The Last Grey Ship
Dawn waxed cold and clear as it spilled upon the spires of Minas Tirith, and twin to the newborn day was the month of March. Brilliant gold capped the frosty crown of Mindolluin, washing then to ruddy rose, and in the low fields lambs frolicked at play. Yet within the city all hearts turned but one way, towards a humble westward gate in the wall of the sixth circle. Seldom ever did that gate open, and sorrowful were the twisting ways beyond. For there beneath the mountain’s stony flank lay Rath Dínen, the Silent Street, and along it stood the mansions of the great dead of Gondor. Kings and nobles, lords and princes slept here, and at last also rested the two gallant hobbits, Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrine Took. Here would pass Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the last of the great Kings of the Elder Days, and thence he should not return a living man.
In the house given them for lodgings, Legolas swept his grey cloak about his shoulders and laid a hand to the door. Gimli, however, stood with his feet planted square on the floor, and did not move.
“Let the dead keep the dead,” he announced. “My heart holds remembrance of a living man, and I would keep it so.”
“But he is not yet gone from us,” Legolas said. “There is still a little while.”
“And what more is there for us? Will you say farewell until there is no breath left to speak it?” Gimli spoke as if in anger, but other emotions often mask themselves so, and his tone then gentled. “There are those who love him more than even us, and to them this day belongs. Here I shall wait, until the bells tell me he has gone.”
Distress marked itself clearly on the Elf’s smooth brow, but he saw the grievous truth in Gimli’s words. Slowly he sank down upon an open window ledge, and turned his face towards the quiet city beyond. There they waited, in a silent room where a breeze brushed the window coverings aside and brought a moist promise of rain. Anon the Sun hid her face behind a soft floss of cloud, and the mighty ribbon of the Anduin was slowly hidden behind the drawing of a misty veil.
As the morning waned the streets began to whisper with the soft tread of the people. Not to duty nor market did they come, but hither to the winding streets upon which their King had passed. They gathered on its curbs and waited, although to what purpose most could not say. The quiet assemblage grew and waited more, as the mist crept from the river and veiled from sight even Mindolluin’s lofty, rugged crest. At last Gimli arose and Legolas went with him, passing down into that shadowless white morning to join the hushed throngs lining the avenue. Then from the towers spoke the peal of a single bell. Its deep, iron resonance lingered and shivered among the shrouded stones ere the next slow strike came. Even as a heart beats deepest, the bell struck, each toll shuddering into the silent bones of the city, and the very breath of the people was stilled.
Up from the Silent Street he came, he who would now be King. As he walked he bore in his arms the winged white crown of Gondor and with it the ancient scepter of Arnor. Like the wind comes up the river in a rushing of many leaves, so the mourning of Minas Tirith swept through her streets, until one thought that Eldarion drew sorrow with him as heavy train. Many there were who wept unashamed, whether maid or man-at-arms, for few now living remembered a day when Ellesar the King had not reigned, his influence as constant as the Sun and Stars. The mist became a light rain which blessed the far fields, and also laved faces already made wet with lamenting. Neither left nor right did Elessar’s heir look, for the tokens he bore spoke beyond all words. Two who watched found their message to be bitter as swords in the dark, and the stroke of it drove deeper than death. As the prince passed, Gimli fell to his knees on the hard stones, and the storm of his anguish broke like thunders upon the high peaks. For Legolas there was only silence, though the blade of his grief pierced so keenly that his hands sought, unbidden, as if for a hidden wound.
Thus ended Aragorn, son of Arathorn, last of the Númenoreans, having given up his life as was the gift of his kind, and so passing into mystery before the strength of manhood and kingship withered from his grasp. Thus, too, ended a Fellowship which would be sung of even after their Age had died all away, and after legends had forgotten that living beings and not gods had done such deeds.
They lingered in the City, while things were done that necessity and custom declared for the passing of great kings. There would be a new king crowned, in the due passing of days, and all matters of governing would be discussed at length, in chambers deep within the city. The Lady Arwen would surely meet with ministers and counselors as well, as her son prepared himself for the throne. Lords from all parts of the realm would soon come to pledge anew their fealty and obedience, and ambassadors from afar would bring tidings of their good will. Meanwhile banners were flown and dirges played, and minstrels sang of the King’s greatness. To Legolas and Gimli, however, the songs almost spoke of a stranger, much removed from the man they had known. For though he had been mighty in his rule and terrible in battle, so too he had been their beloved friend.
“I wish I could stop looking,” Gimli said.
“Looking for what?” Legolas asked, and then he caught himself on the razored edge of his own silent reply. Just that morning he had paused at a certain turn of the street, and stood several heartbeats until he realized who it was he waited for.
All the city moved in one direction or another, in grieving and preparation at once. Yet Gimli and Legolas found themselves standing with empty hands and soon felt very much forgotten. Only they could not cast aside entirely the old loyalties of their hearts, and so they waited until a servant found them on the third day.
“The Lady awaits you,” he said, and they followed.
He led them to the private halls of the family, and thence to chambers where not even they had trod before. Here the servant tapped an oaken door, then opened it, bid them to enter, and slipped away.
Within the chamber a bank of candles glowed, and a long curtain drifted from an open window, spilling sunlight in a wavering pool upon the floor. Near the window a slender figure sat, the rich fall of her dark hair washed in soft light and shadow. Lady Arwen, wife of a great King, daughter of Elrond Lord of Rivendell, and yet never had she seemed so small and alone. They drew near on hushed feet, for she did not turn to greet them.
She was aware of their presence, however, and said softly, “Forgive me that I have not turned my thoughts to you sooner.”
“Nay, Lady,” Legolas replied. “Your cares are many, and the hospitality of your people has kept us well.”
“Nonetheless, I have misused the blessing of your friendship.” She turned, then, and they were stilled by the fullness of her gaze upon them. “Please, rest yourselves at ease.”
They seated themselves on cushions at her bidding, but dared not speak, for the Lady Arwen was much changed. Although her Elven beauty remained untouched by the passing of time, where once the brilliance of stars had shone in her eyes, there lay only lusterlessness, like water beneath ice that never knows the Sun. Where once the silvered shimmer of twilight had clung about her as a fragrant mist, now only shadows filled the sweet curves of her face.
“I have news which may bring some small comfort for you,” she said. “Two of our most honored now rest beside the King. It was his wish that Merry and Pippin, beloved among hobbits, should be moved to sleep there at his side.”
“That is indeed well,” Gimli said. “An unsurpassed honor, and none more deserving.”
A moment passed, and they saw her hands move upon a smallish, cloth-wrapped parcel in her lap. Fragile those fingers seemed, as if turned from finest glass. She directed her gaze once more to the window, but her sight passed far beyond them to some bleak, unfathomable distance.
“I took the cup of Lúthien knowing well, or so I thought, the draught I would drink. But now I have come to the dregs at last, and they are bitter upon my tongue.” She sighed a frail breath that would have scarcely disturbed goose-down. “I see neither Sun nor Moon, and all the stars have gone out.”
“Gondor and Arnor still remain,” Gimli said, although the words came like ill-fitting tools to his hands. “Your son and daughters as well, and all who know you love you.”
Her hands gently turned the wrapped thing she held. “Then let them love my memory.”
Now her fingers worked carefully in the silken folds, and light fell upon the object cradled therein like sunlight ablaze in new leaves. A great green gem was revealed, set in the embrace of a silver eagle, wings outstretched, and for an instant they ceased breathing.
“Elessar,” Legolas whispered, and so it was.
The great Elfstone itself, which Galadriel Queen of Elves had given to her daughter, and which passed thence to Arwen, her granddaughter. Amid the dark days of Sauron’s threat, it had been Arwen’s request that Galadriel let the Elfstone pass to Aragorn, to light their hopes until all was fulfilled, or all was ashes. None had seen it since except it was in Aragorn’s possession, ever a potent symbol of his birthright. Gimli found himself with a hand pressed to his bearded mouth, to stifle the cry pressing there.
“I know my beloved spoke to you,” she said. “And his wishes are bound to your heart.”
Lightly her fingers traced the smooth, verdant face of the stone, a touch as delicate as if upon a lover’s lips. “Legolas Greenleaf, dear friend of my Lord and myself, I now ask only one kindness.”
“Speak it,” he said.
Then her gaze turned to him, deep with sadness so keen he was stricken dumb.
“Take this,” she said. “Take it, and keep it with you.” Swiftly she touched the stone to her lips, then bent gently as a lily falling, and placed the precious thing in Legolas’ startled hands. “Bear it upon the grey ship that will carry you into the West, and let it be our remembrance there.”
Gimli first found speech, saying, “Lady, it belongs to your children, your daughters, even as it was your mother’s before you.”
“Nay, dear Gimli, it does not,” she said, and the sadness of all the ages lay upon her. “It belongs to a world that has passed.”
Legolas held the Elfstone as one who thinks to be burned, and in her eyes he saw at last the terrible distance yawning between them. For him there remained the promise of all the Firstborn, the welcome of the Undying Lands and a ship to carry him, when at last the world weighed too heavily upon him. Yet for her, who had lived years equal to countless lives of men before he was even born, there would be no ship. By her heart’s choice she was lost to her Elven people, lost beyond all hope of healing or reunion, in this world or beyond. Though knowledge of her chosen doom had been with him long, its fruition came now unlooked-for, and he felt as if he teetered at the brink of a bottomless abyss.
Arwen arose in a silken whisper of skirts and slippers. She turned away from the window, towards the candles glimmering across the room, and the light cast her face as if it were carved in alabaster stone, beautiful, but cold and without life left in it.
“Arwen Evenstar I have been, but now I must pass into Night. Perhaps it shall be as my beloved said, that beyond the circles of the world is more than memory. Blessed shall be the hour of my leaving.”
“Leave?” Gimli sputtered. “Where are you going?”
“To Lothlorien,” she said, and walked to gaze into the candles’ glowing hearts. “To Cerin Amroth, if I am permitted.”
“But none live there now,” Legolas protested, as both he and Gimli stood. “Even Celeborn has passed on to Imladris, and the Golden Wood is silent these many seasons.”
Her head bowed in candlelight, briefly crowning her in softest gold. “Nonetheless, hither I shall go.”
“Very well,” said Gimli. “When do we leave?”
“I go alone, dear Gimli.”
“Alone!” Gimli’s eyes nearly started from his head. “Lady, you cannot! The season is still early, the road is long and treacherous, and a Queen does not simply -.”
“I can, and I shall.” She turned swiftly, ere their further objections found voice. “Contest me not in this, if you bear me any least love.”
Then her manner softened and she drifted near, gazing upon them kindly. The fingers of one hand she lightly touched upon Legolas’ shoulder, and she looked deeply into the eyes of her husband’s friend, her kinsman, he who would be last of all her people from whom she parted. In the Elven tongue she spoke, and that as softly as the current lifting the curtains nearby.
“Wilt thou remember us, Legolas Thranduilion, on the blessed shores of Tol Eressëa?”
Cupping the precious token in his hands, Legolas found his reply, though it came with great pain from the cracking of his heart.
“There I shall sing of thee, Lady Undómiel, and of Elessar who was King, so that none shall forget so long as the world remains.”
“Then I thank thee, and call thee blesséd.”
For Gimli she had only the touch of her hand upon his bowed head, as it were in benediction. Then she went from that room silently as frost flees the sun, and passed thence forever from their sight.
There were few who noted the doings of one Dwarf and a single Elf, in a city brim-full with both mourning and making kings. Only one Guardsman vaguely remembered seeing Legolas walking the lower road near the gate. So Gimli followed. Passing from the city he trudged between the sleeping hedges and down a rutted lane, until at last he struck a path that swept up and through a small glade. There he turned aside, and followed the dim track upwards, until ash and beech raised their smooth boles and barren limbs to spread their thin lattice-work overhead. His steps were muted by the thick litter of moist grey leaves, as Spring had yet to raise the sap from drowsy roots.
After a time the brown, leafy path curved up one last slope, and the trees fell away, revealing a precipice that overlooked the mighty breast of the Anduin River. There a broad shoulder of stone stood forth high above the flood, a doorsill opening upon a vast sweep of space and misty distance. Out upon its brow rested a solitary person, Legolas, alone with the River and his thoughts. He sat with his knees drawn close, and as Gimli came near, he saw also the curved ends of Legolas’ bow, which was held against his chest. Galadriel’s bow, gifted in that other time during the darkening of the world, yet the cunning of Elven craftsmanship was such that it remained strong and swift, needing only ordinary care and the occasional new string.
Even at this height, the chill, moist breath of the River exhaled upon their faces, and the muffled rush of its voice teased their ears. Gimli stood silently for a time, looking outward across the bare-bristled tops of sleeping trees and on to the far, sun-dappled fields. Below them the Anduin shone like a broad band of silver, ere it curved from sight and away. A thin cry reached him, piercing and sad, and he saw white gulls beating inland above the water. Finally Legolas spoke, although without turning his head.
“We are all that’s left, Gimli.”
Gimli was not sure if Elves wept as others did, shedding tears that burned and tasted bitterly of salt on the lips. But the anguish written on his friend’s fair face was clear as if an arrow stood forth from his chest.
“It would seem so,” Gimli replied, and memory rushed upon him like a spill of heavy books.
Frodo the Ring Bearer had sought his peace and healing lo, these many decades past, and with him had gone Gandalf, their great counselor and friend. In the fullness of his days faithful Samwise, too, had sailed into the West. Elrond and Galadriel had long years since left their lands in the keeping of others, and even Celeborn had at last abandoned Lothlorien, to spend his waning days with the sons of Elrond in Rivendell. Gallant Eomer of Rohan had joined his forefathers over half a century ago. Merry and Pippin had found their final honor here in Gondor, resting at last among sleeping kings. Now the greatest of these had lain himself to sleep, and his beloved queen would flee into solitary exile, and the world was grown ever so much larger and full of echoes. Suddenly the roster of goodbyes weighed like a great stone upon his shoulders. Gimli bent his knees and sat heavily.
Whither Legolas’ silent musings flew was an enigma, for they seemed to have little more direction than a flight of sparrows. His next words caught Gimli by surprise.
“Do you still carry the lady’s favor, Lock-bearer?”
“I do.” Gimli swatted his chest a solid blow, where truly was kept a golden tress of the Lady Galadriel’s hair. “Next to my heart, along with the memory of her beauty, shining like white gems cast into a silver sky.”
A smile turned the corners of Legolas’ mouth, and the blush crept warmly into Gimli’s cheeks. Even now remembrance of Lothlorien’s Lady of the Wood had the power to move him, and to make him feel delightfully foolish upon recognizing it.
Then he let his hand drop, and sighed. Below them in the empty space of the River’s airs, the gulls keened thinly once more. Legolas grew very still listening. A chill touched Gimli that had naught to do with the cool sun of early March. Nor was he warmed, when his friend spoke again.
“I was watching the river, when you came. This very rock we sit upon has stood since the breaking of the world, and all the while the Anduin flows to the Sea. Does the river grieve for what passes and does not come back? For neither I nor this stone can slow the ages, nor turn them aside. We can only endure, as all passes beyond us. Even the stones shall change, while the doom of the Elves is to continue. And now I am heir to even more sadness, for I must carry the Elfstone as proof that all the things we wrought are done, and with Men alone lies dominion of the world.”
Alas, the art of the Dwarves lay in the skill of their hands, not their words, and so Gimli remained unhappily silent. The mercurial moods of Elves were often beyond his grasping, anyhow, and he only hoped that, as in other times, this melancholy would also pass. And in truth, Legolas again looked over his shoulder, and sunlight touched his eyes.
“You at least are my comfort, Gimli. If stone endures, so always has your stout heart.”
“And my good sense. It is that damp and chilly, here, and I am hungry. Come with me back to the city, and we’ll roust a fat cook from his laziness.”
Legolas stirred, but then settled, and Gimli sighed. One did not slow an Elf when he was hasty, nor rush him when he was listless, and oft it was a trial to wait for either temper to pass.
“We’ll leave tomorrow, I should think,” Gimli said. “It’s too late to begin travel today.”
“Yes,” Legolas answered.
The gulls cried once more, and his attention swept outward, seeking their flight. Bright and keen his eyes were, but whatever they saw was beyond the vision of Dwarves, and his profile fixed unerringly whence the River faded to westward. Disliking this mood upon his friend, Gimli sought to distract him with trifles.
“An early start, mind you. The days have been entirely too burdensome, and there is much I should attend to at home. Tonight, I wish a good meal, a good cup, and a good rest.”
“I, too, wish rest,” Legolas replied. “But I fear I shall not find it.”
Then he sighed, ere his glance sought his friend once more. “Tomorrow’s dawn, then,” Legolas said. “I shall see you safely to your halls, and then I will see my own folk in Ithilien.”
Still he sat, and Gimli was patient, and at least the infernal gulls had flown themselves off somewhere out of sight or hearing.
“I am weary, Gimli,” Legolas said suddenly. “Weary with partings and farewells, until it seems the very world dies around me.”
Towards the West he still faced, and his hands flexed upon Galadriel’s bow. There the Anduin vanished in the land and the land vanished into haze, and beyond even Elven-sight rumbled the ceaseless billows of the Sea.
“I think,” he said. “That I shall make but one last journey.”
And Gimli knew, though it broke his heart as a frost shatters stone, that they faced one more farewell, and that the most grievous of all. But better this, Gimli’s loyalty whispered, than to ask this dearest of comrades to linger until he stood over another grave. As Aragorn had asked, each must seek his own way to peace.
“Then we shall go together,” he declared stoutly. “At least as far as the shore. I have never seen the Sea. I am told the waves break upon the very bones of the earth, and the oldest stones stand bare to see. Even the broken lands from the ancient battles of Melkor and the Valar, they say, lie thrust up from the floor of the deep waters. It will be something to tell the younger ones, when I get back.”
Glancing sidelong at Legolas’ pensive face, he added, “That is, if you wish company on the road.”
“I wish your company,” said Legolas softly. “On all roads.”
Of a sudden he stood, unfolding from passiveness to full height in a flowing move that made Gimli’s knees ache to watch. There seemed nothing to warrant this action, and indeed Legolas then closed his eyes for a long moment. Warily Gimli looked for gulls, but saw none.
Glancing up again, he now saw Legolas’ eyes were open and his face abruptly set in fierce lines. A quick hand dipped for an arrow, and as swiftly he pressed the bow to full draw. Mouth tight, he held his aim on some point in infinity. Then with a snapping whir the arrow fled. It lifted in flight far out over the bare trees below, arcing slowly down and spiraling smaller until it was lost to any but perhaps Elven eyes. For an instant Legolas held his position in follow-through, then let the great bow sag in his hand.
Quietly he said, “I have loosed my last arrow on these shores.”
(Continued in Chapter 3)