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24
Steed went Striding to the Stoningland

Six days.

Afterwards, when they asked her incredulously in the City whence and how she had come, Rowanna reckoned up and decided it must have been on the sixth day that she reached the Rammas; but the time had become a fevered blur of riding and enforced rests, knowing she must spare Gelion, yet pacing and watching every minute that they stopped to drink at a stream and let him graze.

Along the line of the White Mountains, the great snow-capped wall rearing away to her right, the West Road unrolled; the grass was encroaching on stretches as though in these troubled times it saw little use, but still she and Gelion could make good speed through the Eastfold, Rowanna staring ahead as if she could will the leagues to pass more swiftly under them. Once clear of Edoras' watchtowers she had soon forced herself to bring the horse down to a trot, knowing well that her wild impulse to gallop all the way to the White City would run them both into the ground within a day; and so with the long experience of years crossing and re-crossing the Riddermark's plains she had him trot and canter, trot and canter, muttering "More haste - less speed. More haste - less speed" through gritted teeth. Just get there before the War does. Just get there - Mother, I'm coming!

At first the shapes of the peaks away southward were familiar – Erech; the slopes which she remembered led up to Tarlang's Neck; Halifirien looming above his thickly wooded foothills - but after she and Gelion splashed easily through the Mering Stream and passed unheralded and unremarked into Gondor, she frowned at the mountains when they rested, struggling to place each peak to a half-remembered name. Calenhad, then Minrimmon, Nardol - wait, where did Erelas come? Each time her mind veered away into wild dreads as she shivered on the ground, trying to snatch uneasy sleep, she forced herself back to the rote lesson at her mother's knee; don't think about it, just count the beacon-hills - Erelas, Nardol, Eil, eil, Eilenach? What has befallen the Westfold? Did they reach Isen? Is he -

***

He knelt in the shelter of the Deeping Wall's great parapet, gazing down at the heaving mass of foul black shapes below him lit by blinding flashes of white lightning, trying to let the rain and the screams and the thunder from battle and sky wash over him unheeded. Nock, draw, loose, seventeen, nock, draw, loose, eighteen... How many days' ride, to Minas Tirith? Are all the orcs of Mordor marching into her path this very night? Do not think on it, not now. Draw and loose. Draw and loose. Nineteen. Twenty...

***

"Steady, Gelion! Sîdh, sîdh, mellon nin!" As the huge black horror overhead blotted out moon and stars, Rowanna crouched frozen against the horse's neck, pulling the grey Lórien cloak over her head, and willed her mount with hands and knees and whisper to be still under the tree where they had ducked. When she slowly raised her eyes again and dared to breathe, she thanked all the heavens for the courage and schooling of the Elves' beasts; for Gelion had stood firm, though he sweated and huffed with fear. Even before the mind-shattering shriek carried back to them from afar on the wind, the sick shaking she felt all over told her what the thing was beyond doubt. They have wings, now? They have taken to the sky?...

***

At the foot of Dol Baran the Riders stood rigid, the noisome black form still bearing down on their minds. As Gandalf leant down from Shadowfax's saddle to confer with Aragorn, Legolas on the other side reached up for the hobbit's shaking hand. "Fear not, Pippin. Shadowfax will outrun even the Nazgûl, should Gandalf command him, and he will not let you fall." Pippin, teeth clamped together against cold and fear, nodded tightly. "And now, I have a commission for you, my friend; will you bear a message for me?"

"But - you don't know where I'm going! I don't know where I'm going!"

"Ah, but I would lay a good guess." One side of the Elf's mouth quirked briefly in a wry half-smile. "If you go whither I suspect, then at journey's end you may meet a friend of us both: and if you do so, tell her that I think of her in peril and in peace, that she should not lose hope, and that we may yet meet again beyond the darkness."

The hobbit's lips moved for a moment soundlessly as he committed the words to memory. "Well, I'll remember, though I still don't understand to whom I might be saying it or why! You are becoming as bad as Gandalf for speaking in riddles, but never mind..."

Legolas chuckled, and again squeezed his small hand briefly. "Thank you, Pippin; it means much to me. Swift ride and safe journey's end - and try to keep our wizard out of trouble!"

Gandalf snorted as he straightened up in the saddle. "This is no time for idle chatter. Farewell! Follow fast! Away, Shadowfax!" And like the wind down off the slopes of the Ered Nimrais he and Pippin were gone, into the night.

***

On they went into the Sunlending (Anórien, Rowanna reminded herself, here they call it Anórien) - into land made lush by the rills running out of the White Mountains to join the Entwash, but firmer underfoot than the boggy Wetwang to the north; perfect riding country, had Rowanna been more of a mind to enjoy her surroundings. Every league eastwards, a league closer to... - she could not keep the thought from her mind as her eyes rose unbidden to the dark smudge on the horizon which she knew to be the northern fringes of the Ephel Duath, the sky above it an angry darkness tinged with flame. Frodo and Sam... There, Legolas had told her, the Hobbits had intended to go: and the thought of two small figures trudging into that wasteland undefended tore at her heart. All that is good seems to hang by a thread...

Every league they advanced she felt the tension build inside her, watching the road ahead for any sign of dust, of a great host on the move; but this near-empty land lay eerily quiet as it waited for war. The Nazgûl were still abroad, for several times a day - or night - the bone-shaking screeching would break the silence, but always high and far off. Whatever the black horrors sought, either the cloak of Lórien did all that Legolas had promised, or - more likely, she reasoned - she was of little interest to them.

Gelion showed himself more sturdy than any horse so finely-made had any right to be; though she was forcing herself to husband his strength jealously, making league after league at a steady trot, he would pull from time to time to break into a canter, and was still holding his head up at the end of the longest day. He was losing condition, she admitted ruefully, despite the handfuls of grain she had managed to obtain along the way - for to her relief, not all the isolated farmsteads scattered along the Anórien road were deserted. Though it took a good deal of soft calling and waiting with pounding heart to see who - or what- would emerge, several of the farmfolk eventually decided that a lone woman riding down the West-road on the eve of war might be mad but was otherwise no threat, and they came cautiously out to take her coin in exchange for grain for Gelion, a lump of bread and cheese, or a refill of her water-skin. No, they told her, no sight or sound of anything from the East yet; some were still packing wagons up to leave, while a few lifted chins with stubborn defiance and swore to see Mordor off their lands, or die first.

Then she and Gelion saw a great dark forest rising up the foothills of the mountains south of the Road, and Rowanna felt an odd stirring as though she should remember it. What did she know of this road? A map in one of her mother's books, a long-ago description? She could not recall - and yet, somehow, she was not surprised when as the afternoon was fading the road gradually swung around the woods' edge, bringing the setting sun from their backs to their right side, and pointing them due south around the end of the Ered Nimrais.

"Yonder it lies, Gelion! The White City! Tomorrow..."

Gelion whinnied and pricked his ears: yet they both spent an uneasy night. They made camp in the fringes of the forest, under cover a little way from the road, and all night on the breeze which rustled through the pines Rowanna thought she heard a strange, rhythmic thunder like distant drums.

***

Mist was curling thickly about them when the night paled enough to let her abandon any pretence at sleep, and Rowanna shivered, dew-sodden, as she saddled the forbearing Gelion and forced down a few of the dried apple slices which were nearly all the food she had left. "Shall we get on, boy? I know you could scarcely call it dawn yet, but I can make out the road, and there's no use pretending either of us will be better rested for waiting any longer."

So they set off, and an hour or more later were more than rewarded. The sun as it rose steadily burned off the pre-dawn mist, and as they climbed a slight hillock, a breath of wind chased away the wisps of fog in their immediate path. Suddenly in the distance against the dark feet of the mountains Rowanna glimpsed brightness; a pearly gleam touched with rose and gold by the sunrise. Minas Tirith! There she lies!

As the fog lifted and day came in earnest, they began for the first time to see others on the road: they passed ox- and donkey-carts piled high with children and goods, a few mules bearing an old man or woman or a great pile of bedding and cooking-pots. They're fleeing, Rowanna realised with a shudder. They know war is on their heels and they go - to the City? Can it take them all?..

Steadily Minas Tirith grew nearer; as the sun climbed towards noon, however, Rowanna realised she would have to declare herself long before she reached the dazzling white towers. The faint line across the green which she had been puzzling over from a distance turned out to be a high stone wall; and the one, narrow gate in it that she could see was clearly guarded. Away to her left she could still see carts and wagons coming and going; but they were taking the long way around the wall, presumably unable to pass through the narrow northern gate. The road up to the two pairs of rigid sentries was empty.

"Well, we've come this far, lad," she murmured to Gelion, trying to convince herself, "and I'll be damned if I'll give up now! Come on!" And with a nudge of her heels, they cantered the last few score yards up to the out-wall. As they approached, she realised that there were gaps and half-ruined sections in the stonework, and that the figures toiling back and forth with barrows and buckets at the wall's base were in fact rebuilding it.

"Halt! Who goes there?"

The challenge came just as expected, yet still it set Rowanna's heart thumping. Just let me through, please, please let me through! She reined Gelion in as commanded, as one of the sentries stepped forward.

"Rowanna is my name, daughter of Halemnar and Míranna of Minas Tirith; I ride to seek my mother in the city, I fear she may be sick or in grave trouble - I beg your leave to pass!"

"In the city?" The sentry gestured to one of his fellows, who nodded and vanished briskly through the gate. "If she's still in the city, lady, then she'll be in trouble soon enough, 'tis true! But we cannot let just any pass the Rammas Echor like that. If your kin are within the walls, then how come you to be riding down from the West-road? Where've you come from?"

She was saved from answering at once by the reappearance of the other sentry from within the wall, accompanied by an older guard with what she guessed to be an officer's silver on one shoulder. He looked her up and down with narrowed eyes.

"What is this tale you spin my men? Whence come you? No strangers may pass into the City at this time!"

Even in his apparent hostility, there was something familiar - a trace of her mother's accent, perhaps; the black hair and grey eyes which had marked Rowanna herself out as so strange through her Riddermark childhood - which made her put her chin up and respond firmly:


"I am no stranger. I have come down from Anórien, up away towards the border with Rohan -" that's true enough, she qualified inwardly, even if I've come much further before that! "and I seek my mother, Míranna daughter of Rían of the house of the Annúmellyrn, who returned some months ago to the City after many years away -"

"Míranna?" The officer frowned. "What father-name gave you to my men?"

"My father's name was Halemnar," she said, suddenly struggling to keep the tremor from her voice. "Halemnar son of Hyarmenhîr son of Andamir -"

"And he married Míranna daughter of Rían, and settled where?" her questioner asked sharply.

"In Rohan. He served in the éored of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Mark, and - was killed in his service..."

"...more than a score of years ago." The officer's frown had softened. "And I knew he had a daughter, too, and I can see him in your face, though I think I never heard what he called you. I knew your father, lady, before he departed to serve our friends the Rohirrim. Ingold is my name. Your pardon for a moment - "

He signed to the two guards a pace behind him, who snapped to attention and marched back to their stations on either side of the gate; then he disappeared briefly into the small gatehouse tucked against the wall, returning with a small piece of parchment, bearing a message in an elegant cursive hand, which he rolled neatly and handed to her.

"Should the sentries at the Great Gate make any difficulties, show them that, and tell them you were given leave at the north-gate of the Rammas. You may pass, lady, for all the good it will do you."

"Wh-what do you mean, Master Ingold?" She felt sudden cold in the pit of her stomach. Ingold sighed.

"In truth, madam, I will be surprised if you find your mother, or any kin but men of fighting age, yet within the walls; for my Lord Steward's order is that the old and the sick, the children and the women must all be gone south to Lossarnach or Lebennin by tomorrow noon. War is upon us. The City must empty."

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