"Will you come abroad with me?" Legolas stood before Gimli and stretched out his hand to the woods beyond the walls.
Gimli blinked, as though in confusion, and Legolas smiled to see it. "Into the woods?" Gimli asked.
"Yes," said Legolas. "I would walk under the trees awhile."
"And Gimli the dwarf is in your custody and so must dog your steps?" Gimli frowned.
"No, I do not answer for Gimli the dwarf. The realm of Lothlorien is as free to you as it is to me." Legolas dropped his hand onto Gimli's shoulder. "I asked only for your company." Then when Gimli made no reply, he took back his hand. "Then must I go alone?"
"I do not know why you seek a dwarf for your companion when your kin are all about." Gimli squared his shoulders. "But I will go with you. I had thought to sleep for a week, but one night has refreshed me and I am restless idling here beside the fountain."
Legolas inclined his head to Gimli and they set out for the city gates, taking neither mail nor weapon with them, and walking side by side. The day was warm and the forest fresh and green. Legolas sang softly as they went.
When they had passed beyond the walls and into a glade, Legolas stopped and lifted his face to the sun. "My heart is lighter here, though I cannot wholly forget my grief. Yet the air is sweet and I am glad." Birds called to each other in the treetops and they were silent for a moment, listening.
Then Legolas turned to face the dwarf. "Gimli," he said, "I must ask your pardon. For in my care, I was angry with you although you had no blame. And, perhaps, there have been words between us in the past that I would have unsaid.
"But you are a true companion and deadly in battle, such a one as I would have at my back in a tight place, and I ask that you would call me friend."
Gimli stared at Legolas, amazed, until Legolas began to wonder if he would speak. Then the dwarf threw back his head and laughed. "Perhaps I am still asleep upon my couch and this is but a dream. But I think not, for if all my wishes are come true, then where is my beer to drink and my pipe to smoke and the vein of mithril to mine and the orc-necks ready to be hewn?
"For my part, I must also ask your pardon, for my anger and for any words of mine that stung you. I am glad to call you friend and honoured among my people that Legolas of Mirkwood would call me so in return.
"You have been a faithful member of the company," said Gimli. "And a doughty fighter...for one so old."
And Legolas in his turn laughed aloud. "Then we are friends indeed, Gimli, if you will jest with me. But in my great age there is no falling off of strength, but rather an increase in wisdom and in cunning. Would you set your youth against that?"
Gimli braced his hands upon his hips. "Nor am I so young in the reckoning of my people. And I would try myself against you, Legolas, if only for the joy of the contest."
Legolas clasped Gimli's shoulder. "Then what test would you choose, my friend, to be bested in?"
The dwarf took his arm in return. "We each are master of our own weapons, and it would be hard to judge between us in battle. I do not know what crafts you delight in, but I have not the implements or materials here to work in metal or in stone.
"Let us then set body to body, here in the glade, and see who may be thrown." Gimli's grip was firm and it tightened as he spoke.
Legolas' blood quickened at the thought of sparring. "You do not fear the advantage of my height?" he asked, eyes glinting.
"Even if it were a boon, I would not fear it." Gimli smiled and it was a challenge and a threat. "But a tall pitcher will topple while a shallow bowl stands firm."
"But I am a not a pitcher of beer, but a tall tree, deeply rooted." Legolas smiled in return, accepting the challenge. "Come, we do not vie with words. Make ready and we will begin."
Stepping back, they each stripped to the waist and Gimli took off his boots. Strong muscle corded Gimli's arms and Legolas began to doubt an easy victory.
Gimli ranged back and forth, back bent as though to spring. "How many times would you be thrown?"
"None, willingly," said Legolas, holding himself tensed and still. "But let us say three falls. For I would not spend the day long grappling."
"Then let us begin," said Gimli. He let out such a roar that the birds took flight.
"You will need to do better than that to frighten me." But Gimli was already upon him and, frightened or no, Legolas felt his centre shift under the broad arms of the dwarf and he toppled to the earth, lying on his back with Gimli's foot planted firmly on his chest.
"Were you not ready?" Gimli asked, a smile on his lips. "You may have that fall again, out of respect for your long years."
"I do not need your pity," said Legolas, standing. In truth, he was discomfited and resolved to be more wary. "And do not trust to your own confidence." He poised to begin. "Again."
And this time as Gimli moved to take hold of Legolas, the elf stepped lightly to the side and used his long reach to the best advantage. They wrestled for some minutes and at the end, Gimli lay on the ground with Legolas over him.
Legolas rose, then held out his hand to the dwarf. "Do you need to catch your breath?"
But Gimli sprang up without assistance. "I have not yet spent my breath in this contest. I would not shame you with too swift a victory." A fallen leaf clung to his hair and his beard swept his bare chest.
Legolas made no reply, but readied himself for the last trial. Their eyes met and they stood a while, gazes locked. Then Gimli nodded and they began.
They made almost a dance together in the glade: stepping in, twisting away, grasping and slipping. But once Gimli took hold, Legolas could not shake him. They fell heavily together, and Gimli pinned him to the grass.
"You are the canniest tree I ever set my axe to," said Gimli. "But even the stoutest tree may fall if you know where to place your blows."
They were chest to chest and Gimli's beard spilled over Legolas' neck. Legolas burned over the defeat, though he did not show it in his face.
Then he thought how he might yet gain the upper hand. All his chagrin melted like snow in sunlight and he smiled up at Gimli, wrapping his fingers around one of the dwarf's braids. "You have outmatched me," he said, "and so I owe a forfeit."
Gimli rolled to the side and stretched out on the forest floor. "I do not ask for anything."
"Come, Gimli, does not plunder make victory yet more sweet?" Legolas leaned on his arm and looked down at Gimli. The leaf was still in his hair and Legolas took it out and held it a moment before letting it fall to the ground.
"Betimes, when there is plunder worth taking. But what would you give me that I now lack?"
"Only this," said Legolas. Leaning forward, he set his lips to Gimli's, and kissed him.
Gimli stiffened in surprise and Legolas pressed his advantage, deepening the embrace. Gimli's beard brushed his face, like soft moss growing on bark.
Then Gimli rallied and Legolas felt his kiss returned and a firm arm drawn around his neck. The sun played over his bare shoulders and a breeze blew through his hair.
When they broke apart, Legolas could only stare, unmoving and unspeaking. He had thought only to tease but, once again, received more than he had bargained for from the dwarf. The birds had returned to the clearing and only their voices pierced the air as Legolas and Gimli looked upon one another.
And then Gimli took Legolas' face in his hands and pulled him down into another kiss, slow as tree-growth, strong as earth. Legolas' heart leapt within him and he did not pull away.
At last Gimli drew back, hand on Legolas' arm. "Is your blood hot then, Legolas? But your tastes are strange!"
"And yours are not, dwarf?"
"When there is no beer to be had, a dwarf may enjoy a cup of wine." Gimli moved his hand to draw Legolas' hair through his fingers. "But why would an elf drink beer in a wine cellar?"
"Why indeed," said Legolas, smiling. "Perhaps after so many long years, he has grown weary of wine and seeks a change."
"Perhaps he is still dizzy from falling to the ground so often." Gimli laid his hand on Legolas' brow, as though he suspected a fever.
"Or perhaps the beer has gone to his head, or his heart, being stronger than he had supposed." Legolas took Gimli's hand and clasped it. "My friend, twice today you have surprised me out of measure."
"The day is yet young," said Gimli, and took Legolas in his arms. They lay down under the trees, body to body, and took pleasure together until all the birds of the forest were talking.