Final Beta by Theresa Green, my grateful thanks for your expertise and patience, you are a gem, my friend.
Gimli wrestled with Valda for the best part of a day as the wind blew piebald shadows across the plains of Rohan.
She had some very definite urges, this magical band, and she was proving stubborn about who was in control.
Gimli hunched into himself, wedged as he was in the corner of the healer's wagon jolting at walking pace back to Aragorn's first camp site under the eaves of Fangorn. The domed canvas cover of the wagon sucked and flapped in the wind; a corner caught up on itself and tucked into a rope stay, revealing a small triangle of the outside.
Gimli watched the tossing trees going by until it seemed the forest was moving and the wagon stationary. He had no glimpse of the elf or the wizard since this morning and he was worried about Legolas. Absently Gimli twisted the ring around his finger. He was not used to the feel of her yet, any more than she was used to him.
He sighed; the noise echoed the hissing of the wind through the forest.
"Are you well, Gimli?" Aragorn's voice lifted him from his introspection and turned him to look at his friend, the king, who occupied the pallet on the other side of the wagon bed.
Gimli guiltily shook himself out of his thoughts and turned his attention to Aragorn. He was supposed to be keeping him company, not mooning over things he could not change.
"Nay, lad, I am fine." Gimli shifted so that his back was to the view, "How fares your knee?"
Aragorn eyed the offending joint with regal disfavour. "It feels perfectly fine, unless I try to bend it, and then it shrieks and carries on like a fractious child." Aragorn gave his leg a final glare and then hitched himself up on an elbow and around so that he could see Gimli, "And your head?"
Gimli waved a dismissive hand upwards. "A scratch, another to add to the collection; my middle is a little stiff and I had no intention of jouncing around on the back of that demon-spawn Legolas rides until it eases. You did me a favour by requesting my company this day – churlishly though I have repaid your kindness."
Aragorn shook his head at his friend; calling on diplomatic skills honed over years to conceal the labyrinthine plotting that had gone into the invitation so that the dwarf would ride with him this morning and have a chance to heal rather than insisting on either riding or walking back to the original camp. He allowed himself a flash of interior amusement; it seems he could have just offered and been accepted.
"A coin for your thoughts then, Gimli. What burdens you?"
Gimli looked at Aragorn feeling as full of strangeness as a hive is of bees. "A coin would be wasted; it is merely that I am conflicted." He slid the ring around his finger with his thumb, and then looked up at his friend again. "The ring would fix your knee for you, and she pesters me that I have not offered."
Aragorn looked at him for a long beat, his face unreadable, and then he looked at his leg again.
"And you did not offer because…?"
"Her healing is not free, it comes with a cost." Gimli glanced at the king and then back at his hand.
Aragorn shifted, leaned forward to see his old friend's face, "And you are not yet hale. I am sorry, Gimli. I should not have pressed you."
"Nay," Gimli looked up his eyes wide, locked onto Aragorn's gaze and held it. "To me, pah! What is a bruise? Nay, it is not I who pays the debt." The dwarf waved an expansive arm to include the forest the plain and the company. "I healed Radagast without thinking, or at least it was not me who was thinking. But it was me who felt the tearing, like a few hairs pulled unwary from a head. A mouse died for Radagast's arm, Aragorn. What will be sacrificed for your leg?"
"Ah." Aragorn lay back on his seat, and then smiled at the dwarf in rueful understanding.
"Would you like me to heal your knee, Aragorn?" Gimli looked squarely at the king, his honest face both troubled and wise. Of a sudden he reminded Aragorn of Mithrandir, who also understood the burden of power and the constant struggle for balance.
"Nay, old friend," said Aragorn, after a second, "it is healing of itself and will but pain me for a week or so. Let it be. It is a reminder that I am not quite as limber as I was in my youth." Aragorn shook his head, "I am sorry for your burden, Gimli. I think I even understand. Come to me, friend, should carrying it get too wearisome, and I will share with you my struggles with the palantir."
Gimli looked deep into Aragorn's eyes, thinking of the pain and responsibility Aragorn had shouldered for most of his life, a life only fifty or so years shorter than Gimli's own.
"Aye, lad, my thanks, that is an offer I shall cherish." Gimli sat back again so that he could see out of the wagon.
Aragorn looked at the dwarf for a few more moments, watching as he fiddled unconsciously with the ring, an artefact Aragorn could not see with his eyes open, but could feel in his soul with his eyes shut; a ring of power indeed and Gimli another ring bearer who would be worthy of the challenge.
Aragorn lay back and tried to relax, the constant ache from his knee had kept him awake for most of last night, now the rocking wagon soothed him into sleep even as he thought about the crystal ball whose siren call always tempted his honour with its limited visions of the truth.
Gimli, hearing Aragorn's breath even out into the cadences of sleep, bridged the small gap between the pallets with an extended arm and lay one cautious finger on the wool cover above Aragorn's knee.
Feeling rather as if he had the reins of a green filly in his grip, he allowed the smallest trickle of healing to flow from Valda into the swollen joint.
He paused, breathed, felt for the web of life he was draining, pinched off the power before it could cause harm, and then flopped back onto his own bed, exhausted and covered in sweat, his arm trembling as if he had quarried a whole seam of rock.
Valda subsided, mastered and content; but Gimli spent the next hour staring at the rippling canvas over his head, wondering for the first time in his long life, just who and what he had become.
Legolas asked Ascallon to race the wind and like a raw colt he bucked twice, and then stretched his neck, galloping towards the horizon as if he could launch himself into the tattered sky. His master, his friend, flowed along his back like so much air, his golden hair mingling with Ascallon's own grey mane. Yielding, at length, to the gentle suggestion of his rider's thigh, Ascallon veered towards the limitless trees, the rising ground making him dig deeper, run harder, glorying in his speed and strength.
For some time they followed the forest edge, the changeless trees and the ever-young elf on his white horse. It was a moment out of time and Legolas felt as if he was a woven figure in the background of some great tapestry, hung in an elven hall. Ever moving, ever in this moment.
Ascallon slowed and Legolas allowed and encouraged him to do so; his horse was mortal and by no means young. Legolas let him drop to a satisfied canter and eventually to a springing trot. The trees sang to the elf, now he was far enough away from the babble of mortal minds to hear them. They sang of air and sun and change.
Ascallon, hearing no argument from his master, slowed to a meditative walk and started looking hopefully at the lush grass that flowed up to the trees like so much hair.
Legolas patted his neck, "Soon, my friend. Walk for a while longer, and then you may graze and roll to your heart's content."
Ascallon shook his head and snorted but obeyed, trusting his master's wisdom. Legolas smiled, strangely comforted by his horse's unquestioning compliance. The elf guided his mount into a shallow valley and finally dismounted at the edge of a tumbling stream. Ascallon shook like a dog, nose to tail, and then waded in to drink his fill.
Legolas slaked his own thirst, upstream, and then sat on a boulder to watch as his horse rolled and rolled in the lush river grass. Finally Ascallon hauled himself to his feet and wandered over to blow sweet breath at his elf.
"Wait here for me, if you please, Ascallon. I must go and see what change has been wrought in the forest, the song is new even though the trees make me feel young." The elf rose gracefully to his feet and turned to the trees, " I will return, friend," and with that he ran lightly to the tree line and swung into the canopy, vanishing into the leafy warren.
Treebeard let the balm of Wellinghall pour over his spirit even as the cascading water poured over his body and upraised arms. His forest was not as it had been, not ever, not even in its youth.
Treebeard had spent the last three days striding through the hills and vales of his domain, to find all different and strange.
Huorns lay mute in huddled glades, yet the ents of his company, even Bregalad who had ever been lively and quick, now sprang about with new energy, talking to rabbits and blue jays where before they would have scorned converse with such ephemera. Bregalad was even organising an expedition, a journey outside of Fangorn, to find the Entwives. Hah, he was just a sprig, to have such dreams.
The trees, ah now, the trees, they sang a song. They wove something new between them under Middle-earth's ancient sky, something that spoke of destiny and independence. It was only beginning but Treebeard could hear no echoes of ents in its notes.
Treebeard moved from the refreshing shower into his great hall, waved his green light jar into radiance and paused to wonder that this small magic still worked. The trees that flanked his home no longer glowed, the echoes of the river spirits no longer ran in the forest water, but his jars still granted him light. Treebeard frowned at them. It was very puzzling. Outside the night settled gently on the forest like a feather, the wind died and the blazing stars lit the gentle dark.
Treebeard ladled a portion of entdraught into a bowl and sipped, watching the evening fade through the wavering screen of the waterfall. He sipped again. At the very end of the avenue that led to his home he saw a glow, a soft white light, as if a star had alighted on the grass. Treebeard sang an ancient welcome, and the glow approached, singing descant to his rumbling bass. An elf? Here? The shining creature slipped through the curtain of water.
"Legolas. Would you drink with me this eve?" Treebeard watched the elf for a second or two, and then turned and ladled a goodly portion into one of his small bowls. Legolas bowed to the ent over the rim of the bowl, and then drank.
"Welcome to my home, Legolas, Prince of Ithilien."
"Well met, Shepherd of Trees."
Treebeard peered at the elf, looking for levity, found none and turned instead to place his bowl on the high table. "My flock has gone feral, if I be a shepherd still, elf. Have you not listened to the song?"
Legolas held the ent's gaze, and then sprang up to sit himself on the lip of the table. Gently he placed his own bowl beside Treebeard's. "It is a wonder to me, eldest, that so ancient a forest can bring such novelty into the world. All day I have explored your leafy halls, and the trees have sung to each other, but not to me. Their branches do not spurn me; I feel no malevolence in their indifference. The wood still holds its beauty, the leaf its life. But the trees no longer pay attention to this elf."
"Nor this nor any other ent, youngling. It is not a punishment for your kind alone. The world has changed."
Legolas' eye glittered in the green glow of the jar. "Is there a place for us, in this changed world? Think you Ithilien would still benefit from the protection of elves?"
Treebeard shifted from foot to foot. "Has evil fled completely?"
Legolas thought of Gimli's wounds, of the cave-troll's fate, of Aragorn's silver hair and Arwen's doomed beauty. "Nay, evil is still with us, eldest. Changed in form but not in substance." Legolas drew his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs for comfort. "I still oppose it."
"Then your forest will take the benefit, Prince of Trees. A song may be embellished even if the tune is changed. The work is its own end, and if it wearies you, the land of the Valar will still welcome you. The straight road will remain open to song even if the instrument is novel."
Legolas bowed his head but said nothing. After a pause the ent shuffled his feet.
" Hm, hoom, little leaf, my drink has risen to my head and I must sleep. I will go stand under my waterfall. Would you like the bed?" The ent waved his hand over another large jar and a soft golden light complemented the green glow, so that the light was like the evening sun through leaves, playing and flickering on the ceiling. Legolas felt the ent drink curling around his insides like his father's finest wine. Sleep in this enchanted place would be better than good.
"It would please me, eldest, and thank you. You give me hope."
"Hm, hope, say you? The ent stood in the doorway catching the water spray in upraised hands. "In the morning you must tell me of the magic that is still in the world. I can feel it, tugging at me. It tastes of your friend the rock-delver, Gimli. How is it that elf magic should sit so aptly on one of the dark dwellers, Legolas? You owe me a long tale I think, Hm, Hoom."
Legolas lay himself down on the soft grass and fern that padded Treebeard's bed and allowed himself to drift on the path of dreams, and the light of the bright stars seemed to combine with the drips of water flowing over the rock floor to forge for him a silver path of peace.
I think I will end Evensong here.
It has been a fun journey, but the story of how Gimli comes to terms with Valda, and Legolas comes to terms with Gimli and his demand to sail, and why Aragorn only stayed in Middle-earth for another ten years is starting to feel like another of my twenty chapter tomes. If there are any really annoying loose ends tell me and I will try to answer your question in the next tale. The next tale is a long story really, and I am not that keen to get to the end of it.
Thank you, every one of you, especially those of you who have reviewed Evensong as it has been posted, but not forgetting the even more of you who have read it to this point. Please feel free to contact me with story ideas or brickbats; I love to hear from you.