The black-sailed ship moved up the Anduin, the dark waves slipping past its hull, silent and inky-black in the darkness. Aragorn stood on the prow of the vessel, gazing ahead as if his eyes could pierce the night and speed him to his destination. All his long life he had prepared for this moment, enduring the long years of waiting, and it would be bitter indeed to have worked so long only to miss this last battle by a matter of hours.
But the ships were making the best speed they could, the banks of the river sliding swiftly by. By the reckoning of the captain, they should reach the city ere midday. He could only hope that it would not be too late. Voices rose from a ship off the port side, carrying clear across the water. Aragorn recognized the voice of Arahad, one of his northern kindred, settling the confusion with a few quiet words. And the black ships sailed on.
Weariness was beginning to eat at him, the long exhaustion of flight and battle and victory sapping even his stern strength. But even now he could not rest. He had tended to the disposition of his forces, scattering his kin among the many ships, seeing that they left no enemy behind to strike at their rear. He had set the watches, and ordered all those not needed to man the ships to rest as best they could, knowing that each man would need the full measure of his strength come morning. He had spoken long with Halbarad, and with Elladon and Elrohir, seeking their advice on the course he must take when they reached Minas Tirith. But now even they had departed to take their rest, and at last he could turn to a matter that had not been least in his thoughts all that long day. More weighty matters he had needed to attend to, before turning to his concern over a single Elf, but had he followed his heart he might have set even those important tasks aside.
The battle at Lebinnin had been fierce. They had the armies of the dead to fight for them, but there were still sharp swords and swift arrows to contend with in the hands of their living enemies. For a time, Aragorn had fought with Gimli on his left, and Legolas on his right, and none could stand long before the three of them.
When Legolas had fallen back, Aragorn's first thought was that he had been wounded. He turned at once to defend him, and when he saw the stricken look on Legolas's face he was certain that the wound was a mortal one. The Lady Galadriel's words came back to him, and he saw for the first time what Legolas must have seen, that the words foretold his death. For did Aragorn not now hear the shrieks of the gulls himself, whirling above the battlefield?
"Legolas!" he cried, but Legolas did not heed him. He merely stood, staring up at the sky, his face a mask of pain and sorrow, the two emotions warring so on his fair features that Aragorn expected him to weep. But even as Aragorn looked on him, he saw that he was not hurt, and the battle still pressed close. "Legolas!" Aragorn said again, and spared a precious moment to take the Elf by the arm and shake him. "Legolas! The battle is still at hand."
At that, Legolas seemed to awaken from his trance, and he returned to the fight, even more fiercely than before, his arrows flying from his bow like a rain of shooting stars, and his knife flashing like the glitter of the sun on the river. But he was grim now, and silent, and when the battle was done he took himself apart from the others. His pretense was to seek spent arrows among the field, but he avoided even Gimli's company, and Aragorn had marked it. But other duties pressed him, and it was not until this moment, deep in the night, that he first found the time to seek out his friend.
Wrapping his cloak around himself, Aragorn stalked from the prow and paced his slow way around the ship. Legolas and Gimli had been given one of the cabins, and he had bade them retire to it and rest some time ago. Now, he sought them out.
The door yielded silently to his touch, but all was dark within. He paused a moment, waiting for his eyes to see in the dimness, but even as he did he smelled the smoke from a pipe, and spied the soft glow from a corner of the cabin.
"Gimli?" he said, and a part of the shadows in that corner moved. Light blossomed as the dwarf unshuttered the lamp. Aragorn stepped into the room, saying, "I came to speak to Legolas," but he soon added, after looking around, "yet I see that he is not here."
"No." Gimli set the lamp on the table, and sat down on the edge of the bunk. He was clad only in his breeches, and looked as if he had just roused from sleep. Yet his pipe was lit in his hand, and Aragorn saw from the ashes in the bowl that he had been awake, smoking, for some time.
"Do you know where he has gone?"
"He would not say. He laid down some hours ago, but then he rose again and said that he could not rest, that he wished to walk about the ship and look at the stars. I could see that he was troubled, but he would not let me go with him. So, I have been waiting here."
"I see." Aragorn lowered himself onto the crate that served as the room's single chair. "And he would not speak of his troubles to you?"
Gimli shook his head. "No." He made a grim face. "Perhaps this is merely a passing mood. You have known him longer than I. Is he given to such brooding?"
"No. I have seen him in grief, and in pain, and pressed with cares, but this is a mood I have never seen before. He acts like a man sorely wounded, but there is no hurt to be seen."
Gimli grunted. "Your thought is the same as mine. But how he received such a hurt to his spirit, I cannot say."
"Nor can I."
Aragorn fell silent, and Gimli sat and smoked and gazed at him for many moments. Finally, he said, "You should seek him, Aragorn. Perhaps he will say to you what he cannot say to me."
"I doubt it, Gimli. If he will not open his thoughts to you, then I have little hope. I know where his heart lies."
"Even so, you have known him long. Perhaps he can speak to you of things that he fears I will not understand." Gimli gestured to him with the hand that still held his pipe. "You came here seeking him," he reminded. "Does a Ranger always give up his quarry so easily?"
"Your point is taken," Aragorn said, smiling, and rose. "I will find him, and see what he will say to me."
"Good." Gimli settled back onto the bunk, putting his pipe into his mouth. "Tell him I grow weary of my cold bed."
"I will tell him," Aragorn promised. "Good night, Gimli."
He found Legolas standing at the stern of the ship, his cloak drawn tight around his body, but his feet were bare and his hair loose, the fine pale strands whipping free in the wind. Aragorn said nothing, but the Elf's keen ears heard his step, and he turned to him so that Aragorn could see that he was weeping.
"In all my long life," he said, "I thought that I had known joy. I believed that I had known sorrow. But I know now that I had never known joy before finding the friend of my heart. And I will never have known sorrow until he is gone from my side.
"Yesterday I could have been content with the knowledge of the years he has left, but yesterday I had not heard the gulls. Now I know that I will never be fully joyful again on Middle-Earth." Legolas turned again, gazing back at the stern of the ship, where the cabin he shared with Gimli waited. "But I will not leave while he lives." The glittering gaze then returned to Aragorn. "The Lady spoke true, but I did not listen. I knew where this path would lead."
"You would not leave us," Aragorn said quietly. "Even knowing, you would not leave."
"No. But it has been a hard road, and I do not wish to ever walk the last steps of it." Legolas looked away. "And yet, I know that I have no choice."
"Perhaps not. But there is another choice to make." Aragorn gestured to the bow of the ship. "He is waiting for you. Even had you not heard the gulls, his time on Middle-Earth would last no longer." He clapped the Elf gently on the shoulder. "Do not waste it with your grief, my friend. That will come soon enough."
"Soon enough indeed." Legolas turned back to him. "Your words bring no comfort, Aragorn." But he smiled, though his expression remained one of sadness. "Yet you have brought me wisdom to see my own folly, and that is better than comfort." He reached up to clasp Aragorn's arm. "I will go to him, and save my grief. Thank you." Legolas turned and walked away, his light step soundless beneath the wind and water. Aragorn watched him go, saw the door open, and the light spill from within. Then all was dark once more, only the lights of the stars overhead.
And the black ships sailed on.