After the long, hard search, after Fangorn – that is when Legolas first notices.
Gandalf is returned to them, through some miracle of rebirth, and he is different and more fell and yet merrier than he was. He seems deeper, as though he has been distilled by his pain and his fall into the very essence of himself. His face, when it is still, is graven and cold as silver, but his eyes shine with a new light, brighter than before, and his smiles are warmer and younger.
He also has a horse. And what a horse.
Legolas almost misses it, what with staring at Shadowfax. But who could blame him, when there is a Mearas glowing in the sunlight before him with the wind tearing at his mane? Who could blame him, when Gandalf greets this Prince of Horses as one would an old friend, and between the two of them there radiates a peace and a power that Legolas has not seen nor felt since the river carried them from Lothlorien itself?
He almost – almost – misses it. But his eyes are Elven eyes, and they take in more than he even realises. They skim over the broad fields of Rohan drinking in all detail: the snowcapped peaks of the White Mountains beyond, the heather shivering in the cold winds some leagues hence. They glance over Aragorn and Brego, over Gimli and Arod, before he is drawn to the sight of Gandalf and Shadowfax again, their brilliance distracting him like a torch amidst the night, brighter and closer than a star.
Later, Gimli’s hands settle against his hips and the breeze tugs at his hair as Arod stretches his legs after his Lord. Their pace eats away at the miles, and there is joy in their friend’s step as he bears them towards Edoras, and towards whatever awaits them. And that is when Legolas remembers what he saw.
Arod had hooked his head over Gimli’s broad shoulder, showing his new and open affection in the way of horses.
And Gimli had shifted uncomfortably, before raising one hand and stroking the soft nose. So slight a movement of those huge fingers that it could not have been perceived by another – were they not possessed of Elves’ eyes.
Legolas smiles, and lays a hand over Gimli’s.
I see you there, mellon, he thinks, and wonders at the gentleness in those great strong fingers.
“I tell you, Dwarves were not meant to ride such… pole-legged creatures,” Gimli grumbles as they make ready to leave Edoras.
“You make use of ponies, do you not? And they are not so very much smaller than a horse,” Legolas says, laying the blanket over Arod’s back.
“Aye, but they don’t race across the world with such an unholy jolting,” Gimli says with a toss of his head. “A pig may have a turn of speed, but it’s a decent height from the ground. And a goat may jump, but it has wool to pad its back. This beast has a stone shelf for a seat!”
“Then I should think you would be comfortable indeed, Master Dwarf,” teases Legolas.
“You would think wrong,” Gimli mutters to himself.
Legolas only laughs in response, and Gimli grunts and rolls his eyes. There is something new in the air between them now, underpinning all their mocking ways and competitive talk. It has no name as yet: too young and unformed, too new and untried. It is strong, for all that. Very strong.
Legolas is willing to wait. He will discover what it may become as it grows.
They return to their preparations: Gimli to packing the saddlebags, and Legolas to saddling their horse. Aragorn’s destiny is calling, and it has a loud voice. Minas Tirith awaits, and they must be away at first light.
The stables of the Rohirrim are sumptuous indeed, inlaid with gold and carvings and bright paint. “So this is the life you are used to, my friend,” Legolas murmurs into the sharp ear, which flicks as he speaks. “One of great splendour and honour. The travels of an Elf and Dwarf must be dull indeed, compared to this.”
“His name means ‘Swift’,” Gimli says abruptly, betraying the fact that he has overheard. “So perhaps he chafes at his splendid surrounds, and enjoys the open travels of an Elf and Dwarf. Mahal knows he runs fast enough.”
“Swift indeed,” Legolas says, smiling. Arod nickers, pushing his head at Legolas and rubbing his face along his leather jerkin. “But your name has another meaning, in my own tongue. One that also fits you well, I feel.”
Gimli’s eyebrow crooks, though he pretends to be engrossed in his packing.
“Arod means ‘noble’, in Sindarin,” Legolas says, and he lifts the bridle over the long, sleek brow, the soft nose, fits it carefully upon the silky cheek. “And a noble creature you are, no matter what others present might have to say about your legs, long or otherwise. Perhaps they feel insufficient in that area, to chide and rail at you so.”
“Height jokes, not funny,” Gimli grunts, but his mouth is twitching in appreciation at the sly sally.
Legolas chuckles. Retaliation will be served cold, he knows, but it will be all the more surprising for that, not to mention ingenious and witty. Now they joust and tease and find delight where once they sought to wound. They have come so far in their war of words. “My apologies, mellon nin, I have yet to locate a box for you.”
“I’ve one here, for your pointed ears,” Gimli retorts.
No, it has no name yet, this growing thing they share, thinks Legolas, and he allows his eyes to rest on the river of bright hair that courses from underneath Gimli’s helm, allows himself to watch the deft movements of huge hands as they go about their work.
He thinks he might name it soon, however. The highest name of all.
“Swift and noble,” he tells their horse. He curries the coarse grey mane, and wonders at himself a little.
(Later, he pretends not to notice when Gimli feeds Arod a sliver of apple from his own hands and calls him ‘an infernal torture device’.)
Arod whickers as they near the Mountains, his ears pricking forward eagerly. He is restive and impatient.
Legolas knows and understands the feeling well.
“Nearly there,” he tells their friend, and strokes the proud neck. Arod dances a little, his knees picking high, before his pace evens out into a steady canter.
Soon he must dismount and lead their horse up the causeway. The Deeping Wall has been repaired with new stone, paler than the rest, and where the Coombe meets the foot of the Mountain there now lies a new opening: a door. It is made of wood rather than stone, bound in heavy rivets. There are motifs picked out in gold and silver upon it: the Anvil and Hammer of Durin are surmounted by the White Horse of Medulseld.
A Man upon the wall nods politely at Legolas, and there is the sound of a bell somewhere deep beneath his feet. The door opens easily, not ponderously as Legolas might have supposed. It is light and welcoming. No blast of ancient tomb-air greets them, and Legolas shakes away the memories of Moria. This place is alive, not dead.
The building goes at a breakneck pace. Everywhere Legolas turns his eye, he sees Dwarves hard at work. They do not hammer incessantly, as he had once thought they must. Rather, there is a lot of careful deliberation, done in small groups. There seems to be more in the way of building than excavating: the walls are almost exactly as Legolas remembers from their expedition, only now there is a fine walkway upon the floor, and painstaking work has been done by the entrance to widen it without damaging the delicate gypsum crystals.
Arod jerks his head against his bridle. He is not here to see crystals of whatever hue or form, and he can smell his other rider close at hand.
Gimli is rushing through the throng, and he is stripped to his shirtsleeves with grime upon his brow. His beard is bound in a manner unfamiliar to Legolas: plaited tightly and close to his face so that no edge may trail. “Sooner than I dared dream! Have you come here to see our progress? I’ve much to show you and tell you!”
“Gimli, it is good…” to see you, Legolas means to say, but it is pitifully inadequate for how he feels. Gimli is too much himself to look away, and his eyes soften above his warm smile.
“I know,” he murmurs, and there is a wealth of meaning in those two words. He knows, Legolas thinks giddily, he knows. They have been too long apart. “I have missed you so.”
“And you too, dreadful beastie,” he then adds, beaming ear to ear and laying a hand upon Arod’s proud arching neck. “Thanks for getting him here safely, I suppose. Dratted animal.”
Arod nibbles at once down along Gimli’s arm, nosing at him with eager expectance.
“He wants his bit of apple,” Legolas says, and his heart is bubbling over at the sight of the one he loves, who knows. In two thousand years, the future has never felt so huge.
Gimli affects an air of haughty disdain. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Legolas laughs, and the crystals laugh with him.
“Of course you don’t,” he says, fondly.
Arod is a horse of Rohan, bred to run. He stands out amongst the Elven horses: his chest deeper, his stifles stronger and more powerful. His neck is thicker and his mane is shorter than theirs.
He is a horse of Rohan, and he shares the spirit of his land. The Elf-horses look at him with their serene, long-lashed eyes as Arod stamps and prances and rolls upon the grass, shaking his head and snorting.
Perhaps by carrying two such remarkable and unusual riders, this horse has become something like them. Growing Elflike and Dwarflike together: some of Gimli's stout loyalty and stubbornness, some of Legolas' free light humour and wild spirit. Something remarkable.
Or perhaps he was always remarkable, and it took the travels of an Elf and Dwarf to bring it to light.
“Looks like he’s bored stiff, doesn’t it?” says Gimli, nodding to their friend.
Privately, Legolas agrees, but he will not say so for all the stars in the sky. He links their hands together as they watch Arod kick and champ in a circle, clods of grass churning up beneath his hooves.
He has not lost the small, secret thrill of it: the silent leap of happiness that greets him every time Gimli’s warm, dry hand tangles so promptly and easily with his own.
“What do you suggest?” he says, and leans against his… his Gimli. There’s no word yet invented in any tongue that encompasses what they are. That does not bother Legolas.
“Perhaps an adventure of some sort.” Gimli squeezes his hand. “What is there to see close by in Ithilien these days?”
The answer is trees - many, many trees. Gimli grumbles a little, but he allows himself to be pulled up onto Arod’s back as willingly as ever. Arod nearly sprints from the meadow, his knees picking high as he tears away like a horse half his age. His joyous bray rings in the air.
“South!” Legolas shouts over his shoulder. “You can see all the way down to the river from that ridge! And Osgiliath lies below!”
“And to the East? What work have you done there?”
“Some, but Minas Morgul still lies too close! The earth is still too wounded, we make slow progress as yet!” Legolas shades his eyes against the sun, and his heart leaps in his breast.
They are together again and the memories come fast and thick, of the peril and the terror and the wonder of it all. Once again they are pressed close to the music of hoofbeats, and Arod carries them through it on his broad, surging back.
The world is poised on a precipice once more as they race against the sunset.
The only sound is the distant call of birds, and the percussive thud of Arod’s great hooves pounding against the earth. He dodges the trees, nimble as a dancer, and charges as a true child of Rohan does amidst the rocks. Legolas gives him his head as they climb, and their friend takes it as a personal challenge, throwing all his considerable might into the ascent.
“Damn, I’ve missed this!” Gimli shouts as Arod makes the summit. His answering whicker is deafening, and carries far over the valley below. Anduin looks like a dropped silver ribbon, and Osgiliath like a child’s bauble in the distance.
“Missed the infernal torture device?” Legolas says, and tries not to let the smile overwhelm his face. He too has missed it.
Arod is breathing hard, but he gives a thunderous neigh of triumph nevertheless, before dropping into a walk. He is no longer a young horse.
Nor is Gimli a young Dwarf.
Legolas gazes over the great valley. The sky is deep blue, shading to bright orange in places. They have beaten the sunset for another day, he thinks, and Gimli’s arm is warm around his waist.
“He did well, to gallop all the way up here,” Gimli murmurs, as though speaking Legolas’ thoughts. He has an uncanny way of doing that, at times.
“He ran all over Rohan, in the footsteps of a Mearas, and did not slack the pace,” Legolas answers, and he dislikes how distant he sounds.
“Aye, and you and I ran it ourselves, so we can give the feat the appreciation it deserves.” Gimli moves aside his hair, kisses his neck softly. “I fear that of the three of us, only one might still attempt it.”
“I doubt that either of you would ever turn down the challenge,” Legolas says. The sky has turned gold where the orange and blue meet and mingle: it is very fitting. “You’ve infected him with your competitiveness, meleth.”
“Me? You’re twice as bad as I ever was,” Gimli says indignantly. “And don’t think I didn’t notice you side-stepping the subject, laddie.”
“For now,” Legolas says, and he fits his hand to Gimli’s once more, “let us just be this. Let the world pass by, let it be carried away on Arod’s back once more, for as long as it may.”
Gimli is quiet for a second, but then he lets out a soft huff of understanding. “Well. Good thing he’s a strong horse.”
Legolas’ eyes are Elven eyes. He sees the time fast approaching.
His last adventure will be made in the fields and moors of his birthplace. It is what he wishes, and Legolas knows that too, hears it as Elves do in the soft eager footfall and the nickering breaths. It rends him to part with their friend so soon, so soon. But he wants to run his last, and so Legolas will see it done.
Legolas slips off the bridle, removes the blanket from the sunken back that was once proud and strong.
Gimli pretends he is not feeding Arod an apple.
Then they set him loose, and the ancient horse on his knobbled legs takes a few steps into the wilderland of Rohan. The smell of gorse is strong in the air, and the wind bites and prickles at the skin.
Arod looks about, before he approaches them once again. He noses Gimli gently, and butts up against Legolas, rubbing the soft length of his face against his chest.
Then his ears prick up, and he takes a few steps away. His withers shudder with eagerness.
“Go on,” says Legolas. “Go home, Arod. Be swift, now.”
“Never thought we’d have to say that to you,” Gimli says, and he sounds rather choked. “Go in peace, and catch the sunset at last.”
Arod hooks his head over Gimli, and pushes his shoulder against Legolas, one last time.
Then he is off, his legs stiff and jerky at first but soon easing out into a long stride that eats away at the land. His aged body remembers this, revels in this, and he is racing for the sunset, and this time he shall catch it.
The sound of his call comes back to them over the rolling hills.
Gimli steps forward and wraps his arm around Legolas’ waist. His eyes are wet, and he does not hide them. The light of the dying sun picks out the white strands in his hair and beard and dyes them red once more.
“Dratted creature,” he says, affectionately. “Always had to get the last word in.”
They stand in silence for some time, listening and watching.
“The world will no longer pass by, carried safely and surely by a friend,” says Legolas, and he sighs. He has not felt this old for… for a long time. And he will feel older yet, he knows.
“Aye.” Gimli peers out into the gathering gloom. Stars are beginning to gather, and the shadow of the moon can be seen in a part of the sky that is still brightest blue. “Time for us to use our own feet again, I suppose. Kind of him to lend us his for so long.”
This show of magnanimity is such a turnabout that it makes Legolas splutter. “You called him a walking couch!”
“Well, he was a contrary pain in the backside, in more ways than one!” Gimli retorts. Then he grins. “Remember when he laid out those orcs by swiping them with his rump?”
“Oh!” Legolas can remember. “Yes! And the first time you rode him alone!”
“Ach, just trying to get him to go forward was an exercise in frustration. Why’d you think I resorted to the apples?”
“I knew you would admit to it one day!”
Gimli ignores that. “And the time he took down that Warg and trampled all over it? One hoof right in the face – splat!”
There are so many memories. “The time he kicked his stall door down in Minas Tirith!” Legolas laughs. “Aragorn’s face!”
“Well, what did they expect? He’s a horse of Rohan, they’re accustomed to a little more o’ the high life, not some plain drab old stable without a carving nor a painting to look at!” Gimli chuckles.
Legolas sobers, all at once. “We showed him a fine life, did we not? The travels of an Elf and Dwarf?”
“I hope we did,” Gimli says, and he finds Legolas’ hand as always, squeezes it tightly as always. “And we were lucky to share them with him, for as long as he had. No, the splendid stables of Meduseld were no home for him. This was always where he belonged, kurduh. The wind in his hair, the hills rolling beneath his feet. He’s a horse of Rohan.”
He fancies that his Elven eyes can pick out something white moving amongst the hills, picking up its knees and tossing its head, dancing among the heather.
“Go and catch the sun, my friend,” Legolas whispers.