2. Chapter Two
They reached the eaves of the Golden Wood in the broad light of morning, the rush of the Nimrodel like a half-remembered melody in his ears. Legolas wasted no effort in toeing off his boots and rolling his breeches to the knee. The water sang over his skin as he waded in, curling his toes in the muddy bottom, the fatigue leeching from of his skin like poison drawn from a wound.
"Ah, sweet Nimrodel! I almost wish I were a reed that I might take root here and rest forever in her care," he said, idly wading towards the further bank.
Haldir was watching him from the bank, amused. "She is a cold mistress in the wintertime."
"Yet she is kind as a maid now. Will you join me?" Legolas asked, but he needn't have for Haldir was already barefoot.
Gimli too splashed his face as best he could with the use of one hand, but the effort of removing his boots was too much for him. Instead, he stationed himself a little ways from the bank in the shade of a mallorn. He had not spoken much during their journey at all, and Legolas guessed his shoulder pained him greatly.
"I fear I have neglected him somewhat," he whispered so that his friend might not hear, taking his lip between his teeth. He and Gimli had endured wounds and wars together, and Legolas knew better than to fuss, but somehow, this time, it had been much easier to let Gimli alone than usual.
"You have done all you need," Haldir assured him, resting a hand on the small of his back. "There are only certain kinds of aches that company can cure, and alas, a hurt shoulder is not one of them."
The waters of Nimrodel were said to dispel enchantment, but if anything, Legolas felt himself ensorcelled by, the clear water cool against his legs while all the rest of him warmed through. He said nothing. Neither did he move away from Haldir's touch.
"I do not know your mind on the matter," Haldir continued, seemingly oblivious of his fingers' slow caress of Legolas' spine, "but if you wish to stay until he is better mended, my talan is not far from here. It housed several of us at one time though only my brother and I reside there now. There is room for both you and Gimli should you wish it. Though, I fear, you will find it rather rustic."
"More rustic than sleeping out of doors on tree roots?" Legolas said, but he was scarcely heeding his own words.
He knew from a strictly practical point of view that it would be wise to stay for a time, at least until Gimli could use his shoulder better. Though Dol Guldur had been brought to its knees, many parts of the forest still required time to cleanse. It would not do to rescue Gimli from men only to fall prey to spiders or fleeing orcs that still lurked there.
But a prolonged stay, delightful though the prospect of a real bed sounded, threatened to expose these strange, new undercurrents between the silences and conversations of late. Little ripples—a glance across the campfire, a brush of knees, or as now, a hand on the small of his back—had swelled to an undertow of unspoken thoughts, feelings, complications surging beneath the calm surface of brothers-in-arms traveling the wilds together. At least for Legolas. He hadn't the slightest idea what Haldir thought or felt, and he dared not ask—though whether he feared rebuke or confirmation, he was not sure.
For all his youth among his people, Legolas knew of deep waters and troublesome currents. Indeed, his very blood ached for more of Haldir's touches as a dry streambed for rain. Their nights on the cold, hard ground with their bedrolls spread close together tormented him with what it would be like to know those hands on his skin, to wrap his own in fallow hair, map that firelit face with his mouth and follow the strange and lively current to its source.
And yet…and yet…
The losses of Oropher and many of their people in the Last Alliance had driven the Sindar ruling class to forsake the ways of their Silvan cousins and find comfort in former traditions and customs. Legolas had grown up in a world where the expectations for his life had been laid down at his birth. It was his duty and should have been his pleasure as a son of the royal house to find an occupation that suited his temperament and skill, find a wife, and sire children. Relations between two men or two women, though tolerated among Silvans, were considered, at best, selfishly libidinous… at worst, a perversion worked upon the weak-willed by the Darkness that had at that time seeped into almost every corner of the Wood.
Legolas' youth had passed in a blight of self-knowledge. He had learned at an early age that he was unlike his fellows when the closeness of his first archery instructor adjusting his elbow sent a thrill through him. The women his mates crowed of tumbling did not rouse him so much as the angular shoulders and awkward, jutting hips of the boys flushed with the exaggerated tales of their triumphs.
He was not the only one. Among Sindarin youth, such things were often excused as "ill-considered idylls" with the expectation that once the curiosities of the body were sated, the young man would return to the path expected of him. Many did. Legolas didn't. When the years passed and Legolas showed not the least inclination towards any of the women dangled before him at every state occasion, a captain in his father's service suggested a commission in the guard as a way to stave off restlessness and occupy his time. Legolas seized the opportunity eagerly though his father was less enthusiastic.
The guard, many of whom were Silvan, saved him from despair, and he took great solace in the pride and nobility of service, the honing of his skills with knife and bow, the bonds of soldiers that permitted greater intimacies than the strictures of court. In their company, Legolas allowed himself to forget that Sindarin blood ran in his veins. The captain, who had suggested Legolas' placement, praised his courage and—beyond the light of the barrack fires—his body in wholly different fashion.
For a man, especially a warrior and prince, to lie beneath another was a thing of unspeakable shame. Legolas well remembered his father's face when word of his deeds eventually reached Thranduil's ears. He was transferred from the border posts to a watch on the gate, thence to a watch in the dungeons where he stared at the moist red walls and wished he might disappear inside them. He learned to quell his hunger and bury his loneliness deep and deeper though he felt at times he might die of suffocation. Even after he left his father's house, his hands and heart had been too long repurposed for battle and death, and his desire had dulled to the point of vanishing entirely. Almost.
Yet Haldir, without any apparent effort on his part, had unearthed those old desires and wants, and he was waiting for Legolas' answer.
"You are kind to offer your home to us—" Legolas started without knowing exactly what he would say. He turned to catch Haldir's eye and instead caught sight of a sentinel in his greys, watching them from the hither bank.
At Legolas' stiffening, Haldir followed his line of sight. His hand slid from Legolas' back. "Ah, Gardhion. Your appearance is timely. I was beginning to wonder if our sentries slept."
"Yours, perhaps. Mine do not." The sentinel's gimlet eye lingered between them a heartbeat longer than strictly polite before dismissing Legolas and his travel-worn attire in favor of Haldir. "Forgive my ignorance. But is it a custom for Lórien's marchwardens to quit their posts with scant a by-your-leave? My sentries are stretched thin as it is without having to shoulder your duty as well."
"I am sorry if my absence inconvenienced you or your men. It was not my intent to remain so long abroad."
"Odd. I am told that is the assignment you favor. But to what purpose now? The Enemy is vanquished."
"My fault, I am afraid," Legolas volunteered, disliking the scorn under the sentinel's thin veneer of professional inquiry bordering on interrogation. "My comrade, Gimli son of Glóin, and I fell afoul of wolfmen on the fringes of Fangorn. He was injured in the battle, and Haldir came to our aid."
The sentinel looked him over with greater care, and his eyes widened. "My prince, forgive me," he said with a much more genuine obeisance than before. "My men and I but recently crossed the River to aid in the recovery of the borders. I'm afraid companies and orders are somewhat mixed. Had we known to expect you, we would have had an escort."
"None was needed," Legolas assured him stiffly, not quite willing to forgive his poor manners just yet. "But, as I have said, my comrade sustained injuries and must be seen to as soon as possible."
"Yes, of course," the sentinel said, straightening to attention. "You will wish for lodging in Caras Galadhon, I presume? The city is emptier these days, but it is undamaged. Accommodations could be found easily for you more…suitable than a soldier's quarters."
"Oh, Gimli and I are easily satisfied," Legolas said, not quite sure why he was arguing the point when he had considered the wisdom of accepting Haldir's offer himself. "Indeed, it will be a luxury not to sleep on the ground with our weapons to hand."
"To be sure," the sentinel agreed, but his smile was only civil. "I was merely thinking of your comfort, my prince, and the outposts are, well…Some of the men out here have been long removed from politer society and tend to let their desires override their distantly-remembered courtesies."
Haldir laughed, but it cracked in his throat, and his shoulders had tensed as if under a blow. "You argue like a Noldo, Gardhion. But the choice is Legolas'. If he wishes to remain with me, I have said that he and Gimli both are welcome."
"And I would not see our prince or his honored companion discomfited because he is too well-mannered to refuse you," Gardhion said. "I have no doubt you importuned him more than enough on your journey hither."
"He did nothing of the sort," Legolas said, outraged on Haldir's behalf. He did not quite understand the quarrel between these two or what the sentinel implied by his being supposedly 'importuned,' but he would not bear such slander against his friend in his presence. "Indeed, without his valorous intervention, we might not have come to these fair woods again."
Gardhion looked at him keenly and said nothing.
Haldir's face had closed tight as a shutter drawn against a chill wind and did not let so much as a flicker show as to his thoughts.
"Perhaps, it would be best, Legolas, if Gardhion sought other arrangements for you," he said, without looking directly at any of them. "Far be it from me to importune you."
"If you will excuse me." He dipped his head but kept his eyes averted. "My captain awaits my report, and as others have pointed out, I have tarried overlong."
He cut off through the woods, his back very straight. Legolas watched him go, struggling against a cold tug of abandonment and failing as Haldir vanished amid the trees. He turned and followed after Gardhion.
The endless, rapid flow of the Silverlode seemed to pull him with it even though he stood on the safety of the bank. It pulled his eyes and his spirit down under the arch of the birch trees, beyond the edge of the woods, over stony beaches and houseless eyots, on and on over the Anduin's tumbling falls to the Sea. He would sit upon a ledge of limestone that stretched a finger into the river, fascinated and numbed by the endless, swirling, eddying foam, the bits of leaves and twigs, the dross of lifetimes spinning away beneath him, past him, beyond him until he could see them no more.
More and more of his time was being spent walking these shores until he was almost as familiar with their curves and curiosities as the Forest River of his home. There was little else to occupy his time. Their lodgings in Caras Galadhon were comfortable and private though rather larger and emptier than two required. Their meals were provided by those who served the Lord and Lady though it was rumored they would soon be departing with a greater number of their people soon. Gimli slept and healed and grumbled about the limited uses of one arm, when they would begin the next stage of their journey, why Legolas insisted on lingering about him like a lost duckling instead of doing something useful.
In all that lonely stretch of riverside, he seldom came upon anyone. A glimpse of grey, perhaps, a flash of movement from the corner of his eye, but no one ever stopped to speak with him. He had not seen Haldir in all that time and guessed he was well-occupied with his duties to the northern fences.
Everywhere, there were signs of work to be done. Evil had come to the Golden Wood at the last, and the borders had suffered its brunt: scorched earth along patches of the river where fire had scoured it bare, blackened and leafless trunks leaning against one another like warriors a breath away from collapse…Most somber of all were the fields of alfirin nestled in the groves, their white heads stark against the grey dust. And yet, to Legolas, the landscape seemed more real somehow, more alive than it had been when he had last stepped within its confines as if a haze had been lifted from his sight, leaving things sharper and clearer, more beautiful for their wounds.
His feet led him by idleness more than design to the outskirts of the river and a sward of grass where men were at work. He had come across them before, but every effort to offer his services had been met with polite, but insistent, refusal. He did not ask again. Legolas, though eager to have work for his hands, understood. Grief exorcised itself in many ways for many people. These men were warriors all, men of Lórien for the most part, and there was a certain pride there, a certain unyielding stubbornness as they stacked dead timber, piled leaves, raked the filth of war and battle into pits, laying the wood to rest as much as the fallen beneath the alfirin.
So he took what distraction he could in observing their progress. But this time, near the hythe, some other work was going on. A birch tree had been felled near the bank, denuded and stripped of its branches, and two elves, one of whom looked very familiar, were crouched at its head.
Legolas watched from a distance at first, loath to disturb their work. Haldir's hands were as deft at this as fire-making, and with little more than a knife and a small chisel, he eased the bark off the birch's naked trunk in long, gleaming strips while his comrade rolled them inside out and lashed them together to use as a covering for what must have been a new boat.
They worked well and efficiently together, talking and laughing though their words were largely inaudible. At length, his segment completed, Haldir rose to stretch his back and eye his comrade's work, gesturing at this or that and clasping the back of his comrade's neck when he was ignored. His comrade slapped at the errant hand and retaliated with a sharp smack at his thighs. Haldir dodged the blow, seized his comrade round the shoulders and wrestled him to the ground.
Legolas ignored the sharp sting in his breast at their puppy-play, the obvious affection and intimacy between them; it was ridiculous to feel hurt and unworthy to feel jealousy. Haldir had never given him any reason to think—They had never even touched save in a manner that befitted the needs of wanderers on the road. He contemplated gathering the shreds of his dignity and quitting the place while he could, but as if the thought had drawn his attention, Haldir lifted his head and caught sight of him standing on the hill. Something flicked across his face, but Legolas was too far away and it passed too quickly.
Haldir rose and held up a hand, and Legolas, as if he had no more will of his own, picked his way down towards them.
"Well met, Legolas!" Haldir said, a little breathlessly as he aided his comrade to his feet and brushed the loose grass from his back and shoulders with such tenderness, Legolas flinched. "I trust your accommodations are to your satisfaction? And how does Gimli fare?"
"Our accommodations are more comfort than we deserve, and Gimli is healing though he chafes at the restrictions upon him yet." His mouth felt stiff around the words, and he could not help glancing sideways at Haldir's comrade: a comely youth with the conditioned build of a warrior. He wore braids of rank in his hair and, at Legolas' approach, had drawn a proprietary arm about Haldir's waist.
A short silence fell, and Legolas pretended to examine their handiwork of the birch though he had memorized every detail already. "That is a beautiful piece of birch. You have skill in boat-making…Captain, if I remember correctly Lórien's sigils of rank."
Haldir glanced at the elf at his side then at Legolas again. "Surely, you remember my brother Rúmil?"
Legolas looked again at Haldir's companion. At such close quarters, the resemblance of kin was unmistakable, Haldir a little taller, and he marveled that he had not seen it before. He clasped the proffered forearm. "Of course. Well met, again and my congratulations. You have risen in the ranks since last I saw you."
"Indeed and thank you. Though, I must admit, it is largely through no fault of my own," Rúmil said, giving his brother a little shake. "This one has all the ambition of a stone. I have been hoping to meet with you again. I have never heard Haldir rhapsodize before." More than a hint of mischief danced in his bright eyes.
"Rhapsodizing? You?" Legolas asked, glancing between the two of them for there seemed some private joke he was not understanding. "I did not know I merited such."
Haldir rolled his eyes at his kin and shook his head. "Forgive him, Legolas. Rúmil's sense of humor leaves much to be desired. Like wit."
"I was just making mock of my brother, not you, your highness," Rúmil said with a slight bow. "He has this bad habit, you see, of moving his lips and making sounds of intelligence without actually telling me what or with whom he spends so much of his time. I had to hear it from others' lips that you were once more among us."
"Legolas will do just fine."
Rúmil smiled. "Legolas, then. Tell me, Legolas, do you enjoy hearty meals, fine wines, and decent company?"
"As much as any," Legolas said, bemused.
"Good. I can promise you none of those things," Rúmil said. "However, several of our comrades are gathering tonight for some much overdue merriment. Your arrival gives us a good excuse to procure a cask or three for the occasion, and we would be honored if you would join us. Gimli as well, if he is able."
Legolas glanced at Haldir, but his attention was wholly absorbed in the birch, his fingers examining the white flesh as if looking for some flaw in his work. Even with the Galadhel at his most phlegmatic, Legolas sensed him listening keenly, a coiled sort of waiting despite his languor.
"Well, I would hate to deprive you of your 'cask or three.' I should be delighted, and I am sure Gimli will appreciate the distraction."
"Excellent! Until tonight then."
Lanterns set about the grove burnished the faces of the revelers with a tinge of summer through green leaves, pushing back the night who had drawn her thick cloak about all save for the pale moon, riding high beyond the shoulders of the mellyrn. Somewhere beyond, a flute called with her lilting voice, and a harp echoed back.
It had been long and long since Legolas had sat with his back against a hewn beech log in the merry company of friends and wineskins, telling tales and singing songs and wagering more than they had in their purses to spare. Even Gimli had been persuaded—with little effort on the part of his coaxers, truth be told—to relate the victory of a Dwarf's axe over an elf's bow at the Battle of the Hornburg and afterwards to join in a game of dice.
Legolas himself was content with his wine and his watching. Almost, he could be at home amid the darkling trees of Mirkwood. The bonfires and the braised boar. These fellows might be the comrades-in-arms he had known in his childhood, if they yet lived. Acquaintances greeted him and asked him for news but no more. Strangers gaped at him in wonder: one of their northern kin who had journeyed so far beyond his homeland, but they asked no questions.
A Silvan fellow, who by his years could not have been much younger than Legolas himself, eyed him more than once throughout the night and stopped to talk with him at length. Once, the hunger in the lad's eyes might have roused a concomitant feeling in Legolas, and he might have allowed himself to be led into the darkness beyond the lanterns, but not tonight. Tonight, such thoughts left a sour taste on his tongue.
Though the Shadow had fallen, they were still relegated to the darkness, to quick fumbles without faces. Where was their victory in all this? What did the change of the world mean if nothing changed? Amongst the company, celebrating victory, Legolas was aware more than ever of their defeat.
Even Haldir's presence brought him no comfort, for his former companion kept himself at a distance, leaving scarce room for them to exchange a few words of greeting. Legolas could not blame him much. The elves of Lórien had had precious little to celebrate of late, and after all, Haldir was Silvan and surely found greater comfort among fellows who had known him longer than Legolas.
During the course of the entire night, he had not even glanced in Legolas' direction though Legolas refused to admit even to himself that he had been watching, waiting for some sign of acknowledgement. He was not some lovelorn boy to cast fawn eyes after the object of his admiration in the hopes that he might receive a giblet of regard in return. He was a prince of the Sindar. He had ridden in the company of kings. He had faced the Black Gate and certain death. He had endured the rake of the gulls' cries against his very soul. He was stronger than the tide that threatened him, or at least, he could keep it at bay. But that did not mean he had to sit while it lapped at his throat, choking him with the constant reminders of what he could not have.
With Gimli safely engrossed in his winnings Legolas slipped away out of the firelight. The path he chose was narrow overgrown with bracken in many places. The branches interlaced so thickly overhead even the moon's bright eye could not find him.
Footfalls, heavy behind him, as if his seeker carried a burden or a bellyful or both, rang on the earthen path. Legolas stopped. Before him, the path stretched onward into thicker blackness that thwarted even his sight. Camouflaged by his stillness, he could listen to the whisper of blood in unseen veins, the fine susurrus of breath that echoed the rise and fall of his own chest. Muscles twitched in his flank and back as the figure moved in his shadow. He was already so closely allied with the one who followed him that when he turned, and a spray of moonlight lit a familiar face, Legolas was no more surprised to see him than if he had glimpsed his hand at the end of his arm.
"You are seeking me?"
The corner of Haldir's lips curled, equal parts sheepish and chagrined. "There is a promise I made you that I have not forgotten. I looked for you, but you were gone. Rúmil feared you had been neglected."
"Not at all." The lie was easier than having to explain. "What promise was that?"
For answer, Haldir reached under his jerkin and handed him a small, silver-studded flask. "It is not your father's Dorwinion."
It turned out to be damson brandy of his own stock. Not the finest he had ever tasted, but after weeks of water, Legolas rolled the stinging melody of sugar and alcohol around in his mouth, closing his eyes in beatific appreciation. Its offer drove him to make his own. "Something so fine is meant for sharing. Would you join me? Or, perhaps, your comrades await you…"
"They are deep in their cups. They would not notice if the sky fell upon their heads," Haldir said, sprawling beside him between the roots of an ancient oak.
They passed the flask between them, and for a little while, its rich flavor on his tongue and the warmth in his belly, nothing but the quiet dark about them, Legolas could almost believe they were in the wilds of Fangorn again, free of all the rest of the world, safe in the refuge of the wood. Yet, Haldir seemed ill-at-ease for he talked more than was his wont about little of anything, how the summer was passing, and the vineyards had had a far drier time than in past years. He spoke of his younger brother, Orophin, who had kept a vineyard after he married and was often quite miserly with its produce—though every Yule, he would deign to bequeath a cask to the barracks to keep the soldiers warm during their long vigils.
When he met Legolas' eye, he let his breath out in a rickety, embarrassed laugh. "The drink-loosened tongue does wander off its path and into the ditch, so Orophin oft reminded me. The dangers of partaking of one's own dram too freely. Forgive me. I did not mean to trample over you with my talk."
"Not at all," Legolas said, plucking the flask from its berth. "What has become of Orophin?"
"He sailed when the Darkness across the River began to grow too great. Rúmil and I had neither wife nor child to think of, so we remained. But we shall follow him before too long, I imagine."
"There is nothing that keeps you here?" Legolas asked.
Haldir glanced at him then shrugged one shoulder off-handedly. "The Lady is preparing to depart, and with her will go a great many of our people. Rúmil will stay a little longer at least. He is enamored with a lady in East Lórien, and once his duty is discharged, he will likely go to her with a silver band unless I very much miss my guess."
Legolas chuckled at the notion of the self-possessed Rúmil besotted with a lady. Haldir's unusual willingness to speak, and the warmth settling in his belly emboldened him. "And yet, no band shackles the hand of the marchwarden. After all these years, are you so set in your bachelor ways that no worthy lady has caught your eye?"
Haldir's smile faded as quickly as it had come, and he dropped his eyes to his hands. "No. I am as…unsuitable for married life as I am for rank. More so."
An indefinable wariness lurked about the words, a soft sort of almost-admission that made Legolas leap to dispel the discomfort suffusing the air between them. "I find it difficult to believe that a soldier as valiant as you has not risen up in the ranks after all these years. Did you seduce the colonel's daughter?"
Far from dispelling the discomfort, Legolas' light-hearted remark only made Haldir shake his head. "Rúmil had the right of it more or less though he couched it in gentler terms. The truth of it, Legolas, is most of the men on these fences now are Sindarin like Gardhion or close enough. And no Sindarin man will take orders from one such as me."
Realization crushed Legolas like a sea wave. "What does that mean?"
There was pity in Haldir's gaze. "I think you know."
He reached across and took up one of Legolas' hands, holding it firmly, not in a warrior's clasp or even a friend's rough salute. It was a straightforwardly intimate gesture, impossible to misconstrue. And even had Legolas been the kind to muster ignorance, the brush of dry lips against the pads of his fingers would have enlightened the dimmest. A ripple went up his spine.
"I have worn my share of false skins in the course of my duties to the Lord and Lady, but where duty lies to myself, I would wear only my own. I would not importune you, Legolas, not for the world. But I cannot deny that I have watched you on our road together. I had not looked for such a boon as your peerless company."
The words sounded practiced, and Legolas wondered briefly who else had received them even as he flushed to receive them himself. "You are kind to say so."
"Nay, merely truthful." Haldir squeezed his hand a little. "Am I mistaken in thinking my regard returned, even if only in small measure?"
For all Legolas' diplomacy, all his good breeding and fair speech, he could think of nothing to say in the face of such a confidence. The wave had filled his lungs and he could do nothing but try not to drown in it. He had been told all his life that he was alone, that what he felt was a thing that would pass like a spring storm and leave him cleaner once it had left him. And now to find that Haldir, of all men, should share in his…affliction… and confirm what he had known but not known robbed him of all words.
He had been silent for too long.
Haldir's face fell. His shoulders stiffened, a soldier preparing himself for the inevitably violent blow he sees coming but would wish to avoid if fate would have it so.
"Ah." He withdrew his hand, leaving Legolas' colder for its absence, and pushed it through his hair, flattening it with a self-consciousness Legolas had never seen in him before. "Well, I have made an utter fool of myself. Forgive me. I will go."
Legolas' hand closed about his wrist. "Wait, Haldir. Wait, do not go on my account, please."
He knew the words he could utter that would make Haldir stay, but he feared them more than he feared losing Haldir's company. It was one thing to pardon a fault in a friend, quite another to admit the same failing in yourself, and though he cursed himself for his cowardice, for his deception, for his own brokenness, he could not yet speak those words.
"Please," he finished, lamely, letting the grey sleeve slip from his grasp. "You honor me. I am glad you feel comfortable enough to speak so honestly with me."
Haldir's stern features softening in the slightest of smiles was almost too much to bear.
To blunt the fresh edge of revelation between them, they shared another mouthful of the brandy.
"Not many have the courage to speak as you do," Legolas marveled at his comrade after a silence that stretched too long.
"There is no time left in the world for hesitation. To hesitate is to lose," Haldir said. "I am older than you are, Legolas. Perhaps, none the wiser, but older. I have fought more battles than red leaves have fallen in your woods, and each time, on the Dagorlad, at Fornost, in the dark of Dol Guldur, even if we had the victory, the Shadow had won for we had not destroyed it, only delayed it. It would return again. And now…and now, you and your companions have done what no one could. And I find I am wearied to death of defeat, of vagaries and circling words and pretending that my desires lie elsewhere than where they are. I am tired of being afraid."
A shadow of leaves moved over Haldir's face like ripples over a still pool, and Legolas put out his hand to see if, like the mirrored surface of water, it would splinter at his touch. But his fingers trembled, drew back.
"Daro." Haldir's hand caught his, brought it to his cheek, nuzzled into his palm. "You need not flee from me."
Haldir's fingertips brushed over his neck, startling the fine hairs to standing. The heat of him soaked through Legolas' thin shirt. He had seen hunger before. Knew its feel and shape, the brilliance of its kisses, the quiet devastation of its culmination and dissipation. But the expression in his hard eyes smote Legolas like an arrow. This was something rawer, more demanding, and Legolas felt it flow into him from Haldir's eyes: a warm current circling his knees rather than the sudden, cold deluge he had expected.
Their mouths were sticky with fermented sugar, but the tang of need on skin overwhelmed the cloying taste. Legolas gripped handfuls of fallow hair, like a drowner, needing to hold something fast as the tide billowed and swelled around him, in him.
And yet though he had craved such touches, dreamed of them, some part of his soul stiffened, resisted the desire that wormed through his veins. Another, colder eye than his own seemed to look down on him from somewhere above his head, and his mind fell into a kind of sleep. Gazing over Haldir's shoulder, he watched two shadows grappling in a shard of moonlight, bucking and heaving in their madness, caught up in such throes, they would surely dash themselves to pieces. What were they doing but giving in to their fear? This was no stand for victory. This was defeat of the worst kind. A rough, half-drunken rut, enabled only by the self-effacement of darkness and hypnotism with hard eyes.
His arousal had waned as deft hands unlaced his placket. But that part of him had known too little of flame to remain indifferent to the spark wrought by Haldir's touch. When the choice lay between defeat and death, defeat was kinder.
As with green branches, his desire was slow to catch, but once it did, it burned hot and bright and went out far too fast. With a muttered oath, he sagged against his companion, spent and gasping as if breaking the surface of the sea. And now, with the flame flickering and dying, the darkness crept over him and into him as he knew it would. All the little aches returned a hundredfold. His knees on the hard ground, the uncomfortable dampness of sweat and seed, the animal taste of another man's kisses threatened to sweep him away under a flood of shame.
A spar planted itself against his flank, driven by insistent waves to butt against him. Fumbling, Legolas gripped it desperately. Haldir's arms hitched him tighter, higher as if to spare him the tide's fresh surge.
In its wake they clung to each other, limp-kneed, breathless, wet with sweat and salt. Two mariners flung upon the tideline amidst the wreckage of their ship.
Legolas pushed his wet face into the cradle of Haldir's neck, clutching at broad shoulders, at the stony ground of a beach against the relentless pull of the sea. He was shuddering uncontrollably, and he could not stop.
The arms loosed their clinch but did not let him go entirely. Fingers stroked his hair. Lips pressed to his temple. "Poor Legolas. How you suffer."
Then so soft, Legolas felt more than heard him. "You deserve more than a skulk in the shadows. We both do."
Legolas said nothing. He did not quite believe anything else was possible, as he had not quite believed in the fragile hopes of Elrond and Mithrandir and the rest of the Wise when he had first set out upon the quest. But he had trusted in his eight companions, in his friends. In the course of things that had laid this path before him. It had brought him here. And, if not victory, it was something not quite defeat.
A third smoke ring joined its brethren in the corner where Gimli sat beneath the open portion of the roof, cocking only half an eye at Legolas' bed, all but buried under their gear. Though his shoulder was restored almost to its full strength, he still insisted that it pained him if overused and, anyway, Legolas knew far better than he where the miscellany of their belongings had hidden themselves during their stay.
Legolas privately thought that Gimli knew he needed work for his hands and mind, something to keep him from thinking overmuch that this time tomorrow they would be gone from the Golden Wood and its denizens, onto Mirkwood and his father.
Gimli, however, had no compunction against reminding him. "I cannot say this visit has provided my fondest memories, but it was a pleasant stay nevertheless. For all their talk of leavetaking, the elves of Lórien still prove hospitable and generous at table. Some, in particular, have made quite an impression if I'm not mistaken."
"Something on your mind, Master Dwarf?"
Another smoke ring floated serenely towards the ceiling. "Nothing in the least. Will you go to him tonight?"
Legolas kept his head bent over their packs. Gimli alone he had trusted with his secret. He could hardly have failed to notice that Legolas was absent most nights and returned in the early hours of the morning with Haldir's scent on his skin, his mouth kiss-swollen. But though Gimli was his boon companion, Legolas was not sure how to broach the situation eating at him now when even he did not understand it himself.
One late-night assignation, which an overindulgence in drink and loneliness might have excused, had become a regular occurrence. Scarce a night passed where Legolas did not seek Haldir out on the fences. The wind in mallorn trees, the song of the river, the twilight that softened all hard edges wove themselves around him, in him. A net of unbreakable power before which his will swooned.
But such weak justification could not disguise the far more dangerous enchantment woken by Haldir's fingers on his skin, the pull of his grey eyes, his determination to no longer fear what they were. It ached in his blood even now, and the sundering of such magic would surely rend him asunder the moment he left Lórien's borders behind.
"I think I will remain here." Legolas snapped the buckles on his satchel closed and raked both hands through his hair, searching for something else. "I would have us off by dawnlight tomorrow if we are to make time across the River."
"Then he is coming here for once," Gimli said.
"I do not wish to disturb you."
"You don't disturb me. The walls are true enough."
"I think not."
Gimli looked at him keenly, weighing and finding him wanting. "You are many things, Legolas, but I never took you for fickle."
"I am not!" Legolas said, clutching at a garment and nearly tearing it. "You have no idea what it is like for me, Gimli! If anyone ever saw us…if so much as a word were ever breathed of how he—" He broke off. "I must abide by the mores of my people. I am their prince, the king's son. He made me what I am, and even years away cannot change that. If I do not serve as an example, who will?"
"An example of what?" Gimli challenged, unmoved by Legolas' agitation. "Of ignorance? Of cowardice? Or, perhaps, you would have your people follow you: it is acceptable in darkness as long as you can conceal it in the light."
"It is easy for you. You are made of stone," Legolas snarled. It was an old barb, too dull to pierce.
"You already have one friendship for which you might justifiably be condemned, and you've spat in the face of every one who dared decry it. Do you care for him?"
"It is different between Haldir and I than it is between us, Gimli, you know that."
"Do you love him?"
He had not even dared ask that question of himself. He sighed, the fight bleeding out of him. "It does not matter."
Gimli snorted and stabbed the stem of his pipe in his direction. "You have never let a small chance of success deter you from any course. Even when the likelihood was death. Now it is your fear that rules you."
"The yoke of fear is not as easy to throw off as others would have it. My fear is not unjustified. Do you know how many years I had to hide my true nature? Do you know what it is to see shame in the eyes of your father? Do you know—? It ends here, Gimli. It must, and I can do nothing for it."
"So, it is habit that rules you more than fear." When Legolas looked at him, Gimli set his pipe aside and laced his fingers in his lap, leaning back in his chair until it creaked. "The world is changed, Legolas. And you helped bring it about. You could be the champion of those who remain in the shadows. Show your people that you are the example you would liefer be."
So had he heard Haldir say, on many occasions.
"In the end," Gimli continued, "you do not answer to people or king or country. Only yourself. And it is your own regrets you must live with. If the land of your birth, if your people, cannot accept who you are, seek some otherwhere. The world is wide, and you are not going home to remain anyway. Or were you, and you simply chose not to tell me that either?"
It was an unexpected question, but the answer came from him as if ready-made. "No. My heart does not lie in the forest any longer." Legolas shook his head, a wry little smile tugging at his lips. "All these years of our friendship, I would never have taken you for love's champion, Gimli."
The Dwarf grunted and concentrated on rekindling his now-cold pipe. "Say 'sense,' rather. A Dwarf does not spend countless hours—even years of his life—laboring in stone, shaping gems and metals with his own hands to the mold of his mind, only to lock his craft away in a treasury never to be seen again once it is complete. And only a fool casts aside an unlooked-for gift for fear others will find it little to their liking. Are you a fool?"
There was no sound of footfalls, but the presence of another filled Legolas' awareness.
Haldir stood in the doorway, still in his greys, his cloak draped over one arm. A light scent of rain and coal smoke from the wardens' braziers followed him in like a ghost. He did not move any farther into the room even when Legolas met his eye, but wariness soon gave way when Legolas rose and held out his hand.
They drank of each other like men fortifying themselves for crossing a desert. But when Haldir moved to dout the lamp, Legolas covered his fingers and squeezed. "Not tonight. Tonight, I would see you clothed in something worthier than shadow."
Haldir arched a brow rakishly as he un-cinched his belt and draped his tunic over a chair. "And here I have been mistaken all this time that you wished me clothed not at all."
The light glowed warm on Haldir's skin, and Legolas traced familiar terrain, rendered unfamiliar, noting the differing shades of skin at throat and abdomen, the scars whose smoothness had hidden them from his touch. "I shall miss this. I shall miss you."
Haldir immediately enfolded Legolas' hand with his own, pressed it until every bone in their hands revealed themselves. "And I you, beauty."
"Your comradeship has been more than a balm to my loneliness, Haldir. It has been a comfort to me." He could not quite look at Haldir as he said it and swallowed hard. Some words were still hard to speak. "More than a comfort."
The grip on his hand tightened almost painfully. Haldir pressed kisses to his brow, eyelids, temple, drew a line with his mouth from cheek to chest. He put his face down and nestled against the inside of Legolas' flank, breathing him in as if returning home. As always such tenderness drew an ache from Legolas' chest, and he leaned his head back against the wall.
He had spent too long among Men. Time had become not just a slow wearing, but a sudden and violent rendering. That the span of a few months should undo him so thoroughly…that his heart should tremble so at the touch of another when for so long he had relied on its unimpeachable beat… He reached his hand over to the beside table and palmed the little thing he had laid there.
With his free hand, he stilled the long, beloved fingers as they moved to unfasten his laces.
"I am a thousand times a fool," he explained when Haldir's glazed eyes rose.
Haldir drew back. His expression changed little, but Legolas had spent many hours memorizing that face: he could read every line, every muscle twitch. He could taste Haldir's sudden disquiet like blood on skin.
"It is a little late for regrets, Legolas."
"No, no." Legolas tipped the recalcitrant chin up. "There are none, Haldir. There could not be."
"I do not understand."
"Then I shall not use words." Legolas drew him to his feet and closed the little pot of lanolin into his palm.
He stepped away then and stripped where he stood. Naked, he walked to the bed and crouched on his heels at the edge of the counterpane, back stiff and straight. He curled his hands on his thighs to hide their tremble. His sex lay quiescent between his legs, too nervous to be roused.
Haldir's breath caught in his throat with an audible jerk, and clothing rustled as he finished disrobing. A quiver went through Legolas' belly when the bed depressed behind him, but his spirit stiffened with some of its old resistance. To no other had he allowed this intimacy. When Haldir's sinewy arms came around him, he did not lean into them.
His hair was lifted away and draped over his shoulder. In its wake, sharp, nipping kisses marked a path from neck to his shoulder. The tiny scattering of hairs there rose under the not-quite-chastisement. Legolas shivered.
"This is not a battlefield, Legolas. Do not fight me."
Slowly, with infinite patience, Haldir gentled him, stroked his back and arms, running up and down his belly, across his chest and thighs. They knew by now the ways to touch each other, to give the other the greatest pleasure. His touches were light with the pads of his fingers, unhurried, undemanding. Slowly, slowly, the fight drained out of Legolas even as blood began to rise up through his limbs, and that part of him that longed for the succor of those hands rose hard and aching.
And now Haldir's cunning fingers were no longer on his body but underneath him somewhere.
Legolas could not help the breath that balked hard against his teeth at that first, unfamiliar, invasive touch. He fell forward onto his hands, almost twisting Haldir to the floor in umbrage. And yet…he held himself there, waiting, teeth gritted, his forehead pressed against his clenched fists.
Haldir seemed to be in some kind of agony himself. His breathing was harsh and pained between Legolas' shoulder blades. The hands running over Legolas' body were feverish, trembling, hard and tense, like a dying man's. Something in Legolas softened then. The detachment left him, and he clamped those fingers fiercely within his own.
Haldir's hands lifted him, brought him arching back against the powerful body that held him. One of his hands remained anchored against Legolas' breast, long fingers entwined with his own, the other wandering down over his belly, the curve of his hip, the apex of his thighs.
Gripped firmly in Haldir's sword hand, Legolas felt himself being uprooted, all the old, clinging earth falling away as he was borne aloft. The uncomfortable pressure inside was changing shape, giving way, becoming almost-pleasurable, almost-wonderful, a sense of fullness and of completion instead of cleaving and severing. Nothing in his life had ever felt like this. Nothing. He was awash in it. But this time, he was carried above the waves instead of dragged beneath them. There was light and clean air in his lungs. The lamp on the bedside table glowed bright and brighter, turning all to white at the edges of his vision.
"Daro. Hold, Haldir, hold."
The power of his release robbed him of all strength, and he would have collapsed had Haldir not been holding him so tightly. Two more strokes, and he was filled afresh with warm wet, rain drumming against parched earth, Haldir's breath in his ear, fierce and sweet as a storm wind passing over the forest.
Listening to the rapid beating of each other's hearts, the slow regulation of their breath, they sank down, legs entwined.
The lamp dimmed, but neither of them felt the least inclination to tend or extinguish it. Before sleep completely overtook him, Legolas rose to wash the salt from his body and plait his hair as was his nightly custom. Wading back through their jettisoned clothing, he noted the shadows lapping at the corners. In the lamplight, only the wide bed stood out, its sheets half-flung upon the floor with the abandon of torn sails.
"What will you do once your duty is discharged?"
Haldir's eyes opened and as Legolas slipped in beside him, he tucked his arms behind his head as if bracing himself against the rising tide of reverie. "I do not know. If Rúmil chooses to sail with the Lady, I am like to go with him. But if not, I may go to East Lórien to abide for awhile, I suppose."
"It does not sound as though the thought pleases you much," Legolas said, resting his head close on the other pillow. "Enough of what others would have you do. What do you wish to do?"
"I?" Haldir said as if the word tasted strange on his tongue. His gaze wandered the length and breadth of the room as if searching for something beyond its confines. "In truth, I do not know. The world that I knew has changed beyond all bounds, and I find myself...struggling to meet it. I do not know if I should. I was right when I told your fellows that the world will never be as it once was, and I mourn for what we have lost. But, if we are to abide here only a little longer, there is much yet to see. Light has been let into places that once were utterly dark."
"Have you ever ventured south?" Legolas asked, his fingers tracing other paths south along the warm body beside his. "Lebennin is quite beautiful this time of year. The climate, mild. And though there are no mellyrn, the scent of cypress oft drifts up from the sea. The orchards in Ithilien turn out brandies that would delight even your well-practiced tongue. On a fair morning, the mists of the White Mountains turn all to liquid gold, the pines strung with webs of glittering gossamer, and the stones sing the old songs. It robbed me of my very breath when I first heard them."
"I do not need mountains to rob me of breath when you touch me so," Haldir murmured against his hair, lacing his fingers with those spelling circles over his skin.
They lingered over each other this time, their loving muted, a quiet holding of time like water in cupped palms as it trickled away between their fingers. Haldir's breathing gradually deepened in the rhythms of sleep, but Legolas' mind turned over and over, busy with thoughts of the road ahead, of the road behind, and the strange, unlooked-for peace of Haldir's body separated from his own by a mere few inches.
He rolled over and gazed up through the moving branches, the first of the light revealing everything in soft tones.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.