The sky looked larger from from the sea. There were stars that Legolas had never before met, sparking and shimmering in the north and the south, all the way down to where the sea lapped over them. He greeted them softly, too courteous to skip an introduction and yet too solemn to sing. The air was cooler, now there was no land in sight, and though Legolas was not chilled, he pulled his old cloak of Lórien more firmly around his shoulders. The wind that filled the sails also lifted Legolas's long hair, pulling at it and knotting it in its own chaotic fashion.
The journey of a fading elf was long and often lonely. Legolas's own had been longer than most, and so lonely that he found he knew not what to do with the feeling that overwhelmed him.
Legolas stood on the deck of his beautiful craft, watching the pale sliver of a waxing moon as it crept up from the eastern horizon. His fingers rubbed a steel cleat on the bow. As with all the details, the cleat was sturdy and well-made, but thanks to Gimli, it was also so much more. The lines were smooth and elegant, a piece of practical art. And on the gleaming surface of the steel – on all the steel fixings and bright-work, in fact – were carved tiny words in that language that he was forbidden to study, even after so long.
He wondered what messages Gimli had hidden there, on his ship. Blessings for safe passage? For fair weather? Or something more personal, knowing that no one – not even Legolas himself – would ever decipher his secrets?
“I was wondering,” Gimli had said at the beginning of it. “Isn't it about time you get started on that boat of yours?” He spoke casually, puffing at his pipe.
He seemed not to see the surprise that must have been plain on Legolas's face – decades of practice made him champion at ignoring everything he wished not to acknowledge between them – and continued, “If you want my help – and I'm sure you must, for what could a lone elf know of building aught? – we should start soon. I am not so spry as I once was, after all.”
Legolas was momentarily speechless. There had been no indication that the inevitable time was upon them, or even upon the horizon. The elf's sea-longing had waxed and waned no more than usual, and on that night it had been many months since he'd felt the draw of the West against him. In short, all was as it had been for years – nay, decades – before his friend uttered such a strange observation.
It was plain that Gimli was no longer a young dwarf. The hair on his head was streaked through with white, though his beard was as bright as ever before. And there were deepening lines around his eyes and mouth, certainly, but Legolas had attributed them to a life spent in smiles and laughter rather to age. Gimli was many things, but the elf could not think of him as old.
“So soon?” he asked.
Gimli chortled around his pipe. “I suppose I can hardly expect an elf to note it, but it has been more than a hundred years since you first heard seagulls and hungered to leave. Nearly a score more, in fact.”
Legolas was aware of the year. And it was true that elves were no longer there to speak to the trees of Middle Earth. He wasn't certain of the last time he'd encountered another of his kind in his travels – all of his kin was gone and Gimli and Aragorn were the only company he sought anymore. “I have no wish to leave,” he said simply, his tone suggesting the subject be dropped.
This refusal seemed to amuse the dwarf further. “Easy, my friend,” he said with a laugh. “I have no intention of banishing to you to the West. But a ship will be a large endeavor. Is it not better to start building before you have the need than to find yourself without a vessel when you are ready to sail?”
There were no arguments that would sway the pragmatism of a determined dwarf, Legolas knew. And Gimli was generally more determined than most. He shook his head, hiding a smile from his stubborn friend. “I cannot fault your logic, my friend,” he conceded. “But what does a dwarf know of building ships?”
“I know they must stay afloat,” Gimli barked.
“With that vast store of knowledge at my disposal, how can I refuse?” Legolas asked, unable to conceal another smile.
Gimli seemed pleased to have it settled. “Tomorrow I will show you my plans for the metalwork, then,” he announced, filling his mug, “and you will have the loveliest boat ever to leave Middle Earth.”
It was nearly three months later when they met in South Ithilien, near the delta of the Anduin River. Spring was in high bloom and the weather was perfect for camping out. Legolas hoped it remained so. He had no desire to mar the landscape with permanent shelter, but wasn't sure how many storms Gimli could weather these days.
Once it had been brought to his attention, there was no denying the fact that his dearest friend was no longer the hale creature he had long known. As if to emphasize it, Gimli did not arrive alone and on foot, as had always been the case before when they traveled together. Instead, he rode atop a pony of Rohan, and on a second pony rode a small-framed dwarven child.
Legolas was far too courteous to show his twinge of disappointment, and by the time they arrived in camp, even his surprise had been transformed into a smile of welcome. He was glad to see his friend, more so even than he had expected. The months apart had been long, and a particularly grim fit of sea-longing had overtaken him for one miserable week. The sight of Gimli was like a balm for his sore heart.
“Gimli!” he cried, bounding over a small log to reach him. Before the dwarf could slide from his mount, Legolas had his arms around him in exuberant greeting. “I was growing bored, waiting,” he told him.
Gimli made impatient noises that Legolas understood were to cover his own delight at being reunited. “Ancestors forbid we should be at the mercy of a bored elf,” he grumbled against Legolas's shoulder. “It is good to see you, my friend,” this, quieter, closer to the elf's ear.
The pair broke apart and Gimli slid from his saddle. The child followed his lead, landing lightly and bowing a greeting to Legolas. “It is good to meet you, Master Legolas,” she said politely. Her voice was much lower than an elven female's, but there was a softness to it that Legolas immediately recognized as feminine. “I am Mâglah. I am here to assist Lord Gimli.”
“Greetings,” Legolas returned, grasping her hand as he would an elf maid's and bowing low before her.
Whenever he bowed thus over the hobbit girls – children and grandchildren of Sam Gamgee, mostly – they twittered and blushed. But if he were expecting a giggle from Mâglah, he would have been disappointed. She stood stoic, allowing his show but participating little, smiling just enough to be polite. It was the kind of response he'd come to expect from a dwarf; his smile became more natural.
“I am Legolas of Ithilien,” he told her.
“She knows who you are, you tiresome elf!” Gimli interjected, his tone gruff but not unkind. “We will lose the day to your silly formalities. Let's set up camp before the sun sets.”
The dwarves had brought a large tent. At first Legolas assumed it was for Mâglah, imagining that a young dwarf girl would have trouble sleeping in the open air, but she quickly showed him its practicality beyond sleeping. He watched in awe as the girl – certainly not old enough to be considered an adult – briskly set to the task of setting it up. “We should put the workshop on this side,” she told Gimli as she hammered stakes into the earth. “If it should rain, we will have shelter from the wind over the sea. I think it might save our fire from the damp.”
When she lifted the ridgepole, Legolas moved to help – there was no way she was tall enough to hold it while propping the supports. Gimli put a hand on his arm, stopping him. “She is very resourceful,” he whispered. “Among the dwarves of Aglarond, she is considered a prodigy.”
The friends watched as she tidily bound poles together with rope and used one in each hand to raise the high ridgepole. With a deft yank, her knots came free and the ridgepole slipped into pre-cut notches at the top of each support pole. It took only seconds to shore up the supports with secondary pillars. In moments, the tent was secure.
“She has never camped out before,” Gimli said, pride gleaming in his face. “But she designed the tent for me. Clever little thing, isn't she? Only thirty-five years old!”
The strangest feeling washed over Legolas. He was discomfited, and knew not why. “I need your help in this wood, my friend,” he said, “if your young marvel can be left to work alone.” There was nothing in his tone that could offer offense, and yet Gimli eyed him sharply before nodding.
“That is why I am here,” he reminded Legolas. “To be of help to you.”
Together they trudged into the woods. Legolas had been there the day before, painting sylvan symbols on the necessary trees. It took the dwarf no time at all to take note. Gimli touched the yellow paint and looked up. “Have we come to tattoo the forest?” he asked.
“Those are to be cut.” Legolas could not remove the sorrow from his voice. “They are very young – all less than threescore years – but the wood we need cannot be brittle.”
Gimli stared at him, aghast. “You mean me to fell these trees?” he asked. “With my axe?”
Legolas sat on a fallen log, his fingers reaching to stroke the blanket of moss that grew there. “It cannot be helped,” he said softly. “Elves have long used the wood near the Grey Havens to build their ships. A bargain was made with that forest centuries ago, and the trees have cause to be proud of their sacrifice.”
Gimli moved to stand close. His hand dropped onto Legolas's shoulder in comfort. Legolas leaned into his touch. “And these trees?” he asked softly.
“I had to persuade them,” the elf confessed, his voice weary. “The ones marked have agreed.”
Gimli looked about the forest, consternation on his face. It wasn't a strong, old forest, like those to the north and west. There was no dense canopy to block the light; saplings and brush grew thick beneath each tree. “This wood is young,” Gimli said unexpectedly. Legolas nodded. “But it must have pride of its own.”
To the elf's surprise, he suddenly scrambled onto the log beside him, standing with his hand on Legolas's shoulder for balance. “Listen up, trees!” Gimli called. “I, Gimli, son of Glóin and Lord of the Glittering Caves of Aglarond, thank you for your noble sacrifice! Legolas of Ithilien has ever been your champion. He asks not lightly for your help today. The young of your kind are here to bear witness to what you do this day, and your names will go down in lore for your bravery. Thank you!”
He slid down to sit next to Legolas, his face flushed. “Thank you,” Legolas whispered, grateful.
“Think it will help?” Gimli asked softly.
Legolas smiled. “I believe it has already,” he said. He wasn't sure if he spoke of the trees or only his own feeling about it, but he was reminded of how incomplete his world was without his friend nearby. “We make a good team.”
The dwarf chuckled and took a long pipe from his breast pocket. “I have always said so,” he claimed.
Legolas laughed. “You have not, my friend,” he accused lightly. “Most times you call me 'useless' or 'flighty' and insist that work is done despite my help, rather than because of it.”
Gimli chewed upon his pipe, grumbling. “And that is why we make a good team,” he insisted. “You would be lost without me.”
It was truer than Gimli knew, though Legolas would not bring the mood down by saying as much. He gazed into the wood, trying, rather, to visualize a ship just large enough for two. “Trees don't really have names,” he commented instead.
Gimli swatted at him. “Have they lore?” he asked, sheepish.
“Indeed,” Legolas assured him, smiling.
“Good enough then. Now, shut up and let me enjoy this pipe before I start the real work.”
In the days that followed, they spent a goodly amount of time cutting trees. While Gimli chopped, Legolas led the ponies back and forth from camp, hauling logs. Mâglah worked magic with the logs, hewing and planing them into planks. Legolas knew that the dwarves were doing the lion's share of the work. It sat ill with him, so after a time he asked the girl to show him how to turn logs into boards.
They had spoken little. Mâglah worked hard all day, and when the sun set, she and Gimli usually retired to their tent to tweak the plans for metal work and carvings. More than once, Legolas had been invited in – to plan or talk or sleep – and each time he'd politely refused, claiming a need to visit with the starlight. And while it was true that he would rather spend his nights in the open air, when he was honest with himself he could admit that he was not terribly keen on watching Gimli with the girl.
They had a rhythm, a synchronization, that the elf found irritating. Mâglah knew what her lord needed an instant before Gimli could ask, and when they worked together in the tight spaces of the workshop, their movements were a choreographed dance of stepping and shifting with so little awkwardness that it seemed to Legolas they moved as one. Sometimes they spoke softly to one another in Khuzdul, though never when they thought Legolas was within hearing. More aggravating was when they spoke not at all, using hand signs to communicate things Legolas knew not. So often he watched them, unsure whether or not a conversation was happening beneath his perception.
“The most important thing is to use the right axe,” Mâglah told him, handing him a few to try out. Legolas didn't know what heft and balance to look for, but he chose a single-bladed broad axe that felt comfortable in his hand.
“Not a bad choice,” she said, approving. “Now watch.” The log was small, braced on two crutches crafted from the crotches of trees, and only a few feet off the ground. The dwarf girl straddled it and, wielding an axe much smaller than the one in Legolas's hands, began to whittle long slivers of wood away. Her strawberry blond braid moved with each swing, reminding Legolas of Gimli on the battlefield all those years ago – her hair was a softer color, but its thickness and plait were just like how his friend had worn it then. Her work went far more quickly than he expected, and before long she had a long flat surface where the tree trunk had once curved.
“Your turn,” she instructed gruffly.
Legolas adjusted the height so he didn't have to bend so much, then tried his hand at hewing the other side of the log. The purposeful swing of the axe felt good, and as the long slivers of green wood gathered around his boots, he felt a stirring deep inside.
It had been generally believed among his people that even the least skilled of elven-kind could build his or her ship to the Undying Lands. It was said to be in the blood – the collected memories of the Eldar that came before. Legolas had never quite believed such stories, but as he shaped the log to his purpose, it was as though his hands knew the heft of the axe and his body remembered the movements.
Mâglah made approving noises. “My mother was skeptical,” she told him, “but Lord Gimli said you were capable.”
Legolas was surprised. It was the first time he'd heard a dwarf speak so casually about their mother. Perhaps it was because she was so young? Or did female dwarves speak more easily about one another? It disturbed Legolas that he still knew so little of Gimli's people. Hadn't they spent half a lifetime as friends?
“Does Gimli speak of me often?” he asked, suddenly eager to hear.
The girl's expression shuttered, and he was reminded of how Aragorn always jested about the secrecy of dwarves. Something in her expression was exactly like Gimli's when Legolas asked about something the dwarf would keep to himself. She turned away from him to gather boards she had already finished. “I could not say,” she hedged. “I am not often the one he speaks with.”
The elf wondered again what connection there was between his friend and this girl. She was as skilled as Gimli boasted, but very young to be away from her family, working like this to build a boat for an elf she barely knew, even by reputation, it seemed. For his part, Gimli had never so much as hinted at knowing a girl her age, let alone one he thought so highly of. “Do you know him well?” he asked, not pausing his work.
She looked surprised by the question. “Of course,” she said. “I cannot remember a time I did not know him.”
Legolas had no answer for that. He worked silently until Mâglah moved away, declaring him well up to the task of hewing. He should have been pleased to be doing well, but something about the exchange left him feeling disagreeable.
“What ails you, lad?” Gimli asked some nights after. It was late – Mâglah had withdrawn to her bedroll in the tent, but Gimli had made excuses to stay up with Legolas. He poked the fire and sat near to where the elf deftly plaited sheets for the sails.
Legolas didn't look up from his work, though his hands could have managed the rope easily without the help of his eyes. “It is nothing,” he said.
Gimli took up some cotton threads and began his own plait. “Nonsense,” he said. “You've been quiet for days. Is it because we're so close to the sea? Is it starting to eat at you?”
It was not the sea that had made the elf's heart heavy, though it seemed odd, now that Gimli had mentioned it, that it had not. His thoughts were occupied with Mâglah. Not with the dwarf herself – she was helpful and pleasant and nearly all he might wish for in a camping companion – but that she was so like Gimli. Her movements, her mannerisms, her way of speaking – everything she did made Legolas think of his friend. At first it was a comfort, but as the days passed, their similarities wore on him.
“Why does Mâglah wear her hair like that?” He knew that the patterns of hair weaving were significant to dwarves, though he had yet to sort out the meaning of even a single plait. “You wore yours in the same manner, during the War.”
The old dwarf looked startled. “It is a practical braid,” he said dismissively, “worn mostly by the young. It signifies little.”
Legolas reached out and touched the more intricate weave of Gimli's current fashion – one he'd worn since soon after the War had ended. It was an intimacy, the like of which he had rarely claimed, and Gimli's breath stuttered. “And yours?” Legolas asked. “You changed it suddenly, years ago, but never since. What does it signify?”
Gimli pulled away. “Is this was has you in a melancholy mood? Hair braiding?”
Legolas looked at the fire, his hands moving once more to his work. He knew well enough not to persist when Gimli sidestepped a question thusly. He would get no answers no matter how he tried.
For a long spell their fingers worked in silence. The fire crackled and the river murmured, and Legolas could hear Mâglah's soft breathing as she slept, yards away.
“Is Mâglah your daughter?”
He hadn't meant to ask so directly. He hadn't meant to ask at all, but the question had been burning him for hours. As soon as the words were said, he wished to to take them back. Their friendship was dear to the dwarf, he knew, but perhaps not as dear as Legolas believed. A daughter would mean a wife somewhere, a family that his friend had never mentioned. A host of secrets that Legolas had never been privy to. And Gimli always had reasons for keeping his secrets, whatever they might be.
His stomach twisted painfully and he looked at the ground. He longed for the uncomplicated past, before his own feelings began to chip at the ground between them, threatening to split it into a chasm.
Gimli chuckled ruefully. “You think me so disloyal?” he asked, dark humor in his voice. “That I would wed without so much as a mention and raise a secret family?”
Put like that, it sounded absurd, but Legolas was feeling less than rational. “It is possible!” he cried. “I know not how a dwarf views his friendships with those who are not his kind. I cannot assume that you would not keep such things secret, just because I would not.” He was agitated and cross now, more so for not knowing exactly who should be the object of his dismay.
“You can assume that much and more, my dearest friend,” Gimli said quietly. “It has been many years since I've striven to hide anything at all from you.”
Legolas said nothing. The fire popped, sending a spiral of sparks into the air.
“Mâglah is my sister's daughter,” Gimli told him, after a pause. “She is my treasure and my heir, but she is not mine.”
His words eased away most of the sting. It was foolish, then, to have gotten himself so upset. Legolas's muscles began to relax, the tension of the past few days draining. “Forgive me,” he said softly. He was relieved that it was only Gimli to witness his embarrassment. The dwarf had overlooked mortification more than once, through the years.
Gimli glanced obliquely, a smile seeming to twitch behind his beard. “Your moods are a wonder to me, Legolas Greenleaf. Did you never wonder why I did not marry?”
“From time to time,” Legolas answered, straining to keep his voice steady. His hands fumbled with the rope he wove, the pattern altering into a messy kink. “But I would not presume to ask.”
Gimli barked a sarcastic laugh. “You presume to do as much and more on any other subject, but on this you are, as always, distant and polite.”
It wasn't that Legolas hadn't wondered. Rather, he hadn't needed to. He had long known Gimli's heart, though it seemed that he wasn't as certain these days as he had been in the past. It was never a question of reciprocation, rather, of being brave enough to rework that which was already far more perfect than Legolas had ever dreamed a friendship being. An admission of love could not help but change things between them, and even the promise of bliss was never enough to goad the elf into risking their current joy.
“I am sorry if I have offended you,” Legolas said stiffly. They had come to this precipice before, but this was the first time Gimli showed any sign of pushing them over.
At the last moment, the dwarf retreated. “Do not mind me, my friend,” he said in a gentler tone. “It seems that I too, have spells of moodiness. But dwarves are a hardy folk. I have lived long with the knowledge that this particular love must remain unrequited. The reminder of it pains me but little.”
Legolas unraveled. The rope he worked fell limp in useless hands and his insides seemed to forget their tasks of moving blood and breath. He sat frozen, every nerve focused on the friend who sat only inches away.
Gimli continued, not noticing or simply not heeding his friend's sudden change. “I would not alter what lies between us. The reward may be great, but it has always been uncertain. And I am no gambler.” He stood and, without looking at Legolas, disappeared into the tent.
Slowly, slowly, Legolas remembered how to breathe. He thawed in stages, his heart resuming its steady pace, his fingers finding the means to continue their work. He finished the rope that night, the whole time focused to catch each shift and sigh as Gimli settled down to sleep.