Midsummer's Day, T.A. 3019

They cast off the ship with such ease, as if it had been waiting too long and was eager to leave, eager to bring them home.

It was a day that tasted of sweet musk and autumn leaves, though it was summer. Above them the clouds were heavy with unshed tears, and they hung ominously over the sky as if reluctant to let go. There was no one on the shore behind them, no one left whose presence would have weighted the ship with the burden of a long, fulfilled farewell, and far above the seagulls screamed as they wheeled across the horizon.

Four individuals reclined on the deck of the small, but regal, ship. It was well-made, the prow proud as befitted the last great elven lords and ladies of Middle-earth. And at the stern, face turned to the receding shoreline with a strange mixture of grief, regret and doubt warring on the weathered face, stood a Dwarf strong and firm, feet planted wide on the elven ship. Gimli, son of Glóin, gave the only home he had known one last look, and turned, stubborn resolution on that stubborn face.

The victim of that resolution was draped with ease on a railing clearly meant for the dainty hands of ladies as they descended to the lower deck, not for the seating of irreverent elven princes, golden hair blowing in the wind as his eyes followed the seagulls in their lazy dance, captivated by the strangeness of these birds he'd never seen before. He looked to his smaller friend as the Dwarf approached, a small smile touching his lips.

"Are you come to tell me of your no doubt ridiculous plan to leap off this deck and swim back to Middle-earth?"

Gimli glared at him.

Melodious laughter erased the scowl off his face, even if it held a discordant note that jarred even Gimli's untrained ears. The second Elf on board was arrayed in grace and magnificence on the grand seat of a wooden bench, though she somehow managed to look as if she was seated on a throne embedded with mithril. Her gold-spun hair sparkled in the sun reflecting off the waters, and Gimli restrained a gasp anew at the sight of her.

"Come, my lady, we shall not intrude upon their... disagreement." Gimli turned his attention to the Elf at Galadriel's side, and bowed hastily again. If he'd been to stunned by the Lady's beauty to take much note of her lord at their first meeting, he was swiftly learning his mistake. Celeborn of Doriath presented a no less impressive picture than his wife, commanding deference with his very bearing. The silver lord was sitting on the floor in a pose that would have looked exceedingly undignified on anyone else, but, with the same perplexing ability as his wife, he was able to look like a King welcoming a guest.

The two untouchable faces were ageless, he thought once more as he watched the lines of Galadriel's smile fade seamlessly into the magnificent features. But in their eyes he read a weariness that ran deeper than the tragedy of triumph in this Age. And as his eyes travelled to the perfect white hand and the emptiness that seemed to resonate off the ring finger, he sorrowed in his heart for the hollowness that surrounded the morning star.

But even that was nothing to the profound, echoing agony that hung around the figure of the last member aboard this ship. Elrond Peredhel's eyes were dark as the night sky bereft of the moon and all its dream-held stars, and Gimli felt a sick pain rise in his already fractured soul for this kind lord who'd welcomed him to graciously to Imladris, haven of the Elves. The grief that the half-elf endured spoke of so much more than the loss of a mere Ring, and Gimli shut his eyes to the eternal elegy that would play in his ears at the first thought of the Peredhil children.

And yet... these Elves, these Elves who would sorrow forever, with no bitter gift to sunder their shattered hearts from their immortal bodies. Celeborn and Galadriel had each other, but love can only do so much in the face of the pain they had tasted. A beautiful silver queen waited for Elrond on the shores of Aman, but even she could never heal the rift left by a war and three children, and who would comfort Legolas?

"My friends," he forced out, trying not to think about the fact that he was advising Elves who'd probably been alive during the time of Durin the Deathless. He waited patiently as Legolas tore his gaze from the birds ahead, as the Lord and the Lady moved their gazes from each other to him, and finally, as the Lord of Rivendell raised his eyes to meet his.

"We have seen sorrow," He paused, fumbling for the words to express the sentiment he feared would overwhelm him and engulf all of them in the bitterness of its celebration. "We have seen such sorrow. Loss. The dooms of those we love. And now we sail- take the path of joy to run from the grief. But I do not believe Valinor works this way.

"It is Elvenhome! I am a Dwarf, but even I can see that the light in your eyes is dimmed, and your bodies grow translucent, with pale beauty as tragic as the fallen moon itself. It may be that the sight of green shores and the light of silver water and the air in this place you all need so much will heal you, but my lords and lady, for all my hope I cannot see it. Not for you.

"And I would grieve, I would. For four beings who have given all and sacrificed all. Whose very lives have been commanded by the needs of the war. Who, more than any others, deserve rest, and peace, and healing.

"You told me," he cried out, turning in desperation to Legolas, pinning him with the raw emotion of his gaze, "you told me. Of how Valinor is, when we spoke of Elrohir's grief, that it would be healed in this heart-home of your kin. But," sorrow took hold, "I was right! Legolas, please, I was right! Aman holds no hope for those who can see no hope!

"So see it! I beg you, see it! For I cannot bear to see you fade!"

The silence that took hold was more agonising than any Gimli had endured in all his years, but he waited. When Legolas spoke, it was in a voice which reflected long years of fighting and a final surrender, and it tore Gimli's heart in two.

"If there is no hope left for those we leave behind, I would not seek it for myself. Not when the one who bore that name is gone."

"But there is hope left for the Age of Men!"

"I cannot see it," Legolas whispered, and turned his face west.

Gimli felt a despair ancient as the mountains well in his heart, and with a sigh he cast down his eyes. No one could save those who had given up.

Then a gentle hand touched his, the brush of its presence ethereal as the sylphs of joy that ghosted across his heart, sometimes. His breath caught inaudibly, as he looked up into the fathomless gaze of Lady Galadriel. He watched, captivated, as the faded orbs caught a spark of fire again, or was it a trick of the light? Her quiet, knowing eyes searched his face, but it was all taken up with wonder all over again.

"Gimli, Glóin's son... Once again you prove the strength of the Dwarves." She rose again and went to the fore of the ship, looking to the setting sun that painted their path in gold-hued splendor on the everlasting waters. The Straight Path.

But all Gimli saw was the shadow of an august star, fading with the sun on this great, terrible Age.

And yet when she turned once again there was the faintest glimmer of joy in the ravaged soul, and he saw it- he saw it. The slightest tilt to her chin, the sudden softening of the angel-carven features, when, for a moment, he glimpsed the unrivalled glory of the fair-haired princess of the Noldor and the Teleri in Ages long past, and belief sprung anew in his soul.

He turned, encouraged, to the silver lord, watching his lady with the barest wistful smile on his lips, and his heart beat faster. If there was life yet to live these two would grasp it together, and learn to rejoice again, for they had survived the joys and sorrows of three Ages of this world- they could not be defeated by the last, surely not!

He turned to his wayward elf, a plea on his lips and in his face, but it died away at the brightness in the gaze that looked forevermore to the birds in the heavens above. Legolas had returned to his initial position, and with the dying sun on his face the hollows in the unmarred face were shadowed, giving the young Elf the pathetic beauty of patient suffering. Gimli choked back a cry.

But finally Legolas looked at him, and through the tears the blue eyes shone the clearer.

"Maybe there is, Gimli," Legolas murmured, "Maybe there is. And even if there is not, I could never let a Dwarf keep hope while an Elf did not." And what twisted his lips was not quite a smile, but it was near enough, and Gimli sent a heartfelt prayer of thanks to Mahal and whoever else had a hand in this.

"Of course not, my friend," he managed, "I would never let you forget it."

"A substantial threat," a soft voice interjected, and Gimli drew in his breath sharply at the first sign of life from the fourth Elf aboard. He turned, and his words collapsed in his throat at the Elf-lord's kind eyes watching him.

"My- my lord," he managed, and bowed. This startled a smile to Elrond's lips.

"Do not bow to me, Gimli."

"You would do well to obey him, Dwarf." Legolas said, turning on his side so his body balanced precariously on the slender railing as one leg curled elegantly around a pillar. "I speak from experience."

"Do not be impertinent, young one," Elrond offered dryly, and though the brokenness at the heart of his shadowed eyes did not abate, his voice lightened, and Gimli counted it a victory for hope, or at least, its memory.

"And pray cease performing such balancing acts," Gimli added, a hint of mirth leaking into his voice. "Not all here are used to seeing flighty Elves perched on unlikely places."

"You are chastised, young prince- and by a Dwarf, no less!" Elrond turned his now noticeably amused gaze to Legolas, who frowned darkly and stared off into the sky while apparently composing a retort.

"You are a staunch fellow, son of Glóin," the lord spoke softly, but the gentle admiration in his voice was clear, and Gimli was flustered and, to his own mortification, as delighted as a young Dwarf receiving praise from his captain. Though, he supposed, it was not so very far from what was happening. Elrond was the Mariner's son, after all, and perhaps aboard a ship captaincy was hereditary...

"Nay, I would not say that. I was merely tired of the persistant aura of misery emanating off you elves."

Legolas smiled, but the melancholy waxed again in his voice as he spoke, looking suddenly to the West to which they were sailing.

"Is there?"

"What?"

"What?"

"Is there what?" Gimli replied patiently, mentally repeating the list of reasons why he shouldn't get angry, shouldn't get angry, shouldn't get angry...

"Hope. For the world."

And he didn't get angry. In fact, the last vestiges of annoyance drained away, and he sighed a little. Trust an Elf to return suddenly to a topic he'd thought they'd dropped, and assume that everyone could follow his mental acrobatics.

"I think so," he replied softly. "I do... I do believe so."

"How can there be?" The question was honest, and if Gimli admitted it practical. The land they'd left behind had been wounded beyond recognition, the people stunned by the sudden victory and its devastating cost, and the one person who could have united the broken pieces...

"There is always hope," Gimli turned hurriedly, inwardly noting once again to pay attention when he was on a boat with four extremely stealthy Elves. In fact, he thought at times they weren't even trying to be- they just were that way. He sighed and listened with respect as the Lord of the Woods spoke.

"You underestimate the world of Men, young one," Celeborn continued, his eyes watching the East with almost as much longing as his lady watched the West. "They fall easily, but they rise easily, too. They laugh till they cry and then they cry till they laugh and then they laugh because they find themselves amusing. I fear the glory of the reunited kingdoms is not to be, but there is hope yet. Do not doubt it."

"Our estel paid the price, in a different way, for his kingdom," Galadriel took up the speech smoothly, "and, oh, how we grieve for it."

"And for those who followed," Legolas said quietly, and bowed his head. Pain crossed the Lady's eyes, but she continued.

"But the Men he led will see it differently. They are used, these mortals, to planting and watering a tree so that their grandchildren will enjoy its shade. They will mourn him, but his death will inspire them to greater heights yet as they try to honour his life, and that is where their hope yet lies. All Men die. They have learnt to bear it, and to rejoice in a life well lived. They will not give up- neither should you."

Gimli blinked, feeling slightly winded- such large and sudden amounts of advice were unaccustomed to his ears, for the wisdom of the Dwarves was closely guarded, and when divulged, was given through a few gruff words. That is one thing you will have to get used to, he told himself firmly, setting his sights resolutely to the West. That is your new life. So it will be.

There was nothing left in Middle-earth for him, any more than there was for Legolas, for Elrond, for Galadriel and Celeborn. His return to the Lonely Mountain had been lonely indeed. The barren land was empty. The Dwarves had fallen.

He found he could not bear to stay with the survivors, either, for now he knew that they would fade into nothing as ashes gone with the wind, and the Age of Men was at hand. His heart grieved for the loss of the Dwarves' hopes even as it cleaved stubbornly to the one friend he still loved enough to make life worth living.

So he'd followed them, these four broken elves, onto this ship and into the unknown. Whether he could set foot onto their long home he still did not know, but the look in Galadriel's eye when he'd spoken of it was encouraging. He doubted anyone could deny her anything in her full power.

"But the pain we bear will not disappear to the Gift, nor be soothed by the song of the sea. Or at least, mine will not. I am sorry, Gimli," Legolas added, sudden gratitude to his firm Dwarven companion in his heart. "I cannot. At times," his voice was low now, with guilt and sorrow and a hint of longing. "I fear I understand the choices of Elrohir and Arwen."

Elrond tensed immediately, and Celeborn and Galadriel looked up sharply. "Nay, do not yearn for what is not yours. The fate of the Elves is yours to embrace, child. Not the Gift of Men of the choices of the Peredhil."

Gimli felt a terrible, choking darkness take hold as he remembered the desolate grief in Legolas' eyes when they met again in Imladris, the grey cloaking the once-merry valley and hushing the celebrations of Sauron's downfall. The two remaining Peredhil children were gone, treading lonely paths across the mountains, brother and sister at the end of all their hopes. They would make their homes, for what it was worth, amongst the splintered remains of the people of their foster brother, would lay down their immortality to taste the bittersweet gift to mortal men. They had turned from the Twilight, and the Eldar had lost them forever. And the line of the Peredhil was ended.

"You are young, Prince of Greenwood." Galadriel's voice softened. "And you have lived all your years in Arda Marred, watching the shadow lengthen. Fear no more, Legolas Thranduilion, sorrow no more. That which lies at the end of the Straight Road will heal your spirit, will soothe your soul. And in that knowledge hope! For not all lands are as terrible as the Middle-earth we have fought for."

She took his face in her hands and looked into his eyes, and it seemed to Gimli that something came over Legolas, not hope, but maybe the acknowledgement of it, and he let out a sigh. He would heal.

"Those we have lost would be proud," Gimli spoke suddenly, for he was moved to do so. "They would."

"My father," Legolas breathed, and shut his eyes. He shot a careful look at Elrond, and went on. "Elladan. Elrohir. Arwen, Estel, Boromir, Frodo, Sam, Mithrandir..."

The air shuddered at the sound of the beloved names, but it was the earth-shaking joy of release. The slow, solemn litany of the beautiful dead went on, the five speaking in easy harmony as they added people here and there, precious, irreplaceable memories which shook the sky and the sea with the light of their loving honour. Together they stood together, four Elves and a Dwarf, and in their hearts each remembered the fallen with all they had. Yes, Gimli thought, with a surge of his own pride, they would.

He saw a look of startled, joyful realisation pass across the faces of the Lord and the Lady, and he wondered.

"Mithrandir," Galadriel spoke first. "Olórin. Could it be?"

"What do you speak of?" Legolas's confusion was clear. "Did not he and Saruman destroy each other?"

"But they are Maiar, and not restrained to the confines of their bodies. Oh, Celeborn, could it be?" Sudden hope had granted them a fleeting glimpse into Galadriel's usually well-guarded heart, and Gimli's own nigh broke at the beauty and sorrow of it. Then her words registered, and the painfully wonderful possibility took his breath away. Hope. Mahal's beard, hope!

The great, intangible perhaps gave them all pause, and for a long time they stood silently, staring with unseeing eyes at the sea and wondering, hoping, dreaming that maybe not all ties were shattered when they left the Havens, and maybe this grey ship would bear them to more reunions than they had thought possible, and Gimli's heart trembled at the sheer immensity of what he had not known. Could it be?

"But they will forget." When Legolas spoke again, breaking the long silence born of conflicting new hope and cautious doubt, his tone was pensive, but not imbued with the weary desperation that had so frightened all of them, and Gimli looked up in surprise. These were Elves. He'd been under the impression that they remembered everything.

"When we reach the West," he continued, a little sadly, "the Men will forget, sooner or later. They will forget what it cost to build them this chance at life, and the deeds of the heroes of the War will fade to legends..."

"That is the fate of all heroes," Gimli spoke suddenly. "Or perhaps not as long as the Elves were there, stewards of lore and history. But you immortals do not understand. To be legend is, to mortals, the highest honour. It is legends which give us hope in our darkest times. You may remember the first Dwarf-lord of Moria, just as you remember your ancient Kings. But for us, for us in our fleeting brilliance we draw strength from the vague myths that are sung to the children as they fall to sleep. Do not grieve for that, Legolas. West of the sea you may ensure that none will forget, but east of it they will be the legends, the story and song passed from father to son over the long ages and that is how it should be."

Legolas looked to him in surprise, and Gimli saw a new respect in his gaze. Then he smiled, and Gimli's heart lightened at the sight of it. Yes, this flighty elf would live again.

"The stars," The young prince murmured suddenly, and Gimli started as he realised night had fallen around them, cloaking them in a mantle of mystery and beauty as the sky's lights began to appear.

"Gil-estel." Celeborn pointed, and his gaze turned on Elrond. He smiled. But Gimli watched, quietly awed, as the lord rose and went to the prow, seemingly drawn inexorably to the gentle light that bathed him in starshine and, impossibly, kindled a light in the dark eyes again, and the Star of Hope sailed across the fathomless depths of the eternal sky. A light, when all other lights go out. Gimli started, turning to the Lady, but she merely looked back at him, amusement and a moment of fresh, fleeting delight mingling in her face. For that, that immeasurably beautiful star was the source of the light Galadriel had gifted to Frodo, and wonder choked him. A great joy welled in Gimli's heart, and for the first time he wondered with eager anticipation what lay beyond the sundering seas in this place where none of his kin had had the chance to explore, and a thirst for new adventure was planted in his breast. Hope.

"Yes," Legolas breathed, and Gimli saw the radiance of the stars reflected in his eyes, "Estel. To trust in the sky's depths."

"Yes, young Thranduilion," Galadriel replied, and Gimli heard her smile in her voice before he turned to her. "Believe in the unknown. There is nothing more beautiful."

Legolas looked at the star for a long moment, and when he met Gimli's gaze again, the Dwarf saw the light in his eyes, diminished, but not destroyed. He settled with satisfaction on the floor, leaning his head back against the railing upon which the Elf still insisted on crouching, and together they sketched in their heads the star as it traversed the star-studded, night-kissed sky, and though the echo of despair still lingered in their spirits they rejoiced in the new life that stretched out before them in vague promise, untamed possibilities of what their worlds could still be. And there was hope.

Celeborn and Galadriel had retreated to the other deck with a gleam in Celeborn's eye and a curl of Galadriel's lip which made Gimli extremely uncomfortable, but he saw the peace soothing the raging sorrow in them and he was glad for it. Slowly the night wore on and he fell to sleep more easily than he had in many days, and above him the dream-glazed eyes of an Elf showed the ranging spirit on the paths of Elven sleep.

But Elrond stood at the prow, still and silent as a statue carved from the well-worn stone of resilience and endurance, and he charted his father's sojourn through the night with wistful persistence and a semblance of hope. And as night lightened to day, and the first hints of morning blossomed into the dawn, he let out a breath and remembered a day in December not so long ago when he debated a crucial point with a stubborn wizard, and he bowed his head.

"Maybe you were right, Grey Pilgrim," he whispered, and the last night breeze stole his words, gliding free across the calm seas. "Maybe you were right."


And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

- ROTK, The Grey Havens


Notes:

I initially intended to have Elrohir and Arwen take their own lives in despair, but well, as a friend told me in no uncertain terms, these are the children of Elrond, the grandchildren of Celeborn and Galadriel, Eärendil and Elwing, born of the line of Thingol and Melian, Beren and Lúthien, through Idril and Tuor Turgon of Gondolin, and further back Finwë, High King... In them is mixed the blood of Maiar, the High Houses of the Eldar and the Edain, and I don't think they would give up that easily!

And Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfillment.

- Return of the King, The Steward and the King

I set this epilogue on that day. I found a sort of poetic, awful irony to it all that this day of joy should be the day, in this darker version, that these five weary warriors would sail.


Now that it's over, thank you so much to all readers who have bothered to follow this journey to its end! Today, December 7th, marks a year from the day I first published this story, full of doubt and (I admit) a painful amount of typos! This was my first work posted and I was startled by the warmth and kindness of many people here, and I guess all I can say is thank you, so much.