At the Shore
I find them at the shore, as expected. Or rather, the dwarf stands at the shore, a solid rock among the sweeping dunes. I follow his vigilant eyes to the elf, standing waist-deep in water. The water is shallow, and the elf is far – too far out for the dwarf to follow without drowning. I express my displeasure, and the dwarf shakes his head.
"Better leave him be, lad," he says. "It's the most he can get."
I push down the ridiculous suspicion that the elf may, in a sudden show of stupidity, choose to stage an impromptu drowning effort. Or attempt to swim to the Undying Lands - whichever ends up killing him first. But the dwarf watches on, his wrinkled face frayed with not apprehension but sorrow. It is unlike him, this defeated look. "You're not worried?" I probe.
The dwarf shakes his head. "Has enough on his mind as is." He lets out a long sigh. "Gets afraid I'll drown myself if I start after him."
Thus I realize the dwarf had gone after the elf before. Something had happened between them, something that ensured that the elf stay on this side of the sea while the dwarf lingered behind, waiting. "What did he do?" My voice is crisp.
The dwarf looks up at me, and lets out a low chuckle. There is no mirth in it. "Nothing crazy yet, lad. Just lost it once and got on his knees."
I almost want to groan aloud. I can see it plainly: the elf wading unseeing into the water, lulled by the call of the sea; the dwarf, calling frantically as the elf submerges deeper and deeper – until he hears the dwarf at last, is wracked in agony as he once again surrenders to the call of his dwarven friend, clutching, falling – unseeing, gasping –
And the dwarf, tumbling into the waters after him.
I should have come sooner.
The dwarf dismisses my look of apology. "Not your fault, lad," he says gruffly.
But it is. I have ever chastised them for their distance, but I have done the same. The elf, who had ever whispered comfort and courage to my ears, lingering behind, had enabled me to go forward, take command, grow out of his guidance – and after the war, he had left me to my human troubles, and I had forgotten. Forgotten that he, too, may need me. That my laughing friend, gentle teacher, brother in arms, could also fall. Such is the folly of men.
"How long has this been happening?" is all I can do. I may be late, but at least I must take it upon myself to know. I had not known; I had not bothered to know.
"Since the hobbit lad left," the dwarf answers, and I am stunned.
"He's been watching them die, you know." The explanation is a sigh. "The hobbits, the pretty lass, the king…" his voice is back to a mutter, and he is watching the elf again, a speck in the water. "He was there every time. Like it was his mission or something." He pauses. "He knows he will soon lose you too. It pains him."
I begin to understand, and the understanding is a terrible one. He had been fighting alone; all this time, in a flourishing forest and unbound journeys, he had been ever waging a terrible battle. For here he stands at this lonely shore, watching, waiting, as the sands of time slip through his fingers – and he continues the fight, shoulders squared, feet planted on this side of the land, and he has no respite from this battle, for the call of the sea is cruel.
And to think – after all the battles he had fought for me, it was a dwarf that had kept him company through the years. A dwarf who cannot ride a horse, who cannot bear to be parted from a shiny rock. And this dwarf, this dwarf, had suffered to part from his glittering caves, ride horse after horse, explore mountains and forests – and guard the shore while the elf sank under the weight of solitary despair. And here he would stay, if the whole of heaven tumbled down his head; the dwarf would stand, solid as a rock, until the elf was ready to return at last. Trudge wearily out of the water, smile through soaked hair and smell of salts. And whisper, forgive me, dear Gimli.
I look at the elf, whose back is turned to us. His hair dances with the winds, free of warrior plaits. Unbidden, I imagine him disappearing right there and then, as if he had belonged to the salt winds and gray skies all along, and not among us undeserving mortals. For had he not fought enough? Ever strong, ever brave, protecting his mortal friends in war, watching their dying breaths in peace, keeping by their side till the end. And yet – at his end, if ever there shall be one, none of us will be there.
I step into the water.
The water is shockingly chill. I push onward, and my joints creak in protest against the oncoming waves. The elf is far. Had it always been this way for him? Lingering in my shadow, ever catching me if I should fall. Watching as I turned my back to him and marched forward, marched away, away.
The elf is still, despite the waves that push at him, the winds that hurl his hair. I wonder how long he had stood thus. How long he had been watching, ever watching, at this lonely shore. How long he will stand against the oncoming tide as the world passes him by.
I reach the elf at last, and stand at his side, slightly behind. He looks different – and then I realize it is I who is different; I have lost my height, and he stands as tall and straight as he ever had. He still looks a warrior, every bit the youth he had been when we hunted and sang together. And it breaks my heart to know that I am old and he remains the same; that in his shielded eyes, grief will thunder like a storm when he looks upon me.
At last his head turns a little, and I am given a view of the side of his face. It is unfamiliar, this look; a smooth white porcelain which has never seen laughter or grief. Untouchable in its distant beauty. A deep cry rumbles deep down my chest, and I push it down. I want to hold his hand and weep, gazing upon that face which I had so longed to see and perhaps – perhaps had not sought out, because I would be reduced to this. Because in the presence of his ageless youth, I would be brought back to a younger time, a happier time, and the sorrow would be doubled in contrast to all that had once been.
Forgive me, friend, for I am a coward.
He tilts his head vaguely in my direction, and I see the point of his eyelashes. "That dwarf," he murmurs dryly. "Never could keep his mouth shut."
The melodic voice is ever the beautiful tenor that my ears have never dared to forget. My heart trembles with joy, and my head spins with anxiety. He is silent and still, and I watch him as if my life depended on his next move. I realize how distant he is, and can only murmur: "He worries."
He sighs, and shifts at last. "Everyone seems to, these days."
The smooth white façade has chipped, and I cling to it by turning to him fully. He turns his head my way, and I am torn between relief and anguish. Those familiar eyes are no longer unreadable slates of blue; they are brimming with tumbling emotion, the troubled look he had held when he occasionally excused himself to languish alone. And come back to me, to support me in times of my anguish.
But those eyes now hold none of their vivacious light; under the gray skies, they are subdued, dull. Weathered. The elf has also aged.
"You look," I murmur, for lack of a better greeting, "pale."
His lips turn upward for a faint smile. His face seems to regain a piece of that youth, but even so, the smile is thin and tired. It makes me wonder if he feels as old as he is. I had never before believed such a thing possible, for such was his joy in life – but now, I am no longer sure. Perhaps he ages like the world around him, and it is to his grief that he cannot end the aging by laying his head down for eternal rest. Living on in a youthful body, feeling old, looking young, as the rest of the world leaves him behind.
I long to see that smile again, but it is gone as quickly as it had come. It had ever been a beacon of comfort and hope in my darkest hours – and now I come when he has begun his torturous suffering, standing here with no light to offer, no hope to give. I can only offer him memories, the happiness of the past.
"Arwen misses you."
His eyes are wandering the shore, seeking out the little dot of a dwarf. "She is well?" he murmurs.
What can I say? She has her troubles, as she has her delights. She is still young and beautiful, just as he. She knows that death is coming, just as he, but she has none of his anguish, for she is not lulled by the call of the sea. She has the certainly of knowing that she will follow me in death. She does not stand alone facing a future of loss, having to live on alone after the loss.
"She is well," is the answer I settle on. I wait for him to promise to visit again soon, but he does not. My heart trembles with anguish again.
He used to visit often – my children would cry out in joy as they saw him ride to the castle; Arwen and I would run out in relief as he rode back with my lost child, having rescued him from the wolves. He would hunt with me, play chess with Arwen, tell stories to the children. They called him Uncle. But as children grew, friends aged, and familiar faces began to disappear, he appeared less and less in court. He stood out, this fair being, as striking as a gem among pebbles, refusing to fade with the beating of the waves. And then he ceased to visit altogether.
Perhaps the elf had not so much aged as his mortal friends have aged him.
"Do you wish to sail?" My question is abrupt.
There is slight movement beneath smooth composure. He tilts his head in my general direction. "What a foolish question," he says wryly.
I groan. But I have no one to blame but myself for his forward remarks. His innocence and sincerity were always his charm, but – but. He had changed in more ways than sunken eyes and smooth, unsmiling cheeks.
"I have been thinking," I try again. "You have graced the lands with your immortal innocence long enough."
His eyes flicker in my direction, sharply. I have his full attention.
"There are not many of us left," I say with slow emphasis. "I am next, and then – Gimli will be the last."
He watches me, silent.
"You have tormented yourself long enough, Legolas." My words ring with finality. "Set sail."
The silence is deafening. In that eternal moment, his eyes are a storm, pinning me with thundering force, and then – he suddenly looks away. "Thank you kindly, Your Highness." His voice is as porcelain smooth as his face. "Just the permission I was dying for."
I recoil. "My friend, it is not-" I pause, at a loss. "Legolas, I bade you stay this long, and now I grow old. You have suffered enough. And in the end -"
"You will meet your death, and you will be unable to repay me for all I've done." He looks back at me, and I almost flinch to see those eyes ablaze with the blue fire I had seen too long ago. They are ferocious with raw emotion, and my heart inflates with an odd mixture of fear and relief.
"Selfish human," he snarls. "You ask me to fight the call of the sea so that you may have my company, but now that you realize your debt to me, you chase me away?"
"Am I to be forever your guardian, bearing the brunt of your anguish, your sorrow, your anxiety, and now, your guilt, at the end of all things?" His words are as relentless as a shower of arrows. I start to speak, but pause. He is right. And I deserve more than a tongue-lashing. I have reduced my gentle elf to this.
"Forgive me," I murmur. "But there is nothing I can do for you, and it pains me to know it."
"And so you seek to drive me away to lessen your guilt."
"No, I try to make things right, late as it is."
His eyes are snapping sparks. "Has it occurred to you that I do not expect anything from you in return?"
"Not from me, no," I agree quietly. "But you do pray that the Valar not take me away."
He falls silent.
I gather my courage. "Please, friend." I gently grasp his arm, and admire the youthful muscles beneath the modest tunic. He looks down at my hand, as if seeing the wrinkled skin for the first time. Or maybe he is surprised by the lack of strength in my grip. "Stop this."
He looks down for a long time. And at last, I hear his murmur: "It is my choice."
I release his arm in mild annoyance. "You sound like Arwen."
He smiles faintly. "Stubborn, is she not?" His eyes soften with memory.
"Almost as stubborn as you," I growl.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
I give him a dry look. His expression is softening, but then something flashes across his face. He freezes.
Then I hear it. The gulls.
His head snaps back toward the horizon, as if possessed. His eyes are wild, bright with hollow light. The gulls cry again, and I suddenly remember the once I had come to the sea with this elf. The ragged breaths, the tremors in his hands, the cries of agony. As if he were being uprooted from his body. And the dwarf had bounded across the dunes, crying at the cursed gulls to be gone.
But the elf does not fall to his knees; he does not cry out in despair. He clenches his jaw, and with a grating breath, straightens. His posture is hard, unyielding. "Cursed birds," he mutters offhandedly, as if that display of torment had not taken place at all.
Watching the side of his face, the unbound hair billowing in the wind, his body free of weapons, I wonder how he has been fighting this – has been fighting it for years. Uprooted, he is still kicking, thrashing, dizzy and ill, wanting to fall but fighting to stay upright. And it is killing him.
I sigh. He glances my way. I hate to be the one to say this, and yet – I know I must.
"Legolas." He knows what I am about to say. "I don't want you to fight this."
He looks away. "I am used to battle."
"This is a battle you cannot win." I step closer, but he still refuses to meet my eye.
"We did not march to battle thinking we would win." His voice is low and strained. "Sometimes we fight only to stay alive."
"Why?" I gently grasp his arm again, and feel the tension running through his veins. "Giving in is not cowardly in this battle. It is a natural course of things. Why must you continue to fight?" His gaze is stubbornly fixed upon the horizon. I sigh. "This battle wears you down. The grief adds to your burdens. And in the end – even if you last through the fight, in the end you will be left with nothing."
"Legolas," I whisper, tightening my grip. "I don't want you to watch me die."
He goes still.
Slowly he turns eyes to me, and they are alight with pulsating pain. He is still alive and thrashing, and my traitorous heart is glad to see it. I have woken the torment in him again, woken him from the defeated peace he had lain in when I first found him at the shore.
He steps away, and my hand falls limply into the cold water.
"I would have stayed even had you not asked it of me," he snaps. "You must realize, Elessar, that you cannot shield me from the world."
"Our lives are unending." He turns sharply away. "What is many lifetimes for you is merely a forgotten page in our book. I will lose you, all too soon."
He is looking far across the waters. His gaze is bright, haunted. "I will lose you," he says, quietly.
I realize that he had already been through this battle. And he had found his answer, had chosen the path to a dead end. The defeated calm he had worn when I found him is testimony to his answer; he would fight the call of the sea, even if it reduced him to a trembling wreck, wrung tormented cries from his throat, haunted his steps in his years of wanderings.
I know not what to say. I can only beg forgiveness, for having become his friend, for making him go through this. But I cannot. And so I am left with nothing to give him. Nothing.
"Go home, Aragorn."
I look at the elf. He stands casually slanted to one side, looking down with passing interest at the water where a hand reaches out toward the tide, as if he had been doing nothing but twirl seaweed all day. His face is smooth with that defeated calm once again.
"You will not sail?" I say, and I chastise myself for being afraid of the answer. Human hearts are selfish.
He must know this, but does not comment. "I will not sail," he says, and his voice is as casual as his stance. "Not yet."
"You will watch us all die," I blurt, and I do not know if this is a question.
He looks back at me, standing diagonally behind him, and smiles grimly. "My days with you are limited. Do not ask me to cut them shorter than they are."
This time I do sigh with relief, and I hate myself for it.
"When-" I hesitate, unwilling to let my joy show. "When will you next visit, then?"
He does not look up from his interested gaze in the seaweed. "How long do you have?"
I grimace. "Two years, maybe three at most. I am hale for my age, but I am nearing the end."
"Make it three." He squares his shoulders, and looks up toward the horizon again. "And don't die until I get there."
I stare. "Are you serious?"
He looks back. His face is bland.
"You will deny me your company until my dying breath? Truly?"
Looking at his face, I realize that he is perfectly serious. "Knowing you, you will probably let yourself go and die if you're content." He tilts his head slightly. "But knowing you, you will hang on like an angry mule until you're content."
For a moment I consider showing him how physical an angry mule can be. But he seems to read my thoughts. "Besides," he adds, disinterestedly, "your wife and children need you to live as long as humanly possible."
I stare again.
"Much as I loathe not seeing you," he says, looking away, "I'll live."
I open my mouth, attempting to dissuade him from his rather harsh plan, but catch myself. I can only guess at how much pain this resolve would bring him – seeing me alive is his reason for fighting the call of the sea after all – and if he had come to such a resolve despite his pains, I am no one to sway it. I only nod.
Suddenly feeling young and lost again, I raise my hand and clasp his shoulder. He watches with a light in his quiet eyes, as he always had. "Thank you," I murmur. His eyes hold a smile. "Don't take too long."
"I intend to take as long as absolutely possible, human."
I snort. He raises a brow. I cuff his shoulder. He twists my arm and I attempt to trip him in the water. He glances back to the shore, where Gimli is standing still. I have no desire to imagine the look on his face. I release the elf and straighten myself.
The elf brings his hands up to rake his fingers through his hair, a habit I had seen identically performed by his father. "You should head back," he says. "Can't have your frail old body buckling with water pressure."
Together we begin to wade back to shore. I keep my hand on his arm, though I do not need the support – there is relief there, knowing that there is immortal life coursing under that skin, an unstoppable heart still beating beneath that weary serenity. That something of that bright youth we had once shared still lives on.
"I still wish –" I pause. "I wish you would not be left alone in the end."
The elf looks directly ahead, no doubt already reading the dwarf's expression. I can only see the furiousness of his pacing.
"I won't be," he murmurs.
I glance at him, and my heart twists with the knowledge that he will live an eternity in loss. And even so, he comforts us mortals in our guilt. My gentle elf... who will comfort you in your time of grief?
But the elf continues to look onward, watching the dwarf. "I won't be," he murmurs again, almost a whisper.
"Took you long enough!" The dwarf shouts as soon as we are within hearing range. He comes sloshing into the water, huffing through his whitened beard. "This isn't a dip in the hot springs, you know!"
"Sorry, Gimli." The elf smiles. The dwarf growls and takes his arm, and drags him – and by default, me also – out of the water. I realize the elf is still smiling. And then, it hits.
The dwarf's unexplained patience, when he, too, must be reaching the end of his time. His willingness to allow the elf to turn his back to him and wade away, far away, and the elf's willingness to leave him behind for hours at a time. The distinct lack of a certain promise to stay alive until the elf came to visit at the deathbed.
Stupefied, I stare at the dwarf. And then I turn, feeling the elf's knowing gaze. He smiles at me briefly before turning to accept a cloak from Gimli. I watch the dwarf fuss over the elf, twisting out seawater from the elf's sleeves and throwing a dry cloth over the elf's shoes before sand begins to stick on them. The elf accepts the attention with a mild smile and a light banter. My heart races with the sheer impossibility of such a dream. Such outrage – such defiance. And yet – knowing these two –
"Come, Aragorn," Legolas calls, trotting after the dwarf. "Gimli's cooking has improved since the last time we camped!"
"My cooking is above improvement, princeling," huffs the dwarf, striding ahead toward the grass. The elf catches up with him, and waves at me to follow, and laughs at another comment from the dwarf.
My heart swells, and I burst with a tickling in my skin. The end will come, it undoubtedly will – but perhaps, it may not be so unbearable after all.
With renewed strength in my steps, I follow the laughing elf and the grumbling dwarf.