2. Standing together
So many thanks to Anarithilien for her skilful beta.
Warning: Mature content not just sexual but some violence and angst. M/M.
Chapter 2: Standing Together
Elrohir awoke sweating, breath coming short and fast. The dream was still vivid and immediate, the stench, the horror still wildly real. He could almost feel the darkness ooze around him, the torchlight flickering ahead on the dank walls, hear the stifled scream…Eyes wide he sat up, grasping for his knife, staring, hair stuck to his skin …Only gradually, his brother's soft presence calmed him, his hand lightly resting on Elrohir's shoulder and the warmth of his brother's touch spread down his arm…
He turned to his twin.
'I could not wake you,' Elladan said softly, grey eyes filled with concern.
'It is nothing.' Elrohir replied. He grasped the hilt of his sword and dragged it towards him. He stood quickly and buckled it round his waist.
'I will take a watch,' he said brusquely, 'I cannot sleep.'
Elladan let him go without protest for both knew it would do little good. He would be like this until he tasted battle and spent himself in blood. Elrohir stepped between the sleeping bodies and came to the edge of the camp where the shadows drifted. He put his hand on his sword and gripped the cold steel but it was not these shadows of the dead he saw. In his mind's eye, it was still the torchlight flickering against the cold stone, and the stench of urine and death. It was the stifled, sobbing screams that wrenched his heartstrings and tore their dreadful claws though him.
He was not even aware that Aragorn and Elladan left the warm circle of the camp. He was not aware of the time passing or of their return.
The grey shadows flickered at the edge of the camp, the light just catching a spectral banner, the shadow of a spear.
It was less substantial than his dream, he thought. A cold shiver like fingertips traced his spine and raised the hairs on his neck. He wondered anew about the difference between Eldar and Edain. Elladan did not dream as he did. The dream, at once so remarkable and vivid and yet beyond his control, confused him. This was not the waking dream and memory of the Eldar but the wild uncontrolled landscape of the Edain.
He put his head in his hands and squeezed his eyes closed, to shut out the dream. The darkness, the torchlight licking along the slimy walls, the stench of fear. The sound of rutting and that terrible broken stifled scream…
There are some things that no one should have to face. And he had been the one to find her, to hear her beg him not to hurt her – and he had not recognised the filthy rags, or her broken whispers in a voice too hoarse for any Elf, and it was only her eyes, unfocused and bright with defiance and tears that had made him see her. He squeezed his eyes shut and willed away the thoughts, the anger and resentment… why now? Why were these dreams so bright, so sharp now?
A torrent of feelings pulsed through him, a horrid mix of fury and blood-lust and anger and deep resentment… pain that lanced through him… and deep inside, somewhere, he half acknowledged something unresolved. He felt the fury build into a killing rage… and he clenched his fists.
It could hardly be said that day broke, for the low grey clouds seemed if anything, darker and more threatening than before. No sunlight broke through. A grey sheen stretched across the sky, like it had been washed of all colour. He saw that Aragorn had returned with Elladan and they stood near the dying fire, Aragorn looked grey and exhausted and Elladan had pushed a tin cup into his hands. The tea had scalded Aragorn for he cursed quietly and the Dwarf, Gimli Gloinsson had handed him his waterskin. Then strangely, the Dwarf had reached across and with utmost tenderness, wiped Aragorn's chin like he was a child. Elrohir felt a sudden heat of shame that he had not watched over them both but instead waited alone with his own torment, and that it had been the Dwarf who showed such tenderness.
The rest of the Grey Company quietly broke camp, moving with deliberateness and purpose, saddling horses and talking little. The fire was put out and covered so skilfully that it soon looked as if no one had stopped here let alone made camp.
He felt the blue-calm of his presence of his brother envelope him.
'Peace,' said Elladan softly. And Elrohir felt that gentleness suffuse the air around him, warm him gently and he looked at his brother.
'I know. You dreamed again. I could not wake you,' he said again. This time, Elrohir did not run away.
Gimli had seen Elrodan stand next to whichever one he wasn't – nonsensical as that was, Gimli understood what he meant. He glanced up and glared at his overly cheerful companion who was whistling merrily as if they were on a picnic in the woods, not surrounded by an army of the Dead and on their way to peril and mortal battle.
'Don't you look to me for cheerful conversation after what you said to Grim and Grimmer,' he muttered, knowing Legolas could hear him. 'Mahal alone knows what they think of us now.'
'Their names are Haldaron and Baelderon, Gimli. I told you that earlier.' Legolas replied patiently, taking Gimli's bedroll and packing it with his.
'Strangely enough, I was distracted from your wittering by the army of the Dead breathing down my neck … or rather, not breathing. Forgive me if I did not pay much attention. Anyway, you seek to distract me again,' Gimli reminded them both with patience equal to the Elf's. 'You did tell me their names, Legolas. That is true,' he continued. 'But that was after you told them we were going to relieve each other in the bushes.' He looked up at Legolas meaningfully.
Legolas glanced down at the Dwarf from the corner of his eyes, a mere suggestion of a smile. 'Relieve each other?' he paused as if thinking. Then as if understanding had slowly dawned, he exclaimed 'Smaug's balls, Gimli! What did you think I was suggesting? That is not what I said.'
Gimli was not in the least bit fooled. He counted slowly to ten and breathed out. Slowly. Breathe in, breathe out. Legendary patience of the Dwarves, he reminded himself.'Indeed, it is not what you said, but it is what you implied.'
'I am sorry,' Legolas glanced at him and the Dwarf thought he saw a flicker of remorse in his eyes. Legolas continued carefully. 'I did not know that is how you felt. Had I known that is what you thought when you followed me into those bushes, I…'
'By the anvil of Durin, Legolas!' Gimli burst out, furious. 'I will hammer your teeth into more interesting positions in your skull if you carry on with this preposterous nonsense!'
Legolas gave Gimli a cheeky smile and began whistling through his teeth. It was an irritating, tuneless hiss that set his nerves on edge and made the Dwarf's clever fingers itch in a way they had not since the Fellowship first set out from Rivendell.
Halbarad glanced Gimli's way briefly and looked away, but not before Gimli spotted a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. The Dwarf chewed the ends of his beard in frustration. Legolas was in one of those moods and he knew he would have no peace. He wondered if he could ride with Aragorn this day, or perhaps Elrohir; he was the one who glared at Legolas like he would like to take an axe to his head. The Dwarf muttered into his beard, throwing his whetstone into their shared pack with unnecessary force, and then tying the bundle securely with complicated Dwarvish knots that, he hoped sincerely, would confound elvish fingers and irritate their owner.
He looked about. Suddenly the stillness became oppressive and Legolas' cheerful whistling sounded eerie, for it fell into the suppressed quiet like stones into a smooth pond. Aragorn stood with Halbarad talking quietly. Other Rangers seemed to have unconsciously gathered about the two, expectant, patient. Gimli shivered slightly in the cold, damp morning. And then he shivered again, not because it was cold… but because the air was still, unnaturally still. No birds sang or animals scurried. That grey sky hung silent and unmoving… and behind him, was the silent throng of the dead.
Gimli was aware that the tension in the rangers that was no less than his own, but their patience and quiet seemed to make them one of a whole, rather than one of many. It was strange how they behaved. No words seemed necessary between them, they simply knew what to do and what the others seemed to be thinking. The sons of Elrond stood to one side of Aragorn and they talked together quietly. The Rangers waited patiently, trustingly. But Gimli was no fool and he observed the close ring of protectiveness that had closed around the future king, and he could not blame them for their love and devotion.
He and Legolas were outsiders now. And the keen glances of the Rangers were not mistrustful, but it was clear they were simply not needed any longer. Gimli missed Aragorn. He missed the closeness of the Fellowship, even though only three of them remained. He became aware that Legolas was closer now than he had been; he felt a slow warmth in his bones. He shifted slightly and nudged the Elf in a gesture of forgiveness. Dwarves were nothing if not generous, he reminded himself.
'What are we waiting for?' he whispered. Legolas glanced down and his eyes gleamed in the grey morning light.
'We await Aragorn. Folk will say the King of the Dead is come, for the Dead follow.'
Gimli swallowed but he was a Dwarf Lord and nothing frightened him. Ever. So he pursed his lips and rocked back on his heels instead and said, 'Well, he will have to get a move on. They do not travel very quickly. Don't they have ghostie horses or something?'
Legolas gave a shout of laughter, loud, indiscreet, and it seemed to shatter some unspoken code. Halbarad looked round as the mad Elf slapped Gimli on the back, still chuckling merrily. Gimli shrugged him off and looked round nervously.
'Hush!' he exclaimed, 'You are more like a drunken Dwarf than an Elf,' he hissed. Legolas merely chuckled even more loudly and now the sons of Elrond stared; one amused and the other furious. Aragorn looked up startled and then seeing the Dwarf and Elf standing there together, gave them a pointed look and then carried on talking quietly with Halbarad.
Legolas nudged the Dwarf hard in the ribs, unrepentant. 'I have said that I am not afraid of the Dead.' The irritating Elf glanced down mischievously at Gimli who was clutching his axe to him like it was a blanket. 'Are you?'
'Of course not!' he spluttered. Then he glanced up and said with an honesty that would once have cost him a great deal, 'Well, a little.'
A thin ray of sunlight pierced the clouds briefly and glinted off the long bow the Elf carried. It briefly turned the scrolls and Tengwar script molten. He looked like a hero from an old song.
'They are dead.' Legolas said more softly, 'They will not hurt you. They fight for Aragorn, King of the Dead!' He put his hand gently on the Dwarf's shoulder, 'Or have you changed your allegiance?'
'Of course not! Of all the stupid idiotic ideas!' Gimli bristled, but he did not shake off that gentle hand that stilled him.
'Then you have nothing to fear' Legolas said. He looked down at the Dwarf. 'Or would you be shamed by an Elf of Mirkwood? Thranduil's son at that?' he grinned
Gimli was not entirely convinced and tried not to let his eyes stray to where the shadows drifted. 'Well, you just keep watch tonight again then, oh He-Who-Is-Afraid-Of-Nothing!'
'I did not say I was not afraid,' Legolas replied, his eyes still bright. 'I said I was not afraid of the Dead.'
'I am not sure I want to know what you are afraid of then. What could be worse than what we have already faced? You have never shown fear.'
'I was afraid in Moria,' said the Elf quietly. 'I have been afraid when standing in the long shadow of Dol Guldur looking for Sméagol and trying to rescue my friends who were taken. But that is not what I fear now. I fear that we will be too late… And I fear that you will fall.' His hand closed over the Dwarf's arm and he was still. 'But I am not afraid of the ghosts of men long dead and with an oath to fight for him we both love.' Suddenly he gave that rare blinding smile that made Gimli start.
The Dead waited, beyond the circle of the living, shadows merged and dissolved like mist at the edges of the camp. Far off it seemed, there was a thin clash of steel and a murmur of voices long dead. But the Dwarf was comforted by the warmth of the Elf's hand on his arm and he looked up and flashed his teeth. 'It's a good thing you've got me to look after you' he grinned. 'Every Elf needs a solid Dwarf with an axe at his back when he's going into battle against immeasurable odds.'
Legolas nodded. 'As long as the Dwarf knows at whose heads to swing the axe.'
Gimli grunted and bent to pick up his great axe. He watched as Legolas slung his quiver on his back, fastening the buckles and sliding his hands over his tunic to check all was in place. The Elf picked up his bow in one hand and reached to loosen and check his long white knives. As he straightened Gimli saw that he met the scorching gaze of the son of Elrond, Elrohir.
That other Elf did not smile.
Even now the thin grey light of morning barely made its way over the horizon. Elladan had never seen anything like this day that was not day. The grey clouds felt strange, fog rather than cloud perhaps, but had the unnatural and metallic taste of a storm. That they brewed in the East told him everything he needed to know.
He rode with Halbarad then, behind Aragorn, feeling the other's tension and his alert scanning of their surroundings. All rode silently. Elladan knew the men felt the presence of the dead. He heard a quiet voice whispering behind him and turned, The Dwarf, Gimli Gloinsson, rode behind the other Elf, Legolas, and the Elf's head was turned slightly to answer him.
Dropping back slightly he came alongside the Rohan horse that seemed as restless as its passenger.
'You are from the Lonely Mountain of course,' he began by way of conversation. 'I have been there once. The halls are beyond compare,'
The bright brown eyes of the dwarf stared at him for a moment and then kindled with interest.
'You are your father's son indeed, Master Elladan. Let me tell you though of some other caves that will put the palaces of Erebor to shame…' He seemed to nestle himself more comfortably behind his companion, and Elladan noted the Mirkwood's Elf's tolerant exasperation.
'Let me tell you of the battle for Helm's Deep,' Gimli began. And Legolas glanced back over his shoulder with an expression of indulgent boredom; he rolled his eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. 'Now you just keep your eyes on the road,' admonished the Dwarf, 'I don't want any of your interruptions trying to cast yourself in a better light. I know how many orcs you killed. And I know how many I killed. '
'Forty-Two. And don't try to distract me.' He turned back to Elladan and beamed at him. 'Now…where was I? Oh yes. Helm's Deep. That was a terrible night to behold.'
He told Elladan of the terrible battle that was waged against the Wizard Saruman's dark forces, and the great deeds of those who opposed him. He told too how the Rohan Marshall, Eomer, and he had been separated and holed up below the great ramparts of the fortress '…with nigh on one thousand orcs baying for our blood,' said Gimli not batting an eyelid when the Elf seated in front of him looked slightly quizzical. 'I had just saved Eomer's neck for the umpteenth time. He is a mite reckless you know.' He added confidentially, 'I dragged him into a small dwelling long abandoned by the Riders of the Mark, and there I bound the gaping wound he had received and yet again saved his life. He was grateful of course. I made him rest whilst I hit a few more orcs with my hammer and axe.' He leaned conspiratorially towards Elladan and said, 'They call me Stonefist, and Ironfist, oh and other names too many to mention'
'Indeed, and not all of them repeatable or polite,' Legolas said, Gimli's leaning towards Elladan had brought both horses closer and Elladan was aware of the heat from the other Elf. His leg brushed against Legolas' and he had to force himself not to jump.
'And was Eomer suitably grateful?' Legolas asked and Elladan was puzzled by the mischievous glint in his eyes as well as the Dwarf's outraged response that was almost incoherent.
'What are you suggesting?' he demanded.
Legolas shrugged. 'Nothing of course. It's just that, given your most recent revelation about your feelings, I wondered ….ouch!'
'Tread warily, Master Legolas. You may have control of the horse, but that does not mean I am powerless!' Gimli hissed, knowing that he could hear.
Elladan pretended he could not hear or see what was going on, but he smiled to himself that his father had been right to ask these two to join Aragorn, for the friendship had sustained and strengthened the Man in his dark days. He looked ahead to where Aragorn led the Grey Company on the road to the Sea. He looked a king.
Elrohir rode with Aragorn, his fingers restless and blood racing through his veins. He felt his anger build, his rage. It was useful. Bloodlust and a killing frenzy. He needed this, needed to be in the saddle, racing towards battle, sword flashing silver and streaked with blood. He needed the surging anger, the storm of fury to block out the torrent of guilt that threatened to flood every bone of his body.
Suddenly sunlight pierced through a small break in the cloud and glanced off silver swords, a spear, the silver molten script etched onto a bow, glinted gold on long hair that lifted slightly in the breeze. Cornsilk, light gold, pale gold, like cornsilk…Elrohir's breath caught for an instant and then the head turned and the spell was broken. Straight nose, high cheekbones, full sculpted lips curved in a generous laugh. The Mirkwood Elf leaned slightly towards Elladan and said something in a low voice. As their horses brushed together, Elladan's knee knocked against the other Elf's and he jumped like he had been bitten.
Elrohir clenched his teeth. He recognised that look on his brother's face, the beginning of infatuation, admiration, curiosity and lust. He spat a curse beneath his breath but it was his own reaction to the contact that bothered him.
'I am going to ask Legolas to scout ahead.' Aragorn seemed unaware of what had happened, his thoughts turned inward and focused on Gondor's terrible plight. 'We are too slow and he is the fastest rider of all of us when he is without the Dwarf.'
Elrohir did not reply, but his horse shied twice and shook his head at nothing.
Legolas felt the emptiness at his back. He had grown so used to Gimli being there now that he rode without him, it was like a limb was missing. He smiled wryly as he glanced back at where the Dwarf was arguing with Aragorn about the wisdom of sending an Elf to scout on his own without the protection of a Dwarf.
Legolas turned away and urged Arod onwards. He let his senses ease and push gently out from his own skin. The Dead fell back, not in fear, not in anger… they just parted with a gentle sigh, like relief. Arod tossed his head and skittered a little so he spoke softly, reassuring him. He heard the sounds of the following Rangers edge in again behind him, like a tide coming in.
Low clouds were grey and roiled over the horizon, the black silhouette of pine trees on the ridge above him and the peaks of the mountains. On the other side of those mountains was Rohan. He remembered briefly warmth and golden hair, mussed in passion.
He urged Arod faster along the open paths once more; he looked West and caught a scent of something on the breeze… something that lightly caught the edge of his consciousness. .something that beckoned him onwards… he paused. He could not place it but it reminded him of something he had lost once but had found again. But it was faint and faraway and when the breeze fell, he lost the sensation.
It was not long before he saw the first animals. Two deer fled towards him, pausing only briefly before leaping away to the North and the mountains, and soon he saw flocks of birds high in the sky over the plains of the Lebennin and then he smelled the burning. It was already in his mind- the trees' song was anxious and murmurings of fire and death were in the air. There was no more time, they had run out. Gondor burned.
He wheeled Arod and started down from the high ridge towards the road where riding was easier and faster, and then as they emerged from the tree line, Arod caught the urgency and surged forwards, galloping along the dusty road that was no more than a cart track. His hoofs pounded the dry earth and the wind caught Legolas' hair, streaming it behind him.
By mid day he knew he must be approaching the Grey Company, he had slowed to let Arod breathe. Waiting for the Grey Company to appear, he felt the cold tendrils of the Dead before he could see the company. Their thin and trembling ghosts glimmered in the shadow of the mountains as the first horses appeared through the trees.
Then Aragorn appeared riding at the head of the company. He did not see Legolas at first and the Elf had time to assess the Man. He looked tired and drawn. Legolas knew the burden he carried now, the weight of expectation heavy upon him and for a moment it seemed to the Elf that all the Heirs of Isildur rode behind.
There was a shout; Halbarad had seen Legolas. He did not wave but cantered ahead of the company to meet Legolas. Aragorn followed close behind him.
'Is all well?' he asked anxiously. 'You have news?'
'Yes. There is burning along the Lebennin. Deer flee through the forest. There is a smell of burning and death.'
Aragorn did not pause but turned and shouted over his shoulder at the following company, 'We ride! Our time is come, Dúnedain, Guardians of the North, inheritors of Gondor! Minas Tirith is assailed. We go to War!'
A strange sound, like the wind sighing over the mountains surrounded them and grew and as the Rangers surged forwards to answer their Lord's command, the Shadow Host seemed to grow stronger and more substantial. They surged around the Grey Company and would have overtaken them had not Aragorn held them back. He rode at their head, tall, stern of face, lordly and with immense will he kept them onwards.
And so they came at last to the plains of Lebennin