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35
Over Death, Over Dread, Over Doom Lifted

"Legolas? What ails you, lad?.." Gimli, who had been hunting in his tunic for his pipe, looked round as the Elf sat up abruptly, gasping. "I thought you were sleeping?"

"I – nothing, Gimli; I dreamed, that's all." Legolas shook his head as though to clear it and huddled into the folds of his cloak, hugging his knees to his chest.

The Dwarf grunted, and began carefully tamping down a little of his hoarded store of tobacco into the bowl of his pipe.

" And there was I thinking I could sneak a quiet smoke while you weren't awake to complain of it!"

Legolas managed a shaky chuckle. "I'll not begrudge it you; if it's a stink 'tis at least a friendly and familiar one, I suppose. Smoke if you will!" Gimli's eyebrows shot up into his hair.

"Are you sure you're not ailing? This isn't all that stuff about the Sea and gulls again, is it?.." Receiving no answer from the Elf beyond a shake of the head, he shrugged, lit his pipe carefully, and sat back with a sigh of relief.

Legolas stared unseeing across the encampment, unable to banish the image; Rowanna, sitting alone on the stone bench in the evergreen-sheltered alcove, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably and her face buried in her tear-stained hands. He felt the great wave of grief and despair that flowed over her, threatening to engulf her; in his mind he stretched out to her just as he had that evening below the Houses, desperate to hold her, to comfort -

I cannot . Again and again the waking-dream came, and over and over it mocked him, would not let him reach out in mind and console her. She can't hear me – we're apart, I can't touch her, there's no way...

Is she there even now, in the garden, looking eastward? The thought tore painfully at his heart. Do I see what is – or what may yet come to pass?..

***

Rowanna tapped softly, in case the room's occupant was sleeping; but a tired "Come in" met her knock. Éowyn was curled in the window-seat, elbows propped on the sill, gazing out towards the morning sun, and only half-turned as Rowanna entered.

"Lady Éowyn, good morrow –" She made to curtsey, but Éowyn forestalled her with an impatient gesture and motioned her to take the other end of the window seat. "How fare you? Does your arm pain you?"

Éowyn shook her head. "The arm is well enough, set and bound – it is not as if I shall have any use for it!"

Rowanna settled herself among the tapestried cushions, noting Éowyn's white face and hollow eyes. Worse than in the bakehouse of Meduseld! But then 'tis little wonder...

"Has that arm not done great deeds enough already?" she suggested gently. "Were it not for you and Merry, who knows if we would be sitting here now –"

Éowyn's good hand clenched convulsively on the sill.

"But they have ridden forth again! My brother, and... he – the lord Aragorn..."

And Legolas, thought Rowanna, her heart contracting powerfully at the thought. She looked into Éowyn's face and, unexpectedly, recognised something very like her own anguish mirrored there. Is it so?... The idea startled her, but she thought she could see the truth of it in Éowyn's despairing eyes. For Aragorn ?... She felt a sudden rush of sympathy, and found herself reaching to fold her own hand over Éowyn's. Of course, she can know nothing of Arwen! And to one raised as a shieldmaiden, on dreams of valour and renown, how could the Chieftain not be everything she longed for?...

"And because I am a woman, though I could yet wield a blade, I must sit helpless here and wait to learn my fate!" Éowyn finished bitterly.

"Because you are wounded, rather, surely," Rowanna protested. "What commander would send you into battle with no shield arm? There are men felled by the Black Breath who must also wait behind – the Steward himself, for one..."

Éowyn's fingers worked restlessly across the sill.

"He is a good man," she admitted wearily. "Valiant, and...kind."

"No doubt of either," Rowanna agreed robustly. "He came to sit with Mother yesterday - I had told him she was troubled by dreams these last nights, and he wanted to help if he could; he has a dreamer's face himself, somewhat, I think. I don't know all they talked of, for I had promised to sit in the garden with Merry; but they were closeted nearly till noon, and parted as though Faramir were her favourite nephew. And when he was gone Mother said something about the truest courage being oft the quietest; that young man has been eye to eye with his worst fears, she said, and yet must go on each day in spite of them. I do wonder what they talked about..."

She noticed Éowyn stir suddenly. "What is it?"

"Oh – nothing..."

But Rowanna too had caught through the window the movement of a slender black-clad figure rounding the southeast corner of the House.

"Come down to the garden," she suggested. "The sun will be warm now, and the new grass smells so fresh – the air would do you nothing but good."

Rather to her surprise, Éowyn turned decisively and made to rise.

"Do you know, I believe I will." And so a little later Rowanna left the Steward and the White Lady walking beneath the budding branches of the fruit trees, the sun warm on their backs even as their gaze slid incessantly back to the lowering darkness over the mountains to the East.

***

I never knew an army on the march move so quietly , Legolas thought as they plodded hour after dogged hour along the ancient road to the Morannon. Granted, we have been ambushed once already, and but for the woodcraft of the Lord Faramir's ranger scouts it might have gone hard for us; but 'tis more than that. He would have spoken his thought to Gimli, but with the Dwarf mounted behind him, he would have had to raise his voice more than seemed fitting in the watchful quiet of the advance. The very rocks listen. He had been trying, ever since they had first crossed Anduin, to hear the murmurings of tree, leaf, stream; but ever since the Crossroads, nothing. Silence. The land is afraid.

And no wonder! His jaw tightened as he remembered the damage north of the Crossroads; trees which should have stood proud in their prime, mutilated... despoiled. Not even cut down for use – hacked into and left broken and bleeding sap, for what? Taking pleasure in what axe or knife can do? Good earth and clean water poisoned by filth... Gimli was surprised to see me weep. Aragorn was not. But it had been the sons of Elrond who had come to hunker down one at either shoulder, as he knelt running his fingers in mute despair over the ruins of a holm oak, and said softly in his ear,

"There's no time now, Legolas Thranduilion. Another day..."

Whether they had meant, to grieve , or to repair , he had not asked; but the seed of the idea had been planted. I would come back. I swear it, Queen of the Earth. Orcs did this; Elves should make amends...

But the land's silence, he knew, could not entirely account for the army's; and it is more even than the threat of ambush, I think. We march in silence because there is nothing to say; because it is all these drawn-faced Men can do to go on putting one foot in front of the other. No jest, no argument can mask the bitter truth; we do this because we can do naught else, yet we all know we are marching to our doom.

He felt the menace before the pair of Nazgûl shadowed the sun, and forced his gaze upward, steeling himself as the chill shriek carried faintly down the wind: tâd , he mouthed silently to Aragorn, who nodded grimly. They watch our every move. I would give anything to turn away, but he must know their numbers! And to all but me they are a horror beyond sight, these worst of the oppressions that weigh down on us. Small wonder, that not all could bear it. Were those whom Aragorn sent back to Cair Andros, overmastered by their fear, simply the youngest and the least tried? Or were they perhaps the clearest-sighted about what is to come?

He stared unseeing that night into the small fire Gimli had patiently assembled from a few handfuls of kindling, aware of the other's gaze on him behind the steady puffs of smoke from his pipe.

"You've barely spoken today," Gimli observed gruffly. "Not a word to cheer a poor Dwarf?..."

"Forgive me, Gimli. This land...haunts me."

How could I begin to tell him? That before I was born my grandfather rode to war upon this domain, an Age ago, and was cut down like the grass with two-thirds of his Elves before the very gates of Mordor that we march upon? That the histories of our House recount how Father led home the proud, scarred remnant of our force, but only the whispered tales late at night tell of the black silences and the rages and despair that followed? Father never, never speaks of it. And only those who love him best dare to murmur, when his mood is dark, that he was changed-

Knowing that Gimli fretted for him, he rolled himself up in his blanket and stared into the night, hoping against hope for respite; but in his dreams the Greenwood was in flames, his people lay dead in their thousands upon the black plain of the Dagorlad, Thranduil sat unmoving in a cold chamber whose fire and candles were long burnt out...

'I won't let go, I've got you.' The familiar voice came in his head as though she were beside him. She smells of sweet hay and woodsmoke and her mouth tastes warm as wine...

He held her in his mind all that night: clung to the memory all through the gathering dread of the days and nights that followed, as the wolves howled about them and the wind grew chill; until the last march was done, and they stood in the grey dawn surrounded by slag-heaps and ash, beyond hope, before the gates of Mordor.

***

Rowanna stirred out of an uneasy doze as an early burst of birdsong drifted in through the open window. Thank the Powers, it grows light – not long before I can give up any pretence at sleep... She had spent yet another night, the seventh since the Armies of the West had marched from the Pelennor, forcing herself to lie rigid in bed; too tired to sit up, unwilling to toss and turn for fear of disturbing her mother in the adjoining room, yet tormented by broken fragments of nightmare whenever weariness closed her eyes and dragged her into sleep.

She hauled herself to sit upright, grimacing at the protests from her stiffened neck and back, then swung her legs from the bed and went softly, as always, to the doorway to look in on her mother. Míranna was shifting restlessly on her pillow as she slept; Rowanna turned quietly away again and moved towards the window. It's cold! The unexpected chill draught brought her to instant wakefulness. And windy – from the North... Sullen clouds were scudding across a leaden sky as it steadily lightened. Rowanna shivered.

Will it be today? Merry said that Beregond thought, perhaps a week to reach the Black Gate – if they got that far... She longed for wings, for the far sight of Master Elrond, for a steed the match of Shadowfax; I would rather have to see, whatever fate befalls them, than sit here helpless. Could those we love so dearly truly be gone from the world, and we not know even when to begin to mourn?..

***

This is the place. Legolas had forced himself to take one searching look at his surroundings as the first grey light of dawn revealed the hideous, twisted forms of broken black rock and ash all around; and then needed to gaze no more, feeling Sauron's land and his creatures all about him in the prickling of his skin and the nausea he fought down. Here Grandfather and the army of the Greenwood stood, and here so many of them fell, without sight of leaf or grass or any green or living thing save the foul spawn of Mordor. All night the fate of his kin had played on him, till he found himself calling on the Star-Queen: Elbereth, no matter the terror, let it not undo me!

But as Aragorn drew up his host upon two hills of rubble before the Black Gate, and called Elf and Dwarf to ride forth with him beneath Crown and Stars to challenge the Dark Lord, what filled Legolas was not fear but leaden, cold determination. There shall yet be a reckoning. Though we all perish, Powers willing we shall buy Sam and Frodo enough time.

But then the Mouth of Sauron brought out Sam's sword, and Frodo's mithril-coat; Legolas felt Gimli stiffen behind him on Arod's back. He would not, must not look away, though his vision swam in despair. 'Tis over, then. I must to Mandos knowing Middle-earth is the Dark Lord's. Ai, Father – Rowanna...

Mithrandir does not believe it! Just for an instant Legolas saw it as the wizard argued with the Black Númenorean, and it was enough. Sauron's vile messenger has no prisoner. Frodo is not his to yield. We fight yet with a purpose!

They galloped wildly back to the waiting armies, Aragorn calling across to Mithrandir and to Éomer even as they rode, already disposing his utterly outnumbered troops. Stationed towards the summit of the hill where he could shoot over the heads of the Men of Minas Tirith, Legolas cast one swift glance about, placing his friends for the last time: Aragorn close by him beneath the standard; the sons of Elrond in the vanguard with the Grey Company of the Dúnedain; Pippin, far too close to danger – as if it mattered, now! he realised ruefully – in the front rank with Dol Amroth.

"What say you, Gimli?" he called. "Shall we make one last contest of it, before the end?"

He could barely make the Dwarf out further forward among the tall Men of Gondor, but the low rumble was unmistakable, even over the shrieking and clashing as Easterlings and Orcs beyond counting poured forward on every side.

"That we will, Elf, if you're such a glutton for punishment. Flagon of ale says I beat your count." Neither asked when, or how, they would claim it.

And then there was nothing but his emptying quiver and the singing of Lothlórien's great bow, as the sun rose blood-red into a dark sky, and the beleaguered Armies of the West began to fight and die.

***

" Mother, do sit down," Rowanna urged, trying to keep her rising irritation from mingling with the genuine concern in her words. "You only got up from your bed yesterday, and the Warden said you were not to overtax your strength –"

"I know what the Warden said!" Míranna flashed back. Sighing, she sank into the chair Rowanna pushed forward, and sat twisting her fingers to and fro. "I feel so strange - "

"Are you ill? Should I call a Healer?" Rowanna quickly put a hand to her mother's forehead, but it felt cool enough, although she noted with unease that there were fever-like spots of high colour in Míranna's cheeks.

"No, it's not that -" Míranna got up again and paced the little room in her agitation. "I can't be still, I don't know whether to laugh or cry -" She paused as she passed the window. "Take me into the garden."

"Oh, Mother, come -" Rowanna protested. "There's a bitter wind blowing this morning, and even if we begged enough shawls or cloaks to keep you warm, I am sure the Warden would say you should not attempt all those stairs -"

"Then could you not find a litter and two lads to carry me?" To Rowanna's alarm, her mother's eyes were pleading. "I do not know why, I would not keep within doors!"

She'll make herself ill again with the agitation alone at this rate, her daughter thought, and sighed. "Wait here a little, Mother, I'll see what can be contrived."

Having the good fortune to find Narwen rather than Ioreth, Rowanna managed to circumvent the Warden; a little later she installed Míranna, well wrapped against the wind still blowing from the North, in the relative shelter of one of the alcoves in the evergreen hedge. That next bench along, that's where – She swallowed hard on the lump in her throat which began to swell at the memory. Don't think about it, don't, there's no use now... Briefly she touched the leaf-brooch fastening the grey cloak at her throat, her one talisman, and shivered as she drew the cloak more closely about her. "Are you sure you are warm enough?" she chided Míranna.

"I'm well enough, it's very sheltered here." Her mother was looking out southwards over the Anduin, not glittering now but as dull and grey as the surrounding plain under the leaden sky. "And thank you, my dear. I know the Warden would be unlikely to approve, but I needed fresher air. Come, sit by me?"

"All right, I - " Rowanna broke off, distracted by a flash of blue through the branches of the wind-tossed trees. Moving away from the hedge a little to see, she caught a glimpse of two people close together on the wall on the other side of the garden, one dark head and one fair, the latter figure wrapped in a midnight-blue cloak. I hope they comfort one another, she thought, her heart aching. They both have sore need -

When she turned round, she found her mother getting up again. "You promised you would rest!"

"I can't sit still -" Míranna moved stiffly across to lean on her daughter. "I feel as though – we're all waiting. Something's going to happen. Can't you feel it?"

Suddenly Rowanna could; for at that moment, all about them became still. The wind died away in an instant; and yet, as though a cloud had crossed the sun, the light faded to grey, and the birds fell silent. Into the stillness came a low, distant rumble, greater than any thunder Rowanna had ever heard – or felt; for the ground itself began to shake and the walls of the garden to tremble. Beside her, Míranna let out a piercing cry and collapsed.

"Mother! Mother!" Rowanna dropped to her knees even as the tremor subsided, feeling the earth beneath her settle as though it sighed in relief, and gathered her mother's head into her lap, frantically chafing her hands. "Oh Mother, please, no -"

"It's all right," Míranna murmured, her eyes flickering open. She began to push herself upright.

"Mother, don't, lie still - "

"No, it's all right, dearest." Míranna sat up, and to her daughter's amazement she was smiling broadly and her eyes were dancing. "Don't you understand – don't you see?" She gestured all around, taking in the sun's sudden breaking through the clouds, Anduin sparkling once again like silver, the eruption of birdsong from the trees all about them, and the garden wall where two slender figures were wrapped in each other's arms, raven hair and golden whipping together in the fresh breeze which pulled at the dark-blue cloak. "I know not how, but I am certain – everything is right!"

Is it true? Rowanna took a shaky breath. Could it be?.. She fell into Míranna's waiting arms, as the sound of singing and shouts began to rise from the Houses behind them; and finding that she too knew not whether to laugh or weep, for a little while she did both.

***

Legolas stood amazed, his bow suddenly loose in his fingers, unheeding of the tears coursing down his cheeks. They did it. At least one of them was not taken. They did it! Elbereth Gilthoniel, praise be...

A roar from lower down the hill jolted him from his stillness.

"Don't just stand there, Elf – those Easterlings fight on yet!" Gimli was brandishing his great axe gleefully. "Forty-seven says that ale's mine!"

Legolas grinned wolfishly, sprinting downhill to join the Dwarf, and was reaching back into his quiver when a thought checked him.

"Gimli – where is Pippin?"

~~~

Author's Notes:

"Queen of the Earth": Kementári , one of the titles of Yavanna.

"Horror beyond sight": JRRT says in 'The Black Gate Opens' that after the second day of the march from the crossroads, the Nazgul shadowed the Armies of the West constantly, "high and out of sight of all save Legolas".

Tâd = two.

For the fate of Oropher and his Silvan Elves in the War of the Last Alliance, see Appendix B to the History of Galadriel and Celeborn in Unfinished Tales. Thranduil's survivor-guilt is my speculation (though his survival and leading his troops back is canon), but we do know from The Hobbit that he is capable of angry and unforgiving moods.

"Raven hair and golden" is such a near-direct steal from JRRT that I feel I ought to own up to its being his phrase, not mine.


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