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36
When Spring Unfolds the Beechen Leaf

"Mother, I'm back! ... Another visitor?" Rowanna, ducking gladly from the blinding afternoon light of the Rath Míriel into the shade of the Annúmellyrn mansion's courtyard, could see nothing for a moment; but she recognised Míranna's voice in conversation with a deeper, unfamiliar one, and the clinking of glass and pouring of liquid.

It was over a fortnight since the momentous day when, after the earthquake and the darkening of the sun, a great Eagle had descended on the City with the news beyond anyone's hope; Sauron was defeated, the Dark Tower thrown down, and the King victorious. Only Pippin and Rowanna, it seemed, who knew full well that not even Aragorn could have broken the Black Gate by force of arms, had remained on tenterhooks.

"What of Frodo and Sam?" Merry had protested. "I heard the Eagle, he said nothing of Hobbits, or the Ring! They must have succeeded, they must - so why did he leave them out? Do you think they're..." He broke off, biting his knuckles. "And what of Gimli, and Legolas, and Pippin?"

"The Eagle could hardly list the armies man by man," Rowanna pointed out with a sigh. "We'll just have to wait, Merry, and hope..." Not for long; barely two days later a rider from Cair Andros had come flying across the Pelennor, and while the packet he brought with the King's seal contained primarily dispatches for Lord Húrin and the Marshal Elfhelm, there was a hasty note in Aragorn's hand addressed to Merry in person, which the Hobbit ripped open with scant regard for protocol.

"He says..." Merry could not scan the lines fast enough for Rowanna - "Frodo and Sam are alive - saved by the Eagles! - but very weak, and sleeping. Pippin - oh! Pippin killed a troll! Which fell on him, and he was injured, but will live. And Legolas and Gimli and Gandalf are alive and without a scratch!" He turned the parchment over. "And Elladan and Elrohir, and Éomer King, and the Lord Imrahil too -" but he got no further before Rowanna snatched the letter from him, stared at it blankly for a few seconds, then swept him into a hug which almost suffocated him.

"They're alive, Merry! They're alive!..."

***

The White City basked in the warmth of rejoicing. Míranna grew so much stronger by the day that she soon insisted she and Rowanna must no longer take up the Houses' resources, especially since a number of the Healers had been called out to tend the wounded at the Cormallen encampment, and thus they had moved back to the family house on the Street of the Jewels. "I daresay we'll hear eventually from Cousin Adramir as to when he - or, if we're unlucky, just Ithildîs and the children - thinks of returning. If the rumours are true that the King intends to be crowned on May Day, then doubtless the good lady will not wish to miss that glittering social occasion!" She snorted.

"No more would you!" Rowanna pointed out, grinning from ear to ear.

"Miss the Chieftain coming into his kingdom? What do you think?" her mother retorted. "But at least I shall be looking at Aragorn, and not comparing my dress to anyone's around of similar rank! In any case, I was going to say that Cousin Adramir would not grudge us use of the house, indeed would probably rather it were occupied. There's no word yet of Líriel or any other of the servants, so we'll have to make shift for ourselves with perhaps a little help from young Bergil, but you and I can manage between us, can we not?"

So it was; and as the Gondorrim began to trickle back from the Southlands to their liberated City, and to enquire after kith and kin, somehow word had got about of Míranna's return, and various distant cousins and childhood friends had found their way up to the House of the Annúmellyrn. It seemed that Míranna's old predictions as to her name still being mud among the noble families of Minas Tirith, while they might have some truth among her husband's kin, did not apply on her own side of the family. This latest, Rowanna saw as her eyes finally adjusted to the courtyard's relative darkness, was a suntanned man perhaps a few years older than she, with a long silvered scar down his left cheek.

"Come and sit down, my dear, and have a cool drink," her mother called, "and let me introduce our guest - Pennastir, my daughter Rowanna; Rowanna, this is Adramir's brother Pennastir, who is just up from Dol Amroth."

Pennastir got to his feet and bowed; though Rowanna caught a disconcerted flicker when she put out her hand rather than curtseying, he covered his confusion at once, shook hands robustly, and moved to pour her some cordial as she sank gratefully on to a shaded bench.

"In quieter times, we'd have ice from above the snow-line to chill drinks when the weather begins to warm," he remarked, "but I daresay the ice-carriers are all occupied elsewhere just now! I apologise if I seem to impose, cousin Rowanna; I would normally stay at the house in any case when I come up to the City, but Adra had particularly asked me to see whether it still stood, and to find your mother if I could and send word of how she fared."

"Pennastir captains the Sea-mew in Prince Imrahil's navy," Míranna explained; "he's served under the Prince for many years -"

"Unlike Adra," grinned their guest, "who let Ithildîs talk him out of it for far too long, so he's but a lieutenant - not under my command, to his relief and mine! Though I don't know how much longer, if peace comes, I shall be able to keep at sea..."

"But Gondor will still need its navy, surely?" Rowanna frowned.

"Surely," Pennastir agreed, "but were it not for the dark times we've been living in, I might have had to resign my commission this last year, to be nearer home. You see my wife, Almiel, was thrown from a horse a twelvemonth ago -" he grimaced " - and broke her back."

"I'm so sorry!" exclaimed Rowanna, wincing in her turn.

"Lucky she wasn't killed," Pennastir admitted, "and with the care of Gondor's best surgeons she has recovered as well as we could have asked, but they say she is unlikely ever to walk again. So she can do little for herself; and as we have three boys - nine, seven and four -" his face softened unconsciously into a smile - "although we have excellent nursemaids, and Almiel manages to be a wonderful mother even from her couch, she would rather I were at home more. So it may be the sea will henceforth see less of me," he finished with a sigh.

"Do you stay long in the City?" Rowanna enquired.

"A week or two at least, I should think. I bore dispatches to my lord Imrahil from his second-in-command; and as I gather the Prince is yet out at the Field of Cormallen with the army, I must wait at least for them to reach him, along with everything else he is dealing with from a distance, and to receive his considered replies."

"That might be timely!" Rowanna exclaimed. "Mother - when I went up to the Houses just now to see Merry, he had a letter from Pippin. He says that Samwise and Frodo are recovered, and awake, and he himself is out of bed, and they want Merry and me to go out to Cormallen; for it will be some weeks yet before the army embarks for Minas Tirith. I had thought to say I could not go, for I wouldn't have left you alone; but if Pennastir is to be here -"

"I have no intention of burdening Pennastir," Míranna objected, "for I am perfectly well enough now to look after myself with Bergil running errands! Though I agree, it would be best to have someone else in the house overnight -"

"I expect to be largely at leisure while I wait my lord's responses," agreed Pennastir, "though I have a few messages and commissions to discharge in Minas Tirith, else I might have tried to speed the process by coming out to Cormallen myself. It would be my pleasure to be at Lady Míranna's service should she have need..."

"Settled, then," finished Míranna contentedly. "You, Rowanna, had better pack a saddlebag or two! When do you leave?.."

"Merry goes tomorrow. He will go with the supply wagons, but I wonder - perhaps I could ride! At least as far as Osgiliath; from what I've heard, after that the supplies go north to Cair Andros by water, so if I wanted to stay with Merry I'd have to leave a mount there. Maybe I could even take Gelion - he's the horse I brought here from the North, Pennastir - I lent him to the Steward's errand-riders, but when I last went to the stables two days ago he was there, being rested. I'll go up and ask in a while..."

Taking her leave of Pennastir and Míranna a little later, she climbed to the next Circle, and found Harnacar the stablemaster looking over the latest list of requests and requisitions. Gelion was delighted to see her, especially when his hopeful sniffing at her pocket yielded the apple she had made sure to bring in case of seeing him.

"You're welcome to take him," Harnacar agreed, "he's yours, after all, though we've been grateful for the loan of him. How long do you stay at Cormallen?" When Rowanna admitted she had little idea, he looked thoughtful. "Well, how's this - you leave him at Osgiliath, with instructions that if you're not back in a week, and I send for him, he can be ridden by another in the meantime. Then if you come later back to Osgiliath and he's not there, I'll tell the garrison they're to find you another decent mount that I've asked for, and you ride that one back here for me. Will that serve?"

"Very well, Master Harnacar," Rowanna agreed cheerfully. "Is there any of his gear I need replace?" Assured there was not, she left Gelion with an affectionate scratch between the ears, and the promise of an early start on the morrow. She was crossing the stable-yard when movement out of one of the stalls caught the corner of her eye; and though there was, as she told herself, currently no shortage of burly blond Eorlingas around Minas Tirith, there was something familiar -

"Béodred?..."

She was right; the bulky figure stopped in his tracks, looking round. She strode across to him smiling broadly.

"Béodred, of all the places to find you!" She moved to hug him before she remembered that this might be less than kind; and indeed he had stepped back a little, and was hastily offering her a hand to shake. "I would ask what you are doing here, but that's plain enough! - you ride under Elfhelm?.."

He nodded, smiling now in his turn. "I signed up to my lord Théodred's company when I came back from... the North; but after Isen - you know about Isen?" She nodded. "all the éoreds had to be remade, we'd lost so many, horses and riders both. So I came under Elfhelm to the relief of the Pelennor, and then we were sent north up the West-road when Éomer King went east with the Gondorrim. What of you - did you find Lady Míranna?..."

"You knew - "

"I'd heard from Mistress Edyth before we rode to Isen that your mother had been treated badly back in Edoras, and that she'd set off back to Mundburg. But I'd no idea you'd followed her!..."

"I didn't reach Edoras till after Isen. It's a long story - can you come tonight, eat with us? We're in the House of the Annúmellyrn, in the Street of the Jewels - "

He shook his great blond mane regretfully. "Drill tonight till dark, by the Marshal's orders, and then we've our mounts to see to; I could try to get leave, but I don't know if he'd grant it. Why not tomorrow?"

"I'm off tomorrow morning, for a week or perhaps more; I'm summoned out to the Field of Cormallen..."

"You are?" Béodred frowned suddenly. "To the encampment? Why?..."

"To see - oh, of course, you didn't know, you'd left Rivendell by then! The Hobbits, Sam and Frodo, and -"

"Rivendell." The Rohir was scowling openly now. "I might have known. This Fellowship everyone's talking of, Elves and Dwarves and I don't know what, it set out from Rivendell, didn't it? Don't tell me you were mixed up in it?"

"Not directly, I - oh, I can't begin to explain now! When I get back, you must dine with us, and I'll tell you the whole story. Or do come and see Mother, while I'm away - she'd love to know you're safe -"

"I'd like to see your mother." Béodred ran a hand through his mop of hair. "But do you have to go out to Cormallen tomorrow? - why not wait a day? What's the rush?..."

"No, I have to go! - well, I'm riding with someone on the wagons -" Rowanna sighed. "Béodred, I'll tell you all when I'm back, but -" she gripped his arm urgently - "there is something you need to know. About Dirgon..."

His irritation melted away: he looked at her intently. "What about Dirgon?"

The words caught in her throat. Poor Dirgon, all he ever did was keep faith... "Dirgon.. is dead. Orcs ambushed us on the way south, on our way across the Wold. He took a knife in the back almost before we knew they were there. It - it was a swift death, I saw him fall..."

"Dirgon." Béodred shook his head. "I.." He exhaled sharply in frustration. "I will go and see Lady Míranna, while you're... away. Street of the Jewels, you said? What Circle's that?" She told him; he nodded curtly "Send word when you're back," turned on his heel and disappeared into the tackroom.

Oh, my stars. Rowanna bit her lip. So much has happened, but that does not give me leave to forget! Poor Dirgon. She sighed again, cast one glance back over her shoulder at the tackroom, and walked slowly back down, remembering, to the Rath Míriel.

***

Gelion pranced and tossed his head the following morning as Rowanna walked him out on to the Pelennor to meet Merry and the long line of wains taking supplies to Cormallen. "I know, you've been spoilt rotten by Harnacar for the last week, and now you want a gallop!" she scolded, reining him in gently. "Well, we're only going to Osgiliath, and with the wagons at that - so I think you and I must race on ahead and then back again, if we're going to get you anything like enough exercise!"

"You look as though you both enjoyed that!" Merry observed some time later as Rowanna, having been as good as her word and galloped Gelion to the out-wall and back, fell into a trot alongside his wagon.

"I'm not sure which of us needed it more!" Rowanna agreed breathlessly, twisting her unruly hair back into its leather tie. "Gelion has been eating his head off up on the Sixth, I think, and I - oh, Merry, I feel as though I've been indoors and within walls forever! This is so much better!" She gestured all across the Pelennor to the wide open sky. "I was never made for life in a city - I don't know what to do with myself if I can't get out for a gallop every day!"

"I don't know if I could live in Minas Tirith forever either," Merry agreed. "Not that I need the galloping! But I need my trees, and my sky, like you - Hobbits love our cosy smials and hobbit-holes, but we're never happy far from the outdoors for long."

He began a complicated tale of Brandy Hall, which Rowanna gathered was the Brandybuck ancestral residence, and they ambled along chatting happily. At Osgiliath they found a hive of steady activity. The wharves and pontoon bridges largely wrecked by the Enemy's troops before the assault on Minas Tirith had been repaired, and work was beginning on the ancient stone bridge which - Faramir had told them - had been destroyed under him and Boromir the previous summer when Sauron had suddenly put forth in great strength. All along the riverside supply ships were being loaded with bread, meat, cheese, ale, and bales of tent-canvas from wagons like theirs.

"How many days does it take, up the river?" Merry asked curiously, as he and Rowanna showed their notes of passage from the Steward's clerk, and were handed on board one of the barges and invited to make themselves comfortable as they could on some of the sacks of grain loaded at the stern. The bargee flashed them the grin of a man whose trade had unexpectedly trebled, and who was making the most of it while it lasted.

"A day or two, depending on the currents and the wind," he explained as he cast off the stern line, gesturing to his boy to do the same at the bow. "Less than a day when you come back downstream. Going up, if you have to row, two or even more; but you're in luck. The wind's steady from the South, so we'll have the sails up, and we should make Cair Andros by tomorrow afternoon, which puts you at Cormallen before nightfall. Perhaps 'tis true what they say - even the weather's set fairer now we're to have a King again!" He roared with laughter and, taking up his station at the wheel, emulated Merry in filling his pipe.

***

The wind did indeed continue favourable, and the barge-captain was clearly anxious to make the most of the available work by getting his consignment to Cair Andros as quickly as possible; for he and his lad took turns manning the wheel most of the night with lanterns at bow and stern, while Merry and Rowanna slept on improvised beds of grain-sacks and blankets, lulled by the barge's steady movement upstream. Thus it was not much past noon on the following day when they were carefully steered around the southern tip of the great island in the river, and moored up where they were instructed at brand-new wharves which were crowded with ships, and as hectic with activity as those at Osgiliath had been.

"Have you got everything, Merry?" Rowanna enquired as they gathered packs and cloaks and prepared, with many thanks to the bargee and his boy, to disembark. "You've not forgotten your pipe?"

"It's here - and so is the extra pouch of pipeweed from Isengard," the Hobbit assured her, checking his pockets for at least the third time. "I thought I'd better bring more, and a spare pipe - goodness knows whether poor old Pippin's will have survived intact, being crushed under the weight of a troll! I'm sure he would have had it with him, he's never without it if he can help it." His face fell for a moment. "Mind you, do you suppose he's allowed to smoke? His letter said something about aching ribs - if his chest was injured then maybe Strider won't let him till he's healed! I mean Aragorn - I mean the King - oh, confound it!"

"I wouldn't worry, Merry," Rowanna laughed as she stepped down onto the wharf. "No - wait for the captain to lift you, you shouldn't jump with your arm still in a sling! It's not like Aragorn to mind which of his many names or titles you address him by - he'll be too pleased to see you to care..."

"Not as pleased as I shall be to see him, and Pippin, and all of them!" Merry retorted, as he was helped up into an ox-cart which was to take them, and the now-familiar sacks, onwards to the Field of Cormallen. "I wish we had Shadowfax to ride on, instead of a plodding old cart - no offence, master," he added hastily to the ox-driver who was vaulting up on to the wagon - "now that we're nearly there, I feel as though I can't bear to wait a moment longer! It seems years since last I saw Frodo and Sam, and - and I thought I was never going to see them again..."

"I know exactly what you mean, Merry," Rowanna agreed, struggling to check the wave of impatient emotion rising within her. Never mind Shadowfax, if only I had any horse! "I could gallop the whole way..." And then make a spectacle of myself in front of a thousand Men by flinging myself into Legolas' arms, she added silently, and not care a bit. Oh, Powers, let it not be far!

She almost forgot her impatience, however, as the ox-cart ambled away from Cair Andros, following the course of a little stream which rippled its way past them towards Anduin.

"Oh, Merry, look!" All about them spread miles of lush meadow, scattered with spring flowers in purples and reds, studded here and there with mature oak trees. "Isn't it beautiful! - it reminds me of the Eastemnet, in the Riddermark..." Look at this grassland, it's perfect grazing, and there's shade, and water... "Why isn't Gondor breeding horses here, instead of trading for yearlings with Rohan?" she wondered aloud, and then answered her own question. "Oh - of course, too close to Mordor, I suppose, the wrong side of the river. Especially given that orcs eat horseflesh!" She and Merry shuddered in joint disgust. "But now..."

"Look!" Merry had got to his feet, clutching the side of the rocking ox-cart, and was pointing ahead. "There it is!" Rowanna whipped round; yes, there half a mile or so ahead there were surely tents dotting the grass, and here and there threads of smoke rising. She fought the impulse to leap down from the cart, abandoning the Hobbit, and run every yard.

The encampment was huge, they realised as they drew closer; "well, it's a good few thousand Men, I suppose," Merry admitted. Guards in the silver and black of the Citadel were patrolling the perimeter; the carter clearly knew the layout well, for he had hauled on the reins and pointed his team away towards one corner. "I'm bound over yonder, where they receive the stores," he called over his shoulder. "D'you want to hop down here, save yourselves the walk, and ask one of these sentry-lads where you should go?" They did not need telling twice; Rowanna had flung her pack to the ground, vaulted over the tail-gate, and was reaching up to help the eager Merry.

"Our earnest thanks, sir, and good day to you!" the Hobbit called after the carter, who lifted a hand in salute as he clicked to move his beasts on. "Now, Rowanna, where -" She was already marching purposefully to petition one of the perimeter guards; he inspected their permissions, looking curiously at the Halfling, and nodded.

"Keep those by you, in case you're asked to show them again. Do you know where you're bound?" They shook their heads. "We're looking for our friends, Frodo and Samwise -" Merry began.

"The Ring-bearers?" The sentry stopped talking over the Hobbit's head, and bent to address him directly. "Of course, your pardon, my lord - you must be Master Meriadoc of the Shire? The Dwimmerlaik-slayer? 'Tis an honour, sir... You see that opening in the trees up ahead there, looks almost an archway? Go through that way, you'll come to a greensward where the stream runs down, and if you follow that up towards the beech-groves you'll find the King's pavilion, flying the black pennant. The Cormacolindor are usually resting there about this time, or if they aren't one of the royal guard will likely know where they're to be found." He bowed deeply to Merry, causing Rowanna a small smile of satisfaction as the two of them adjusted their packs and set off towards the trees.

Following the course of the stream they passed between neatly aligned rows of tents, with smoke from small cooking-fires here and there rising between. "Mmm - do you smell that?" Merry nudged Rowanna. "Someone's stewing mushrooms!" Forced to hold her impatient stride in check so that she did not outpace the Hobbit, she took the time to look about her instead; they passed a little knot of men scrubbing linen at the water's edge, who glanced up at them curiously. Around them rose and fell murmurs of conversation, the scraping of blade on whetstone, steady thuds as mallets drove yet more tentpegs into the ground. A little further off Rowanna noticed a group of tents set slightly apart, flying pennants whose emblem she recognised from the Houses; the Healers, she realised.

And then they had passed through the opening on to the long green lawn the sentry had described; for a moment Rowanna thought the branches around were hung with banners, before she realised the rich colour came from bright scarlet blossom bedecking the dark leaves of the trees. She was striding up the field now, but no matter, for Merry had already broken into a trot and was more than keeping pace; at the top of the greensward the strange dark-leaved trees gave way to the familiar paler green of beeches in new leaf, and - yes! a little group of tents, the largest flying the Crown and Stars, a pair of sentries outside. Set in a half-circle off to one side, beneath the shade of the beech-boughs, were three low daybeds, and between them, seated one on a small stool and the other comfortably cross-legged on the grass -

Legolas must have heard them first, for he was on his feet in an instant; but it was Sam who cried out, "Master Merry! Mistress Rowanna!", and Merry who rushed forward to turn the daybeds into a chaos of hugs and shouts and indistinguishable curly heads. Rowanna quickened her pace, smiling on the Hobbits even as a lump rose in her throat at the sight of them all; then looked up - and suddenly found herself rooted to the spot.

What if he - What if it's not -

For Legolas too had stopped dead, at the edge of the ring of tents, gazing at her. For a long moment, as Merry and Pippin's exclamations faded into the background, only the breeze whispered in the beech-leaves.

"I...thought never to set eyes on you again," Legolas said at last. Tentatively, he raised a hand towards her as though to assure himself she was flesh and blood.

"Nor I... oh -" And then they did run; she felt the tears start to her eyes, and she flung herself into his embrace as he lifted her off her feet, spinning her around as she laughed and wept for the sheer unbelievable relief. At last he put her carefully down, his mouth on hers for just a moment, and through the swift intense kiss she felt his answering surge of impossible, wordless joy. She twined her fingers tightly with his, looking into clear blue eyes that danced with delight, and let him lead her back into the circle of the Fellowship.

~~~

Author's Notes:


Cormacolindor = Ringbearers.

The description of the geography of Cormallen (but not of the encampment, which characteristically JRRT leaves out altogether!) is taken from LoTR Book Six Chapter IV, The Field of Cormallen.


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