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16
When Wind is in the Deadly East

There followed days of turmoil around the Last Homely House. Rowanna had plenty of opportunity to observe it, for Bilbo was spending all his time shut up in his room with Frodo, and she had no intention of intruding on their precious last hours together. Nor did there seem to be much to do in the stables: to the surprise of Brethil and his Elves, it transpired that despite the great length of their likely journey the Company were to go not mounted but on foot ("It'll take them till next Mid-year!" one of the stable-lads muttered to Rowanna) and only the services of Master Samwise's faithful baggage-pony, Bill, would be required.

In the House, though, all was bustle: the Hobbits scurried from seamstresses to stores, being fitted for furlined jackets and adding to their supplies; blankets and bedrolls had to be procured, blades sharpened, pipeweed begged. Rowanna found that her best use was as a messenger, going backwards and forwards from Arwen to Erestor, from Pippin to Aragorn and back again.

She noticed that Arwen always seemed to be working, calmly counting linen or ordering dried foods from the kitchens, unhurried but unresting. Why does she not spend the time with Aragorn? Rowanna wondered, noticing that the Chieftain too seemed ever occupied, largely closeted with Gandalf in the library over maps or ancient parchment volumes. Slowly it dawned on her: they can change nothing, they know the parting must come, and it is more bearable to busy the mind elsewhere than to dwell on it...

Only in the evenings, when the Hall of Fire was full night after night, did she see the Evenstar and the Chieftain together, and more than once her heart ached at the sight. The minstrels were singing the lays of the ancient days which, Bilbo explained, were rarely told in full, so that Elves from all over the House crowded into the Hall to listen. On the last night before the Company were due to depart, she sat with Legolas, Merry and Pippin; even the normally irrepressible Hobbits seemed subdued, waiting in silence as the harpist softly tuned up and consulted with a striking, silver-haired singer.

"Now that is a curious choice," murmured Legolas, whose keen ears must have caught the minstrels' discussion. "We are to have the Lay of Leithian - the tale of Lúthien, daughter of Thingol the forefather of my house, and the mortal Beren. Has Bilbo told you the tale?"

Merry broke in: "Wasn't that the story Strider told us on the way here, Pip, at Weathertop? How Lúthien loved Beren, and he stole the Silmaril so he could wed her, and in the end she died so that she wouldn't have to be parted from him?..."

"That, Merry, is the Lay in a nutshell," Legolas agreed with a smile. "A story filled with sorrow and loss, and death at its ending: and yet it is known far and wide as the greatest tale of love in all the ages of Arda - though for myself I think Amrod and Nimrodel runs it close. I cannot guess why they choose to sing it tonight, even so..."

"Can you not?" said Rowanna softly into his ear, out of the Hobbits' hearing. As the light of hearth and torch sent shadows flickering around the rafters, she looked across the Hall, and felt Legolas' head turn to follow her gaze to the elaborately carved chair in which Arwen sat; drawn back a little from the company, her head leaning on the chest of the tall Man clad in black and silver who stood just behind her resting his hands lightly upon her shoulders. As they watched, Arwen twisted a little in her seat to look up at Aragorn; at the expression on her face Rowanna felt tears spring out of nowhere to her own eyes. She swallowed the lump in her throat.

"I did not know," Legolas whispered, wondering, so close to her ear that she felt his breath stir her hair; "I did not know!" Then the harpist began the slow rippling of notes which almost all there recognised as the opening of the prologue to the Lay, and no more could be said as utter stillness fell upon the Hall of Fire.

***

All the next day ragged clouds blew across the sky, chased by a bitter wind from the East. Everything was ready, the last item squeezed into baggage, pack-straps tightened. Rowanna could not bear to be still, and mucked out till Brethil complained she would use up all the clean straw and sent her gloomily back to the House, where tension hung in the air like the prelude to a storm. As she passed the half-open door of Bilbo's room, forcing herself not to knock and intrude, she heard Samwise muttering: "I wish we could just get going, Mister Frodo, and that's a fact - it's this hanging about I can't stand..." I know just how you feel, Sam, she thought ruefully, and I am not even going!

When she first heard of the Company's southbound path, west of the Misty Mountains and perhaps even through the Gap of Rohan, the wild thought had come into her head that she could beg Elrond to let her ride with them, and thus make her way home: but she knew it for folly as soon as it crossed her mind. They go secretly, and swiftly, and even were you fit enough to ride with them - much less walk, as it seems they must do! - you bring neither skill with bow, nor sword, nor the tracker's eye. Let well alone, girl, and bide your time till Spring.

Sunset came at last, herald of the darkness by which Elrond had decreed the Company must walk until they were well clear of the valley. Word had run all round the House in mid-afternoon that at this hour farewells would be said in the Hall of Fire, and when Rowanna crossed the threshold, dimly aware that her heart was pounding and that she felt oddly sick, the great room was thronging with people. Every Elf in Rivendell, it seemed, wanted to say a final word to the Company, or hear theirs, or at the very least perch on the high wide windowledges so that they could say in after days that they had seen the Fellowship depart on its Quest.

Merry and Pippin, whose cheery dispositions and love of good living had won them many friends around the halls and corners of the House, were being plied with all sorts of small parting gifts - a new pouch for pipeweed, a little bag of spiced dried apples - until Gandalf put his foot down, pointed out that every item beyond the absolutely needful was an added burden which would only slow them down, and declared the gift-giving closed.

There was Bilbo over towards the fire, deep in conversation with Gimli, the Dwarf's beard marking the steady nods of his head as he gave the Hobbit his full attention; then the two bowed deeply to one another, Gimli moved away towards the corner where his pack was clearly marked by the axe thrust through its straps, and Bilbo vanished into the crowd. Against the far wall stood Boromir, easily picked out by his height and bulk among the throng, glancing often towards the great doors as though impatient to be gone. I never did find out whether you remembered the least thing about Mother, she thought, or whether all my fears on that score were groundless. Ah well, it matters not, for I doubt we shall meet again in this world. You will go back to your City, and one day take up your Stewardship: and I am unlikely to set foot in Minas Tirith again...

She caught sight suddenly of the Chieftain, weaving his way through the press of people with jaw set as though determined not to be waylaid - and then glimpsed the cause of his singlemindedness across the room; a dark head crowned with silver. Aragorn drew Arwen aside for a moment out of the crowd. Rowanna saw the Evenstar kiss her fingers and touch them to his brow in an oddly formal gesture; he caught up Arwen's hand and placed it for a moment over his heart, then gave her a little bow - clipped, almost brusque - and turned away back to Gandalf.

Rowanna felt her own heart swell painfully in her chest at the look on Arwen's face - what does it cost her not to break? - , and started through the throng towards her friend; she was still struggling to make her way through when she saw Legolas, much nearer, step quickly to the Evenstar's side and murmur something which caused Arwen to press his hand gratefully and manage a half-smile. Well done, Legolas, thought Rowanna with relief, grateful for the open-hearted compassion of the gesture. I knew you understood last night, at the singing of the Lay... Though she had struggled to follow the long cantos, music and voice had caused the bare bones of the tale so deeply to stir her that she had felt, afterwards, as though simply by knowing such a thing could be, the world was somehow changed. The love of an Elf for a mortal, she reflected now as she looked on the Evenstar, all said it was impossible: and yet their love lives still in story and song, and we will see the tale repeated in our Age...

She was still lost in her musing when Legolas, turning from Arwen, caught her eye for an instant through the shifting crowds, raised an eyebrow - at my dreaming, no doubt! she thought - and sent her a fleeting smile whose warmth touched her as surely as though he stood at her side. Even at such a moment, when they walk into distant peril with uncertain return, he can keep a light heart! Rivendell will be the darker without his hope and good cheer -

Then Elrond was moving through the Hall with the wizard, the thronging Elves falling away to give them passage, Erestor motioning to have the great doors of the entrance-hall opened - they were going, out on to the steps, Boromir leading the Hobbits, Dwarf and Elf, Aragorn bringing up the rear, and Elrond motioning Bilbo through ahead of him as the Hall-doors closed behind them. From the corner of her eye Rowanna caught a flash of silver-grey as Arwen turned on her heel and walked swiftly, almost ran, from the Hall. Should I? - wondered Rowanna, then: Yes, and followed.

So the Company fell into line and made their way slowly down towards the bridge in the gathering gloom, Gandalf leading, Sam and the faithful Bill bringing up the rear: while in her chamber Arwen sat white-faced and silent, gripping Rowanna's hands so tightly that when the mortal woman went to bed that night she could still see the marks of the Evenstar's fingers. And thus the Fellowship departed from Rivendell.

~~~

Author's Notes

How widely Aragorn and Arwen's relationship was known among Elves outside Rivendell before their marriage is up for debate - I could see arguments that being the gossips most Elves seem to be, it could have been known in Mirkwood, and if you decide that Legolas and Aragorn knew each other before the Council of Elrond then Legolas would almost certainly know of it. On the other hand, given Elrond's less than total enthusiasm for the idea, and the need to keep Aragorn's identity as secret as possible, it could well be taboo to speak of it outside Rivendell: and since for the purposes of this fic I decided Legolas and Aragorn hadn't met before, and that Legolas is something of an outsider in Rivendell who on this visit has spent most of his time either riding with Rowanna or talking to trees, it seemed reasonable that he might not know of it even by the time the Fellowship were due to depart.


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