Legolas did a lot of thinking on the Quest but also a lot of speaking, and we spoke together most often of our folk and our homes. However, Legolas let only the fairest and most cheerful of thoughts breach his lips around the hobbits, unless we were taunting one another for their amusement.
That is why I will never forget the anxious look on Legolas' face as he gazed at the sky outside the ruined gate at the Hornburg. It is not that the elf's expressions are so rare that this one sticks out to me, or that he was so distraught at that moment that it is branded in my memory—nay. It is what he said as his wide eyes narrowed at the horizon and his delicate lips pursed and then turned downward that stirred my soul.
"I do not think that any of our kinsfolk would come if we sought them. They have no need to ride to war; war already marches on their own lands."*
And though Legolas has always denied any inkling of foresight in himself or in any of his woodland folk, something pulled his eyes toward our homes that day—something more than a strategist's mind guided his heart.
We found out much later, while staying in Minas Tirith, that both our homes had been attacked within a week of our time at the Hornburg. The golden tone of Legolas' face had paled so his cheeks contrasted in a ruddy flush, and I felt his hand ghost across my shoulder and I caught it and squeezed. He led me to a balcony and I crossed my arms on the railing, and he bent low so that his back was a curve, and we both stared at the horizon, shoulder to shoulder, in our own separate thoughts.
Recently, I have been much in my own separate thoughts, the farther we have traveled into the elf's forest on this Elf Path, for it is very clear that war did indeed march here, and Legolas has quit his singing and is silent. Many patches of land to either side of us are blackened and curled and crumbling, as if the evils from Dol Goldur sought to hurt the wood-elves in any way they might, killing their trees for the effect it would have on morale. If this is what it looks like now after the combined healing efforts of Lothlorien and Mirkwood—well, the Wood of Green Leaves, I suppose—then I shudder to think how it looked several months ago. And I am relieved Legolas did not have to see that for—on every leg of our journey—he fought for his Wood and his home and his people…
Now, Legolas walks ahead of me for we left the horse at forest edge—the elf insisted traveling under trees is easier without a horse, and I was at first disgruntled, but I can admit now he was right. He has stopped, though, and holds a hand out behind him without turning, so abruptly that I step lightly into his fingers before I can stop myself.
I freeze and so has he. No part of him stirs except for his head and his hair, and his braid slides from his shoulder to his back as he tilts his head. I can see in my mind's eye the familiar expression I know he wears—eyes wide, then narrowed, lips slightly parted and nostrils flaring. He sniffs the air and pauses, and then his fingers are no longer gently against my chest but wrapped in my shirt's fabric, and he spins me around so I am in front of him. He pulls his long Lorien cloak around us in a flurry and sinks to his haunches.
"What in the name of—"
"Lhingril!" he hisses in my ear. "It is near and it is very smart but this kind—if I am right in my guess—has poor eyesight. So you must not move, nor breathe at all, my friend, if you can help it. It must not hear us."
"Not breathe!" I exclaim quietly, but I say no more because Legolas has clamped a calloused hand over my mouth and he is pinching my nose with the index and middle finger of the same hand to stop my breathing entirely.
I endure this foolishness for several seconds before batting his hand away and tutting.
He shifts behind me and I can feel his energy thrumming as he pulses on the balls of his feet—waiting, anxious, and ready.
I hear a sound like rope being let off of a ship's mooring reel, except it is slick and wet and sounds also like the squelch of mud underfoot. Legolas' thighs have tensed at the sound and they press against my sides as he rises higher on the balls of his feet. I hear a quiet schick as he unsheathes his knife and places a hand on my shoulder.
"I was wrong," he whispers urgently and he has leaned so close that I feel his jaw move against my ear as he speaks. "This one can see us."
"You have not even seen it!" I protest quietly, turning toward him under the cloak and knocking into him; he sways imperceptibly and then is still again.
"I have heard it, Gimli—in this part of the forest, that is enough; I know my spiders. It will have seen us and it is planning. I am going to uncloak us so we might fight, should it decide it is hungry. If it is not hungry, we will be safe and lucky indeed."
And before I can say another word he has flicked the cloak off of us and stood in the same movement. I scramble to my feet and look up, and my breath leaves me; my stomach has fallen past my feet and my hand goes immediately to my axe but then I can do no more—
I think I am more terrified now than even I was at the Black Gates, even though then I knew surely I would die. But this creature now dangling above us? It is simply repulsive. Its very strangeness is enough to still my heart and my responses entirely, with just the sight of it. It is more hideous than any orc, and its eyes are large and calculating and too intelligent—more sentient and smarter than such an atrocity should be. It is black and massive, with a pale stripe running down its bulbous abdomen, and two fangs protrude from what I guess is its mouth. Its insect-eyes watch me, and Legolas watches it.
And then I hear him gasp as if realizing something horrible.
"Gimli!" he yells.
He pulls me again to the ground and catches me up in his arms; he turns my body away from the spider to shield me with his own. In the course of this chaos, I hear a rapid, slick schwing like a dropped pulley, followed by an immediate dull thud, like an arrow finding its mark.
Legolas' arms have tensed around me and he exclaims something I cannot understand, and he groans; I hear his knife drop softly to the forest floor. It bounces once uselessly on the ground, and I twist in his arms to look round and see what has happened—
The spider is there and so close I can feel a coldness creep up my arms as if it is stealing my heat. Its underside fills my vision and my mind. When I look further up I see it is still staring at me, and—again—I freeze in fear.
It is then that I notice its fangs are sunk into Legolas' shoulder and its whole mouth is clamped around him.
Legolas is grimacing but he smiles slightly when my eyes alight on him, because even with a spider the size of a pony hanging from his very self he is obnoxiously pert, and he veritably sings: "Well, Gimli, welcome to Mirkwood."
His whole body is jerked rhythmically every few seconds, and I lean away from the monstrosity and reach for his shoulder, but Legolas smacks my hand with his and reprimands sharply: "Do not threaten it while it is feeding!"
"Oh, you fool!" I cry, and draw my axe, extracting myself from the cage Legolas has made round me with his arms. I will strike at its massive back, which it has left unprotected as it slurps—I can hear it actually drinking him!—around the fangs in my friend's shoulder.
I hack off the spider's stinger and it begins to twist wildly but it does not release. Legolas lets out a short cry of pain, and I think maybe it has latched on with more determination than before.
"Just kill it, will you?" Legolas says sharply, and he is grey and transparent as a sun-bleached beech leaf, revealed from the snow at the end of winter. "It does not hurt until it moves. Use my knife."
He nods at the knife laying to the right of his knees, where he dropped it when his fingers, I guess, involuntarily released.
"And do what with it, precisely?" I ask.
But I have picked up his knife as bade, and I stand with arms dangling at my side, staring at the bizarre scene in front of me. The spider is sluggishly bleeding out its backside yet still it rhythmically moves against Legolas' arm—I see red now on his tunic, soaking outwards from the spider's fangs and frothing at the edges of its strange mouth.
"Pierce first the place where the legs connect to the abdomen. After you do that, it will likely slide toward the ground, and then you must, Gimli—Gimli, listen!—"
I am almost offended he thinks I am not listening, but perhaps I look as scared as I feel... I do not know a thing about Mirkwood spiders and I can only imagine he is in a world of pain. Do they have venom more dangerous than what my father encountered here? Have we survived the quest together to only have one of us die now, so close to home?
He continues: "—then, Gimli, then you must immediately stab behind the head, about a hand's length from its fangs."
"Why can I not just stab there first?" I ask with panic, and I frown at him, at the calmness that has settled into his expression—that frightens me more than the spider.
"Because it will release some of its hold on my shoulder if you hurt it elsewhere first, and I do not want a spider head on me for the rest of the walk home. Just listen to me, Gimli, please; I need you to trust me."
Something about this is not adding up, and Legolas is twitchier in his pleas than usual. I will not act rashly just because we are in the elf's land and he tells me I should. What if I attack and it is angered and hurts him worse? Or turns on me? What if I stab and it releases a higher dose of venom in its struggle, and I accidentally kill Legolas instead? There are questions to be asked.
"Why has it not tried to attack me, or moved to finish you?"
A look as if considering whether to sigh or speak flits across his face and then he is all words, and patient: "This one has not eaten in a long time. It is driven by that single-minded need, and it is becoming more sluggish the more full it becomes. But, then also, so do I, for complacency is a side effect of this spider's bite. Soon I will not care whether it sucks me dry or not. So please do it—now, Gimli—and you must not worry about hurting me when you stab it."
I stare at him and raise the knife uncertainly.
At my hesitation, Legolas finally snaps; his voice is quiet but harsh, and I see his shoulder jerk as the spider tugs him further into its mouth.
"Gimli, are you suddenly deaf? You must do it now! I only have so much blood and it has been rather…aggressive in it's feeding."
I jump at the reprimand and step closer, bending down to look at the spider's grip on Legolas' body and I reach out to tuck hair behind his ear. I notice that goosepimples have spread from his neck to the right side of his face and he is shivering.
"I am sorry I was rude," he whispers, and I roll my eyes, for he has every right to be rude—there is a spider sucking on him as a leech in a fen and he is worryingly calm about it. "It is just… Now is not the ideal time for this discussion, friend Gimli."
I notice now that his legs, too, shake and that there is a tremor in his hand as he presses it against his forehead and closes his eyes, as if concentrating. He draws a deep breath and, when he has opened his eyes again, I nod at him.
I drop his white knife and pick up my axe and swing with every bit of strength in me from the ground up with a dwarven battle cry—if a dwarf is to kill a spider in an elf's wood, he will do it the dwarven way.
There is a crack like a tree splitting in a windstorm when the axe strikes the square of exoskeleton from which all the spiders' legs grow. Immediately, one leg is severed and the spider slides downward, dragging Legolas with him. He yells in pain as he is jerked by his wound to the ground—the spider releases him as Legolas rolls onto his back, but then it rears back as if to strike again.
I back up several feet and raise my axe, and I see Legolas fumbling the small blade he keeps in his belt as I begin to run at the spider, but it is faster than me and it scurries toward Legolas again, this time aiming for his neck—Legolas rolls over his good shoulder and scrambles to his feet, just as I raise the axe further above my head with both hands and bring it down with a swish and a sickening crack onto the spider's head, a hand's length from the its fangs just as instructed.
It falls immediately to the ground with my axe in its repulsive brain, and I watch my friend's unswallowed blood ooze out of its strange, alien mouth. I pull my axe out of its head and shake the most offensive gore from the blade.
There is a whisper of movement behind me. I kick the spider once and then turn.
Legolas has slid down to the ground and is leaning against a young tree just off the path. His jaw is tight and his left hand is pressing against his right shoulder, covering just one of the fangs' puncture wounds—blood stains his hand pink and his tunic has darkened all around it to brown.
"Gimli," Legolas says calmly, and he looks at me with tired eyes, and there is a pinch at their corners that tell me he is in far more pain than he is showing. "Help me to take off my clothes to tend this. My arm and chest will seize soon and it is difficult, then, to pull clothes from limbs; there may be swelling. I need to tell you what to expect while I am yet coherent."
I rush to him and kneel at his side to unpin his cloak. I quickly unbutton his overshirt and tunic and then gently slip his thin undershirt over his head, and he shivers suddenly, and it frightens me.
"This is what you need to do. You must not suck out the poison—that is a myth. I need water first to drink, and then you must put pressure on the wounds. If they stop bleeding, rinse them out with the rest of the water. It is not uncommon for seizures to grip the body, so do not let me hurt my neck."
I stare at him and feel a wave of cold start at my crown and flow down through me all the way to my toes, like a bucket of ice water dumped at the top of my head—
I do not think I can do this.
"We will intercept or be met by the Southern or Western patrol soon and they will have necessary supplies," he has continued, and he is patting around on the ground without moving his upper body at all, feeling for his waterskin. "I may become insensate or lose my ability to speak understandably before then, so you will have to tell them what happened—it never gets easier, Gimli, no matter how many times one has been bitten."
Legolas is watching me concernedly and the hand that had been pawing at the ground drifts up to grasp at my shoulder, but I will not accept his comfort—right now, that is my role, and I will fulfil it.
So I shake my head and divert his hand. I pick up his waterskin and tilt it to his lips—I have finally found my voice again.
"You have been bitten before?" I ask then, as he gulps, but he is drinking too fast and some of it spills out of his mouth and rushes toward his neck in a rivulet, where it meets a too-pronounced, pulsating vein, and joins it like a tributary, tripping down over his heart—it chases the subtle gulleys between his ribs and disappears round his back, into the tree.
He closes his mouth and turns his head away from the water.
I drop the waterskin and move his hands away from the wounds to look at them— they are still red and bleeding, so I press both my hands into him. I feel his back scratch against the young tree's bark as his spine straightens, and for a moment he does not breathe, and I realize he is biting his lip.
Then, just as suddenly—as if he has just remembered I asked him a question—he exhales mightily, meets my eyes again, and scoffs:
"Of course I have been bitten before! One does not fight for the King's Army without encountering spiders at least once or twice..."
He tries to laugh but then grabs at his shoulder and, finding my hands there, tugs at them instead, but I am immovable.
"We should move from the path, Gimli," he hisses, and his brow is furrowed—he looks angry. "The bite is near enough to my heart that I will likely be incapacitated for a time; we have a quarter of an hour until then, if the Valar smile on us."
"I do not think the Valar have been anywhere near these woods in a very long time," I grumble, and I press his folded undershirt into the wound and help him to stand.
"It is assuredly better closer to our halls, I admit," he counters, and he leans on me as if his legs are not enough to hold him.
But then, unexpectedly, he is sunk again to the forest floor and I have tripped and am pulled to my knees beside him—he bends forward and vomits into his lap. I clap him on the back to avoid him choking on his own bile in such a position, and he is clenching my hand and pressing it into the fabric as if the force of my hand and his alone might expel the poison from his blood, or knit his skin back together.
"Vomiting is a symptom of spider poisoning, I forgot to say," he whispers, coughing. He winks and the tension deflates, and then he spits the taste of sick onto the ground beside him.
And as his mood shifts, I realize that he was never angry with me at all—he is scared, and he does not know how to show it.
But then his smile is gone and he gasps. His back has curled, and he arches forward like a bent bow before falling limply back into the tree. I see the muscles near the bite site knot beneath the surface like boiling water, and then his back spasms again and he is lifted from the trunk and slammed back again, but harder.
"Worry with the wounds later; we will just stay on the path," he hisses between clenched teeth, and his eyes are shut tight, wrinkling at the corners and quivering across the eyelids. "Just get me through this, Gimli. You must keep reminding me that I cannot die from this, even though it will feel like every part of me is set aflame, and I will not believe you when you say it. Slap me if you must—hit me, taunt me, whatever it takes—to make me focus."
"Hush, fool," I whisper, and I am touching his forehead, which is slick suddenly with sweat and warmth and I run a hand down his cheek as he begins again to cough. "You will be well again soon."
"Ai!" he cries then, and he is bent forward with a hand pressed to his chest as if he is dying, as I have seen Men die before, and so very suddenly. "Oh, I had forgotten this," he breathes.
He sounds for just one second genuinely confused and for the tiniest of moments I forget where we are and what has happened, and I feel a spark of amusement at his strange predictability. But then it is pain again, pain pain pain, and I am whispering in his ear…
He has assured me he will not die, and I must choose to believe him if I am to survive this.
I lower Legolas' body to the ground and sit cross-legged. I pull his head into my lap and then pad the ground under his shoulders, saying his name like a litany, for he is no longer with me. He is in some parallel realm as his body twists and is tortured on the forest floor, so close—so very close—to home.
I had not even thought before of him dying from this. And now I am scared.
"Remind me, Gimli," he says between gasps, and his fingers are curled now, and his upper arm below the bite is rigid and still, though his forearm shakes, and it pumps from the elbow like some sort of bizarre drill, double-time to his heartbeats.
And so it has begun, and I am horrified. But he has asked me to remind him, and so I focus, and I do.
"You are not dying, Legolas," I assure, with more confidence than I have, and I grasp his stiff upper arm as his hand beats uncontrolled at the bare skin of his chest. "It is just venom—only a wretched spider—and I will not let you die; I promise."
He is trembling and jerking more now, and he gasps under my hands; all I can do is whisper these useless words to him that he begs of me—stories of the Fellowship, warm reassurances, reminders, prayers, childhood rhymes, and sometimes threats…
I just hope he stays quiet, because I do not want the queer, dark creatures of his home drawn to us, with his pain so like a beacon.
It will be a very long night, I think, and perhaps I should not have made a promise that I do not know I can keep…
Legolas only screamed twice as the venom wracked his body—though the ground around us is rent with gouges from his fingers and his upper body is caked with dirt—and he did not draw creatures of darkness to us. Instead, he drew creatures of the light—his own folk. The Southern Guard, I guess, based on the way their captain rushed forward without a shred of decorum and began to probe at Legolas. Even now, several minutes later, the captain whispers and reprimands in rapid Silvan as Legolas sits silently and allows it.
This, I imagine, is Ithildim, with whom Legolas has served for centuries. Legolas spoke of him and their unit often on our travels, especially when we had hours to fill, with nothing but one another's words to distract us from our worry.
The rest of Ithildim's company stands completely still and watches us, and not a single one looks directly at me. Even Ithildim brushes past me as he moves to Legolas' other side and presses a chaste kiss to his cheek before pulling at the finally closing puncture wounds of his shoulder. Legolas hisses in pain and raises his eyes toward the trees as the bite is ripped open and blood beads at its edges.
And I cannot help it—I am batting away Ithildim's hands in less than a second.
"What are you doing?" I ask Ithildim, in loud and carrying Westron. "Has he not endured enough without you reopening this nasty mark?"
I feel Legolas' hand brush trembling at my shoulder but I shake him off and cross my arms. I raise my eyebrows and wait for Ithildim's reply, but it does not come. Instead Legolas' voice—still quiet, but much stronger than it was even an hour ago—fills the strangely silent void.
"Gimli, this is Ithildim, Captain of the Southern Defense. Ithildim, this is Gimli, a Lord of Erebor who fought with me this past year, and protected my body as well as my soul."
Ithildim says nothing and, for a moment, he only stares down at me—his whole self feels colder than Legolas. His skin is pale as moonstone, shallow and cool, whereas Legolas' is late-season wheat, and he is always unexpectedly flushing; Ithildim's hair is barely lighter than purple maple under shadow, whereas Legolas' is wildflower honey—it is only Ithildim's eyes that feel warmer: Legolas' are chill slate, but Ithildim's are a light silver, like a sun-warmed stream over sparkling lead-ore, and he continues to stare at me.
And then, suddenly, all his coldness falls away as finally—finally—he smiles.
Ithildim laughs then, and he moves to clap Legolas on the shoulder but stops himself (the wound is still weeping from where he pulled at it), and he settles for ruffling his hair instead.
I have seen no one else treat Legolas like this before, and if I had not already accepted that elves are strange, I would be shocked indeed.
"Well, someone must keep you in line, I suppose, Legolas!" he exclaims, and he looks at me and winks. "It is a pleasure to meet you, then, Lord Gimli. I am at your service."
"And I at yours, and your family's," I murmur—confused at the turn—and I catch Legolas' eye.
But the other warriors have not moved.
"At ease, friends," Ithildim says and he waves a hand at them, and suddenly there is quiet laughter and light shoving and hands reaching into pockets for waybread and jerky.
Legolas laughs and it is rough, but his smile is bright—so bright, like the sun itself, and I am as grateful for it as I was for the sun he brought back to us on Caradhas—and then Ithildim is issuing commands in the woodland tongue and there is movement all around. I hover at Legolas' side self-consciously, drained and adrift.
These elves know the art of spider treatment and they have it down to a science, and I am just an outsider—a Dwarf—in their way.
Somehow, though, Legolas senses my discomfort and grabs at my belt. He tugs me down beside him so that I land on my rear and rock back ungracefully until he pulls at my shirt to right me, though his fingers are still bent and curled from the venom, and I am surprised that that seems to be the only lingering effect—
Never have I seen something twist a person's muscles like that, and then allow them to see the other side.
And thus I begrudgingly understand why Legolas took the bite for me—dwarves are heartier than every race, yes, but elves are more durable… My heart and lungs would not have survived it, I think, for his barely did, and were it not—
But I cannot think on that—I will not, for it is over—and I will not consider it a moment more.
Blessedly, Legolas brings me back from the beginnings of my rumination.
"I would have you by my side, if you will," he whispers hoarsly, and he finally sounds as exhausted as he should be, as exhausted as he was hours ago. "It has been a long time since I was swarmed by so many wood-elves. We can be…overwhelming."
I snort—for he is still amusing after all this—and Ithildim looks down at us from where he stands above, sorting bandages by width and dropping them into Legolas' lap as he assesses them. Ithildim is grinning and I grin back.
This one, I like.
Ithildim turns from us and says something sharply in his own tongue and then repeats it firmly in Westron: "If you know the Common Tongue, you are to speak it."
I feel Legolas prod me in the ribs with his elbow as if to prove something though I have no idea what, and when I look over at him his eyes are closed, but he smiles slightly.
One of Ithildim's soldiers has come over with a wet cloth and is veritably attacking Legolas' back and chest with it, and she commands him in staccato Westron to lean forward. He does, and then she catches my eye and drops the rag to the ground.
"I am Tinu," she says. "Let me know, Lord Gimli, if I can assist you, as well."
"She is our newest field healer—at least that I know of!—and she is excellent," Legolas offers, opening his eyes slightly to smile at her.
She flushes and pulls several leaves and two strips of bark from a pouch at her waist.
"Take these, Legolas," Tinu tells him, and she presses them into his now upturned palm.
He opens his eyes wide for a moment and then squints at her, before putting them in his mouth; he chews and then tucks them into his cheek with his tongue after a moment, as if fatigued by that simple work.
"Valerian and willow bark," he says, turning to me, and I raise my eyebrows at him, waiting for him to continue, but all he says is: "They are not my favorite."
Tinu is uncorking something in a small glass bottle, and she dips her pinky into it and nods at the waterskin I discarded long ago beside Legolas' cloak. I grab it and she steps forward, and Legolas swallows the leaves and bark before obligingly parting his lips.
He scowls when the single drop touches his tongue, and he takes the waterskin from my hands to chase it down as rapidly as he can. I do not blame him—the stuff smells cloying and sickly sweet, like rotting fruit.
"You have never seen me take belladonna before, Tinu," he says quietly, looking up at her, and I take the waterskin back.
Tinu shakes her head and Ithildim bursts into laughter. He drops to the ground in front of Legolas, poking and prodding at the wounds as our friend grins.
"I thank you," Legolas says to her, pulling slightly away as Ithildim begins to clean the wounds, "for it does always ease stiffness and impede pain. But it also—"
"He talks a lot, Tinu," Ithildim finishes for him, and as Ithildim runs a cloth along the inside of one of the puncture wounds Legolas hisses and clenches his jaw. "He will be obnoxious by nightfall. If he is still awake, everyone here shall know exactly what Legolas thinks of them."
"Oh, I did not know!" Tinu exclaims, and she looks almost scared.
I smile as Legolas leans into my shoulder and closes his eyes with a sigh.
"As if Legolas could lie to save his life, anyway," I murmur under my breath. "Fool."
And at the very same time that I sigh out my admonishment, Ithildim does, too, so that our whispered reprimand is elevated in a duet, and the word "fool" sounds about the gathered elves like a chorus.
Legolas smiles and lays a hand on my leg; he pats it softly. "Ah, and so you are both my dearest friends for the same reason: you keep me constantly humble."
And he then hisses and veritably yelps when Ithildim starts to pack a bandage into one of the wounds without warning. He frowns and then smiles, and mumbles: "Quite humble, indeed."
I roll my eyes and look about me. All the soldiers are watching Ithildim work, and they watch Legolas drum out a syncopated rhythm on my thigh with his fingers, to distract himself.
Not all the eyes on me feel friendly, though, and I do not like it.
I keep Legolas humble, perhaps, but—besides fretful—what does he keep me?
I think he is asleep now, and I feel abandoned in this strange land.
I am utterly exhausted.
After a time, it becomes clear to me that Ithildim spoke truthfully when he told Tinu that belladonna addles Legolas' brain or, more accurately, strips him of his barriers.
In the short time it has taken Ithildim to finish packing his wounds and for Tinu to move back in—nervous and apologetic—I have learned more about Legolas than I did in our last two months together. He has told me of all his grievances with each member of the Fellowship (myself included), with each of his family members and his friends, but then, also, every thing he could think of that he loves about them, and about me…
It is humiliating.
One thing becomes clear, however: Legolas and Ithildim have few boundaries, even fewer than he and I, and that is few indeed. The entire time Legolas bared his heart, he had a hand knotted behind Ithildim's neck in his hair, and Ithildim tried his best not to jostle it loose as he prodded bandages into the holes in Legolas' shoulder and chest, as if he knew he was his friend's lifeline.
"I wish to see our great black butterflies again," Legolas says suddenly, and he draws me out of my thoughts.
He has opened his eyes and turns his head toward me, though it lolls on my shoulder; he has become limper the longer he is under the drug's effect—a good thing for his muscles, I think, and for my apprehension, which is still raw and considerable.
"You have not yet seen them, Gimli!" he tells me. "They are the size of your face; my hand is the length of one of their wings!"
Were one of their wings the size of his hand, well…Butterflies have four wings, but if they are—altogether—the size of my face… No, he is still not thinking straight for those dimensions are not possible, not in the least.
As if reading my thoughts he tries to lean forward, but Ithildim pushes him roughly back into the tree, and he scowls. He does manage, however, to press the side of his hand against my face, long fingers catching at my eyebrows.
"Oh," Legolas says. "I am wrong, Elvellon. Their wings are not the size of my hands. Or maybe they are, and the butterflies are bigger than your face… I cannot remember."
He frowns and drops his hand into his lap and looks up at Tinu for an answer, but she is unwinding a wide bandage and not paying him any mind. She smiles slightly at him and shrugs, and Ithildim redirects his attention.
"You have not been away that long, Legolas, as to forget the creatures of your home. You do remember," he says. "You are just confused by the medicine."
"Well, when I am not confused," Legolas says, "I will go find one in the oaks, Gimli, and we can discover who is right."
I bark with almost-mad laughter, and Legolas raises his eyebrows at that, though his eyes are closed again.
"You will not be shimmying up oaks for quite a few days," Ithildim murmurs, standing and putting his hands on his hips, squinting up at the trees, checking—somehow, through all the darkness of the canopy—the sun's progress.
Tinu is smiling now, and she slips a hand behind Legolas' back to wrap the bandages; I suspend his body forward as she wraps.
"I will be!" Legolas argues, opening his eyes again and looking up at Ithildim, though his neck is limper now and his head dipped; he always looks younger when he looks up like that, and it startles me, every time.
"You will not," Ithildim says, and he has crouched again and has taken Legolas' face in his hands and turned it up to his. "We have just got you back, and I will not lose you from falling out of an oak tree while injured and intoxicated. It is an entirely unbecoming end for a wood-elf. Besides, if I let that happen, you would never forgive me, and both our fathers would cast me into the wilds."
"You are as domineering as I remember," Legolas murmurs, pulling his face away from Ithildim and letting his chin fall to his chest. "But I will mind you. Gimli too likes to tell me what to do. It is as if you are conspiring."
"Hush, Legolas," Ithildim whispers.
Ithildim holds him up under his arms as Tinu finishes wrapping his chest. She places a pad of bandage over the higher wound near his clavicle and then wraps that too, crisscrossing under one arm to either side of his neck, under the other arm, across his ribs, and back again. She cuts the bandage with a flick of her small knife, dips the end of the bandage in a jar of sap at her feet, and then tucks it in to keep it secure.
"Sleep, you fool, before you embarrass yourself further," Ithildim continues. "Or I swear to you I will drop you in the Enchanted River myself to make you hush."
Legolas nods and finally closes his eyes again; Ithildim eases him back against my shoulder and Legolas says quietly to me: "Do not doubt him, Gimli—he is a beast, and he has done it before."
And like that—I almost cannot believe it—he is asleep.
There is absolute silence in the camp for a moment, and then I whisper, disbelievingly, to Ithildim: "I am to believe that this man, who spouts such utter nonsense, is truly a captain in the King's Army?"
There is a ghost of a smile on Ithildim's lips, and then he turns away from me and toward his soldiers, flicking his wrist.
"Set up camp," he commands. "Legolas is fine and there is nothing more to see."
Tinu whispers in Ithildim's ear and then leaves as well, and I nudge my pack toward Ithildim, for when Legolas finally fell asleep his body shifted from my shoulder to my chest and he has pinned my arm to the tree.
"At the bottom there is an extra shirt for Legolas," I say, "and inside that an undershirt. You will want to tie his arm to him once he wakes so he does not go flitting off, or injuring himself further."
Ithildim smiles and rummages through my pack. "He is not as fearless as you believe him. Nor as wild. Among us he is almost tame! It is just his temper that carries him away, like a brewing storm."
I snort, and Legolas shifts in his sleep, nostrils flaring as he pulls in a deeper breath, blinks, and drifts off again.
"He has always been easily startled," Ithildim says then, smiling fondly and placing Legolas' neatly rolled tunic to the side.
"That is not the phrase I would use. I have seen him startle but once!"
"And when was that?" Ithildim asks, looking suddenly interested and sinking from his crouch onto the ground in front of me; his feet are tucked under his knees and his legs fall open like a diamond.
"Well." I think for a moment, because he has surprised me with this wanting to know. "The Balrog."
"Balrog!" Ithildim exclaims, and he is laughing now again, as if completely unfazed by his unconscious friend in front of him. "He did not write me about that! Somehow I am unsurprised that he has kept the best stories to himself."
I am frowning again because Ithildim continues to surprise me; I feel disoriented, and dizzy from lack of sleep.
He continues, ignoring my perplexed expression: "Still, I imagine that would startle anyone. Legolas has been living among mortals for a year, though, and you folk are hardly stealthy. I doubt he had much reason to be startled amongst you, always announcing your presence as you do."
"He has said a thing or two about that, yes," I murmur, wondering what exactly Legolas has been writing about to his friend, while failing to mention the consequential things, like Moria...
I lift the hand Legolas has not immobilized and press the back of it to his forehead—he is still hot, but not dangerously so.
Ithildim is watching me but he does not move, and he tilts his head to the side as his eyes flit from my hand to Legolas' brow, from his cheek to his chapped lips and then to the just-bruising mark that peeks out from under the bandages, in the dip between his ribcage.
I am watching him watching Legolas—evaluating—and then suddenly his eyes are on mine, and they search me.
He is quiet, and then he finally notes: "His cheek is bruised, and his abdomen. And not, I think, from the spider's assault."
Ithildim is very somber now and he does not smile at me; his eyes are wide as the full moon Legolas loves, and they are so full of questions that I do not want to answer that I cannot anymore hold his gaze.
I look away and find when I speak that my voice is a harsh whisper: "Yes."
Ithildim leans further forward and the air around us moves in rushed displacement. He scoots slightly closer to me—urgently—such that I can hardly avoid looking at his face.
Legolas breathes in a shuddering breath and tenses against my chest, and then he is relaxed again, and I cannot believe I am sitting here among wood-elves with my friend's utterly foolish captain squinting at me, peering up with his body twisted almost completely sideways.
When I finally look up, he straightens and says simply with neither accusation nor emotion: "You hit him."
I find myself looking down again, this time at the top of Legolas' tangled braid, and as I drop my face a loose strand of his hair tickles my nose and I blow at it, but it bounces right back, so I turn my head instead and stare at the damp ground.
"He warned me right after I killed the thing that I might have to," I admit. "But I did not understand why..."
Ithildim is still for a moment, but then he breathes out darkly. "It is as I guessed then. His breathing…" He trails off and rocks slightly in his seat before continuing, quieter. "His breathing ceased."
He says it as a statement, but I know he expects an answer.
—But I had not meant to tell anyone this. Not even Legolas.
I thought if I never spoke of it again then it would not be real. Dwarves do not scare, and I never flirt so publicly with vulnerability.
But what is more terrifying than your dearest friend convulsing and breathing fast as a hunted rabbit for hours on end only to—when his body finally and blessedly eases—begin to die in front of you? He told me it could not kill him, and I promised him I would not let it, and I thought we had both kept our promises... But then he took in a shuddering breath and gasped it all the way out until his chest was like a wineskin sucked of air, and his whole self—every single muscle—ceased to move. It was like the whole forest died around us; we were shrunk in a pinprick and my misery swelled and was magnified, and crushing—
I lost myself as I tried everything I knew to bring him back. I slapped his face and beat at his chest; I breathed for him, and screamed prayers into the gloam…
I do not even remember what finally worked.
All I know is that when Legolas finally breathed again, my own lungs were overwhelmed with the sweetest rush of air I have ever known, and it was as if my whole self filled with the balm of a cascade's mist at cave's edge, the breeze under a sparrow's wing…
Yet it burned me and burned, and even after I watched his chest rise and fall shallowly for hours more until he was finally himself again, until he did not seem to remember that his muscles had briefly forgotten how to breathe…
I could not close my eyes for fear of failing.
But I cannot lie to someone who loves Legolas as much as I—it is not right—and I can feel Ithildim's eyes on me still as Legolas stirs again and turns his face into my beard.
I nod in response, and my eyes burn even now, for with this this horrid acknowledgement, the exhaustion has attacked me with a new fervor.
Ithildim is quiet again and then says simply, "It happens sometimes with certain spiders, following severe seizures."
I cannot breathe as he continues.
"Thank you for keeping calm," he finishes, and it is all either of us says for a long while.
But I was not calm. Not for a minute of it—it was a whirlwind of panic and instinctual response for hours and hours and hours on end…
"I was not calm," I finally murmur into Legolas' hair, and I do not look up but I can feel Ithildim slowly brightening across from me, as if in tapping into my pain and sorrow and this forbidden knowledge that he is triumphant.
It irks me.
"Well, not many would manage that so well as you, Lord Gimli," Ithildim offers, and he sounds robust again in his strange relief. "And I thank you for keeping him calm too, until we arrived."
I do not know Ithildim well enough for this frankness, and I do not think I can engage with it genuinely without weeping at his sincerity, and that is not something I do—wood-elves have ruined me.
So I snap at him instead, because the weight has lifted from my chest, and I am like a wild animal defending myself, protecting my pack and my pride…
"What choice did I have, Captain?" and I am snarling—I can feel it—but Ithildim does not recoil, and he instead watches me with renewed interest, and that makes me even angrier. "Let him writhe alone on the ground and give himself whiplash as I sat by and, what, knit a tea cozy? Could I have let his own body betray him and then let him die before me, after we survived together horror unto the very gates of Mordor?" but I cannot look up to meet Ithildim's eyes though I long to burn him with their fire and make him hurt, too, as much as I do—I am exhausted, so exhausted.
When I finally do look up, Ithildim smiles at me—he is smiling at me? What is wrong with wood-elves?—and then there is a flash in his eye that is not unfamiliar. It is young and mischievous and so very Legolas.
He shrugs, and I deflate—these emotions take too much energy, and my mask is spent.
"No, you could not allow any of that, I imagine," Ithildim says thoughtfully, "for you are a good friend to him, Gimli. I see it clear as day."
He taps a hand on his knee as if impatient while he watches me, and then he begins to stand: "Whatever I can do to make you more comfortable among our kin as you did for him among the Men in your journey, I will do it. He is dear to me."
He has stood now, and is looking down at me, but now, somehow, I do not feel condescended to.
"And also to me," I say, and I meet his eyes.
"Insufferable as he is," Ithildim amends.
He is running his hands along the silvery-brown of his breeches, and then he rubs at his nose, and looks distant and pensive, as if making a decision—I do not like when elves look like they are making decisions.
But it appears he has, for he crouches again in front of me and crosses his arms.
"You should know," he begins, and then trails off.
"Yes?" I prompt, for Legolas is stirring again, and I would have him sleep.
"You said earlier that you could not believe that someone so foolish as Legolas could be a captain," Ithildim answers me.
"I did not say exactly that," I counter warily, and I worry now that I offended him by judging Legolas so harshly. "But yes..."
"You should know, Gimli, that Legolas relinquished his captaincy."
"Why?" I ask, surprised.
"It is why some of my soldiers will not look at you," he continues, as if he has not heard me.
I am confused, for how are Legolas' foolish decisions in any way my fault? I have no ally in this place while Legolas sleeps, and I have been ever anxious to visit his home—and Legolas knows this—yet he did not tell me this important thing, whatever this is!
He is a fool. A fool! I have bound my life in friendship to an idiotic wood-elf fool.
And so I say it, loud and clear, because I have been tested this past day and I have had about enough—had it over and over again—and I look Ithildim right in the face: "I do not see how Legolas' stupidity is in any way my fault!"
"Oh, it is not your fault," he says immediately, and he reaches out a hand now absently, unsticking a wayward strand of hair from the bandages. "He relinquished it, at first temporarily, for the fate of Middle-earth, and, then, permanently, for Aragorn—for the love of the Lord of the White Tree, he said. But, most of all, for his love of you."
Surely I have misheard.
"What?" I say.
Ithildim looks thoughtful and smug at the same time, and were I not so surprised I would find it an impressive combination.
"He wrote me while he was in Minas Tirith and asked my advice," Ithildim explains lightly; his heels hover inches from the ground and he bounces slightly as he speaks, "and I gave it. Then he wrote our Commander, and then our King, and he begged to be released from service." He shrugs. "And now, he is just Legolas, and he is yours as much as he is mine, or ours."
I did not know this. We spoke much, but not of this, never after our initial fights over the Sea-longing and all the patching thereafter; never again did we speak of death and how we would spend my final years on Arda, or his.
And suddenly it makes sense, for this is the unkindness I have sensed in his folk since I met them: I am one of the distant mortals that have cost them their captain; the simple dwarf who has spirited away a son of the Elvenking…
"But today," Ithildim says quietly, and he smiles slightly at me, and it makes the lines of his eyes curve faintly, like barely-waning moons, "it is clear to me that his sacrifice was not made lightly, for your love of him brought him back to us."
I cannot speak.
"You brought him back in the face of death, Gimli, and I am forever in your debt," he continues, "for he is like a brother to me."
I am quiet again; I do not know what to say, for Ithildim gives me too much credit.
But then something bursts forth and slips out like a tumble of displaced pebbles. I think I have finally become giddy from the ordel, for I jest before I can stop myself: "Legolas would say, therefore, that we are brothers, too."
Ithildim considers me for a moment, and I almost squirm under the weight of his gaze. But then he rocks back onto his heels and bursts raucously into laughter; it is loud and deep like the rapids of a strong river, while Legolas' is a brimming creek—lighter and more elusive—and all the elves turn round to look at us.
"A strange family, then!" Ithildim booms.
"He will be pleased with our logic." I have brightened slightly despite my exhaustion, and I feel more confident as I smile. "Legolas is absurd often, weaving metaphors for which I have no time."
"Yes, yes," Ithildim murmurs. "Believe you me, I understand."
He turns away and addresses now his soldiers. As he speaks, the ones who stand drop what they are doing and clasp their hands in front of them, and those who sit look up at him in silence—he is quietly powerful and they mind him.
"You are to make Lord Gimli welcome here. He is a brother to Legolas and so too to me, and a friend to all Free Peoples of Middle-earth. Your respect is demanded."
There is silence and stillness in his folk, and I do not move; I barely breathe.
Then he finishes and it is over: "That is an order."
And at that, the camp bursts into movement again, and Tinu rushes forward and is pulling Legolas from my arms and commanding me to rest.
Perhaps all wood-elves are like this, transparent and direct and blindsidingly compassionate, utterly forgiving... Or, perhaps, it is just the folk Legolas includes in his life.
I find I do not know, nor do I care.
"Sleep, Gimli," Ithildim says, as Tinu settles Legolas on a stack of folded cloaks beside me. "I will watch over you while you rest. I owe you that, least of all."
I find that I like this elf more than I did even at first quip, and I can tolerate this queer, dark place if I am not altogether alone. As I give my defense over to Ithildim, my earlier bitterness and fear melt away.
I realize, now, that this is what Legolas gives me—even when he is not giving it himself—and he does not even know it:
Acceptance, inexplicable forgiveness—by myself, and offered freely from others— and thus, with that unconditional love, a home, wherever we go.
He too keeps me humble.
I lean back until I am flat on the ground and close my eyes. I turn away from Ithildim and away from camp, and toward Legolas.
"Fine," I mutter in response to Ithildim's offer, "but you best watch over me too, Captain, when I am a guest in your home. This is not how I would have liked Gloin's son to return to Mirkwood after all these years: escorting the Elvenking's youngest son, injured after an epic quest and singing songs to the breeze like a loon. It seems hardly prudent and, this journey, I have had worry enough."
I hear Ithildim laugh, and there is the scrape of a shoe by my ear, and a blanket drops over my shoulders.
"Hush, Lord Gimli," Ithildim says. "Or I will make you."
I glance one last time at Legolas as he sleeps—breathing even and blessedly alive—and then I finally close my eyes and rest, closer now to home than I have been in a very long time...