"Thank you for coming." Thranduil gestured with a graceful hand toward a chair that he'd had specially made to accommodate his son's diminutive brother-of-the-heart over thirty years before. The chair, designed by Legolas himself to put the dwarf comfortably at a level with the others at the King's high table, had been brought out of storage in preparation for this visit, the wood polished to a glassy shine and the leather cushions given fresh suede coverings.
"I must admit," the dwarf responded, mounting the steps at the side slowly and painstakingly and then settling into the seat with a grunt and a huff that told far more of the tale of aging than Thranduil wanted to hear at the moment, "your invitation was a surprise. Did you not invite Legolas as well?"
Thranduil busied himself with pouring some of the ale he'd acquired from his latest dealings with Laketown traders, glad the task meant he didn't have to look the dwarf in the face as yet. He was actually proud of himself for thinking of digging out the rock crystal mug that Gimli had crafted, not to mention providing ale before the dwarf had a chance to demand it instead of the excellent Dorwinion that always graced the Elvenking's table. As much as Thranduil really didn't want to play these silly games of one-up-man-ship that had defined their relationship for so long, there were simply some things which he would not concede; the quality of his hospitality being one of them.
"My son wrote to tell me he is working on a project of great import that needs to be finished within a very short time." He pushed the crystal mug with the foaming brew toward his guest and settled back into his own chair to cradle his delicate glass goblet of fine Dorwinion. "He also told me that you know of this project, and have even helped with it."
He doubted Gimli's bright brown eyes missed much. The dwarf raised his chin. "In other words, he refused to come?"
Thranduil took a rather large sip of his wine. The truth hurt. "Exactly."
The dwarf took up his mug and drained a healthy portion before putting it back down again. "And do you know why?"
Thranduil nodded. "I didn't expect him to accept," the Elvenking sighed. "My son and I have exchanged our last words – in person, at least."
"Ah." Gimli took up his mug and settled himself back into the chair's cushions, his obvious effort to mirror the posture of his host making Thranduil grow wary. Was this a countermove in their constant game of mental chess? "So, my next, most logical, question should be…"
"Why did I ask you here, if I knew Legolas would not be coming as well?" Thranduil finished for him. "Yes, that would be about right." He traced the rim of the crystal goblet slowly several times with his index finger. "How long now?" he asked finally, knowing he didn't need to say more to be understood.
The dwarf raised his mug in a silent toast and then downed a goodly portion of the ale with what Legolas had explained several times was considered polite dwarven slurping. He replaced the mug on the table with a thud and wiped the foam from his snow-white beard with the back of his hand, unable to meet the Elvenking's gaze. "We're not certain – not long, though. Aragorn…" Gimli's voice betrayed his emotions. "Not long," he repeated bleakly, "A year - maybe less."
Thranduil nodded and drained a substantial amount of the Dorwinion, barely tasting it. The answer was even more distressing than his speculation had been. So little time remained. So very little. He composed himself quickly and put down his goblet slowly. "I thought as much. Which is why I wanted to speak to you now – before it is too late."
Those bright brown eyes narrowed. "You could travel to Ithilien, you know – I'm certain that…"
"I have no desire to see that which my son builds," Thranduil shook his head firmly. "The pain of our farewell and separation is already behind us – all that remains is the reality."
"What do you want of me, Thranduil?" Gimli asked, picking up his mug again.
"My son tells me that you intend to go with him when he... sails." There – he'd finally managed to say the word that normally stuck in his throat.
"Yes," Gimli drew out, apparently as wary of Thranduil now as Thranduil was of him. "It has been decided that we both would rather undertake this journey together and perhaps be turned away at the last."
Thranduil studied the dwarf more carefully than he had in a very long time. Gimli wore his age gracefully, but time had indeed made an indelible mark on him. Where once his beard had been a hearty rust color, it now was a brilliant silver-white. His hands still moved as if they retained a great deal of strength, but the fingers were thinner, the veins more clearly visible through almost transparent skin. His entire mien screamed of mortality - frightening, fragile mortality - and of the threat such a form presented to his son. "Are you so certain you will be received?" he asked carefully.
"No." Surprisingly, this didn't seem to bother his son's brother-of-the-heart in the slightest. "If they allow me entrance, then all will be well until my time comes to go to the halls of my fathers. If I am not, then at least I will have tried to see Legolas to where he needs to be - and we will decide then what to do next. We both know that I will not long survive this departure either way." Once more, the dark eyes narrowed. "You still have not said why you asked me here."
Feeling the need of more liquid reinforcement, Thranduil picked up and drained the wine from his goblet, and then refilled it from the carafe sitting within reach. "It seems strange," he mused aloud, ignoring his question, "that a dwarf would consider undertaking such a voyage when the Sea does not call to him."
"There are other calls than the Sea, you know," Gimli grunted and drained his mug of ale, thumping it down on the table in what the Elvenking understood as yet another show of dwarven appreciation. As annoying as these traits normally were, Thranduil had to appreciate the fact that the dwarf was trying to show respect in his own way - either that, or Gimli was deliberately trying to needle him, and failing for a change. Still, watching to see if the rough handling would damage that beautiful mug had been a regular pastime during every visit. "I have watched Legolas battle two conflicting calls for over a hundred years; seen him struggle to balance between two overwhelming drives - one to seek release, and the other to fulfill an oath. If it were within my power, I would not see him similarly torn once Aragorn..."
Thranduil's lips curled. "You think he would remain behind until you too pass beyond the circles of the world?"
"I believe this to be possible." Gimli's calm was unnerving; did he not hear what he was saying? "I know he swore that oath to Aragorn, not to me. But from what he has said recently, I'm fairly certain he would allow himself to be torn yet again. He's suffered enough, damn it! But..."
"But you know what will happen if you are not well-received by the Belain, do you not - that if you are not permitted entry, then Legolas will also be denied?" Thranduil interrupted, his scowl deepening. "Your presence on that ship could condemn the two of you to sail the seas until either forced to return to Ennor or you both perish from lack of water or food. Better that he wait to attempt the journey until after the days of your life are spent, if he truly does not wish to be parted from you until absolutely necessary. In terms of an elven life, your remaining days are as the blinking of an eye - he will not have long to wait."
"I know that!" The dark eyes snapped, but then the dwarf sighed. "Trust me, the thought that my time is growing short is as much comfort to me as anything else is these days." He shook his head. "And the idea of putting myself in that glorified wooden bathtub he's building and casting myself adrift on the sea is not my idea of the heroic exit that the Lord of Aglarond should make. But Legolas is convinced that, even as Bilbo and Frodo were offered sanctuary, so should I be - and he will hear no argument to the contrary."
"But he cannot be certain! This plan is madness - and if you were as much of a friend as Legolas believes you to be, you would convince him otherwise! If you both are turned away and perish, his grief and resentment at the Belain's refusal could mean that he in turn refuses Mandos' summons, leaving him a houseless fae. If there is a fate to be avoided at all costs, Master Dwarf, it is that, and not the possibility of fading."
"Do you honestly think these are not points I have already brought up to him - many times?" Gimli's answering scowl showed a flash of temper that had, until this very moment, remained carefully controlled. "Trust me when I tell you this is not a decision I made on my own or on a whim. Were it up to me, I would remain behind, content in the differing fates of elves and dwarves. But Legolas is determined to make this attempt; I'm certain he knows the consequences of the risks he takes in inviting me along as well."
This time, it was Thranduil's vessel that thumped onto the table. "But why does he insist?! There has to be something you're not telling me that weighs heavily in this!"
The dwarf's hand landed absently on his breast and worried a lump hidden beneath layers of linen and brocade; and Thranduil wondered what it was that those gnarled, bony fingers were toying with beneath his clothing. Slowly the bright, brown eyes lifted to gaze at him sadly. "He knows that there is one wish I hold to in this world, even though I know it to probably be impossible to fill. And yet, he is determined to try to do just that, and risk his own immortal happiness in the attempt."
A thinning finger ran beneath the dwarf's nose in quick frustration, and then he gazed evenly into the Elvenking's eyes. "If there were any way that I knew I could convince him to depart when he really should - to convince him that my wish is not worth the risk to him - I would gladly take it. Our arguments have been long, and loud, and sometimes quite ugly; and yet, in the end, when the yelling has accomplished very little, how can I not honor his desire? I should assume you know how stubborn he is, when he gets these ideas in his head..."
Thranduil nodded slowly. "You are quite correct, Master Gimli; you know my son well indeed. I cannot fault you your decision, it seems." He traced his fingers along the rim of the goblet again sadly. Once more, his son was making decisions and not paying attention to what his choices did to others who cared for him - just as he had done almost a long-year ago in Imladris. What he had thought dwarvish selfishness was anything but. "Now I can answer your previous question, however. The reason I asked you here was to know my son's heart as he prepares to leave, and..." He choked. He had thought he could get through this meeting without his emotions getting the better of him, but apparently it was not to be. He quickly lifted the goblet and took another hearty swallow, then took up Gimli's mug and refilled it with more of the ale from a stoneware pitcher until the foam overflowed.
"I can carry your words to him, Thranduil, but they would be best presented in your voice and not mine," Gimli said with surprising gentleness. "If you think you possess an argument that would sway him..."
"No," Thranduil managed finally, pushing the mug back across the table and reclaimed his seat. He took a deep breath and allowed his gaze to meet and challenge the dwarf's. "My words are for you, Gimli son of Glóin, and not for my son. As you say, I know all too well how stubborn he is once his mind is set on something." He reached for his goblet again and took a long and thoughtful sip of his wine and, while staring into the crimson depths, struggled to calm his emotions and arrange his thoughts again. "I asked you here to try to understand my son; but more importantly, to do what I should have done long ago - get to know the one my son calls his 'brother,' and for whom he is willing to risk his fae so casually. And I needed to do so before the luxury of being able to is out of my reach." He studied Gimli's face and breathed out slowly in relief when the dwarf nodded. "Legolas..." The Elvenking sipped again quickly, realizing this would probably be just as touchy a topic as the previous one. "...never said much of what went on during the War."
Gimli didn't seem surprised at that either. "It would be hard to explain to one who wasn't there."
"I have not always been a King, Master Dwarf," Thranduil stated proudly. "I was there at Dagorlad, when the Last Alliance brought Sauron down the first time. I know the darkness and stench of orc blood all too well. I lost father, brother and my firstborn son in that battle. While you and Legolas fought on the Pelennor and before the Black Gate, my warriors and I fought our own battles just out there, in the trees." He gestured widely and then sipped his wine and let the burn help settle his emotions. "I know the dynamics of battle; and from the bards and lays of Gondor spreading northward, I also know some of what came to pass in the end. I would know more, however, from one who was there."
"Why?" Gimli gathered the mug to him.
"Because I would know of the events that led to his hearing the Sea," Thranduil answered with stark simplicity. "I would understand my son better."
"Have you asked him?"
"He finds the topic too painful to discuss with me."
Gimli grunted. "He holds too much inside," was the frustrated observation.
"He always has," came the tired rejoinder. "So, will you help me, Master Gimli?"
The dwarf lifted his mug and took a long and noisy draught, all the while gazing pointedly at the Elvenking. Thranduil could feel the caution in that gaze seeking to uncover any agendas within the request, and let his mind and gaze remain as open and accessible as possible. For once, this was not a contest.
"It is not a pretty tale," Gimli offered finally. "Where would you want me to start?"
"At the beginning." Thranduil sighed in relief. "I sent my son to express our regrets at having lost the creature Gollum; and the next thing I knew, his lieutenant was returning alone with word from Master Elrond that he had joined in a desperate Fellowship to destroy the One Ring."
Gimli eyed the half-empty carafe of wine. "We'll need more of that, and food besides, before we're done. 'Tis a long and complicated tale."
Thranduil smiled, for the first time finding the dwarf's sensibilities and personality genuinely amusing rather than grating. "Have no fear; there is plenty of both to be had, if required." He settled back in his chair, his goblet held casually against his chest as he waited.
"Very well then." The dwarf pulled his mug to him and settled back against suede cushions, his eyes growing distant with recall. "Elrond's council was held on a broad porch, and as I remember it, the morning was warm..."
Elf and dwarf stood side by side as the great gate of the Elvenking's Hall ground open and let in the light of a new day. There was no animosity, no reticence between them; the discomfort each had once felt in the company of the other had fallen away like so much chaff in the wind, leaving the germ of genuine mutual respect behind.
Already, Thranduil's stablemaster held Gimli's pony ready for him; and a bulging bag hanging from one side of the saddle spoke of the more than ample provisions that would make meals less than monotonous affairs of lembas or dried fruit. The little mount's headstall sparkled in the dappled morning sun as it tossed its head, eager to be on the road.
Thranduil turned suddenly and faced the dwarf, not entirely ready to farewell him yet; for each moment the dwarf spent here, in Eryn Lasgalen, was another moment that he could be certain his son spent still in Ennor. At last, however, he thrust out his hand abruptly. "Thank you for coming such a long way at my request, and may the stars ever shine upon your path both here in Arda and, when the time comes, beyond the circles of the world. I pray the Belain grant you entry."
Gimli tipped his head back and gave him a long and thoughtful look before grasping the Elvenking's forearm in a warrior's hold. "Rarely have I enjoyed such fine, elven hospitality outside of Ithilien or Imladris. May the stars ever shine upon your path as well, King Thranduil."
"I will remember you," the Elvenking said softly, in a tone meant for none but Gimli. "My son was right to call you a heart-brother and elvellon, and I am grateful that you are set to once more watch his back as he takes this final journey. Just remember, you take my heart with you into the West. I am trusting you to guard it well."
"You have my word," Gimli swore in a similar tone. "I can do nothing less."
Two seasoned Greenwood warriors mounted their steeds as Gimli stepped up on the block and clambered awkwardly into the saddle. Their presence had been the subject of the one last, good-spirited debate between the two of them. Gimli had traveled the length of the Old Forest Road into Eryn Lasgalen in the company of traders and was certain he could join up with a similar group going the other direction; Thranduil refused to let his welfare be left to chance, and had assigned two of his best to accompany the dwarf all the way to his destination - be that Aglarond or Ithilien - before returning.
With raised hands in farewell, the trio turned their horses' heads to the south and the path that would bring them to the Old Forest Road.
Thranduil watched until all three figures had turned the corner and disappeared behind the thick forest, and then looked out through the trees before stepping through the doorway and heading into the comfortable shade of oak and elm. It was a quiet day - a good day to have bid farewell to a fine and noble friend.
He should have known. Legolas' ability to read the quality of others had been uncanny for centuries; he should not have argued when his son had so rebelliously named Gimli elvellon so long ago. He was proving the truth of that even now, by being determined to watch over Legolas on a journey that Thranduil himself would probably never make. So much time had been wasted holding at arm's length one who deserved to be treated as friend!
He should have done this long ago.