The city was just beginning its first faint morning stirrings: a boy passed her pulling a handcart laden with milk-churns; one or two shopkeepers emerged bleary-eyed from doorways and began to open their shutters. The sun was not up yet, and Rowanna found her teeth chattering as she took the well-known way up towards Meduseld. Only as she reached the edge of the great greensward where the familiar horse-head fountain chuckled did she falter; after a moment's hesitation she ducked back into the shadows, turned left into a side-street, and made her way by guesswork around through the back-alleys until her nose told her she was drawing close to the bakehouse behind the Golden Hall.
It was a long, solid stone building, tile-roofed like the Hall itself, though in unassuming red clay rather than in gold; Rowanna dimly remembered from years ago the great fire, in which a spark from one of the ovens had burnt the old thatched wooden bakehouse to the ground, and which but for a long day of bucket-chains from the spring and the Snowbourn might have put paid to Meduseld too.
The warm floury scent gusting from the open bakery windows would normally have made her mouth water; now, however, it made her dry stomach heave and her mouth feel suddenly bitter. She forced herself to swallow, closed her eyes and took one long steadying breath; then she stepped forward and found herself joining a little knot of folk waiting, with varying degrees of patience, at the bakehouse's back door. Loaves were being handed out; one or two here, a basketful there, with a few envious glances to and fro as each measured how well others were faring. At last it was Rowanna's turn to be confronted by the kerchiefed goodwife, as broad as the doorway behind her, who was clearly in charge.
"If you please, mistress," - she summoned up every vestige of her childhood Eastfold accents, and hoped she had tucked all her blatantly foreign black hair under her hood - "I was told the Lady Éowyn might have the goodness to see me a moment; 'tis Annis, Nelda's cousin of Silver Street..." Firmly folded arms and a sharp-eyed look at first greeted her plea; then the bakewife said abruptly,
"Wait you here," and turned to call over her shoulder. A pink-cheeked lad with tell-tale crumbs around his mouth appeared, darted off again, and then - as the goodwife turned her attention to the next hopeful arrival - returned and jerked his head in summons to Rowanna. He threaded a tight path between rows of tables where red-faced women, sleeves rolled and hair tucked back, were pounding at dough before the great ovens constantly filled and emptied by sweating bakers, then gestured.
"Lady Éowyn's busy, she asks you wait a moment - " and scurried off on his next errand.
Éowyn's back was turned, her braided hair bound like all the others in a scarf behind; but even without the gown or jewels of the Lady of Meduseld, even without sight of her face, there was no mistaking height or bearing, tall and straight as a birch sapling. So when she turned around to her latest petitioner, Rowanna's heart gave a great jolt which she could only pray had not shown in her face, as she hastily sank into the best curtsey she could manage.
She was ever slender and pale, but... so white, and so drawn? Such black shadows under her eyes?
She swallowed her shock: quickly, there's no time! Rising at Éowyn's gesture, she stepped close, and murmured, "Annis, madam, cousin of Nelda, Edyth's daughter-in-law from Silver Street..." Now for it, she thought; will I be known as aught else?
"I know," Éowyn's deep voice said firmly; "I was expecting you. Come this way, we have set aside bread for your kin..." She drew Rowanna a little further from the kneaders and bakers, into a corner where baskets of loaves were piled high.
"You need to go tonight?"
"As soon as may be, my lady -"
"Not before dark," Éowyn cut her off softly. "At dusk, go down to the postern-gate in the West-wall under the watchtower - you know it? good - and see whether the guard there wears simbelmynë on his left sleeve. If he does not, turn straight around and go home again! If he does, say to him only: 'I'm the seamstress' daughter,' and you shall have passage, and shall know that the watch above in the tower is primed to let you go unhindered."
"My horse?..." Rowanna whispered, while she tried furiously to memorise the instructions she knew Éowyn would not repeat.
"In the West-wall stables, is he not? He shall be readied for you - do not go yourself! - and brought around outside the wall; I have one who will see to it." She glanced over her shoulder, and made as if to move away.
"Lady Éowyn?" Her head flicked back: make haste, her raised eyebrow said.
"I.. I am so sorry for your loss."
The moment it was out, she wished she had left it unsaid: for Éowyn's mouth trembled for just an instant, before she bit down hard on her lip, nodded curtly, and turned away. You fool, Rowanna berated herself; with her brother in hold and her cousin dead, she has her mask in place hour after hour, day after day, and you almost crack it with a word! She was about to turn and go herself, forcing herself not to run, when with a great thump of her heart she remembered: bread! and after a moment's indecision took the smallest and least-loaded basket she could see, pulled her hood well forward again and hurried back down the bakehouse. She was almost at the back door again when from across the room, beneath the wide arch of the main doorway where carts could draw up, she heard Éowyn's voice once more, with something in its perfectly courteous ice that brought her up short:
"I must pray my lord Gríma excuse me; I am not at leisure."
"Such devotion to duty..."
Rowanna could see nothing beyond Éowyn's rigid stillness: yet something in the unctuous hissing of that other voice made her want to retch anew. Choking down her nausea, forcing down the impulse to go to Éowyn's side - for if she cannot help herself, there will be nothing you can do! she wormed her way past the growing huddle of hopeful faces outside the bakehouse, forced herself to walk the length of the first two alleys back downhill, and then with a sobbed gasp of relief broke into a run, skidding in the mud all the way back to the house in Silver Street with her unexpected - but to Nelda, most welcome - basket of bread.
Never had Rowanna - with no great gift for sitting still at the best of times - felt herself so close to going mad as she did while the rest of the long morning wore away. As the children fought joyfully over the extra bread come warm from the King's own bakehouse, and Ardith began to protest that she had not known they were such a burden and had to be soothed by Nelda, it had taken her some time even to catch a moment with Edyth privately enough to let her know what was planned.
"Well enough," Edyth said softly, "and all praise to my lady, I was sure she'd not let us down; the Worm may have half Edoras in his grip or beneath his heel, but no question who has the hearts and spirits of the other half in her keeping! I'll put you up food and whatever clothing we can spare, as and when I can do it without Ardith paying too close attention, before sundown - Nelda's chemises are too small for you, but there's an old shirt of Teon's you might have if I've time to cut it down, just for a spare - are your boots going to last you? But you must keep to the house; we can't risk the wrong eyes catching sight of you and all our hard work going to waste..."
In snatched moments, as Ardith went out to the pump at the street-corner or the children were chased out to feed the hens, Rowanna and Edyth laid what further plans they could.
"I meant to ask you, mistress," Edyth enquired as she handed Rowanna more vegetables to peel for the stew - "need you anything from your dear mother's house? We daren't let you near the place, but I could try to slip up - "
"The only thing is, Edyth - " Rowanna flushed - "I should give you something for all the food and clothing, when times are so hard here, and I might yet need coin before I reach Minas Tirith, or when I do - " if! she added silently - "but I brought barely any with me, for El - in the North, I mean, they have little use for it! D-do you know if Mother-"
"Ah, now, there we do have an answer," Edyth told her in a whisper, glancing at the door, "for your mother sold nearly all she had here, and though she took gold in plenty with her, she left a little coin with me - 'for I still hope and pray, Edyth, that Rowanna will come home one day, and if she does and finds me gone, she may have need of it!'"
"Edyth - I never had a chance to ask!" Rowanna suddenly remembered the question which Teon's bursting into the workshop the previous day had driven out of her head. "Did Béodred ever get back here? Does Mother-" She stumbled, feeling tears spring to her eyes, and dashed them impatiently away. "Does she even know I am alive?"
Edyth smiled, and took up the paring-knife Rowanna had left unheeded on the table. "Bless you, that she does - do you think she would ever have left Edoras, even as bad as things were, with no news of you? Béodred came back, right enough, and straight up to the Weaversgate to set your mother's heart at rest - though in truth, he may have done as much harm as good without knowing it; for he was always too straight-tongued to be very careful how soft he spoke, that one, and goodness knows who overheard his wide-eyed tales to your mother of Elves and enchantment and I don't know what, but there's no mending that now..."
"And after all he did for me, I could hardly begrudge it in any case," Rowanna admitted. "Where is he, Edyth?"
"Off to the war, like so many of the hot-headed lads," Edyth sighed. "When my lord Théodred called for more men to swell his éored Béodred was waiting with the first in line - "
"With Théodred?" Rowanna winced. "But -"
"But that means he would have been at Isen, aye," the older woman agreed. "And news comes slow and scanty of any but the great men's sons from battle, and no word yet of any but Théodred, save that things went very ill; so like half the city, we must wait and see." She tipped her chopped turnips into the stewpot and rose, grunting a little, to her feet. "Now, child, there are a few things I must go out for; when Ardith gets back with the water, put that on to boil for me and watch it, and try not to let her silly chatter drive you into saying any more than you ought, till I get back; and for your forefathers' sakes, don't leave the house!"
The warning, Rowanna admitted to herself an hour later, had been well given; for while Ardith talked perhaps no more then Edyth did, she said a great deal less to any purpose, and seemed furthermore to assume Rowanna would share all her own ingrained views on everything from the rearing of children to the best way to pluck a fowl. Rowanna was casting about in desperation for some excuse to escape into the yard for a while, when a sound outside caught her attention.
"What's that? It sounded like a horn-"
Before Ardith could reply, though, one of Nelda's children, the lad called Wulf, crashed in through the door bursting with excitement and news.
"Mother! Where's Mother? - oh, Aunt Ardith, have you heard? A wizard! There's a wizard in the city -someone said his name's Greyhame - and a dwarf and an elf and a strange tall man with him! They went up to Meduseld, and they're saying he's cured the King, and the war-horns are blowing, and -"
Rowanna did not wait for the rest of Wulf's tale, or Ardith's exclamations of excitement, or even stop to pull her cloak from its peg; before boy or aunt could say another word she had leapt up from her stool, thrown the door open and was running, cursing her unaccustomed skirts, back up towards the Golden Hall.
In the streets was chaos; and she soon began to fear she would never get near Meduseld through the crowd, which jostled and bustled, throwing rumour back and forth as it ebbed and flowed:
"- heard the heralds? Aye, mustering the City and all around - they've been blowing the warhorns this half-hour and more -"
"- said the Worm spat at Théoden - at the king! - and then ran for his life-"
"a Dwarf, I tell you, a real Dwarf as I live and breathe, and-"
Infuriated, Rowanna tried to push and pardon her way forward; at last she reached the wide street which led up to Meduseld's stair, but even here the crowd was two or three thick in front of her, pressing her back almost to the walls of the houses. Suddenly a great cry went up; craning, she caught sight of Éowyn on the steps of the Golden Hall far above her, and gasped at the sight of her with a great sword and wearing mail which dazzled in the sun. Who was coming down, clearing a path into the cheering mass? - a standard-bearer - the King! Théoden himself armed for battle! The crowds surged in close behind him - who followed? she could not see; and then-
"See, I told you! An Elf!"
Even among so many tall fair heads in the crowd she knew him at once, and froze on the spot, feeling her heart leap. But before she could move, while she hesitated for one torn instant over whether she should even try to go to him, he stopped suddenly and whipped around, as though something had caught his attention; then he was on the move, slipping through the throng as easily as water around rocks, until he stood in front of her.
"Rowanna, mae govannen!" His smile was ready for her as ever, yet there was something tight, strained, somewhere in his voice. "You reached Edoras in safety, then!"
He was about to say more, but her sharply indrawn breath checked him. Shocked, she put a hand up to touch the polished mail at his shoulder.
"Legolas, you - armour?..."
He nodded, suddenly grim. "We ride to the relief of Erkenbrand at the Fords of the Isen. I would gladly be rid of its weight and bulk, for it slows me and I can barely reach my quiver; but Aragorn insists, and I may yet have much cause to be glad of it."
There was so much she needed to know, and so little time, that she scarcely knew where to begin.
"Merry and Pippin? Did you reach them?"
"We did not - but," as her face must have betrayed her dismay, "fear not, rohiril, they are safe and well cared for, or so Mithrandir claims, and I have given up being astonished at anything he says!"
"Then - then it is Gandalf! They said Greyhame - but - but he-"
"Fell, yes," and the shadow that darted across Legolas' features was replaced by an expression she could recognize, even on a once-unreadable Elven face, as pure joy: "but returned! Not the Grey Pilgrim now but the White, and even greater in his powers - though as impossible as ever, and still speaking in riddles!"
He quirked an eyebrow at her, a comfort so familiar that she almost laughed. "And you - is all well, mellonen? What news of your mother? - "
"She has gone." Rowanna felt her chest heave with a great sob of suppressed worry and tension, and then before she could check it the whole tale tumbled out: the growing hostility of the fearful city; mistrust of even those strangers who had not been strange for many years past; and at last her mother's proud refusal to trespass any longer upon the hospitality of a land which claimed to want her no more.
He listened, standing very close to her under the thatched eaves so that she could speak low as she felt she must, and as she ended he grasped her shoulders and looked intently into her face.
"You mean to follow her," he said with certainty. "You mean to go to Minas Tirith - to ride into the heart of a land about to be overwhelmed by war!"
He knows, Rowanna realised. She closed her eyes in despair; he will tell me it is too dangerous - he will want to stop me, tell Aragorn, and Aragorn and Théoden King will forbid me to go, and I will be honour bound to obey the Chieftain even if I could get out of the city once the King denies me! - But before she could draw breath for pleading or protest, she felt a sudden weight of cloth settling around her shoulders, and the quick careful working of deft fingers at her throat. Opening her eyes in surprise, she looked down to see a grey cloak placed about her; her hand, when she put it up to her neck, found the smooth cool of enamel.
"It is the cloak I was given in Lórien," said Legolas tersely, "worked by the maidens of the Lady Galadriel herself. You remember how the wearer can melt almost away? It will hide you from hostile eyes; and you may encounter many of those before you reach the White City..."
She tried to speak, and found she could only stare at him, amazed. He had her by the shoulders again, gazing at her as though he needed every detail of her face in memory. A sudden cheer from further down the hill told them that the King's party had reached the gates; Legolas tore his gaze away a moment to glance over his shoulder and murmured,
"I could wish - "
Then for a moment he came back to her, for once with no flicker of a smile in the grey-blue eyes, more earnest than she had ever seen him.
"I give you the hallowed blessing of my House," he said softly, stepping close again away from the crowds. "Elbereth guide you - " she felt his lips gentle on her left cheek - "guard you - " - her right cheek - "and protect you," - he took her head between his hands and kissed her solemnly on the brow - "to the end of the world."
Then without another word, without giving her time to open her mouth, he whirled and was gone, darting between the people still thronging down towards the Gate; while Rowanna stood like stone, her fingertips resting where his lips had met her cheek, gazing after him in wonder.
The clattering of hooves in the street leading down to the Gate brought her back to herself, and it suddenly dawned on her what the heralds were still crying in the streets: "Muster! Eorlingas, to the King!" Looking down the hill, she saw the Gate thrown open, heard the clashing of spear on shield, saw the great host preparing to move off, and realised: The Worm gone, the muster called, errand-riders going out every which way - this is it! Go!
Throwing open the door below the silver fish, she caught Edyth by the arm and for once got her tale in first: Edyth, though she never stopped berating Rowanna for her foolishness, "going flying out of the house like that when for all you knew anything could be happening!" caught her intention at once, and bustled about packing the readied food and shirts and water-skins into her saddlebags, taking not the slightest notice of Ardith's shrill exclamations . Rowanna dived behind the bed-curtain to throw off her borrowed skirts, yanking breeches and shirt and boots on frantically, taking a moment's more care to refasten the precious grey cloak. In minutes she was done; she ducked into the workshop to clasp a friendly hand with Teon, kissed Nelda, waved to the children who watched with huge round eyes from the corners, and at last met Edyth again in the doorway.
"Cover up that black hair of yours, for pity's sake, if you want to be thought an errand-rider of the Mark," the older woman scolded, tucking the rogue strands away under the grey hood. "And where did you get this cloak? - it's not the one you came with!"
"No time now, Edyth," Rowanna panted. "Take mine in thanks, it's a good one, Elven weave-"
"Béma himself keep you, child," Edyth said firmly, "safe from orcs and war and all foul things; and when you reach Mundburg, tell your lady mother she's much missed, and may we all come to better times."
Rowanna nodded, hugged her hard and swiftly, grabbed up saddlebags and ran. Down to the West-wall; a quick look over Gelion, who seemed well enough fed and rested and watered, and nickered in pleasure to see her.
"No time for treats now, lad, I'm sorry!" Rowanna murmured as she raced to saddle up. "And I hope you're in best fettle, for we've a long road to go with all haste and no spare mount to give you a rest - but I'll make it up to you, I promise!"
She mounted up, got out of the stables, down to the Gate without speaking to any or doing anything to draw anyone's eye or ear in the general hubbub - then they were out, the gate-guards thinking nothing of one more errand-rider passing through in haste; down the hill, clear of the city and away like the wind, down the Great West Road, for Gondor.