Every few years, Legolas flies from us like a swallow in winter, except his seasons are not measured in any form of time that I understand, and there is no knowing when he will come back—it is always a game of waiting.
This time, he disappeared after we returned from Erebor, where he accompanied me as I mourned for my father. He stayed on briefly in Rohan—"settling me back in," he said—and then turned South to his home and his duty.
But since then—two months ago now—his elves in the forest have not seen him; he does not answer letters nor show for trade meetings. Only Faramir and Éowyn have spoken with him, and he flits in and out of their home in Emyn Arnen like a shadow to consult on projects and tutor their son in Sindarin, as he promised Faramir he would many years ago. I have written to Éowyn, and she does not know where he comes from or where he goes to, only that he is not all there when he arrives; that Elboron asks him questions and Legolas does not seem to hear, that he sometimes stumbles from one language to another like Pippin telling tales after too long in his cups, and he does not seem to notice.
So I am paying a visit to the Steward and his wife, and waiting here until Legolas shows up. He has been away too long, and I am still raw from losing my father and, for some reason, Legolas has always been one to make me worry.
It has been four days since I arrived in Emyn Arnen, and the elf has not shown. He is supposed to teach Elboron on the third and sixth days of the week, Faramir says, but he is lately erratic. Somehow, I am not surprised. When he is like this, it is like trying to pin a cloud to a mountain, and he stares with blank eyes when you ask him the date.
Legolas described to me once how elves know time. It is all about memory—all memories, all at once. Time is a river flowing to an inevitable end, but with an endless prism of thought cut through, split by the sun and roiled by the rapids, so the past is as clear and vibrant as the present.
Sometimes, when I am with my friend, I blink, and Legolas is a hundred paces away, gone to chase some bird or 'see what the sky is doing.' But sometimes I blink, and, while he has not moved at all, his eyes are a hundred miles gone, and I cannot call him back, or he refuses to listen. Each moment is like a new thing to him, but in every moment he is also farther away from the present than I could ever be: Every time he sees a robin, it is like every robin he ever knew stretched out before him; every battle sees a hundred battles more flitting through his mind; every loss is like feeling every loss he has ever known over and over and over again, like it is happening for the very first time.
How is it to know that, one day, you will look at every person you love and see not only their face in that moment, but also all the pain you have ever known with them?
An elf must look at a mortal and ask himself each time: is this worth it?
Legolas says we are worth it, and that he stays for us. But sometimes, I think, he forgets.
Éowyn says she saw you last week, so I know you have not sailed without telling. I am with Éowyn and Faramir in Emyn Arnen. Come visit, my friend, or at least stay in one place long enough that I can find you. I am not above writing Aragorn, as you well know.
Elboron has obeisantly provided the parchment I requested after we shared porridge on my seventh morning here, and I now sit at the cleared table with the paper before me. I can feel the child hovering behind me near the washbasin, and when I turn to look he is scratching at sand embedded in the soap-caked sideboard. I turn back to the paper and tap my quill on the table.
Dwarves, we are very patient, but we are not very good at waiting… To us, time is a solid thing, like good rock under our feet, something that we stand on and which keeps us marching forward, but it is not something that mires, or purposefully distracts. For elves, I have learned, it is not that way.
I have been waiting rather a lot recently—for shipments, for the arrival of our next immigrants; for fall to finish, for Legolas to break this horrid silence. Waiting is like limbo, like not knowing when the storm will finally falter, or when the retreating enemy will turn again to attack—it is anticipation, and I cannot make myself think it is good. It is that time between 'not knowing' and the inevitable, and anything inevitable is seldom welcomed, like loss, or decay and death.
I know this is what keeps Legolas from me. He fears so much to lose himself to the sea or to lose me to time, but every day he is silent he loses himself more to the woods—even when he does write, I can sometimes hardly understand him; his thoughts are like wind or a wild thing—and every day he spends away from his friends is a day we are older and closer to that inevitability.
I understand his silence, theoretically. But, unlike him, I do not have time to wait forever, or to wait until I am brave enough to feel the pain. I am a dwarf, and if I want to live at all, I have to do it now—there is no waiting around for it. If I am going to die, I will bring it eagerly to me on my own terms, marching out on the strong stone and drawing strength from its age.
Certainly, there are times we do not have a choice but to ignore the pain—one might ignore the bite of a blade in battle, for example, to make it to the end. But that delay in recognition may cost one's life regardless, if one slowly bleeds to death, still, due to well-meant neglect. Most times, therefore, pain is insistent, and demands to be readily felt.
But perhaps I read my friend wrong—I have never known Legolas to be craven.
But why else would he take to the woods? Lost in the trees and wrapped in their speech, as if deaf to the spoken tongue? Why even when we visited him by surprise were his eyes far away, and his hands fleeting and cold? Why did he joke less and sing more and not speak to me of his life and the world, if it is not fear of the pain of loss? And at getting too close, as if he could possibly know me more than he already does…?
I would say he is turning into stone, but he is too insubstantial. He is like water that slips between the cracks in rocks, like mist on the river at twilight—he is the kiss of sunlight reflected on the lake, that with every stroke of the oar stays just too far ahead to be caught.
He distances himself from us, lost to that song of the sea I cannot hear, and every day that I bite my tongue and wait out his silence, the more like a sprite he becomes—a whisper of the leaves, and the language of trees is a thing I have never hoped to understand.
As long as one of his feet remains on the shore, though, I can reach him. As long as a single breath of him moves still with the steadiness of the earth, he is not lost to me.
If he truly wants to stay in this world, I have not got time to wait for him to eventually find his way meandering back—
Elboron is shuffling at my elbow and there is a clatter as he drops a spoon on the floor; he picks it up and pushes a mug of tea into my line of vision; a bit of water sloshes over its lip to soak rapidly across a corner of my page.
"Thank you," I tell him.
He nods and clambers into the chair beside me; pulling a piece of parchment and a charcoal stick toward him, he begins to draw.
—I will write Legolas again, in our one common tongue, and hope that this time it is enough.
You are a fool. Come see me before I light the forest on fire to flush you out. Elboron complains that you are missing his lessons. I will not harass you when you arrive—I only wish to see you hale. It has been months.
Legolas arrives five days after my last letter; he drops out of a tree by the window where Elboron is whittling a toy animal. He is green and brown and dirt, dust and blood and twigs, bright and sparkling eyes—his whole self vibrates with the song of the forest, and he stands at a distance; he tilts his head to watch us.
A gust of wind sends maple-seed spinners down around him like a blessed rain, and when the tree quits its adoration, Legolas breaks his silence with a whirl of movement and crosses the space to us in a heartbeat—a brace of hares bounces against the back of his thighs as he walks. He drops his pack from his shoulders and pulls out a loaf of loosely-wrapped bread, untying the hares from his belt.
By this time, Elboron has slipped his small knife back into its sheath and pocketed it, and he lets the unfinished toy fall to the windowsill with a soft clatter. Legolas holds out the food to him, and Elboron takes it.
"For your parents," he says.
"I missed you," Elboron replies.
He fleetingly touches Elboron's shoulder and then pats him on the arm.
"You are forgiven," and Elboron smiles.
His raven hair falls out of its tie as he nods up at the elf with wide and youthful grey eyes—as full of fire and wisdom as one would expect in a child of his lineage—and I can see Legolas becoming distracted by his energy, so I push Elboron gently from the windowsill, into his house—I have waited for the elf long enough.
Elboron pads away from us and calls over his shoulder as he scampers around the corner: "I will tell Mother that Legolas is finally here!"
Legolas stares at the door through which Elboron has gone long after the child has disappeared. I reach up and tap him sharply on the cheek to give him warning.
"Gimli!" he says, looking at me and smiling, as if just realizing I am here.
That is warning enough for me.
I take him roughly by his elbow and drag him round the front of the house; he is limp and listless and allows it. Again, I am not surprised—he is a shadow or a current or the sudden glint of sun on a sliver of pyrite, such that I am not sure he is actually here.
I stop him by a tree near Éowyn and Faramir's front door and put my hands on my hips.
"When is the last time you spoke to someone, Legolas?"
His eyes are on the heavy autumn clouds and he shrugs.
"I do not know. I last saw Elboron and his parents, for Elboron's lessons."
"So the last person you spoke to was a ten-year-old human child, with a bumbling grasp of true Sindarin, over two weeks ago? Do your friends in Ithilien even know where you are?"
I stare at him and there is silence.
"I wrote them. And, besides, that bread did not bake itself. They left your letters for me in the kitchens."
He takes off his pack again, and his quiver, and sits on the ground by the tree, crossing his legs like a diamond in front of him. He pulls a comb out of a pocket and begins to work at a massive knot in his hair.
I sigh and raise my eyebrows, but he is not watching me.
"You have taken leave of your senses, Legolas."
He looks up abruptly.
"I beg your pardon?"
I am losing my patience with him; it is like he has forgotten everything he ever learned from us.
"You are losing your mind," I clarify.
"I am not!" he says, and his eyes are rain-slicked slate and flashing stormclouds; his cheeks flush and he drops his hands to his lap.
His hair is tousled into a halo around his face, and it is hard to find him intimidating. I begin to cross my arms but then jerk the comb out of his hands, tucking it into my belt to focus his attention. His hands flit toward his pack for something else to do, so I grab his hands, too.
"Legolas, I have been worrying for a month, and now I find you and you are a whirlwind."
"Yes," he says, as if it is the most obvious thing in the world; his fingers twitch in my grip.
"What have you been doing?"
"Being," he says.
Being. He has been 'being!' A typical Wood-elf answer, and a typical Legolas evasion. I let go of his hands and give him his comb back. Sitting down beside him, I look out toward the path that connects Faramir and Éowyn's house to the rest of their settlement.
"And Gimli, you did not find me. You wrote me, and I decided to come."
Is he serious?
"I wrote you five times!" I say.
"Twice since I have been in Emyn Arnen."
"Hmm," he says, and I hear him begin to pick at his hair again.
My anger bubbles into my throat and it makes me feel sick; as many times as I tell myself it is not his fault he is this way, it does not make it any easier. It does not make speaking to him any less frustrating. I wait for him to remember us for weeks and weeks, and then when he does, I must wait some more, as he relearns how to speak.
I breathe out through my nose and gently touch his arm to anchor him.
"You are in the mannish settlement in Ithilien, Legolas," I say. "It is the first week of October and the full moon is in a few days; it is the fifteenth year of the Fourth Age. You were last with Faramir and Éowyn twelve days ago for Elboron's Elvish lessons, and you met with Faramir about flooding near Osgiliath. Before that, we spent July with Aragorn in Minas Tirith and you saw his daughter born; I helped you build a silo for grain in August, and you went with me to Erebor to bury my father Glóin just over two months ago."
He has quit picking at his hair and leans away from me as he listens.
"Are you with me?" I ask.
"Do you want me to talk some more so you can remember how the patterns go?"
"I have not been gone long enough this time to forget!" he says, scowling.
"I am not saying you have forgotten, Legolas. It is only a question!"
His patience is usually endless, but not when he is like this: avian and alien and strange. I can tell he is trying to decide whether to be offended, and finally his face slackens, and he echoes back: "I want you to talk some more, Gimli, so I can remember the patterns."
So I start with a story of Eldarion's impatience for his sister to be born (and the great task we were given of containing that exuberant adolescence while he waited…), and Legolas listens intently. He stares at my mouth as his fingers start to worry again at his hair. By the time I finish the tale, he has run the comb through it and braided it loosely back. It is still frizzy and wavy, but a little more tame, as I imagine his mind is becoming, too.
I do not think I will ever become truly used to this transition, to his slow re-acclimation after being so long lost on the breeze.
He looks at me now with eyes more weighted than before, heavy with the reminder of his ties.
"I will give you a few moments," I say, "and then I expect you to have regained your senses enough to carry on a reasonable conversation with a dwarf."
Legolas nods at me and props himself against the tree behind us; a flyaway puff from the drying sycamore floats down and he reaches up a hand toward it, but it sweeps in a circle around his finger and settles several feet away from us on a crumbling leaf.
He is utterly still for several minutes, until the wind picks the seed from the leaf, and it takes off again. He stirs, and turns, pivoting in his seat; he looks me fully in the face and speaks.
"I have not been fair to you, Gimli. Your father died and I escorted you home. But then I lost myself—again!—and left you alone to grieve. It is a shameful thing to do, for one who calls himself a friend."
"Most people would not wait for you to wander back into mortal landscapes," I say bluntly; I am not ready to talk yet of my father, "when we have not got forever to wait. At least, that is what people tell me."
For a moment, there is a flash of hurt in his eyes, and then they are wide and sorrowful, like the first time I met Éowyn in Minas Tirith after the War.
"I know!" he says, and his lips quirk suddenly in a smile. "And I do not deserve you, Gimli, it is true; but, I suppose, neither do you deserve me!"
He winks at me, and then sighs, and looks away. He scratches the back of his neck and drops his hands again into his lap.
It is a strange thing, to be friends with a person for years, and then find yourself suddenly older than he. There is a maturity—relatively—that I am not sure Legolas will ever reach while I know him, despite his years and experience. And every time I pull him out of his mental wandering, I feel a little guilty for awakening him to it—it is a morbid responsibility to be held to, and I will not pretend I do not sometimes resent it. But when Legolas is entirely present in a moment—which is, admittedly, most of the time, when he is not flown afar—he is even and calm and reasonable; he is a thousand years older than Aragorn or me and he seems it.
But he is not that now.
"That tree sways more than the others," he says, jerking his head toward a spindly pine. "Do you think maybe its roots are less attached, Gimli? It looks as if it wishes to be somewhere else!"
He is becoming himself again—buoyed by his memories and the gentleness of familiar conversation—but I cannot continue to dismiss his behaviors so quickly, or he will not learn.
…Not that I am his parent, nor his wife, nor his King, so it is naught but our bonds as brothers that compel me to steady him, however rude I may seem to those who do not know us.
"You say you want to be here, Legolas," I say, and he looks away from the tree and to me, sharply; he is nodding. "So if you are going to be here, be here. Do not be a thousand miles away, wishing for something you will not grant yourself!"
He tips his head to the side and his hair—I notice, now darkening with winter—tumbles from his braid and into his eyes, barely held back from the other side of his face as it catches at the curve of his nose, which he wrinkles in displeasure. His brow furrows in confusion.
"But," he says firmly, and then he trails off. "But Gimli, I have never been more here than I am right now."
That is certainly not true. I was wrong—he is not returned, and the disappointment is overwhelming. It is a reminder that one day he will fly too far abroad and I will be left here, waiting, for a return that he cannot promise.
But I will not tell him that fear; I will provoke him, instead. It is better to see fire in his eyes than nothing at all.
"Sometimes I do not think you even understand what I am trying to say to you," I press.
He surprises me, then, with a quickness I am not expecting, and there is an edge of frenetic fervor as he takes my hand. He presses it against his chest, directly over his heart.
"Do you feel that, Gimli?" he asks, and he leans toward me.
His smudged face is inches from my own, and his eyes are wide and bright. I can feel his words stir my beard and tickle my cheeks, and he smells earthy like mould and moss, yet sharp as one's first conscious breath on a winter morning, and there is the tang of dirt and old blood hidden beneath.
Under his hand, I can feel his blood moving through him, and his chest rhythmically pounds as he presses his life into my slowly aging hand.
"Even when you do not think I understand you here," Legolas says, and he taps his temple, "—and I might very well not!—" he laughs, "I do understand you here."
His glance flickers down toward my hand and his chest, and then his eyes are so close again I see only their grey and the dark circles beneath them.
And now he is fully back, and talking like an elf.
I am pleased, and I pat his hand in a way that I once would have thought awkward. He is sickening, yet I love him for it.
"Well, that will have to be enough, I guess," I grumble and pull away, and then sigh and roll my eyes, swat at his head.
He tucks his hair behind his ears.
"You are a mess," I say.
He smiles and shrugs, and then nods toward the front door of the house, not looking at me at all.
He stands, and so do I.
Elboron is emerging from the door with a skip in his step. I hand Legolas' pack to him as Elboron stumbles forward, toward his father, who I notice now is kneeling by a shed, and not very far away at all.
When Elboron pauses a few steps outside the door and cups his hands around his mouth to beckon Faramir, Legolas ducks under the pretense of scratching his calf.
"It is not so much the sea-longing, my friend—that has passed, I think."
I see Faramir look up from the wood he is stacking and he grins at his son; Legolas continues.
"I was reminded of loss."
Now Legolas does actually scratch at his leg, sunk into a crouch on his heels, and his words spill out almost faster than I can track.
"I am sorry your father died, Gimli. I am sorry I was not a better friend. It is inexcusable."
I did not expect this and I look at him sharply, but he is leaning sideways and studying his shoes; he tucks a lace into the leather at his ankle.
Faramir is moving toward us at speed and Legolas has found his feet, only bent forward slightly now with a hand on my shoulder.
"It is dread, I think," he whispers, and his breath again stirs my beard. "The threat of grief—I am overwhelmed by it."
Faramir has swept up Elboron and spins him in the air, and the youth is laughing and crying out in his childish joy. I look up at Legolas, and he is not smiling; he cocks his head to the side and waits for Faramir's inevitable approach.
His eyes track their dance, and his lips are parted in what I have come to recognize as wonder: this is but a moment in this elf's long life, and so, likewise, am I. But since he heard the gulls, this moment that we share has stretched out before him (when he is here) into an eternity, filled with more joys and sorrows than he thought possible in this short span of years. He has given and taken too much of us, now—he cannot and will not leave.
I decided a long time ago that I do not need to understand Legolas to respect him, and he has told me much the same. He did not used to speak of anything at all—to anyone—but I worked my way into his trust, splitting him like a persistent root through initially unyielding rock.
Dwarves—we are patient.
And then Faramir is upon us with Elboron at his heels, suddenly quiet and deferent, like his father's shadow. Faramir claps Legolas on the shoulder and Legolas reaches out and grasps the man's upper arm, and then Faramir smiles and embraces him; when Legolas pulls away, Faramir speaks.
"You are late, Legolas! Éowyn is pleased you are back. We had begun to worry for you."
"I have heard," Legolas murmurs, and then he licks his finger and rubs at a smudge of dirt on his nose—he looks over his shoulder at me and meets my eyes and holds them before continuing. "I am trying, Faramir. I am trying my very best."
Elboron is rocking from the balls of his feet to his heels and he exclaims—"And your very best is good enough for us!"
Legolas bursts into laughter and Faramir begins to walk. Legolas follows, and so do I.
"So you have been paying attention during lessons!" Legolas exclaims, and he places a gentle hand on Elboron's dark head.
"Better than you!" Elboron jests.
He looks up at the elf adoringly, but when I look again, a cool and quick smile flits over Elboron's face—he is the Shieldmaiden on the way to the Deep; he is Faramir seeking out Aragorn in the Houses of Healing, and it is no wonder Legolas revels in teaching him, and loves him.
In my hurt earlier, I was wrong: I do not deserve this friend I have found. Such a friendship I have never had, and I do not think either of us will ever truly believe that we are enough for the other.
Sometimes I dislike Legolas, and I dislike elves, and I dislike this inevitable passage of time. But I waited out his season and then wrote, and he followed me, as he always said he would—we somehow manage to communicate across the gap.
Faramir's boot scuffs at the threshold; as we enter the house, Éowyn is skinning the rabbits. She raises her eyebrows, and then nods to the bread. Legolas lets go of Elboron and picks up a knife from a block and sets to slicing it.
Elboron chatters in broken Sindarin, and Legolas smiles at Faramir; Éowyn is washing her hands and offering me ale, and Legolas seems to have forgotten I am here.
I should be offended, but I am not.
That idiot swallow made it back before winter, and I am grateful.
There is not, I suppose, any more I can hope for than that.