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21
Through Rohan over Fen and Field

Voices woke Rowanna, low but urgent: she struggled out of the folds of the scratchy blanket which smelt faintly of mud and of male sweat, stretching stiffened limbs and scrubbing a fist across her sleep-gummed eyes.

"...can hardly leave her to cross the rest of this Orc-infested wasteland on her own!" she caught a protesting rumble. That's Gimli, she realised; but before she could call a greeting to tell the three she was awake, Legolas had jumped up and in a few swift paces was at her side.

"Awake, rohíril?" he enquired, and the familiar nickname was as companionable on his lips as it had always seemed teasing from Elrohir's. "Have you rested?"

"I..." Memory stirred: dark dreams from which black shrieking terrors had sprung - and then melted away as a voice bringing starlight and song had woven itself steadily into her sleep, over and over. "Yes, a little."

"I am glad; then come and join us." He held out a hand and led her up the slope to join Aragorn and Gimli; down on the eastern slope of the hill she saw Gelion, still happily cropping the grass.

"Good morrow to you, my lady!" Aragorn spared her an all-too-brief smile from a face creased with weary anxiety. "I am glad to see you safe and well, though I fear we cannot do as much to maintain that safety as we three would like.  Legolas tells me you know of our chase, so I will waste no time recounting it." He paused and rubbed a hand tiredly over his eyes. "Your care could be said, as your Chieftain, to fall to my charge; yet so does the quest to rescue Merry and Pippin, who were no less under my protection. Gimli protests at the idea of letting you continue towards Edoras alone, but -"

"None of you can be spared!" Rowanna protested. "Now that it is light I know my way onwards readily enough; Merry and Pippin's danger is far the greater -"

She broke off. Aragorn was holding up a hand for silence, frowning: then in an instant he had stretched full length on the ground and lay as though listening to the very earth, while the wind whined through the grass.

After a moment he hissed, "Legolas! Look north and west towards the forest and tell me; what is that shadow that moves over the ground?" Legolas moved at once to stand beside him, long fingers shading his eyes against the early-morning light.

"Horsemen, some five leagues distant," he said softly, "many horsemen, and the sun shines like the light of a hundred stars upon their spear-tips..."

An éored! Rowanna's heart leapt at the thought. Whose would it be, so far out here to the North?

  "Their leader is very tall," the Elf added, and Rowanna could have laughed aloud. I know who that must be - surely!

"The Eorlingas come - then all will be well!" she exclaimed, looking beaming round the three companions - until she met Aragorn's eyes, and was stilled.

"That," he said grimly, "remains to be seen. My heart tells me that all is not well in the land of Rohan of late; who knows whether old alliances will yet hold? But evil news or good, we will await it here."

He led them slowly down the northward slope the way the horsemen must approach, and they settled themselves at its foot; Gimli lowered himself with a grunt to sit alongside Aragorn and the two began to talk quietly, leaving Legolas and Rowanna to gaze together north-westwards. Elf, Man and Dwarf drew their grey cloaks close about them, and Rowanna was startled to notice that when she turned away a little, striving to make out the éored as it approached, the three seemed to melt away out of the corner of her eye into invisibility.

"You - I thought for an instant you had all vanished!" she whispered to Legolas.

"You see the power of cloaks woven by the people of the Lady Galadriel," he murmured into her ear, "made to guard the wearers from unfriendly eyes; thus far they have served us well, and long may they do so!"

They waited; and although Rowanna's own warm cloak should have been proof against the wind which keened endlessly around and over them, she found herself shivering. 'All is not well in the land of Rohan'... and the Eastemnet is emptied, and seemingly overrun with foul things born of Shadow. What if Aragorn speaks truth? What has happened to land and kin while I have been gone?...

  "...rumour that they pay tribute to Mordor," she heard Gimli grumble, and was about to protest when Aragorn broke in:

"I believe it no more than did Boromir."

"You will soon learn the truth," said Legolas over his shoulder. "Already they approach." Softly he added, "Rowanna, get out of sight behind me, and do not stir," and quietly though he spoke, something in his tone made her move into place without question.

For all her anxiety, as she felt the thunder of hooves through the ground and watched the horsemen come riding like the wind Rowanna could not check a great upswell of joy, which rose until she wanted to jump for excitement like a child. Never would she tire of the sight of an éored at full gallop! Manes and tails and braided hair flew, the sun glinted on sword and helms and mail; two by two the Riders sailed past, as she forced herself against every instinct to stay still, and yet Aragorn made no move to hail them. Only as the rearguard were passing them by did he get to his feet and cry: "What news from the North, Riders of Rohan?"

In an instant, the last of the Riders checked and turned: Rowanna recognised what would come now, for she had seen the spiral formation time after time in practice and display over the years, and she knew better than to move a muscle as the éored wheeled tighter and tighter about them, barely inches between one horse's heels and the next's nose. As the halt came and the forest of spears sprang towards them, she struggled with an uncanny notion that this must be all for show as it had always been before; and as the Riders' commander dismounted and strode towards Aragorn with weapon raised, his helmet's white crest stirring in the wind, the feeling that she must be dreaming almost overwhelmed her. As Gimli and Legolas shifted a little to either side of her as though to shield her from this apparent hostility, she had to fight down a wild impulse to laugh aloud. These are my own people! This is all wrong!

Yet wrong, it seemed at first, it was: for the parley sounded to be going ill. Hearing the distrust in Éomer's voice as he named the Lady and the Golden Wood, all the unease of months past rose up again to choke her. They do not understand! I must tell them-

But the breath she took caught in her throat: for Gimli was on his feet, his harsh voice passionate in Galadriel's defence - Legolas had an arrow on the string - Éomer's sword was out - Aragorn leapt forward, and Rowanna heaved a long sigh of relief. Let the Chieftain deal! And deal he did: for as the argument went on and men and horses shifted impatiently, suddenly a great sword flamed in the sunlight; and Aragorn stood Chieftain and more than Chieftain, claiming titles Rowanna remembered only dimly from childhood tales at her mother's knee. Tales Éomer, it seemed, recalled as well as she, for in an instant his anger was gone and his challenge spent.

"Dreams and legends spring to life out of the grass," he said wonderingly. "And it seems to me you must be dreams yourselves: for we saw no sign of you as we rode by you, keenly though my Riders watched. More: when first we spied you I thought you were three, Man, Elf and Dwarf, and now I see a fourth - what then is he?"

The sheer strangeness of it all, and the unexpected ending of the moment's sharp fear, burst from Rowanna in a sudden snort of laughter. Nudging her way between Legolas and Gimli and throwing back her hood, she smiled up into the Third Marshal's familiar - and astonished - features. "Do you not know me, then, my lord? Westu Éomer hal!" She ducked her head in the quick half-bow which was all Éomer had ever expected by way of acknowledgement from his folk.

"Rowanna? Rowanna, Mirannas dohtor?" The Marshal shook his head as though doubting himself awake. "Hwi earthu her?"

"That, my lord Éomer, is a long tale," she replied, reverting to the Common tongue for Gimli and Legolas' sake, "and you shall have it at leisure if you will let me ride with you southwards. For now, I think you and my lord Aragorn have weightier and more urgent matters to discuss, and I will not trespass on them!"

With that Éomer set the Riders to make ready to ride south again, while he and Aragorn debated on. At last, it seemed, agreement was reached: "You may go," the Marshal declared, "and what is more, I will lend you horses. This only I ask: when your quest is achieved, or is proved vain, return with the horses over the Entwade to Meduseld. For there I return to my King's judgement, and there also will we gladly bear the Lady Rowanna in safety. Do not fail me."

"I will not," said Aragorn, and Rowanna thought she saw his shoulders drop as though relief swept through him. As the Riders began to mount up, she whistled for Gelion, who nickered in response and came trotting around from the far slope of the downs; then she turned hastily to find Legolas.

"Fear not for me! These are my people, and will see me safe to Edoras. Now I shall reach Mother before long, and you will rescue Merry and Pippin - "

"Elbereth grant it," said Legolas softly. "And perhaps, mellonen, you and I shall meet in your city - " He held her gaze a moment gravely, before a smile broke across his fair face. "If, that is, you can avoid getting into any further scrapes across the rest of Rohan!"

"My lord Éomer will make sure of that!" Rowanna laughed in her turn; but the thought of all that might yet darken the Riddermark, and of what the three companions faced, chilled her heart a moment later. "Legolas - go safely, be well..."

He nodded, then turned away as one of the Riders brought him a mount; a fine-boned grey who pranced and sidestepped continually until Legolas, putting off saddle and bridle, vaulted on to his back and stilled him with a word. Murmurs of disbelief rose from the Rohirrim; and the thought of all that the mistrusted Elves might teach the Eorlingas, given but the chance, kept Rowanna smiling until she and the éored were mounted and on their way, and the Three Hunters were only a vanishing shadow in the distance behind them.

***

All that day and half the night the éored rode hard; they stopped only to rest and water the horses, until they reached the edges of the Entwade where the ground grew too marshy and treacherous to navigate safely in the darkness, and they must needs halt for what remained of the night. At each stop, between checking hooves and dealing with gear and snatching mouthfuls of food and water herself, Rowanna gathered what news she could. But there were none in this éored she knew well, though many knew of her as Master Aelstan's apprentice by name or reputation, and to her puzzlement she found the normally open Eorlingas wary and close-mouthed. Bare facts she could come by - invasion of the Westfold from Isengard; the Second Marshal and his éored ridden out to give battle - but any attempt to measure how matters stood in Edoras, how life went on in the Mark, met with evasions and asides. "There's things best not spoken of, even here. You'll see soon enough, mistress."

And nor, though some of this éored she gathered were Edoras men, could or would anyone tell her anything of her mother. The caution was catching: when someone questioned how she had come to be keeping such strange company on the Downs, she said only that she had been away visiting her mother's kin in the North since last summer, and that she and Dirgon - whose name was known to some - had been attacked by Orcs, and Dirgon killed. When they at last stopped for the night, she lay shivering in her blanket, drowsed uneasily and woke often shaking, and greeted the first grey light of dawn with a sickened longing to get moving: the sooner we get there the sooner I shall know the worst, whatever it may be!

The sun rose and warmed chilled bones; despite all the anxieties of the past day and night, Rowanna felt her spirits lift as with much splashing the company forded the Snowbourn. The first and only city of the Riddermark stood proud on its high hill before them, rose-gold morning light glinting on the rooftiles of Meduseld for all to see for miles, and she did not need to look around her to know that the heart of every Eorling around her would be bursting with pride at the sight. I have got back to Edoras, and surely now all will be well!

The ground slowly rose to meet the citadel, and the éored naturally shifted formation as it passed by the Mounds of the Kings and began to climb the winding path, dropping into lines three abreast which would pass easily through the great pillared gates, with Éomer and Éothain at the head. Only as they reached the gate, and a pair of sentries stepped forward with spears lifted to salute the Third Marshal, did Rowanna feel stirrings of unease prickling at the back of her neck. Why do they look so shamefaced? Almost...guilty?

"Hail, Éomer, Third Marshal of the Riddermark!" the gatewards chanted in rather flat unison, as though by rote. They can barely look at him! What in the Mark is going on here?

  "Hail, friends, and well met." Éomer's robust salutation carried clearly back to his éored waiting behind him; but - was there, Rowanna wondered, an edge to it? Faint shufflings and mutterings began among the troop. Unnerved, a horse snorted and tossed his head, and was swiftly stilled. For a moment, there was no sound but the whipping of the wind in the great green standard above their heads; then another voice was raised as a slight figure wearing the sash of a King's herald stepped out from beside the sentries.

"Westu Éomer hal." The messenger dipped his head briefly in respect. "My lord..." He paused for a heartbeat. "You are bidden to attend without delay upon the King your uncle... by request of Grima Wormtongue."

Wormtongue. Rowanna felt a chill run down her spine. I had all but forgotten the Worm! She cudgelled her brain for memories of how Grima had stood in Edoras before she had left the Mark. Is he now climbed so high, that Éomer himself must dance attendance at his request? The muttering grew louder. Behind her, someone audibly spat.

Éomer's voice, when he spoke, was slightly hoarse, but unshakeable as the rock upon which the Citadel stood. "I attend gladly upon the King's pleasure." He spoke low into Éothain's ear. Then he turned right around in the saddle, so that all the éored might see him, and let his next words ring out for all around the gate to hear. "My friends, we have all done good work since we rode out from Edoras, and I thank you for it. Doubt not that Théoden King shall hear of your loyal service!" He nudged his great stallion, Firefoot, forward. Gatewards and messenger fell back before him; and the Third Marshal of the Mark rode, alone, up through the city to the feet of the Golden Hall.

***

As they passed through the great gate, Rowanna nudged Gelion to the left, heading as she always did for the communal stabling provided within the wall for those who, not living in the city, had no permanent stalls of their own: the Rider alongside her, however, reached to tap her arm. "Heading for the East-wall, mistress?"

"Yes, I -"

"Barely room to turn a foal round in there there days, with so many come in from the Eastemnet," he shook his head. "Biting and kicking and all sorts - and that's just the men!" He grinned wryly. "You'd best stick with us - they haven't requisitioned our stalls yet, Béma be thanked!"

Seeing the sense of his advice, Rowanna thanked him and turned Gelion the other way, passing with the rest of the Riders along the inner side of the western wall to the stables reserved by custom for the horses of the éoreds. She soon began to wonder if they would make it without treading on a child or a chicken; Edoras always bustled, but not even at the Summer Fair had she seen the city more crowded than the lower streets, away from the winding ceremonial way up to Meduseld, now were. Nor, it seemed, was she the only one to feel the overcrowding; she caught frequent curses from the jostling throngs, saw ill-tempered shoving, even a punch thrown.

Finally, though, all reached the Riders' stables with sighs of relief; and whatever the Riddermark's troubles might be, someone had ensured the supplies of grain and water and clean straw continued. Here at least there was plenty of room: looking round the empty stalls Rowanna bit her lip, remembering the snatched conversations of the day before. As she began unsaddling Gelion one of the éored, who had stopped to talk to a stable-lad in the yard, loomed in the doorway. He tried to speak; choked on the words; tried again, and with sudden dread Rowanna realised there were tears in his eyes.

"He..."  The Eorling swallowed hard. "He's dead."

Every Rider turned to look at him, horror-struck.

"My lord Théodred. Slain at the Fords. There was a great battle; orcs and Dunlendings and warg-riders - they were overrun..." He slammed his fist into the doorpost.

"Damn him!  Damn Saruman - and damn the Worm!"

"Hush, now, lad."  One of the older Riders moved to put an arm about his shoulder. "'Tis dire indeed, but you guard your tongue - even here..."

The men moved around the stable in sullen quiet, now, doing what was needful, exchanging looks or occasional murmurs. Anxious though Rowanna was to get up into the city, she brushed every inch of Gelion's chestnut coat till he gleamed - you deserve it, my friend! - earning some curious glances by murmuring to him in the Grey Tongue as she worked. Gelion looked about him with interest, sniffing all around his stall and nickering softly to the animals on either side of him.

"Placid beast," a Rider said softly as he passed behind Rowanna with his arms full of tack. "I thought he'd be more nervy, from the look of him..."

"That's the way the El- the folk up North breed them," Rowanna assured him; "their manners are as fine as their looks!" That was close, she told herself; be careful...

At last she was done. As she checked Gelion's stall one more time and stowed his brushes, she realised part of her would gladly put off stepping out of the stables and making the short steep climb up to the Weaversgate; for a dull cold feeling in the pit of her stomach told her that she would not like what she found there. For a moment she buried her face in Gelion's neck; then as he snorted softly and reached round to nibble hopefully at her pocket, she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. Best to know what you face, her mother's voice came in her head. The fear's always twice the thing itself...

The hubbub of the city's lower end gradually subsided as Rowanna made her way upwards; closer to Meduseld the thatched houses were a little larger and better spaced, the streets somewhat wider than the twisting alleys below, and she could move more quickly as the crowds thinned to a few passers-by with their heads determinedly down. By the time she turned into the end of the Weaversgate, her mother's street, it was so quiet that as she paused she heard her own blood thumping in her ears.

Her boots seemed to ring far too loudly on the cobbles as she made her way up the street; as she crossed the last few yards she thought, out of the corner of her eye, the end of a cloak or a skirt whisked out of sight across the way. The chill tide of disquiet which had ebbed and flowed ever since her dreaming had begun in Rivendell rose up, as she approached the house, in such a wave that for a moment she thought she would choke; and the cobwebs spun right across the drawn shutters, the unswept dirt and mouse-droppings all around the threshold, only told her what she suddenly, sickeningly realised she had already known. Planks were nailed across the small front door to seal it; the house was deserted. Her mother was gone.

~~~

Author's Notes:

As will be readily apparent, the first part of this chapter is essentially a rewrite from Rowanna's POV of the events of part of the "Riders of Rohan" chapter of TTT. Some of the dialogue in that section has therefore been lifted bodily straight from that chapter, embroidered where necessary.

"Rowanna? Rowanna, Mírannas dohtor?...Hwi earthu her?" - I hope means something like: "Rowanna? Rowanna, Míranna's daughter? What are you doing here?" - literally, "why are you here?" as "What are you doing here?" seems too modern an idiom for Anglo-Saxon, but that's what I'm getting at. Any A-S scholars reading this are more than welcome to correct my doubtless horrendous spelling/grammar...

I have assumed Éomer and his éored get back to Edoras on the morning of March 1st, the day after they meet the Three Hunters and the day before Gandalf and the Three arrive.


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