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And So it Ends
It was early enough that only traces of smoke from kitchen fires scented the cool air. The sun hung, as it always did, over the distant mountains, casting long shadows that pointed, like arrows, to the west, but it had yet to heat the stones of the White City. He stood on the topmost parapet, wrapped in his grey cloak – not for warmth, for he did not feel the cold, but for the comfort of memories it held.
The guards – those who noticed him at all – knew better than to challenge the King’s elven friend. The elf – and the dwarf who accompanied him as often as not – were free to go where they would about the Citadel without question, even, if they chose, to balance on a pinnacle high above the unforgiving stone in a way that no right-minded Man of Gondor would consider.
A stray breeze tugged at the cloak, as if to try to stir the elf, but he ignored it, just as he had ignored the fading of the stars and the waking of a day that should not dare to be so … unaffected.
It was over.
His father had always said that it was folly to give too much affection to creatures as transient as men – that a part of the heart should be held back, guarded, in the knowledge that the day of parting would come too soon and the sundering would be complete.
But dangerous times brought unexpected allies – and bound people in close friendships that did not make allowances for such detachment.
The footsteps crossing the grass of the Queen’s garden were loud enough, and short enough, that he had no difficulty identifying the one to whom they belonged. Not to mention that, even at a time like this, the dwarf wore enough leather and metal to creak and chink.
His friend cleared his throat. ‘The Lady Evenstar wants to see you,’ he said. He sounded – ragged. Like one whose grasp on his gruff personality was teetering on the edge of collapse.
Legolas turned, as smooth and graceful as if he had not been standing like one of the city’s statues since he had sought this isolation. ‘Where is she?’ he asked.
‘Eldarion has coaxed her into her sitting-room and left her in her ladies’ care.’ Gimli swallowed. ‘I think it matters little to her where she is now.’
A single bound brought the elf down from the wall – making it clear that he, at least, was immune to the aches and pains that time brought to his mortal friends. ‘They have not started to toll the bells,’ he said.
‘No … Eldarion thought it would be best to let the city break its fast before …’ Gimli closed his dark eyes. ‘He wanted a little time to grieve for his father before he had to lead the mourning ceremonies as Gondor’s king.’ His grey beard bounced as he jutted his chin forward. ‘More than a century,’ he said, ‘but it is nowhere near enough.’
‘No number of years could be.’
Legolas paused, then nodded at his friend as he began to cross the dew-tipped grass.
‘Elf.’ Gimli turned to address his back. ‘You can do nothing – she is broken beyond repair. She made her choice and would not turn from it if she could.’
The air in Arwen’s chamber was too still, too perfumed, too thick for those to whom the trees sang. He pushed past the fluttering ladies-in-waiting to thrust open the long windows and let in something fresher and less restrained. His raised eyebrow was enough to shepherd the ladies to the door, even as they twittered on about wine and smelling salts and the benefits of a cup of hot tea.
‘They mean well.’ The emptiness of the Evenstar’s voice made his heart ache. ‘And they do me no harm.’
‘They cannot hurt what they cannot reach,’ he said.
‘Nothing can hurt me now.’ She was beyond calm – not catatonic, but any difference was hard to see.
‘Was it worth it?’ The elf stared at grey eyes gone dark as wet ashes. ‘Would you change your mind if you could go back to that first meeting?’
A flush of colour brightened her pallor and brought some life to her eyes. ‘No!’ she declared. ‘Never. The life we have shared has been so much more than I could ever have hoped for – it was real and true and precious. I am not sorry I chose as I did.’ She stood and moved slowly towards him like an old woman no longer in full control of aching limbs. ‘But you, my friend – you gave my beloved all you could and more. He worried for you, but knew you would not leave while he lived. But,’ she swallowed, ‘he lives no longer. No promise holds you here now. It is time for you to sail.’
Legolas folded his fingers round hers, bending his head to press her palm to his cheek. ‘And sail I will, my Lady Evenstar – but not until I am ready.’
She shifted her fingers in a gentle caress. ‘You cannot help me, my friend,’ she said. ‘And I refuse to let you watch me die. Go home to the Greenwood, bid your father farewell and take news of me to my parents. Tell them I love them – I have missed them and wished they could have known their grandchildren, but I have been happy with my choice. Remember me as I was – the fate I face will not be yours.’
‘The dwarf goes with me,’ he told her. ‘Why he should have been granted a gift not given you, I cannot understand.’
A sad smile gave her a shadow of the beauty that had ensnared the heart of the young Aragorn. ‘I would not go if the Valar sent me my own swan ship and an escort of Maiar,’ she told him. ‘I am tied to my love beyond the bounds of this world and cannot survive without him. We are one.’ She leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss on his cheek. ‘You will understand one day.’ Her cold fingers pulled away from his. ‘We shall not meet again,’ she said with a remote finality. ‘Not, at least, before the world renews itself. Be well, my friend.’
He blinked, left thinking of a frosted autumn leaf crumbling to dust in an icy breeze as she closed herself firmly in her private chamber.
The ceremonies were … stultifying. The only blessing he could find in the hours stood by the dwarf, booted and armed, draped in the cloaks gifted by Galadriel as the two last of the Fellowship to inhabit Middle-earth, was that Gondor’s tradition kept the Queen-Dowager and her daughters far away from the public wailing and ostentatious shows of grief displayed by hundreds of those to whom Elessar was no more than a distant figurehead.
When finally the doors of the Citadel closed out those who felt the need to be seen to mourn Aragorn’s passing, Legolas sensed the wash of a spring tide sweeping away the sand on which he stood, leaving him unbalanced and uncertain.
Eldarion’s grasp on his forearm – the sight of weary eyes of Dúnadan-grey beneath his mother’s brows – held him. ‘He left letters,’ he said. ‘For you and Gimli – for those you go to join. He said to tell you … take them soon.’ Gondor’s king shifted his glance to the dwarf. ‘Before it is too late. We will guard her,’ he promised, ‘and my uncles have sworn to watch over her as long as she needs them.’
Centuries of practice kept the elf’s face impassive. No mere diplomat could ever hope to hide his intentions as well as one grown to maturity in Thranduil’s court – although the dwarf did surprisingly well. The beard, of course, hid a multitude of expressions – and belligerent fury hid intelligence as well as most things. Legolas gave himself a mental shake. Now was not the time to let his attention drift.
‘Her condition worsens?’ he asked.
‘She is ever more remote,’ her son said. ‘She barely notices us any more. She does not eat – she seems to survive on sips of honeyed water. And memories – but they will not sustain her for long.’
‘You need to let her go.’ Legolas looked up towards the blank windows behind which the king’s mother sheltered. ‘She needs to be reminded of the man he was before he became Elessar.’ He returned his gaze to his friends’ son. ‘I saw your father in the Golden Wood,’ he said. ‘For all our … troubles – it was a place of pilgrimage to him. The place that saw the first flowering of a love that made any hardships worthwhile.’ He put a hand over Eldarion’s. ‘Help her find her freedom,’ he sighed. ‘You will not regret it as much as you will if you condemn her to die by inches in this stone prison.’
‘It need not be for ever.’
Thranduil was unsure whether to be amused by the dwarf’s comfort – or whether to unleash the temper for which he was famed. In the end, he decided to do neither. ‘It need not be,’ he agreed, ‘but I am sworn to the defence of the Greenwood. My son knows that I will not try to hold him – once the sea has made itself felt, there is little hope of fighting it – but I will stay here as long as I am needed.’
The dwarf snorted. A century of acquaintance had worn down the defences between them and, although he would not offend the Elf-King by letting him know it, Thranduil’s tongue did not begin to match the sheer viciousness of that boasted by the King under the Mountain. ‘Times change, even in the elven realms,’ he pointed out. ‘Our numbers diminish, the stone responds to us less than it once did, and the babbling hordes of men press on our borders. In a century, or two, or three, you may find the same. And your son will be waiting for you.’
‘I would rather hope,’ the king said dryly, ‘that he will find something better to do with his time.’
‘Perhaps I will take up poetry.’ Legolas allowed a mild reproof to colour his tone as he joined them. He did not appreciate being discussed behind his back.
Thranduil smiled. His son was more … there than he had been on arriving in the wood after Elessar’s funeral rites. Less agonised by the fate of Elrond’s daughter, as he began to distance himself from the world he had inhabited over the last century or so. It was a shame, in some ways, that he would not leave the dwarf behind in his search for contentment beyond the sea – but, on the other hand, perhaps he needed some continuity. His elfling had always had a loving heart.
‘If I find that you have wasted yourself on bad verse,’ he threatened, ‘I will be forced to take you in hand when next we meet.’
It was not exactly a promise to sail, Gimli thought with grim satisfaction, but he supposed it was the next best thing. And, in the meantime, he would just have to live as long as he could – if for no other reason than to irritate his elf into continuing to fight.
The waters of the Anduin wound across the plain with an effortless force that made the use of sails unnecessary. The wooden planking, still gleaming a well-sanded gold, creaked as it adjusted to the effort of movement and ropes slapped against the mast.
‘Are you sure you know how to do this?’ Gimli tried to keep his voice calm, but the elf could not help but pick up the tension. ‘Or will we be washed up, bloated and lifeless and nibbled by fishes, on the shores of Belfalas?’
‘Elves have been undertaking this journey since the First Age,’ Legolas said airily.
‘But the complete lack of return passengers could indicate that none have survived to reach the farther shore.’
‘In what, elf?’ Gimli retorted. ‘Your limited seamanship?’
The dwarf turned to look back at the White City, the distant flags flapping on the Citadel informing those who looked that the king was in residence. Before the gates were gathered ox-drawn carts, merchant caravans, barrows bearing milk churns and fresh-pulled vegetables, porters carrying boxes of fish, girls with heaped baskets – all making their way into the city, keen to reach the markets before the housewives and cooks and stewards came to make the day’s purchases. All as unaware as the king in his castle that two legendary figures from a past rapidly becoming mythological were drifting past them on the current.
‘Elrond’s sons watch over her still,’ Legolas said. He turned to look in the direction of the Golden Wood, narrowing his eyes as if, for one moment, he could see across all the leagues separating them. ‘They said they would keep in touch with my father – there are too few of us left to let old rivalries stand between us.’
Gimli’s dark eyes examined his elf as he grunted an acknowledgement. Legolas could not stay, but neither did he wish to abandon his birthplace. Like Aragorn’s queen, he was held between two worlds, unable, as yet, to release the one he had chosen to leave in order to embrace the new.
‘I look forward to seeing their faces,’ he said, ‘when we reach the west. That pinch-lipped scribe of Elrond’s – what do you think he will say when a dwarf steps ashore?’
‘Little, I imagine.’ A fleeting smile brightened the elf’s face. ‘Since he will be lying unconscious at your feet.’
The stars shone brilliantly as the fresh water of the Anduin pushed its way out into the Bay of Belfalas, reflecting in the bobbing waves. Wind blew offshore, gently enough not to worry even the dwarf, but brisk enough to suggest that the lands of Middle-earth were encouraging the two voyagers on their way.
They looked at each other and turned back once to watch the moonlit cliffs diminish in size behind them.
‘I hope you can sail this thing,’ the dwarf grumbled.
The elf adjusted the tiller and the sails billowed as the wind filled them. ‘Trust me,’ he said.
‘We were the last,’ the dwarf said eventually. ‘And now there is no-one left in Middle-earth who was there. Who knows truth from romance.’
‘Perhaps we should have written it all down,’ Legolas suggested. ‘Posterity should remember the smell of Boromir’s socks. And how Meriadoc seemed unable to keep his trouser seams intact …’
‘Aragorn’s habit of picking his teeth with the point of his dagger …’
‘Pippin’s habit of falling into any available horse-droppings …’
‘Frodo’s taste for garlic – Gandalf’s execrable tobacco …’
‘Sam’s infuriating way of quietly ignoring Aragorn’s commands and deferring all decisions to Frodo …’
The pair stopped. ‘We were perfect, of course,’ Gimli stated. ‘Never did a thing to annoy the rest of them.’
‘Just as well we let the legends stand, I suppose,’ Legolas sighed. He stared resolutely westwards. ‘I miss them all – I always will, I think.’
Gimli gripped his free arm in a gesture somewhere between affectionate and painful. ‘So,’ he said, changing the subject firmly. ‘How long will this voyage take? Provided you manage not to get us lost, of course!’
Before moonset, still reluctant to desert his elf, the dwarf dozed, his legs splayed out before him on the deck. Legolas stood, aware of nothing but the song of the sea, letting the small ship take the gleaming path it sought, certain that his vessel knew its way home. Decisions now taken, paths chosen, goodbyes said, he released the bonds that had held him back and let the sea take him. His former life had ended, just as had Aragorn’s and would Arwen’s, but a new life, different from theirs, was about to begin. And all he could do would be to welcome it.
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