green eyes were open and staring, but he was not seeing his companions.
Pippin and Merry stood rooted in shock. Aragorn's expression was somewhat wild. He searched Legolas's face anxiously, then he shouted to Merry, "Go! Find Gandalf!" Merry nodded, and he and Pippin sprang for the door. Aragorn looked questioningly at Gimli.
"Saruman!" the dwarf spat fiercely. "Saruman...."
*He is a deceiver.*
He speaks the truth and I cannot deny that he does, no matter how I might wish it to be otherwise.
*The most deceiving of lies are founded upon a grain of truth. He distorts thy fears and plays upon thy doubts. Listen not to the honey-sweet voice of a base and cringing worm brooding in his tower. The wisdom he once held has left him and he has fallen into madness.*
Fain would I believe, and I know it to be so, and yet his words echo the very lack of faith that lies within the darkest recesses of mine own heart and will not relent. I have been shown what will be and it pierces my soul. All that we do or say shall come to naught in the end. The Enemy grows ever stronger even as we strive to keep him at bay. My people are fading and our might has vanished. If we leave, he will find us. If we stay, we will be laid bare before him; he will conquer and overrun this green earth with foul and festering decay. I see no light! Against the power that arises there can be no victory, and to turn a blind eye and deny that this is so would be folly.... Hope is the greatest deception of all; it is for the ignorant few who have not accepted the futility and ultimate insignificance of all life..... There is no meaning.... There is nothing. I have seen what will be, and it is empty... a black abyss. I quake in horror at what we shall become....
*Thou hast not seen what will be. Thou hast seen what may be, if we allow evil to conquer. He has allowed thee to see what for him has become the truth. He has fallen, and in his pride and ignorance, in his loneliness and desperation he seeks to draw others down with him and break them. Thou shalt not be broken. Rise up, child of the Eldar, and do not grovel before him. Remember thy home; remember joy and the light of the stars that for no darkness dies. There is a strength within thee that his benighted soul envies and can never hope to rival.*
I feel no strength.... I feel nothing at all.
*Thou dost walk in his shadow and are numbed by it. Such apathetic nothingness is what fills a heart given to evil, when the warmth of love and compassion is shunned or disdained as weakness and is replaced by cleverness and ambition. This coldness steals within like a thief and most do not see what it is they have become or what it is they have lost until they are too far gone to care. His voice is chill poison running through thy veins. Thou must resist this or thou shalt perish.*
'Twould be little loss, my life to lose.
*Son of Thranduil! Is this the courage I believed did dwell in thy heart? CEASE THIS! Cast his darkness from thy mind and heed not the treacherous lies he pours into thine ears! Thou dost love and are beloved beyond measure.*
...Aye... a love. A love that is fleeting and fragile. A mortal's love is a bright flame that is swiftly kindled and consumes all before it dies, turning to naught but ashes cold. He will grow weary of me, or death will claim him, and in the end he will leave me. To whom then shall I reach out?
*Our fears and hopes, our desires and sorrows... they lift and weigh upon the heart until we find them at times impossible to bear, but to feel is far better than to be empty, than to breathe the air and be dead within. His time here is short, as is that given to all mortals, yes. But one cannot measure love by time, nor judge the value of a life by how quickly it passes from this earth. He would give to thee all the time he has. A most precious gift it is, but thou didst know this when thou didst pledge thyself to him, didst thou not? Free thy mind from the twisted ways Saruman would have thee follow, and remember....*
I... I cannot... Mithrandir, I cannot.....
*Come, Legolas! Thy will is stronger! Wouldst thou leave him? He feels he has failed thee and he despairs. Dost thou now deem him unworthy? Speak!*
Nay! Unworthy! No! He should never think so. By all that I hold dear...no.... I will not abandon him! He means everything to me. I cannot lose him....
*Yet thou shalt lose him, if thou canst not free thyself from this black spell under which thou hast fallen. Shalt thou be torn asunder by even such as this?*
I shall not! I will not lose him... to the wiles of any craven, baseborn sorcery! I... will... NOT!
*His hold upon thee is failing. Banish it and heed his words no longer! They are but the ravings of a madman and they have no power over thee. Come back, Legolas Greenleaf, and walk no more in his shadow.*
It is I who have failed him, in allowing my mind to be o'ertaken by such feeble means. What pain have I caused to him? I will never be parted from him. Aye, it is so that I would give up all... all for him, to share the briefness of his life.
*A blessing it is to hear the life return to thy voice, and yet be wary, child. Such is not thy path. Cherish the love granted to thee for the time it exists, but ask not too much. Few there have been who have renounced their immortal life for love, and that choice is not given to thee, son of Thranduil. Thou canst not forsake thy undying heart for him.*
Then I shall not do as others have done. I shall do what none have, and take him with me. I shall break the chains which confine him, and if he wills it, he shall give up his mortality for me. All he is and all that he will ever be shall never die; he shall never be forgotten.
*Alas, even the Valar cannot withhold Death from him, Legolas. What the final doom of the children of Aule may be even the wise have not been given to tell. Thou sharest a bond but not a common fate, I fear.*
Then the Hand which bound us together knows not His strength, as I shall never be severed from him. We have sworn to follow where the other may go.
*Such a thing has not been heard of, Prince of Mirkwood. Thou wouldst challenge Order and alter Destiny.*
So be it. It has been a task to those who have known us to judge which between the two is the most unyielding, and that has yet to be determined. If we are denied, who can tell? The will of Elf and Dwarf combined may prove to be a stubborness that will try even the infinite patience of Illuvatar!
Gandalf's sudden laughter startled Gimli and Aragorn from their low conversation by the fire.
"I doubt it not, dear child," he said warmly under his breath, and he touched a fond hand to the brow of the elf who sat before him and hovered still at the edge of dream. The old wizard's eyes were twinkling brightly when he rose from Legolas's side to face the two of them. Seeing the worry in their faces, he smiled reassuringly.
"Be at ease, my friends. He has not been lost. Indeed, I believe I may have awakened in him a spirit brighter than he knew before Saruman sought to poison him."
The wizard's gaze fell upon Gimli. The dwarf had moved not but sat weary and bent in his chair before the glowing embers of the fire.
Compassion filled Gandalf's face and his eyes met Aragorn's. Aragorn looked at his two companions, one with clasped hands staring into the flames, the other resting motionless nearby as his mind wandered still through a vague unreality, and he understood. He nodded gently and quietly rose to follow Gandalf outside, fastening the door behind him.
"Are you certain he is free, Gandalf?" The Ranger and the wizard walked thoughtfully up the path, breathing in the brisk night air.
"He is indeed, Aragorn. The corruption has fled from his mind and shall not return. He has witnessed a palpable darkness and emerged with a heart which is purer, perhaps, for having been tried. I have seen within him a hope which quells my own doubts, and it may be that it shall ease the burden of the trial I must myself face at tomorrow's first light. We shall see."
"They are an odd match." Aragorn raised his eyebrows and lifted his pipe to his mouth, striking a spark which illuminated his face for a moment and revealed the smile playing about his lips.
"Hmm? Ah! Perhaps," Gandalf said. "These are strange days, my friend, and change is nigh; for good or ill, naught shall ever be as it was. But for two such as they to overcome the animosity of their races, and for them to choose love over hate? It gives me faith, Aragorn, that we strive towards better times and that there might be a strength in all of us the Enemy cannot touch."
The old wizard chuckled and added, "And yet I do think that I shall make a point of it to be out of earshot when Gloin and Thranduil are told."
His perception gradually returned and his eyes focused as he left behind the last vestiges of the dark sleep which had claimed him. He grew accustomed to the light of the warm little room and his sight wandered to the figure sitting with his back turned to him, his head bent low.
Suffering because of him.
He sat up, then rose and softly padded to his side. He circled, then knelt before him. With a shaking hand he made to touch him, to draw the dwarf to him, but he could not bring himself to do so. He crouched for a long while, sorrowing over the careworn face, the weary slope of the dwarf's shoulders, the dusky shadows beneath his eyes. Gimli made no effort to acknowledge him, but sat there motionless in the unravelling silence. The elf closed his eyes and his heart quietly broke. Without a sound, he pillowed his head in his arms and laid it upon the dwarf's lap.
The Maker created the dwarves to be so strong that they might endure the evils of the world. Stone-hard and stubborn to a fault, staunch and unswerving in oath or deed, they were the hardiest of all races and full of pride at the fact. Gloin's son -- seasoned fighter, grim warrior and steadfast Dwarf of the Kingdom under the Mountain and as proud a dwarf as ever walked the halls of Erebor -- watched Legolas kneel before him, felt the elf lay his head against him in supplication, and Gimli wept unashamedly. He lifted an uncertain hand to stroke the long hair that spilled over him in ebony waves; the silken softness slid between his coarse fingers.
Gimli sighed and finally roused himself to speak. "You will be the life or the death of me, my dearest friend," he said brusquely and he laughed through his tears.
Legolas raised his head and looked at Gimli with a face that was pale and indefinable and filled with quiet intensity. But he was Legolas once more, untainted and familiar; the heaviness had been lifted from him. The elf drew himself level with the dwarf, then placed a hand upon each side of Gimli's face and brought him forward to capture him with a deepest kiss. Gimli gathered him into a rough embrace and his lips sought the elf's until the lack of air made them weak and they broke from the caress, panting.
"For this brief moment, we are real," Legolas whispered. "We are here." He stood and drew Gimli up from his chair. "Be with me."
Gimli followed him away from the fire and from the room through a door into one of the smaller chambers that once served as sleeping quarters. Gimli sat upon the simple, low bed and watched the elf light a candle in the sconce fastened against the stone wall.
Legolas turned. His elegant eyes were pools of beautiful depth and they sought Gimli's face anxiously, as if the elf was assuring himself that the dwarf was still there. So much had happened in such a short of time that he did not quite yet trust his senses. But Gimli was with him, and his presence was so solid and so strong. He was an unchanging constant that Legolas could depend upon though mountains should fall or seas become sundered. The elf marvelled at the sheer brawn of him, his implacable companion. The power that lit Gimli's dark eyes outshone the flicker of candlelight above him and the desire with which the dwarf looked at him made Legolas's breath catch in his throat.
The elf crept near him and slid nimble fingers along the dwarf's burly chest, unfastening his shirt with slow haste, peeling back the layers of cloth until he was able to run his hands along his lover's side and up his broadly muscled back. Gimli held him and nuzzled at the elf's ivory neck, remembering swift caresses and heights of hidden ecstasy nights ago. The elf felt so alive now, so strong. Gimli thirsted for that bright essence, hungered for the light in his lover's visage; he would possess that immortality, if even only for a fraction of time. Eternity was here and now.
Legolas pulled himself from the dwarf's arms and rose, never taking his eyes from Gimli's face. He straightened and smoothly shed his clothing until he stood bare in the dim light. The lithe curve of the elf's body was perfection. Gimli shrugged off his shirt and motioned for Legolas to come near.
The elf shook his head with a smile. "It is chill in here, love, away from hearth and fire. I will return with something to warm us."
Gimli could have suggested a few things that would have served to stave off the coolness that hung in the air, but the elf glided from the room. He returned ere long with a snug grey blanket cast about his shoulders and a plundered bottle of wine from the store rooms.
"It seems our young hobbit companions did not altogether deplete the stock," Legolas murmured gleefully. He swept to the bed and leapt upon it lightly. He hurled the coverlet over the two of them and huddled close to Gimli's compact form. He took a long draught from the bottle, then held it out to the dwarf. Gimli's fondness was for stronger drink, but his mind was quite reeling already from an intoxication which surpassed all; he swallowed a mouthful and let the sweet liquor flow down the back of his throat. Legolas kissed him and tasted the wine that lingered upon his tongue.
"Gimli, you cannot begin to know... how much...," Legolas faltered.
Gimli growled deeply, impatiently, needing no words, wanting none. He pulled the elf closer to him, flesh touching warm flesh. Legolas touched the wisps hair at the dwarf's temple, then traced the dark, woven hair at the dwarf's cheek, past his beard, and tangled his fingers in the thick thatch upon his chest.
"I had no need to go searching for a blanket," the elf teased. Gimli nipped irritably at a tipped elvish ear and Legolas twisted away, laughing merrily. Then the elf pressed him back to lie upon the bed. Kneeling beside the dwarf, Legolas traced light, tickling patterns over his torso, tugging gently at the coarse curls upon his breast. He reached for the flask in Gimli's hand and took another sip of the wine, then he brought the bottle low and slowly trickled a little upon the flat of the dwarf's stomach, making Gimli start at the chill sensation. With a mischievous glint in his eye, the elf bent and ran his tongue over Gimli's skin to catch hold of the rich liquid.
Gimli shivered and groaned at the coolness of the wine combined with the warmth of the elf's breath. Pleased to no end by his reaction, Legolas tipped the bottle and let a few drops fall upon the dwarf's forearm and then repeated the gesture, kissing and licking over Gimli's arm and wrist, up to his shoulder, then back down along his broad chest to his midsection, then to his solid hips. Gimli stopped him and lifted himself up on sturdy arms. He leaned forth and forcefully snatched the wine from the elf. He drank deeply, then poured a small amount along Legolas's bare collarbone, letting it drip down the core of the elf's body in a lingering, pinkish trail, then he followed it with his lips. The bottle was soon much lighter and the two were sticky and glistening with wine and desire. Their touching became more urgent, their voices more passionate. Gimli attempted to wrest control from the elf with dwarvish obstinance, but Legolas was having none of it. With easy strength, the elf pushed Gimli steadfastly back to the bed once more and leaned above him. The dwarf's arousal was evident by now and Legolas caught up the hard shaft with a firm hand and brought it to its fullest length. He emptied the last of the wine over Gimli's thigh and stroked the dwarf's sleek, throbbing member. Gimli's hand roved over his back, feverishly kneading at his flesh, and Legolas tipped his head to look down at him with a tempting smile.
"To feel... to live," the elf said quietly and his expression was suddenly very serious, very thoughtful. He kissed Gimli chastely and fixed his steady green eyes upon him. "I am no dwarf, Gimli, but I hope I will serve."
Legolas raised himself up and threw the blanket back over his shoulders, draping them both beneath the grey folds, hovering over the dwarf like a beautiful bird of prey. The elf straddled him lightly, then took a long, deep breath and sank back down onto Gimli with incredible slowness, claiming him for his own. Gimli moaned and closed his eyes. Legolas took him fully inside without uttering a sound. The elf carefully paused and exhaled and allowed himself a few moments to become accustomed to his lover's girth ere he continued on.
Gimli let the feeling of being within Legolas overcome him; the tautness of him thrilled through the dwarf and he clenched his teeth in disbelief. Gimli looked worriedly up at the elf but there was no pain upon the fair face, merely a deep concentration and a tenseness. Gimli stroked the elf's slim flanks with a tender, wondering touch; he gripped Legolas's waist with strong hands to support him. Legolas swallowed and hesitated, then finally relaxed and drew the blanket down around them both. He smiled tremulously at Gimli, then stirred, drawing an intense groan from his lover. They faltered at first, uncertain, then they began to learn one other's rhythm and how to move as would give them both pleasure. Legolas gracefully controlled his rising and falling, never taking his eyes from Gimli's. They became acquainted with the pliancy of flesh, the strength of muscle, the nuances of their bodies that were so unlike and yet so similar.
In too short a time, the dwarf's breathing began to grow rapid and harsh and his thrusts deeper and harder. Legolas led him to the brink of ecstasy and brought him back from it again and again until he could not even find voice to plead with the elf to grant him completion. Ere long, however, the verdant eyes which gazed into his were brimming over with desire as well and Gimli knew that neither of them could last; their emotions were running too high and their need was much too great. He felt the elf's shaft hard against him and he grasped for him, wishing to drive Legolas beyond control even as he lost his. The elf's head snapped back at the touch of his hand and he gave a strangled cry and tightened.
Gimli could endure no more. With a low-throated moan, he thrust once... and again... and again, and Legolas felt his lover's steel expand, then turn molten within him. The elf arched and gasped at the sensation of it. He followed the dwarf to spiralling heights, trembled as he met his own wrenching release, and he held onto Gimli desperately as he descended, his name upon his lips.
They slumped together beneath the blanket, limbs quaking and breath mingling as they whispered fervent vows. Legolas slid from Gimli to lie close by his side. Gimli threw a strong, protective arm over the elf and gently stroked his throat, feeling the cherished heartbeat begin to slow.
"Either by chance or design," Gimli observed after a long silence, "our dalliances seem to take place in abandoned guard houses."
Legolas's low, sparkling laughter filled the room. "I should think it will not be so hard to accomodate us wherever we may go," he mused, "though I am afraid it may prove a most difficult task to persuade the guards to abandon their houses." The elf touched the fingers that held his neck and he caressed them.
"Legolas?" Gimli murmured, "....Don't ever do that again."
Legolas lifted his head and gazed at the dwarf with a hurt expression.
Gimli gave him a withering look. "Nay, you grand fool of an Elf," he said. "Not that! Do not let me lose you ever again. I could not bear it. What is the good of giving my heart to an elf if he does not have the sense to behave as the rest of his annoying kindred and remain oblivious to the weaknesses and dangers us mere mortals face? Don't ever leave me like that again or I will not forgive you."
Legolas shook his head and clasped the dwarf's hand firmly. "Never will I."
"The more I consider it, the more curious I find it to be. I have never been to Isengard, but I have journeyed in this land, and I know well the empty countries that lie between Rohan and the Shire. Neither goods nor folk have passed that way for many a long year, not openly. Was there a date on the barrels?"
"Yes," said Pippin. "It was the 1417 crop, that is last year's... no... the year before, of course, now; a good year."
"Most interesting," Aragorn muttered, and blew a whiff of smoke from his lips, watching it lift and dissipate into the air. "A small matter, but troublesome nevertheless. I shall have to mention it to Gandalf and see what he makes of it."
"Should Gandalf have not returned to meet us by now?" Gimli asked over the top of his cup. "It would seem to me he should wish to face this as soon as possible, yet time is wearing on and they have not yet returned."
"There is much to see to, and he approaches this meeting not lightly, Gimli."
"A good morning to everyone," Merry said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he joined the group. "...although one wouldn't know it around here," he muttered. The mists had settled once more around them with the night's disappearance and rather than bring a cheerier mood to their surroundings, the sun merely illuminated the ruin and desolation with an eerie, pale yellow glow. The waters had begun to steam; the air was heavy and beginning to grow hot and humid, and they felt thirst cling to their throats and their clothing begin to stick to their backs.
The companions were sitting about the tumbled stones of the arch of Isengard, making a light breakfast from the stores of the guard house and their own bits of supplies as they watched for Gandalf to return with Theoden and his men. They had slept well for a few hours, but most of them had risen before dawn in uneasy anticipation of the day's events. As they tarried, their agitation became impatience, then boredom. Now they merely sat, and waited.
Merry stretched and yawned, then leaned over and snatched a bit of toast from Pippin's hand. He stood munching placidly, gazing out over at the tower that loomed in the mist before them. "There doesn't seem to be much activity on the far shore, does there?"
"A snake waiting for us to draw near before he strikes," Gimli grumbled.
"The water has sunk a little. There must be outlets somewhere from the caves underneath," Pippin said thoughfully, in between bites. "I think if Saruman looks out any of his windows, it must look an untidy, dreary mess." He shrugged and turned to rummage through his pack. "Apple, Legolas?" he called, and lobbed the piece of fruit high up to the elf who lounged upon the wall above their heads.
The water had now subsided somewhat, though here and there large gloomy pools remained, covered with scum and wreckage. The land between was a wilderness of slime and tumbled rock, pitted with blackened holes and dripping with the murky water from the Isen that had poured into the ground when the Ents broke the dams. Orthanc jutted from the center of the ruin like a crypt marker, looking altogether dismal and foreboding. Ever they glanced at the small, darkened windows, watching for movement or any signs of the sorcerer or the lackey who served him. There were none. The tower stood still and lifeless, though still they felt constantly the presence of silent menace, watching and waiting.
"And how do you suppose we'll even get close enough to Orthanc to talk with him, what with all the pits and water and loose slabs? No doubt Wormtongue needed the bath, but I am already rather refreshed myself this morning and am in no need of a dousing, especially in water as cold and as foul as that," Pippin wrinkled his nose.
"That is the reason we tarry, Master Took," Aragorn said. "It would have been too difficult to cross that desolation with the waters lapping at the higher ground. The Ents have done thorough work in cleansing Isengard."
Gimli stood and wiped the beads of sultry sweat from his face, then donned his helm. "Perhaps we could send our sure-footed Elf across first? He seems to have an uncanny knack for picking out trails."
A particularly juicy apple core sailed down through the air to strike the dwarf squarely between the shoulder blades.
"What do you think will happen, Aragorn?" Merry asked. "From all we've seen and heard, Saruman does not sound as if he is the type to surrender and beg forgiveness. What does Gandalf intend to do?"
"I know not, Merry. Gandalf seems to think it will do some good, however, and we must trust to his wisdom. No doubt we shall see a most interesting confrontation this morning, if nothing else. Saruman has much to answer for to those who wait now upon him at his door."
"Your curiosity shall soon be satisfied. There is Gandalf!" Legolas's voice called down from the wall, "Also Theoden and his men."
Across the waste they saw Riders picking their way to the south towards them. The elf leapt down to land lightly onto the path off to the side. He strode forward to retrieve his pack and his bow from their resting place against the stonework and he fastened his cloak about his shoulders. He joined them, and the others rose stiffly from their seats to gather their belongings and ready themselves to meet the Lord of the Mark once more.
They followed what was left of the road from the gates, going slowly, for the flag-stones were cracked and slimed. They joined with Gandalf and Theoden under the shadow of the dark rock of Orthanc.
"Well!" Gandalf greeted them. "Treebeard and I have had some interesting discussions and made a few plans. It is time. I trust we have all had some much-needed rest?" The wizard met Legolas's eyes, then nodded imperceptively. "We must get going again. I fear our task this morning is not the most pleasant I might have wished for, but it is necessary, if you all are up to facing it."
"We are," said Merry. "Now that I have slept and found some sustenance, I actually feel less ill-disposed towards Saruman than I did."
Gimli glowered. "I do not," the dwarf said with a menacing voice. "I should like Saruman better when he is mouldering in the filth at the bottom of one of these dark pits at our feet. Then perhaps I would feel less ill-disposed, though I should have to think long and hard about it."
They came to the foot of Orthanc, and their eyes were drawn up the length of the immense, broad staircase which lead to the entrance, hewn of the same glistening black stone as the tower itself. The great door stood high above the ground; and over it was a shuttered window, opening upon a balcony hedged with iron bars.
Gandalf and Theoden dismounted at the foot of the stairs. "I will go up," Gandalf said quietly. "I have been to Orthanc, and I know my peril."
"As shall I," said the king. "I am old, and fear no peril. I wish to speak with the enemy who has done me so much wrong. Eomer shall go with me, if he is able, to see that my aged feet do not falter."
Eomer took a step forward to stand with his king, a grim look upon his face. He bore still his arm within a sling, but his other hand rested firmly upon the pommel of his sword.
"As you will, " said Gandalf. "Aragorn shall come with me. Let the others await us at the foot of the stairs. They will hear and see enough, if there is anything to hear or see."
"Nay!" Gimli turned to the wizard determinedly. "I wish for a closer view. I will not be left behind. I have waited long for this moment and shall not be satisfied watching it from a distance."
Gandalf frowned disapprovingly at the dwarf with his axe hefted a bit too handily over one shoulder, but he held his tongue as his eyes shifted to Legolas.
"I would go as well, Mithrandir," the elf said softly. He did not look at the wizard, but instead gazed intently at the black tower, and there was an odd tone to his speech. He glided forward to stand beside Gimli. The dwarf made to protest, but the elf put a gentle hand upon his arm and silenced him. There was a look of extraordinary purpose upon Legolas's face and his bearing suggested that he would brook no argument.
Gandalf regarded him pensively, and then nodded at last. "Very well. Come then. Be careful, and be not rash in your words or actions. We deal with a formidable enemy and I know not how he shall react to our host upon his doorstep. Beware his voice."
They stepped resolutely up the stairway to meet the Master of the Tower. Gandalf stood before the the door of Orthanc, his robes a splash of pure white against the hard, black stone, and without hesitation he beat upon it with his staff. It thudded with a hollow sound.
"Saruman!" he cried in a commanding voice. "Come forth!"
And they waited.
Gimli stood impatiently a few steps below Gandalf, his axe digging a groove along his shoulder. His arm was beginning to ache, but he welcomed the pain; it heightened his awareness and it sharpened his anger.
Not that his anger needed sharpening. It was honed to a deadly edge as it was. He glanced at the tall figure at his side, at the subtle paleness of his cheek, and he could very much taste the bitter sharp rage at the back of his throat. He began to eye the massive wooden door before him, criss-crossed with iron supports, and caught himself mentally calculating the force it would take to burst it and yank the rat out of his hole. Not much at all. The door was thick, but the hinges were weak. The fortress which had withstood the Ents' wrath was not unassailable, not to one very determined dwarf with an axe. He smiled to himself and ran a hand over his beard, entertaining the thought, but then merely shifted his weight to the opposite leg and kept dutifully still.
For a time, there was no answer to Gandalf's challenge. The window above the door stayed dark and empty and for a fleeting, disappointing instant, Gimli wondered if all had been in vain, if the tower had been abandoned and the enemy long since fled.
But a reply was finally given to their challenge, though it came not from Saruman.
A high-pitched nervous trill called from the window, arching through the silence to fall flat upon their ears. "Who is it? What do you wish?"
Gimli frowned, knowing this was not the foe they sought, and then he remembered Pippin's comments regarding Rohan's spy, and an image came to him of the traitorous and treacherous Wormtongue treading water at Treebeard's command. He saw Eomer's eyes flash with recognition and the man spat, "Know you well who it is, and what it is we wish, coward."
Theoden's face also grew cold. "I know that voice, and I curse the day when I first listened to it. The King wishes to speak with Saruman, not with you, Grima. I have nothing to say to you."
"Go and fetch your master, Wormtongue, since you have become his footman," said Gandalf. "Do not waste our time."
The window closed and again they waited. "Here we sit like beggars on his doorstep while he and that sneaking cur conjure something nasty to greet us, no doubt," Gimli growled under his breath. The air was still, and no one moved. He could feel Legolas breathe beside him, but the elf said naught.
Then... suddenly, the window opened once more, and from the dark recesses of the opening above their heads came another voice, and it was not Wormtongue who spoke. They had prepared themselves for the wiles and craft of Saruman the Great, but could not have fathomed the authority his voice immediately held over them when it first touched their ears. Those who heard its low and melodious canter shuddered even as they were enthralled by it, and few there were who could listen to the words of Saruman and not be moved by them. Once his voice brought counsel and comfort to those who sought his aid, and all he said was wise and reasonable. Now, the wisdom had fled but his power of speech remained, making all that he said seem trustworthy and good; his voice was a fair concealment of the dark ambition and creeping madness which resided behind those black, black eyes.
None there were who could reject his pleas and his commands without an effort of mind and will, and none did so now. They listened to the silky words that flowed from his mouth, and they were enchanted.
"Well?" the voice rolled like gentle thunder above their heads. "Why must you disturb my rest? Will you give me no peace at all by night or day?" His tone was kindly, as one aggrieved by injuries undeserved, and in spite of the malice they bore for him, shame and confusion were forced into the hearts of the company who stood there.
Most of the company. Gimli felt no shame. No confusion dulled his mind. He watched with grim fascination as Saruman emerged onto the balcony, smoothly sliding to the rail to look down upon them. An old man swathed in a great cloak, the colour of which was not easy to tell, for it changed if they moved their eyes or if he stirred. His face was long with a high forehead, he had deep darkling eyes, hard to decipher, though the look they bore now was of graveness and benevolence, and a little weariness. His hair and beard were white, but strands of black touched about his lips and ears.
Exactly as he had expected, yet nothing he could have imagined. The dwarf smiled nonetheless, his eyes glinting with hatred, and he tightened his grip on his axe.
Saruman gestured in a conciliatory manner. "Come now," he purred. "Gandalf I know too well to have much hope that he seeks help or counsel here. But you, Theoden son of Thengel, Lord of the Mark of Rohan... long have I desired to speak with you, mightiest king of western lands, to help you and see you through the darkness of the days you have lived, and the days which have yet to come."
Gimli sneered at the blatent flattery that dripped from the old liar's lips and he felt nauseous. He shook his head in digust, but when he turned to match his disbelieving look with the that of some of the others, he found them all riveted to the sight of the old man above them. The dwarf's eyes flicked to the king, and he watched aghast as Theoden unconsciously straightened with pride in response to Saruman's sycophancy.
"Is it yet too late?" Saruman ventured. "Grievious has been your war against me, though verily I wished not for it. And yet despite the injuries that have been done to me, in which the men of Rohan, alas! have had some part, still I would save you and deliver you from the ruin that draws nigh. It is not chance which brings you before me. I alone can aid you, Theoden," he said, "if you would but ask it of me."
The king stood as one made of stone and did not answer, whether out of uncertainty or disdain, Gimli could not tell, but the handful of Riders below listened and murmured their approval at Saruman's words. They were weary of battle, some still nursing wounds, all still grieving the loss of so many at Helm's Gate and the Crossings. How much could have been avoided, how much pain never stirred if their king had but sought the Master of Orthanc and accepted his help? They had followed Gandalf Stormcrow into darkness and despair, and where had it gotten them? They had won the battle, but the Mark could not stand before the greater might of the enemy in the East. Better would it be to stand with Saruman and swear allegiance to him. He would protect them. He would protect their families. Saruman smiled gently at them, and many who had held clenched spears and swords in their hands upon approaching the tower now found their arms hanging peacefully at their sides, their weapons forgotten on the ground. Many bowed their heads before him and lowered their eyes in reverence. Pippin and Merry, crouched low at the bottom of the great stairway, looked about them fearfully, their own small blades still held tightly in their fists.
Gimli was alarmed now. He had thought the deception of the king due to Theoden's age, some feebleness that yet remained within him, but now the men stared up at Saruman with the same rapt expressions, obeying like strung puppets. Gimli's heart quickened, and he jerked his head to look at Gandalf, but the wizard had not stirred. He stood leaning silently on his staff, as one waiting patiently. As if waiting for some call that has not yet come.
Waiting for a call? What call? What was it that stayed him from acting? Gimli grew angry. What game was this?
At least, Gimli thought, Aragorn was not so affected. The Ranger kept his head held high, his dark eyes grimly amused, as a man who sees through an old juggler's trick while others stand amazed by it. And yet, he also watched Saruman without a sound, without raising a hand in protest.
"What say you, Theoden King? Will you have peace with me, and all the aid that my knowledge, founded in long years, can bring? Shall we make our counsels together against evil days, and repair our injuries with such good will that our estates shall both come to fairer flower than before?"
Saruman's voice purred on, his dulcet tones licking at susceptible ears, whispering platitudes until Gimli wanted to throw himself at the others, to shake them, to rail at them. Is this what Legolas had heard? Echoing endlessly in his mind? That voice, pounding into him, numbing him until he could hear nothing else? But not whispering pleasantries and flattery, no. Whispering death and despair. The voice which was now fair will turn, Gimli knew, and the power behind it shall drive the unwary to madness. The dwarf felt his stomach sink and cursed himself, cursed all of them for climbing those tower stairs without the slightest idea of what awaited them, really. Gandalf should have known. Should never have brought them here.
Why had he allowed Legolas to come! By the Valar, the elf was as stubborn as he, but he would have asked him stay behind, would have made him! He cast a glance at the elf on the step beside him, afraid to see that same look of awful emptiness in his fair face that the others now bore.
His brow furrowed. Legolas stood there with his shoulders firm, his arms loose at his side, and his head tilted ever so slightly, a look Gimli recognized as one Legolas bore often during their travels, a look which meant the elf was listening to something the others could not hear. He was not watching the sorcerer but was gazing straight ahead as if he would pierce the black stone of the wall with his sharp eyes. Legolas was hearing no words of Saruman's, Gimli realized, and the elf was utterly unaware of the spell hovering over them all. The dwarf was not certain whether to be relieved or concerned.
Gimli's patience was rapidly failing. He was a dwarf, and he detested these games of the mind. He would end these tricks, these deceptions, with the crisp clean edge of the weapon he held in his hand, if need be. They had not come through all they had to succumb to the poisoned words of a craven sorcerer. He would end this, and take Legolas from this place of stone and deceit.
The dwarf disturbed the calm awe of the gathering at Orthanc, his booming shout drowning Saruman's speech.
"The words of this wizard stand on their heads!" he snarled loudly, and he gripped the handle of his axe. With satisfaction, he saw the smile slide from the sorcerer's face. "In the language of Orthanc help means ruin, and saving means slaying, that is plain. We do NOT come here to beg!" The dwarf brought his axe down from his shoulder with a sweeping motion, spun it in a flash of bright silver, and hammered the hilt to the stone stair beneath his feet with a bone-jarring ring which echoed from the black heights. He felt Eomer jump upon his right side, and the Riders at the foot of the stair started as sleepers shaken from deep sleep; Gimli heard a low murmur of resentment from the men below.
Saruman lifted his hand. "Peace!" he said, and for a fleeting moment, his voice was less suave, less composed. "I do not speak to you yet, Gimli Gloin's son. Far away is your home and small concern of yours are the troubles of your land."
Gimli seethed with fury. "Small concern?" he barked. "Aye, far away is my home, and far removed are my people from the men of the Mark and their cares. But how long, Saruman, how long until you tire of feeding upon your neighbours' fears, how long until you tire of subjecting them to your will and stripping them of dignity, of murdering their women and children? How long shall it be before you then turn your greedy eyes further afield? How long until my kin find you, or your Dark Master, upon our doorstep seeking entrance, seeking domination? And if we should fall, where then shall the burning Eye rove? Aye, far away is my home, but here is where I stand. If I turn away from the Rohirrim and their resistance, and ignore your next conquest, and your next... who then shall come to my aid, to the aid of my own people? You are mistaken if you believe us to be such small-minded fools. You know not the pain you have caused. You are mistaken if you think I would not gladly relieve your head from your withered shoulders with the greatest of pleasure!"
Saruman snarled, "You would do well, Master Dwarf, to hold your tongue and your place. You speak in haste and ignorance, and cannot perceive the gravity of the matter in which you meddle!" Then the sorcerer's voice shifted once more, becoming once more pleasing and persuasive. "But come, son of Gloin, it was not by design of your own that you became embroiled in this affair, and so I will not blame such part as you have played. You have been deceived by the lies of those who would see me destroyed, and would place blame upon me for incidents which were out of my hands. You have believed all to be true when you see that, indeed, I wish merely to offer my help to those who would seek it from me."
Gimli clenched his axe in white-knuckled fists. Eomer moved at last, stirred from dark trance, the ring of Gimli's axe still in his ears, and he loosened his sword in its sheath with a threatening rattle. "Now we feel the peril of which we were warned!" Eomer said. "Have we ridden forth to victory, only to stand at last amazed by an old liar with honey on his forked tongue? For shame!" he shouted down at the men below them. "Would you parley with this dealer in treachery and murder, my Lord, and lap up his putrid lies like sweet cream?" he asked his king. "Remember thy son Theodred, broken and torn at the Fords, and the grave of faithful Hama in Helm's Deep, who was hewn before the gates of the Hornburg after he was dead."
"If we speak of poisoned tongues, what should we say of yours, young serpent!" Saruman hissed and seemed to grow larger. Gimli and Eomer stood defiant, their weapons now in hand and raised into the air, their anger hot. Several of the Riders below followed suit, seeing now beyond the smoke and mirrors, understanding the conjurings of the Master of Orthanc, past his pleasing mask. But still many more were held in his sway, and they now spoke out angrily at the harsh words of Eomer, who seemed to them no more than a headstrong youth picking a battle regardless of their best interests.
The noise of the gathered men swelled and became a clamour, some at the verge of coming to blows down far below in the cold, bleak shadow of the great black tower of Orthanc. They paused in their strife to listen when at last their king spoke.
"We will have peace," Theoden said, and many of his men fell silent in dismay, but more even cheered. Eomer opened his mouth to speak, but the king held up his hand to stay his protests. "Yes... we will have peace... We will have peace! We will have peace when you and all your works have perished -- and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us! You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men's hearts. You hold out your hand and I see naught but a finger of the claw of Mordor. When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc!"
Chaos erupted below. Shouts and the clash of metal upon metal. Saruman's face twisted suddenly with wrath; they shuddered at the hideous change from the mannered and wise countenance he had put forth before.
"Gibbets and crows!" he snapped. "What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek and their brats roll on the floor with the dogs? I need you not! Take this ragtag gathering of misfits and miscreants from my door, Gandalf!" He laughed beneath his breath, a horrendous, deep laugh, and he motioned with his hand over the throng below. "I offered you power, Gandalf. I offered to you a chance to aid me, to right the wrongs of the world and truly make your mark, and you return to me in the company of the violent and the ignorant. See how they wrangle over the drama of their small, meaningless existence. How comes it that you can endure such company! I have naught to say to you but this, Gandalf: We are above such as they. They do not understand, cannot understand that all is not as simple as their simple minds would have it be. You understand, Gandalf...." His voice grew subtle and absorbing. "Reconsider...." he said. "Join with me, and leave these lesser folk to their little lives. You need them not."
The sheer potency of Saruman's voice at these last words smothered them all like a thick blanket, numbing their minds and dulling their thoughts. Those who had kept their heads looked to Gandalf and they were without hope, fearing he too would succumb, knowing he could not resist, knowing he would not. He would go to him, he would betray them, and they would be lost. He would leave them, and they would fall.... darkness and despair. They would fall. They were engulfed by a rushing sound of black voices and whispered warnings and sour threats. They were lost.
The word was soft-spoken, and after the assault of Saruman's voice in their ears, it was a marvel any could hear, yet that single word penetrated the turmoil and routed their confusion, and all fell silent. Gimli heard, and looked triumphantly to Gandalf, expecting to see the old wizard with his staff held high, his eyes flashing defiance beneath his snowy eyebrows.
But Gandalf had not moved, had not spoken, his expression was inscrutible and impassive, deliberately emotionless; It had not been his voice.
"Nay, Curunir. They do not understand. Nor dost thou."
Gimli turned to the source of the words, and regarded Legolas in astonishment. The elf had stepped forward from the dwarf's side, his gaze no longer unfocused but now resting upon the old man who leaned upon the rail above him. Legolas Greenleaf looked to Saruman of Many Colours, and their eyes locked upon one another. Legolas did not flinch. Saruman did.
The elf advanced up the black stairs with measured footsteps, slowly, calmly, until he stood side by side with Gandalf.
They had travelled long with Legolas; he was one of them, he was their companion and friend. They were accustomed to Legolas, and while they had realized, of course, that he was an elf, it meant little more to them than the fact that he could judge a hawk from a crow several leagues away, or could plunge an arrow into the heart of an orc with uncanny accuracy, or could walk beside them with feet which hardly pressed the grass or snow. These were little things that set him apart, novelties that made his comrades smile or express their thankfulness at having the skills of an elf to aid the Fellowship, but small differences, nothing more.
Legolas shed all humbleness, shed all modest trappings, and now stood before them as a son of the Eldar race, Firstborn and eternal, tall as a young tree, dark hair cast back from his noble face, a light was upon his brow and he shone as a star, beyond their comprehension; he was a fair and fell creature of a time that was now fading, yet great strength was in him yet and he was untouchable.
Gimli and Aragorn looked upon their friend with amazement, knowing him not despite his transformation, for even within his remarkable eyes there was something more, an agelessness which which did not belong unto him, an agelessness beyond even elves or wizards. The nimbus about him grew stronger and brighter than ever it had been; it touched upon the white raiment of Gandalf beside him, causing him to glow as light upon silver, as moonshine upon pure snow, as sun dancing on clear water.
Saruman drew back involuntarily, taken off-guard for an instant, and it seemed to Gimli that the sorcerer looked upon Legolas warily, with something like terrified recognition dawning in his eyes. But then it was gone, and he drew himself up haughtily, gazing down at Gandalf and Legolas with studied hatred, keeping a casual grip upon his staff. His lip curled in derision and he made to speak, to scorn them, to dismiss them.
His eyes met the elf's once more, and he faltered.
There was pity in the elf's eyes. Pity! The look thrust through Saruman like a knife and he felt such sorrow as no mortal or immortal being upon Middle-earth had ever experienced radiating from the elf like a physical force.
"They do not understand what this hour means, Curunir. Nor dost thou," Legolas spoke not with rage or contempt, but in a voice brimming with a sense of inexpressable loss. His voice, and yet not. Hollower... deeper. Saruman the Wise, persuader of men's minds, subtle shifter of thoughts and desires, found himself facing something for which he had not been prepared, and at last he was the one spell-bound and listening against his own will.
"They see thee as thou wouldst appear, a being of power and might, and this meeting to them means no more than an opportunity to face a foe who has wronged them and to punish him for his deeds. They understand not what is at stake, what it is that thou once were... what it is we shall lose. Dost thou knowest, Curunir, what this hour means?" Legolas asked softly. Then his voice rang out with a sterling tone, "Hast thou forgotten wholly thy place and thy purpose? In thy madness, thou hast hurt those who did put their faith in thee, who placed their trust in thee to protect them. And in thy greed and blindness, thou hast brought upon thyself a doom none should be made to bear. Thou art Istari, Curunir, and servant of the West... and beloved still, though thou wouldst not see it."
None stirred. None spoke. Saruman stared at the elf for a long moment, and his expression was one of confusion... then disbelief. The light prodded at his mind, and to him came vague images of... far shores, jewelled mountaintops... .. a single white tree and a green hill . Snatches of impossible, undying beauty, and love and honor which had seemed lost long ago... an unbearable sound rose within him as of the eternal roar of the sea, or the rush of his heart, or both.
He looked upon the elf, and then upon Gandalf with almost hope, with remembrance. He was Saruman the White again, wisest and strongest of the Istari, and those gathered below him caught the briefest glimpse of what he had once been, indeed, what they had all but lost, and they grieved for him.
But in the end, darkness mastered Saruman. His face twisted with obdurate pride and he cried in a strangled voice, "Servant! Servant I was, but no longer! My life to waste upon those who crawl and live and die upon this wretched earth? I will not be made to grovel and obey the beck and call of the pitiful beings about me. I would have more... MORE THAN JUST THIS!"
"More?" Legolas answered with disappointment. "Once thou didst have all, though even one as wise as thee didst not perceive it. There is no shame in serving, if thou dost serve a just cause, and give of thyself in reverence and respect. Thou hast sought base conquest and domination and for these fleeting, hollow triumphs, thou wouldst betray the divine trust given unto thee? Of many colours thou art, and none thou dost believe, yet thou art servant still, Curunir, of the basest kind. It is an unforgiving master thou hast chosen and thou shalt come to know his wrath. And yet, all the suffering thou shalt find at the Black Hand of the Lord of Mordor, all that thou shalt know when the darkness falls, none shall be as grievous to bear as what I say unto thee verily here and now. Never again shalt thou see the light of the Undying Shore, nor hear the blessed Voice of Arda. Hast thou fallen even so far? For thee, the song shall end. Sindanoriello caita mornie. Si vanwa na, Valimar."
Saruman staggered back with faded cheek and fevered eyes, as a man struck a mortal blow. His mouth moved but no sound came forth. The hard, black glass of his eyes cracked, and they saw the tormented soul within, frightened and alone, caught in a trap of his own devising and unable to find escape. He stared in utter horror at Legolas, at Gandalf, at them all. His mind filled with anguish and doubt and the sound of the vast sea, and he was visibly torn. Saruman the Wise, for the first time in his existence, was utterly speechless. "It is not yet too late." Legolas said to him, his strange eyes sad, and he looked at once to be the young elf he was and the ancient being who spoke. He turned reluctantly from Saruman, seeking the wizard at his side, and at last Gandalf stirred.
"Isengard has proved less strong than your hope and fancy made it, Saruman. So shall other things upon which you now depend. Think well, and consider long the choice given unto thee now. For this is the last. This shall be the last choice given you, and it will not come again."
Saruman's face was ashen and bore the look of a hunted animal, loathing to stay and dreading to leave its refuge. He hesitated, and no one breathed.
He wanted more than anything to accept the forgiveness offered to him.
But when he spoke, his voice was shrill and cold. In his mind loomed red fire and black shadow, stronger now, and pride leapt upon him like a slavering beast, its claws too deeply embedded in his soul to ever be wrenched free. The light hurt his eyes. The roar of the ocean which filled his mind now turned his thought to purest rancor.
"Will I come down? Does an unarmed man come down to speak with robbers out of doors? Begone! I bow before no one! Your innocence, your mercy makes you weak, and shall be your downfall when the dark truth is shown to you. I should remain lord and master of this ruined fortress ere I would serve anyone ever again. This is a trick! A trick conjured by you, Gandalf, and I will not be deceived by you and this elven upstart! I will not bow and sue for grace before the likes of you! LEAVE THIS PLACE!" His outburst came so close upon the heels of his indecision that they were taken by surprise and could not have prepared themselves for what he did next. Saruman lifted trembling hands to the air and from his fingertips there streamed blinding white fire, streaking down across the clear sky with the look and sound of solid ice cracking. It struck the tower with a deafening burst as lightening to a rod, and those at the bottom of the stair fell to their knees with their hands over their ears. Those standing just below the sorcerer were thrown to the steps to lie stunned, their flesh tingling as if with the bite of frost, weapons rimed and too cold to touch.
The fire struck once, then again, crackling over the black stone, then flaring with a searing glare at the foot of the balcony, obliterated the two shining figures at the forefront of the top stair.
Gimli pushed himself up and cried out in agony. He watched the familiar white fire surge and swallow the wizard and the elf, so much brighter, so colder than that which he remembered upon the walls of Helm's Gate, and Gimli knew his life had ended. He rose painfully to his feet and stumbled up the steps, and would have hurled himself into the flames, but Eomer and Aragorn grabbed for him and held him back, their own faces grey with horror. The white fire burned intensely, obscuring all within it for a long, heart-stopping moment, consuming, flames licking the air... and then at last it flickered, and went out.
Gimli heard Aragorn draw in a sharp breath, and the dwarf lifted his head, death in his eyes.
And they beheld both elf and wizard there before them still, unmoved, unharmed, small tongues of flame curling about their feet like white mist. Gimli's tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth, and Aragorn's arms tightened around the dwarf's shoulders. Eomer whispered a faint oath.
Legolas stood with his head slightly bowed, unable to look at Saruman. Gandalf's solemn eyes sought the sorcerer's face and when he spoke, it was terrible to hear.
"You are a fool, Saruman," he said. "A virtue untried is indeed fragile and easily broken, but do not confuse such innocence with the might of a virtue which has passed through shadow and has prevailed. It is a strength which the Darkness cannot comprehend, and therefore cannot rival. I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, and I have taken up the mantle you have discarded. My life has been given to protect those in my charge as I may, and no greater purpose could I ever know. Your followers are destroyed and scattered; your neighbours you have made your enemies; you have cheated your new master, or tried to do so, and you spurn a final offer of mercy with shameful conceit and murderous desire. Yes, you are a fool, Saruman, or perhaps so deceived yourself that you cannot understand. Such is the blindness of evil. They see you for what you are now, Saruman. Your power is gone."
Saruman's face turned from disappointed rage to disdain. He turned to leave the balcony, but Gandalf lifted his hand, and Saruman turned as if dragged back against his will, and fell upon the rail with a cry where he leaned heavily, breathing hard.
"I have not finished," he said. "You will leave when you are told. I cast you from the order, and from the Council. You have no colour." Gandalf's spoke clearly and with no remorse. "Saruman, your staff is broken."
There was a sickening splintering sound as of bone breaking and the staff split asunder in Saruman's hand.
"Go!" said Gandalf. With a piercing wail and a last look at them all, Saruman fell back and crawled away like a shadow to melt into the darkness behind him.
All was quiet for the longest time.
Gimli took a shaking step forward, watching always Legolas, who had moved not but stood still with his head bent, eyes cast down. Then the elf sighed, lifted his chin proudly and turned. He met Gimli's concerned gaze and the elf's heart was in the smile he gave to him. The brilliant glow about Legolas had dimmed, leaving him as he was, leaving Gandalf without the ghostly illumination about him. The odd presence in Legolas's eyes had also vanished with the shattering of Saruman's staff, and their two familiar companions stood before them once more.
Merry and Pippin tore rapidly up the steps to them. They hung back a moment with the others, uncertain, then Merry approached Gandalf, apprehensively, a slow wide grin forming on his face, his hands in his pockets, and the old wizard broke into laughter and drew him close for a hug. The youngest hobbit threw himself around Legolas and embraced him until the elf pleaded for air. Then Gimli wrapped Legolas in crushing arms, and what breath Pippin had left in him was driven out.
Gandalf's face was weary but satisfied. He murmured, "Come, my ragtag bunch of miscreants. It is the end. Let us go."
"Is that it, then?" Pippin asked as the company made their way back down the long stair. "Will you leave him there?"
"We will leave him in the care of the Ents, Pippin. I doubt we could find a more secure prison that the one which he has cast himself into.
They left behind the dismal heart of the valley, abandoning the shadows of the mountains to weave their way back down the road, down the slope of the hills to the wide plains which opened before them. Merry rode with Gandalf and Pippin with Aragorn, and they went at their ease, letting the horses keep their own pace. The sun was low in the western sky and the evening came upon them, as did fatigue, though it was a welcome sort of weariness which beckoned to them and they savoured it, looking forward to a safe camp and well-deserved rest.
Gimli sat behind Legolas, stifling yawns which became harder to stifle as the minutes passed, and making idle conversation to stave off sleep.
"You would go back on your word?" the elf asked.
"Of course not! A dwarf's word is as good as set in stone once he has uttered it. I said not so. I merely said that our journey should make more sense if we passed east along the White Mountains, through Edoras, visiting the Glittering Caves ere heading north to Fangorn once more."
"Count yourself lucky to be going to Fangorn with me at all, after the impression you made upon the Ents. If I bring you with me, you shall have to be bound and gagged. You were fortunate that Treebeard did not turn that axe of yours into fine kindling, my dear Dwarf, and you along with it!"
"....Mmm... yes. That sounds about right," Gimli murmured deeply, drowsily.
"That would be a fitting fate for a dwarf who ignores his common sense and insists upon keeping company with an elf... crushed to death by a giant, walking, talking tree. It would serve me right."
Gimli traded friendly insults with Legolas until they ran out of words, and those who rode near them began to run out of patience. With a chuckle, Gimli fell silent, lost in thought and listening to the wind rustling in the grass, the dull thud of Arod's hooves upon soft ground, the snatches of hushed conversation continuing around them, the low buzz of insects in the night air. Before long he was resting against the elf's back with heavy eyes. Legolas smiled and held the strong arms that encircled his waist to keep the exhausted dwarf from falling.
The elf sang gently, his voice becoming one with the light breeze, and he was content. Arod was thrusting his way through the tall grasses with pleasure, delighting in the feeling of the tickling foxtails about his fetlocks, the stiffer grass scratching across his belly. The horse picked his way easily over the gentle slope of the land and Legolas let him go as he would, allowing him to enjoy himself. Inevitably, Arod wandered his way closer to Shadowfax, and Legolas heard Gandalf and Merry speaking of Saruman, of tomorrow's plans, of the journey this night.
"... Peace, Meriadoc! A most unquenchable hobbit. All wizards should have a hobbit or two in their care -- to teach them the meaning of the word, and to correct them. If it eases your mind, I have given thought even to these simple matters. We will ride for a few hours until we come to the end of the valley and then halt for the evening."
Gandalf cast a look of long-suffering at Legolas. "You and Arod are at least blessed with a quiet companion," he said. "I should gladly trade you a curious hobbit, if you find yourself wanting for company."
Legolas laughed lightly. "Nay, Mithrandir! I thank you for the offer. Merry, I fear that you would find few answers from me to satisfy your curiosity. A wizard is the one to whom you must turn if you wish for intelligence, for all the complaining he may do, and not to a dull elf."
Merry rolled his eyes. "I give up. I should know better than to expect decent conversation from either one of you." He tossed a hand into the air dismissively, ignoring the amused smile exchanged between elf and wizard at his expense, and settled back to curl up in his cloak and get some rest himself.
Gandalf chuckled. After a moment he murmured to the elf, "I forget sometimes what it means to be young, to be so full of wonder about the world. I had feared their days with the orcs would have quelled the spirit in them, but I should know better by now than to underestimate them."
"If more could be as forgiving and gallant as the hobbits, or be granted hearts as large as those which belong to this smallest of races, we should find Middle-earth a haven indeed. I wish that it were so," Legolas said quietly. Gandalf heard the sadness in the elf's voice and studied him. "It was a terrible thing to see," he said gently, "to witness one so mighty now fallen. I grieve that so much that was good has been lost, but you did well, Legolas. Do not punish yourself for his decision. His corruption was too strong by the end, and there was nothing to be done for him. Put it from your mind, if you are able. It will not do to dwell upon it."
Legolas smiled and nodded. "Well do I know it, Mithrandir. And I thank you for your concern. But he was given a last choice and a fair one, and I accept this."
He fell silent for a moment, feeling the wind stir against his face, then he looked upon Gandalf with thoughtful eyes.
"It seems to me that fate is coldest in this turn of things. For all Saruman wrought, for the deeds he has done and the sorrow he has awakened, much good has sprung from the evil of his designs. We ride with a king and his men who have had courage stirred within who might not have found it to be so otherwise, a battle was won as a distant result of the abduction of our young companions, and...." The elf's fair voice faltered with sudden emotion as he twined his fingers with Gimli's, "... it is not easy that some must suffer so that others might find hope."
Merry remained very still, not quite yet asleep. He had heard Legolas's words and his throat tightened a little, remembering Boromir. He blinked back tears and listened to Gandalf's comforting voice near him.
"Ever has it been so, child. When darkness threatens that which we love most, some must give it up, some fall along the way so that others may keep it. No, it is not an easy thing to bear, but we must keep faith that there is meaning in all of it, though we may not see it. I wish with all my heart that we may see this all through to the end with as few sacrifices as can be."
The wizard drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, and seemed to look far away.
Merry stirred and sighed, and Gandalf roused himself from contemplation to tuck the hobbit's cloak tighter about his shoulders, and the wizard laughed quietly once more. "We look too far ahead, Legolas. There is another lesson in life we would do well to heed, and that is to find happiness where and when we may, and not to miss the details in trying to see the larger picture. Darker days there shall be for us, and perhaps on the morrow, but this one night of respite we have earned. I shall sleep soundly, I think."
"May gentle dreams ease all tonight," Legolas said softly.
Merry clutched the leaf-brooch at his throat, safe with Gandalf upon Shadowfax. His eyes closed, and once more he wandered along white paths beneath the golden boughs of mallorn trees and was at peace.
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