Cold Comfort

by arachne

SUMMARY: Legolas faces up to some painful truths

Author's Note: Purists will notice I’ve added an extra day to the journey between Moria and Lothlorien.

Beta thanks to Mandragora, Madam Morrighan and Pythoness – I owe you much! Any quirky grammar left is entirely my responsibility.

Enough! On with the story.

‘…this I will say to you: your Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true.’

And with that word she held them with her eyes, and in silence looked searchingly at each of them in turn. None save Legolas and Aragorn could long endure her glance…

Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring


They were safe.

If you could call it safety: camped out in the semi-shelter provided by a dozen or so close-growing hazel trees, still at risk from wild animals, orcs and other nameless foes, but free from the darkened ruins of the dwarf kingdom of Khazad-dum.

Moria. The Black Pit - a foul name for a foul place. Its very stones had reeked of death and decay. Ah Mithrandir. Mithrandir. To lose you to such a dark, unnatural tomb, trapped underground like an animal. Taken by a –.

Legolas shuddered and drew back from the memory but not before an image of evil, of malice edged in fire, had seared through his thoughts, branding his mind. No! No more!

With an effort of will he cleared his mind, lifting his face to the heavens and taking deep breaths of the crisp, cold air. The stars were just beginning to come out, pale yet, but he could pick out one or two familiar friends, and imagine he was in the forests of Mirkwood peering up through the branches of the great trees of his home. The sight was a soothing one, but the wound was deep and would take long to heal, if heal it ever would.

Face still raised, he covered his eyes with chilled fingers. For the Grey Pilgrim there was no light - nor ever would be again. Along what dark paths would he wander now through eternity? An unquiet ghost, or worse, alive with no way of escape from his deep prison. Mithrandir…

Behind his hands he shut his eyes.

Two days it had been now since Aragorn had led them running down the stairs of the Great Gate and into the Dimrill Dale. There had been no time to spare, with orcs snapping at their heels and the quest itself in peril. Grief had been put aside as they fled for their lives barely paces ahead of the stones and arrows of the pursuing forces. Even when the immediate threat of capture was past Aragorn had kept them moving, stopping only for brief minutes of rest throughout the long day. And again today, they had risen early and marched steadily onward. Time passed without meaning. The hours blurred into each other and the landscape intruded only as a collection of shapes and colours that must be traversed to reach their goal.

Finally Pippin had tripped over a partially hidden stone, and getting up, had promptly fallen over again in weariness and burst into tears. Merry and Sam instinctively went to help, but rather than pulling their companion to his feet, had ended up sprawling by his side, acting as bookends to keep him from falling completely backwards as he lolled unsteadily. At any other time Legolas might have laughed at the sight the three halflings made. Now he felt only a distant pity. Frodo, who must have been equally tired, remained upright but close to the seated hobbits. He stopped because they all had; other than that he seemed hardly aware of his surroundings. Gimli and Boromir also stood near, waiting silently for some move from Aragorn. Gimli’s face was masked by his hood as it had been ever since they left the dark halls of Khazad-dum, but under his heavy cloak his shoulders were slumped. By his side, Boromir stood tall and proud, only his eyes betrayed a weariness his face would never show.

Now Aragorn turned to Legolas who walked beside him at the head of their party and said, "We will stop here. The hobbits, at least, are too weary to go on."

Rare uncertainly ran through the Ranger’s voice and the elf realised that Aragorn missed Mithrandir to share the burden of leadership. He answered the question the man had not asked. "We should be safe to rest awhile. I can feel a power here, although it be at the limits of its strength." The reassurance, loud enough to be heard by all the Company, was falsely hearty, but for once Aragorn was deaf to shades of tone.

The hidden city of Lorien was still a full day’s march away, but already they were starting to see the first stray trees that marked the edges of the golden wood. Common specimens so far – ash and hazel and rowan – but Legolas felt glad to be once again amongst tall growing things. For too long he had seen no growth but bare, thin, parched grasses and the withered stumps of bushes. There was strength here too - even so far from its centre, he felt the living power of a great elven queen. A league away, too distant for mortal eyes to see, the mallorn trees created a soft shimmer in the dusk. He concentrated, feeling the force blanket the land. For a brief moment the shadow in his mind faded. Then it came back stronger, burning yet cold, a fell thing waiting to devour all it touched. He moved in quick, involuntary renunciation of the image and the spell was broken. From afar, the mallorn still glimmered, but their glow was pallid - the light too little, too late, a mere candle against the night. He turned the sudden start into a gesture towards the neck of his light cloak, fastening the bronze clasp and drawing the long folds around him closely against the chill.

Aragorn did not seem to notice his distress. He gave a fleeting smile as he laid aside his own pack and stretched to relieve tired muscles. "You comfort me with your words, Legolas. Yet, even if it were not so, we must stop and rest. Still, I will slumber more easily - although not in peace – at your assurance. All my thoughts are with Gandalf and my heart is heavy."

"Mine also," Legolas agreed in a low voice.

Now that they were no longer moving, sorrow visibly settled on the party, for they had lost more than a companion and a beloved friend: the wizard had been the strength on which they had relied to see their quest through.

"If only we had not gone into M—" Pippin’s voice ending in a grunt, cut off by an elbow from Merry.

"Stay! It is not for us to question Gandalf’s wisdom," rebuked Aragorn in stern accents. "He knew what risks he led us to and chose to accept them - as did all here. We who remain should not question whether his sacrifice was in vain."

Legolas looked away. The day before he had risked a single remark to Aragorn as they ran. "What if--"

The ranger had turned on him grey-faced, stemming the next words before he had a chance to say them. "I know, Legolas. I know and fear as you do, but we cannot stop. In Lorien the elves may be able to send a party, but even that may risk further alerting the enemy to our whereabouts. Who knows what words may already have flown between Moria and the black gates? The quest is greater than any one of us. Greater than all of us. Understand this, the price of failure is loss of freedom and light and life for all in Middle Earth. Gandalf knew what he said, what he doomed himself to, when he bid us go. You know this." Then again. "You know it?"

To desert a friend. The price was heavy indeed, and more painful than he had thought possible. All the long years of his youth seemed to fade into nothingness before this single sharp moment with its total awareness of betrayal. Of loss. If this was the burden of mortality then it was bitter indeed.

"I know."

He had had to force the words past a constriction in his throat. It was no relief to know that Aragorn shared his concerns and suffered likewise. They had run onwards in silence.

"I didn’t—" began Pippin now, before again being cut off.

"Of course, you didn’t, Pippin, " said Frodo. "We know that. It’s just…" Then he too trailed off.

They all avoided looking at Gimli.

At length they roused and made a desultory camp, talking little and then only about commonplace things. Sam had lit a fire and was cooking a rabbit caught by Boromir. The catch was a lucky one and represented their first meat for some days even though it shared among eight the animal would provide but a mouthful or two each. While the food simmered, the Company grouped around the makeshift hearth for warmth and light. It provided some semblance of normality to which they all clung, although for anyone who looked it was obvious that the party had suffered some great sorrow. Legolas did not speak, but stared into the fire watching the white heart of the flames, tuning out the noises of camp and listening to the life beat of the earth. There was the quick beat of the hobbits’ hearts a staccato thrum, rapid and urgent as their lives. By their side, the human hearts measured a counterpoint. Another beat, heavy, sonorous, underpinned them all. The dwarf.

Legolas looked at him - and looked quickly away lest his feelings appear on his face.

"Of what are you afraid, Legolas Greenleaf?" Mithrandir’s voice sounded in his mind -- a fragment of conversation from the snow-bound slopes of Caradhras. "The less likely path may be the most rewarding."

"Or it may not pay back the time and trouble of discovery."

"The fairest things may be those that are hidden," Mithrandir had replied. He gave a small snort of amusement. "Ah me, I have spent too long amongst elves. I begin to talk like you. Well do we understand each other. But come, Prince of Mirkwood, you must walk the hidden paths before you judge them."

Legolas raised a quizzical eyebrow. The wizard continued, his glance resting on Frodo who travelled some distance ahead conferring with Aragorn. "Yes. For sometimes our destiny is not always where we see or desire. The heart is stronger than mind or will."

"We do not have to like it."

The wizard turned serious. Snow caked his cloak and rested on his white hair and beard making him look like a creature of ice; only his grey eyes sparked with life. "Destiny is rarely allied to our likes, dear friend. Do not dismiss Khazad-dum, greatest of all the works of the dwarves, before you have seen its wonders for yourself. There are many kinds of beauty in this world."

Mithrandir… Where was your destiny now? He had seen the works of the dwarves and they were poison.

They ate heartily, although no one had much appetite. They would have to rise at sunup and make for Lothlorien, and even so were not likely to make the hidden city before dark. Boromir had protested again that the wood was known as the haunt of a dangerous enchantress but Aragorn quickly silenced him. The younger man had subsided, muttering. It was obvious that he had not taken the rebuke well.

Legolas chewed the tough lumps of meat without enjoyment. Grief dragged at him, coupled with a sullen anger. He longed for light and warmth but the fire was small and most of its heat was being siphoned towards the iron cookpot. Again he saw the figure of flame plucking at the edge of Mithrandir’s cloak.

It was not Gimli’s fault. He knew that. He knew it --but what he felt was something else. Dwarvish greed had woken the Balrog that had stolen Mithrandir from them. Always delving, searching, seeking something more. It was not Gimli’s fault. But resentment burned through him and now he almost welcomed it as a respite from the sharp hollowness of grief.

Food and fire, followed by stories and smoke rings. How the wizard had loved that filthy pipe of his. Never again would he see the beloved figure in grey, friend for years without number. Legolas pictured him standing very still in the wide spaces of the forest, assessing those around him with eyes that seemed to see even deeper than elven sight. Mithrandir…how could you leave us? The Dark Lord would triumph. The land would go black, wither and die and they would be lost in a world of dead things. Seasons unrolled before him in an endless succession of dead winters followed by barren springs. Unconcerned the mortals smoked their pipes, rubbed dirty palms over tired eyes and looked forward to sleep.

Gimli did not smoke. In his hands he cradled the bloodstained book chronicling Balin’s ill-fated tenure as Lord of Moria. It smelled of greed and death. Unaware of Legolas’ regard, Gimli stroked the torn pages, lingering on the fine gold of the chased corner mounts before tracing the final runes with fingers that shook. Tears rolled unashamedly down the dwarf’s cheeks. Bile rose in Legolas’ throat and he swallowed convulsively.

So many dead who should have lived! Who but orcs and servants of darkness could hope to hold that fell kingdom now? Oh, Mithrandir! How could you be lost to night and darkness? And yet, how could you not? Would even the One Ring be strong enough to staunch the flames of a demon older than even the elves? Perhaps. Surely if the intent were good…and the wielder powerful…But no! It was not his to use for good or evil. These were dangerous thoughts. He must not think this way…

He rose to his feet with one swift decisive movement, suddenly needing to get away.

"Legolas?" Marking his action, Aragorn made a movement to rise also. He waved the ranger back with a careless flick of his fingers.

"It is nothing. The smoke from your beloved pipes stings my throat. I would walk and breathe in air not scented by rolled and burning leaves. Do not bestir yourself. I shall not go far."

A twist of the lips, less a smile than a grimace of understanding, and Aragorn let him go without further comment.

It was good to be alone. Legolas walked without purpose, content merely to listen to the sound of the leaves rustling the trees and feel the cold air on his face. Far off an owl hooted and took off from its perch. He dropped cross-legged to the grass and listened to hear it hunting. Soon enough came the telltale swish of a steep dive and a small surprised squeak as the bird found a woodmouse. So it goes. The large devour the small and life is lost. Only strength was safety. Could he – dare he?

It would not be for personal enrichment but to save a friend and to bring a world out of darkness. Would that not be a good thing? Mithrandir himself had said that beauty might be found in hidden paths. Had the wizard been prophesying? Had Mithrandir foreseen his fall and been begging for help? Pleas which went unheard and ignored. He would use the ring only for good. To bring light to a lost kingdom. What better symbol of hope?

But it was not his. Not his choice to make. But still -- might he not borrow it for a little while? What harm could it do against so much possible good? He saw a Lord of Light against whose raised hand the Lord of Darkness quailed. Light would conquer, its rays stronger than the sun, burning all it touched. Once more he fell into dreams of fire…


"Legolas! Legolas!" Gimli was there, clutching at his shoulder, the moonlight clearly reflecting lines of worry on his blunt features. The dwarf dropped his hands and took a step back as Legolas started and recoiled. "See, Mithrandir, it burns." He shook his head dazedly.

Sympathy flashed through the dark eyes watching him. "There is no light. You are haunted by dreams, Legolas. Or perhaps you are ill?"

The reply was a whisper. Legolas could hardly bear to say the words. "I have black dreams."

"As do we all."

Kind words, spoken with good intent - and yet they served only to infuriate Legolas. To confess to Gimli! He must indeed be fey. How could he have thought the dwarf might understand? "What would you know of my nightmares? I desire to be alone." He did not bother to hide his anger. There was no light - they stumbled ceaselessly in a maze of shadows and illusions, every turn a blind corner, leading only back into despair. He got up stiffly and began to chafe warmth back into his chilled limbs.

"I too, came for solitude and not the company of elves," said Gimli kindling at his tone but his anger was quickly mastered and his next words were spoken with concern. "But Legolas, I did not see you until I all but fell over you. And of a certainty, you were not aware of me. I ask again, are you ill? If not, we should move and get back to the others for you have been gone some time and they will be worried."

It was not his fault.

"It is true. Dwarves are not known for their stealth," mused Legolas, ignoring the latter half of this speech. It was not his fault. "If you wish to be alone, I shall grant you your wish and leave you." Not. His. Fault. He gave his arms a final rub and made to leave in a direction that would not take him past Gimli. And yet, was it not the dwarves who had awakened the evil? And therefore should not the blame also be theirs? Delvers in the deep, overmastered by greed until they awoke that which should never have been awakened. Mithrandir, oh Mithrandir! The dwarves had doomed him; it was their lust and voraciousness that had caused his downfall. Gimli bore his full share of these traits, cradling Balin’s book like a lover, fingers lingering on the gold… "It seems our wishes coincide for it is also my desire not be troubled by your company."

Gimli narrowed his eyes at the deliberate slight. "Did you not hear me? I said we should go back."

For long seconds Legolas did not reply. He let his glance flicker, taking in the dwarf’s stocky body from heavy boots to the thick braided hair that hung about his shoulders, taking no trouble to hide the fact that he found the sight unpleasant. Gimli absorbed the scrutiny with a grim expression, saying nothing but around his axe his fingers tightened.

"There is no we," replied Legolas at last. Mocking laughter bubbled to his lips and spilled over doubling him with the force of it. "Nor ever could be – what tie could link firstborn and dwarf? Though some say Celebrinbor loved Narvi all too well. Fie! It is an obscenity to even think it!"

"On whose side, Master Elf?" Gimli’s axe was suddenly hard against his throat, his breath heavy against his chest and his voice a low rumble. "Know you that I have killed for one tenth of the insult you have offered me."

For a moment Legolas was outside himself watching. Do it. End this torment. Then he was back and the laughter was still choking itself out through a throat pressed down by heavy metal. He smelt the sharp tang of iron, and the living scent of anger, and, deeper than that, something else even more alive. "What? You must look up to me even to kill me? I am not afraid of you."

A twist and throw and he was on his back with the dwarf straddling him, dizzy with the sudden contact with the earth. "As to that, Elf, I could hew you here and now like a fallen tree. And would, but for the belief that grief or illness has turned you fey."

"Your threats mean nothing to me. Or your blandishments."

It was Gimli’s turn to ignore his words. The dwarf continued as if he had not spoken. "If you will not return, I will call Aragorn to come to you."

"Do you that!" Legolas urged. "And they will see a crazed dwarf trying to kill an elf." He made a sudden movement, attempting to turn and dislodge the heavy body pinning him down. For a minute they grappled, swinging from side to side, both breathing heavily from the exertion. Gimli was heavier, but Legolas taller and longer limbed. However, Gimli’s advantage of position gave him the upper hand and he pinned Legolas down with difficulty, hands to his wrists, legs wrapped around his shins. His thick hair had come loose from the fight and strands brushed across Legolas’ face. He twitched irritably to move it away but succeeded only in dislodging more strands that fell across his eyes obscuring his vision. Deep brown hair like the soil of a ploughed field - rich and thick and lustrous with life. Perhaps, if all else failed, Gimli could smother him with his hair and beard.

Mithrandir’s beard had been grey. His own hair was gold – undiminished and undimmed with age, as if he had never really lived at all.

"They say the dwarves will trade anything for gold." Legolas voiced the thought aloud.

"Fight this, Legolas. This is not you." Gimli spoke in a whisper, voice strained from the effort of holding the his captive still.

Legolas persisted. "Is that true? Is there any part of you I could not buy? What would be your price?"

"Quiet, Elf!" said Gimli. "Some things I will not stand to hear."

"You do not stand at all!" Manic laughter bubbled within him again. "Shall I scream now, son of Gloin? Then the others will come running. I wonder who they will listen to, or if we will kill each other first. I could easily kill you now. Dark though it be, my knife would find your heart."

Gimli did not reply. Legolas opened his mouth, but his first sounds were cut off by Gimli’s lips on his own. More of a gag then a kiss since the dwarf had no other means of silencing him. Shock held him for long seconds stilled by the quickened pounding of a heart which was not his own. So that was it. Something unrecognisable coiled in his belly, centred in his groin, lust untempered by tenderness. Power swept through him lending him strength. He moved his mouth to one side forcing the words out with difficulty. "Ah Gimli, you do it wrong. Perhaps it is true what they say, that the dwarves do not touch except but once in their lives. A pity if this were it, to waste it."

Entwined as they were he felt Gimli flinch at the cruel words, begin to draw away then stiffen and tighten his hold as he remembered their position. The dwarf’s skin burned where they touched.

"Legolas! Legolas! What madness is this that has caught you?" Gimli’s voice was fierce whisper, a deep flush tinted the pale skin bordering beard and cheekbone. "This is not you, son of Mirkwood." His lips were red and pliant. Legolas opened his mouth and caught them expertly. Gimli tried to move away but was hampered by his determination not to let go of the elf. Again they struggled and rolled over, Legolas now on top but still caught by arms and legs.

He could smell the earth, slightly damp and clayey, and below that the cool heart of stones. Night weighed on his mind and its rim was fire. He smiled down at his captor, made the words soft as if they were words of love. "Son of Mirkwood. Say rather son of Thranduil. Perhaps our fathers lay thus?"

Gimli hawked back his lips and spat at Legolas. The elf laughed. "Is this then the famous courtesy of dwarves? It would be better met to bid me welcome and invite me in." He lowered his head feeling warm lips, and the beard soft against his mouth, not coarse as he would have imagined but teasing. He captured a full lip between his teeth and bit tasting blood.

Again he felt Gimli instinctively draw back and almost instantly tense again tightening his grip in his determination not to let Legolas go. Their mouths met in a desperate caress, shocking Legolas with its intensity, as their lips and tongues echoed the tension in their entwined bodies – a dance neither seemed able or willing to break.

"Fight this, Legolas. This is not who you are." Gimli urged again as Legolas at last raised his head, breathless. Blood ran from his lower lip where Legolas had bitten it.

The elf snaked out his tongue and followed the line. Blood and fire mingled in his senses, but his smile was gentle, the reply almost sad, "What do you know of me?" For a second their eyes met, then the moment was lost. Once more he burned.

Again Legolas moved his mouth intending once more to capture that of his reluctant jailer. This time Gimli bit back. Hard. He felt blood from his own lip well up.

"See, we bleed red. We have mingled blood now. Are we espoused? They say the dwarves carve their young from stone. Is it true? Do you mate with hammer and chisel?" More laughter bubbled up within him. He lifted his lips in parody of love, rubbing his crotch against Gimli’s and pressing feverish kisses against the bruised lips. It hurt, but that felt right, a way to assuage the pain inside. "Ah. Do not deny it feels good. Or that you desire my form. I have seen you watching me."

"I do not believe you."

"You do not deny it."

"You would not watch me." A deep whisper, heartfelt. Warmth stirred within him.

"You are mine."



‘Enough.’ Gimli’s voice was rough. "Enough. Enough’. Blood welled from the cut on his lips. "Enough, Elf, though you kill me there is no more."

"It will never be enough. There is no end to this." He heard himself panting. He shifted slightly and found his gaze caught and held by Gimli’s, dilated pupils creating bottomless pools within the deep brown of his eyes. For an endless moment time held. Gimli breathed in deep ragged breaths. One. Two. Three. Four. He found they were breathing in unison. Still their eyes locked. Arousal pulsed between them. He wanted to lose himself within Gimli, to bury himself deep in search of his heart; to push and push and push until he exploded into his living centre and maybe then he would feel alive again. But then what? Madness . It could never be. Still he made now move.

"Mine." He spoke again.

"Yes." A sigh. "Yes. If that is what it takes. If that is what you need – what you ask." But there was no joy in Gimli’s voice - only resignation and a despair that matched his own. Still the dwarf held him tight.

He waited for triumph that did not come. His. Yes, but not through choice but through coercion. Was this what he had come to? Horror swept through him. He turned his face and vomited, retching again and again even when his stomach was empty. At last the heaving stopped and he lay quiet and shaking, head down and eyes closed with his cheek resting against the dwarf’s.


Gimli held him without making any effort to move. "Is it gone?"

"Yes." It was if someone else spoke.

"Can I trust you?"

A great weariness was on him. He forced himself to raise his head and look at Gimli. "I am an elf."

The response was a bitter laugh. "That is no guarantee."

He was too tired to argue. "We bleed red."

Surprise registered on the dwarf’s face. As well it might; it was not what Legolas had intended to say. He felt dizzy, as if he had come out of a dream. The dwarf released his hold allowing Legolas to slip face down on to the ground, his wrists and shins thrummed with the sting of returning blood. He heard Gimli shift and reach for his axe and lay there waiting for the blow to fall that would end his life. It did not come.

Legolas rolled on to his side and pulled himself into a seated position. He wanted water but had none nor any energy to move to find any. Gimli knelt by his side, axe laid to one side but still within hand’s reach. He listened to the sound of the dwarf’s heart, beating erratically, the smell of metal and leather, salt of tears and something stronger - the scent of living things. He swallowed and forced himself to continue. "And our blood is the same as yours."

"As to that I could not say." An infinitesimal pause before the dwarf spoke slowly and carefully, "You bring me turmoil, Legolas of the Elves. I doubt you could do otherwise, whether you would or no." His voice was wistful. "The halls of my kin are broken and empty and their beauty laid waste. We are all enemies of the one enemy. We should not fight between ourselves."

"No. We must stand together against the dark, yet I have not stood with you today."

A shrug. "Who can understand the ways of the elves."

Or the ways of dwarves, thought Legolas with a pang. Already Gimli was closed to him and yet he needed to talk. "Do not judge all elves by my example. I am sorry, Gimli. I cannot beg your pardon enough. I know not what came over me." Then softer. "Or maybe I do."

"Gandalf." The single word encompassed much.


"He would not judge."

Legolas hugged his hands to his knees and dropped his head in shame. "I think that he would. No, Gimli, Mithrandir would no longer wish to acknowledge me. He would turn his back, as must all when they learn of my actions."

Gimli rubbed a finger along his cut lip in an unconscious gesture. Legolas resisted an instinct to touch him. "He loved you."

"And I him. He deserved better from me. I am afraid, Gimli. I do not think he died back there. I am afraid he wanders there still, trapped in the depths. He was strong enough to bear that burden and yet I am too weak to bear even the suspicion of it. I fear I am not strong enough to leave him."

"You would go back?" Gimli was incredulous.

"I thought," he stopped and shuddered, barely able to say the words, glad that darkness hid his face. "I thought the ring would give me power to save him. I was wrong."

"And yet you did not take the ring."

A chance to soften the evil, but he could not take it. "I would have if I could."

"Yet you did not even try."

"No. But Gimli, I—You--"

"Enough, Legolas Greenleaf." Gimli dropped his hands and got heavily to his feet, hefting his axe over his shoulder. "It is passed. We will not talk of this again." Legolas noticed the tension in the lines of the dwarf’s body, the way he held himself ready to fight. "You did not fail the test; take comfort from that."

Words trembled on Legolas’ lips -- there was so much more to say, that needed to be said -- but he bit them back. He looked up at the dwarf. "You offer cold comfort."

Gimli’s face was inscrutable. "You are alive. Do not ask for more."


Morning. They set off at first light, cheered a little by rest and the prospect of sanctuary ahead. Legolas took the lead again with Aragorn while behind them came the rest of the Company. He did not look back.

A hand. A touch. A word. He a prince among elves. What was he thinking? To lie with a dwarf in some forgotten place. You were wrong, Mithrandir, there is nothing for me down these paths.

In a distant corner of his mind the wizard seemed to laugh.