While I have endeavored to be as true to the Tolkien's original characters and creations as my imperfect knowledge allows, I cannot come within a long bowshot of Tolkien's artistry with legend and prose, so may this but be a poor tribute to the master.
THE LAST GREY SHIP
A Tale of Many Partings
Being a view of what may have transpired at the end of King Elessar's days.
Sharp echoes of hoof beats battered the stone walls, as a grey horse hove near the gates of the White City. Long-legged and powerful, the animal bore the proud, unmistakable lines of Rohan, for its master still held friends among those people of the North. Though its limbs reached and flicked fast at a tempo held for many a mile, its smooth stride showed no weariness, nor was it troubled by its double burden. Indeed the only weariness may have rested in the bones of him who rode pillion, yet he begrudged not the pace. Urgency that had no name gripped both riders, unspoken save by the horse's master. Even he could say no more than he had heard a beloved voice as from afar, but the words were unclear. There remained only the unease that grew upon his mind, and so once more old comrades took to the long roads of Middle Earth. Nor did any manning the gates to the lower circle of the city hinder them, for the travelers were long known here.
A startled Guardsman stood forth to greet their clattering approach, as they neared the garrison stables. The face above the black and silver Tower livery was young, far too young to have known the dark days, but he had grown to manhood steeped in the mighty sagas of Minas Tirith and the great War. Well over a century had passed since the Ring was consumed in the fires of Mount Doom, yet among the people some legends still walked. Now the Guardsman's eyes widened as he recognized the faces of the riders, and in his shock he looked less soldier and more awe-struck boy.
"Master Legolas!" he exclaimed. "Master Gimli!"
Quick boots scrambled on the pavement, as he seized a mounting block and set it in the open. Slender hands drew rein there, and the rider bent a long arm to lend his passenger support to dismount. Wide-eyed still, the young Guardsman's look wavered between reverence and breathless chagrin.
"I had no word - no one told me - forgive me, m'lords!"
"No word was sent," the rearmost said, as he pulled a leg stiffly over the horse's round haunches. "We come by our own reckoning. Although I will say that I am beginning to get too old for such unseemly hurry."
The heavy, grey-streaked ropes of his beard fairly bristled with this statement, and the Dwarf, for so he was, grunted heavily as both feet found the sturdy block. Yet a quick hand swatted away the anxious concern of the Guardsman.
"Not that old, mind you! Have a care for yourself."
"Come, Gimli," the other rider soothed, and his voice was as gently melodic as his companion's was gruff. No mounting block needed he, as he lightly swung to earth. "You grow cross as an old badger. Perhaps a nice warm bath and a restful cup of sweet tea will ease you?"
"Warm bath. Tea." Gimli harrumphed mightily, although his eyes twinkled. "I can still out-walk you, Master Elf. On my own two good legs, mind you."
Though the Guardsman knew it not, such banter between these two friends was a habit so old that it no longer remembered itself. Yet he took his cue from the small smile gracing the taller one's fair Elven face, and allowed himself his own muted chuckle. His dutiful soldier's heart was soothed simply by realizing that he stood in no ill-favor, for being unprepared to receive such honored guests.
"Sirs," he said. "I know not if rooms have been prepared for you, but I will care for your horse. Shall I send someone to announce you?"
Laughter faded, then, the Dwarf's rough face growing long and Legolas's finer one suddenly solemn.
"No," he said quietly, and his eyes traveled up the narrow street. "I think perhaps we are expected."
They walked as an unlikely pair, a lithe prince of Elves who remained changeless as the silver face of the Moon, and a gnarled Dwarf warrior grown rugged as the mountains in which his people delved. Together their feet trod curved streets which had long ago grown familiar to them, and around them sculpted stone canyons glowed with the rose and lavender hues of evening, as if lit from some warm source deep within. By the labors of its renewed people, the glory of Minas Tirith was evidenced now not merely in its towers or martial splendor, but in the voices of prosperity and song that echoed from every house and open way. The marble paving underfoot was made perfect by the craftsmanship of Gimli's own people, as were stone pillars and walls planed smooth and white as the hearts of sea shells. From balcony and bench spilled the gifts of Legolas' Elven folk, gardens and growing things that rejoiced in the sunlight. In these waning days of February, little more than daffodils and crocuses thrust their green heads from the chilled dark earth, for high above the city Mount Mindolluin still bore the tattered white mantle of winter upon its craggy shoulders. Yet the Vale of the Anduin River was a garden awaiting only the warm blessing of Spring. Had they looked over their shoulders as they climbed, the visitors would have seen that the far fields of the Pelannor already blushed softly green.
Instead, their thoughts bent now to the chief architect of this abundance and fortune. For in the great Hall sat a wise King who had, for one hundred and twenty two years, ensured with firm compassion that all was aright and all was in order. With him ruled the Lady Arwen, fairest of the fair and Queen among both Elves and Men, forsaking the immortal life of her own people for the greater bliss of her heart. Nowadays their son, the image of his father in both likeness and spirit some said, more and more took the reins with that same steady hand. The blood of Isildur was well-redeemed, and the people called themselves blessed.
Yet for once, neither visitor looked with joy to the proofs of their long-ago struggle, nor took pleasure in the bounty which that hard-won peace had wrought.
"I like not such mystery," Gimli said as he trudged. "But I trust your instincts as I do my own."
Legolas made no reply, for ahead of them stood a familiar gate, and through it walked a familiar figure. Tall and grey-eyed, the planes of youth now sculpted to strong young manhood, the King's son saw their approach and paused. Oddly his bearing seemed not surprised, but rather he appeared a man relieved to spy an overdue guest.
"Eldarion," Legolas called. "Mae govannen."
"Well met, my friends." The prince came swiftly to clasp each by the hand. "He said you would come. I know not how he saw this, but then Father's sight has always been long." A smile bloomed on his face, a rare warmth of expression that favored his mother. "Especially when it comes to you two."
"Is he unwell?" Gimli asked abruptly. "I did not come all this way, bouncing about on the back of a horse like so much baggage, simply because my friend, here, has gazed at too much moonlight."
However, Gimli's brusqueness did not conceal the trueness of his heart from those who knew him, and the shadow suddenly upon Eldarion's countenance held other meaning.
"I dare not say. He asks for you." And his glance would not longer meet theirs. "Come, I will take you to him."
Elf and Dwarf exchanged troubled glances, but they followed with no further word. In a tower high above the city, bells struck the seventh hour of evening, and the sleepy streets murmured with folk faring their way to supper and home. The street that the heir of King Elessar led them through, however, brought them to a quieter place. A broad courtyard opened before them, paved in smooth white stone and ringing lightly with the constant silvery spatter of a fountain. In its midst a green verge lay framed in stone curbs, like a captive carpet of eternal spring, and above both pool and grass spread the graceful limbs of a mighty Tree. Even now, knowing this Tree from when it was but a tender sapling placed by the King's hand, they could not help but pause in reverence. The White Tree of Gondor had been many things, but above all, it had always spoken of hope.
Blue shadows had begun to gather and chill, now, and to fill the valley below with their cool flood. Behind the visitors, the sun burst its last glory behind the topmost spires of Mount Mindolluin, and saved its final flame for the distant peaks to the east. Amid that softly-growing twilight sat a man alone, the fingers of one hand tracing patterns in the watery face of the pool.
"Aragorn," Legolas breathed, for his keen Elven eyes read much in that silent pose. He strode past the prince on swift, silent feet, and noted not when Eldarion left them in private.
As the tall figure arose, Aragorn it proved to be. Also Elessar, Elfstone, Lord of the Dúnedain, King of Gondor and Arnor, and other titles, but once he was simply Strider, a Ranger of the Wilds. This was the man who greeted them now, grave and worn but kindly, unadorned by either circlet or sign of noble blood. Time worked but slowly upon the sons of Númenor, chiseling more keenly the line of cheek and jaw, and deepening the frost in his dark hair. The grey eyes smiling welcome were still bright as the first stars now winking overhead, and there remained a soldier's strength in the hand he laid upon Legolas' shoulder.
"A joy it is, to see you both," he said, and cast his smile upon Gimli now huffing to join them. "Although prying a Dwarf from the warm fireside of his mountain halls must be akin to uprooting the mountain itself."
"Prying, indeed," Gimli grumped. "I had just been saying that the weather favored a bit of a journey."
Legolas lifted a wry eyebrow, and Aragorn smiled. Then he bent himself back to his place, and laid a hand to the polished stone beside him.
"Come, sit, for I see you have come far at great speed."
"My heart bid me hasten," Legolas said, as he sank to rest. His eyes searched those of his friend, and he asked softly, "Tell me why I thought I heard your voice on the wind. Did I dream in my waking hours?"
Gimli too shared Legolas' sober regard. Kingly and strong Aragorn remained to their eyes, but now they also perceived a strange weariness in the set of his shoulders, and in the soft gaze he returned to them, and this awareness clutched suddenly with cold little hands.
"You did not dream. It was but a wish, a thought of mine." His smile crept forth as of old, warming them in its slow favor. "I am glad you have come."
Clapping his hands to his knees, Gimli fixed him with a fierce stare. "What needs done? If there are necks to cleave, or rocks to heave, you need but command it! My people work daintily in stone, these days, but they have not forgotten the arts of battle!"
With a gentle laugh, Aragorn raised one hand. "Peace, old friend. Since you have come, I have in mind another purpose."
Legolas touched light fingers to Aragorn's sleeve. "You need only ask."
The former Ranger bent forward and their worried eyes followed as he arose, for in his movements there had briefly seemed an odd, almost brittle care. Aragorn stood over them now, with the sky drawing a cloak of deepening blue above his head. Amid its dark azure the first glitter of stars seemed to rest like tiny white gems in his hair.
"I ask no further duty of you, my friends. Your service to me has been without flaw or reservation. And your friendship -." His glance touched upon them, and their hearts rose in their eyes. "Has been among my chief treasures and counted often, as I have never counted coins. I have held your hearts dearer than I do my own. No, I release you from all duties, and all claims, save one."
He turned from them, then, shoes whispering upon the smooth paving as he paced a moment. At last he turned to gaze quietly upwards into the silvered limbs of the Tree. As it had grown, so had the fortunes of united Gondor and Arnor, together under Aragorn's greatest care. For now the White Tree's swelling buds awaited the early days of June for blossom, yet even in its winter lethargy, Legolas felt its sweet grace like a soft breath upon his cheek. He could sense its slow-seeping strength even through the stones beneath him, as if the sap rising sleepily from the roots hummed deep within the very earth. And yet he felt other things moving than the quickening of spring, and he turned his eyes once more to Aragorn's tall silhouette.
"I am pleased it was Eldarion who brought you here," Aragorn said. "I hope you will find time to speak a while with him, for he never tires of your presence."
Gimli nodded firmly. "He is the son of kings, Aragorn. An oak among Men!"
The brief gleam of a smile lit Aragorn's face. "Yes, he is grown true and strong as either father or king could wish. The people find great faith and comfort in him, as do I." He stood and clasped his hands behind him. "Legolas, have you heard more of Treebeard in recent seasons?"
"Nay, for I have not journeyed into his lands in some while. But his wood remains as ever, I am told, green and fierce."
"That is well," he replied with a smile.
For a time their talk wandered as if they were but old friends exchanging news. Often it seemed that Aragorn's thought reached to those whom they had not seen in many years, but there was deep pleasure in sharing of those things that bound their friendship.
"Do you look down the years?" he finally asked. But his tone was of such slow musing that it begged no reply. "What deeds we have shared, the three of us. Long and often terrible were our labors, labors that seemed doomed to be consumed in Shadow. And yet in all our parts we strove and failed not, and here the White Tree grows once more, and the only shadows are those cast by the smiling Sun. Valor was found in the smallest of beings, and the greatest were not too mighty to fall. Elf and Man, Dwarf and Shire-folk, this peace is a crown for them all."
Then he paused as his thoughts gazed far along the roads of the past. "Even in our darkest hour, we somehow found light. Some small, simple thing. Hope. And those who brought hope to us. I wonder where beyond the world they all rest? Do they look back to us, or hold some fond thought for us?"
"Some do," Legolas said gently. "Beyond the Sea."
"Yes, the Sea."
A soft breath that may have been a sigh escaped him, and Aragorn fell silent a space. The soft glow of hidden lanterns began to warm the City byways, as the mustering stars chilled the sky above, until Aragorn spoke again.
"And whither shall I go, beyond the circles of the world?"
In that instant, Legolas' breath caught fast in his throat and he dare not let his eyes stray. For it seemed he beheld the King as a towering dark form crowned in stars, with all age fallen away from the clean, stern lines of his face, and all grey fled from hair as dark as in the days of his youth. Almost Legolas reached to touch him, for in that same moment he saw the stars not above Elessar's kingly head, but seemingly through him, as if he were but a shadow cast upon a gauze curtain.
"I bid you only this," Aragorn said, and his voice whispered like the chill breeze brushing the grass. "Find you peace. If e're it has eluded you, seek it now. Let your hearts be quiet, and let grief pass from you."
He turned, and was truly with them once more, stepping quietly closer. To their surprise he then swept back his cloak and knelt carefully on the cool stones before them. He reached to lay his hands upon the right arm of each, and twilight touched his face in silver and shone tiny points of light in his eyes.
"We come to the road's end, my friends. Our journey together has done. I shall embrace my peace. Fail me not in seeking your own."
Gimli had no words, struggling past the emotion welling in his chest to clasp a gnarled hand tightly upon the forearm that gripped him. Aragorn ruled not the realm of the Dwarves, but he had found a kingly seat in the hearts of all who counted him as friend.
For his part, Legolas could not speak words of the common tongue and his voice nearly failed him, even in the soft speech of the Sindarin folk. Words of promise, a loving oath taken, and the hands of three friends were joined in one last, full-hearted moment. As Aragorn arose once more, the whisper of his cloak fanned their faces. He replied in but a single word, one he had never used with them, no matter their many roads and many partings.
Then he passed from that place, and came not again to the courtyard of the White Tree. The two friends he left there sat long in heart-struck silence. They were too full with thought to speak again, ere nightfall wrapped the city in a sable cloak of stars.
Continued in Part 2