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38
The Crownless Again Shall be King

"Hold still while I pin this, and we'll see how it looks -" Míranna adjusted the waist of her daughter's emerald green gown where the bodice met the velvet skirt, and stood back alongside Ithildîs to inspect the result. "Yes, that's it, it hangs much better so. How does it feel?"

"Heavy, if I am truthful!" Rowanna sighed. "I've been in breeches or plain linen gowns for so long - I haven't worn a dress like this since Rivendell." She turned a little in the evening sunlight bathing her mother's sitting-room, trying not to roll her eyes at the expression of distaste on Ithildîs' face. I fear Adramir's wife finds me something of an affront to propriety! "But it's not uncomfortable - I'm so glad you made the bodice laced rather than boned, and linen instead of velvet..."

Rowanna had not discovered until after her return from Cormallen that alongside her, in the scrip of letters borne by Imrahil's messenger, rode the news that the King did as rumoured intend to be crowned on the first of May before the City gates. Fortunately Míranna had already decided that since there was likely to be a coronation at some point, she should start to ensure that she and her daughter could be appropriately clad; but having cut, stitched and embroidered without Rowanna present, some minor alterations had inevitably proved needful.

"I knew that by May Day the weather might well be warm," her mother agreed, "so even if I could have found boning in the City in time I decided not to inflict it on you - and I thought the cream linen for the bodice and underskirt would sit well with the dark green skirt and sleeves, and the gold broidery. I had enough trouble buying up all the gold thread - the mercers down on the Second Circle said they'd been running low in any case, with nothing but essentials getting through from Dol Amroth the last weeks, and then once Aragorn's coronation date was announced..."

"...suddenly you couldn't get fine cloth or good thread in Minas Tirith for love or money," Rowanna chuckled. "I can imagine! It's lovely, Mother - I can't believe you had time to make it so fine. Though I still think you should have embroidered your own gown more and mine less! All these intertwining leaves and stems on the facings; they're exquisite..."

"Plain dark blue with a little silver trim is perfectly fitting," Míranna assured her, "for a respectable middle-aged widow of Gondor." She winked at her daughter, who suppressed a snort and wondered once again what on earth the rather humourless Ithildîs made of their banter. Their hostess was spared any more of it, however, for at that moment there was a timid knock at the door and little Líriel the maid, looking distinctly flustered, came in and curtseyed.

"If you please, mistress, my ladies, there's - there's..."

"Well, what is it?" enquired Ithildîs coolly. "Out with it, child!"

"Asking for my lady Rowanna, down in the courtyard -" Líriel gulped - "there's... an Elf."

"Legolas!" Rowanna cried. "I was hoping he'd come up tonight - Bergil said earlier he'd seen the Host coming from the outwall -"

"You know... an Elf?" Ithildîs sounded slightly strangled. Then she remembered herself. "Really, Líriel, don't stand there gaping - show him up..."

"Oh yes, cousin Ithildîs, he is a dear friend," Rowanna assured her solemnly. Powers forgive me, but I think I shall enjoy this..."He is the son of King Thranduil of the Woodland Realm, you know, a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, and very close to the King-in-waiting -"

She got no further, for they once again heard Líriel's light feet on the turn of the stairs before she slipped in to announce, eyes wide as saucers, "My ladies - m-my Lord -" She swallowed, and fled.

"Lady Ithildîs," said a lilting voice, "I pray your forgiveness for intruding upon you thus uninvited, but I was anxious to enquire after the health of the Lady Míranna." In the shadows of the doorway a late sunbeam glinted upon long braided hair as Legolas bowed low. My, upon your best behaviour, Rowanna thought, amused. I had all but forgotten you are a prince of a royal house...

"My - lord Prince..." Ithildîs managed to stammer, looking completely stunned. "I-it is no intrusion, I assure you." As Legolas straightened up and met her stare, she paled, flushed, then managed to collect herself. "May I offer your Highness of Mirkwood a little wine?"

If you only knew, Rowanna reflected, that scattering Legolas' titles about him is the very last way to ingratiate yourself with him - let alone referring to 'Mirkwood'! But Legolas' grimace was, she was sure, too swiftly mastered for any but her to have caught it.

"You are too gracious, my lady, but I must not impose upon you," the Elf assured his hostess, "for I am due in short order to wait upon the King - he would have the Fellowship dine with him on this his last evening uncrowned. I have snatched what time I could after we finished attending to the horses - "

"But surely - your groom?.." Ithildîs, to Rowanna's great entertainment, looked horrified.

"Oh, Arod would take lack of my personal attention much amiss," Legolas protested, "and rightly, given what he has borne me through these last few moon-rounds! But no matter." Finally having silenced the mistress of the house, he turned to Rowanna and her mother.

"Lady Míranna, it is good to see you again! I trust I find you as well as you appear?"

"I am in excellent health, thank you, Legolas," Míranna smiled. "And you? How fare the King's companions on Coronation eve?"

Legolas' laughter was like the gurgle of a stream. "Merry and Pippin - vastly overexcited, and incurring much wrath from Mithrandir every few minutes in consequence. Frodo - happy, but very weary; Sam - solemn. Gimli - furiously polishing his mailcoat and convinced, as ever, that his axe has not a keen enough edge. And I? Sorry to leave behind the fair woods and fields of Cormallen, and yet... to return to Minas Tirith makes me very glad indeed." He turned, at last, to Rowanna.

"A good even to you, my lady." Deciding to play along with the game she extended a hand, which he caught up and pressed for the briefest moment to his lips, and she knew he noticed the tremor he sent through her. "A thousand apologies; I see I have interrupted a gown-fitting." Gravely, he stood back to inspect her. "You will be the match in elegance of any lady in Gondor tomorrow..."

Swiftly he leant in to her and whispered in her ear, "and you will have my profoundest sympathies!"

Rowanna bit down hastily on her lip as his eyes danced wickedly at her and she felt herself losing control of her face. Legolas Greenleaf, I owe you for that! You know me far, far too well!...

"My lord, your courtesy is as ever impeccable," she retorted sweetly, only to risk helpless laughter once again as he arched an eyebrow at her. "But we must not keep you from the King - may I escort you to the gate?"

"No, you don't, daughter!" her mother warned. "That bodice is only pinned - you are not to stir from this room with it in that condition!" Legolas shot her a rueful glance.

"In that case, brennilen, I fear I must go unescorted - for I should take up no more of your time, and I must swiftly to Aragorn. Till the morrow, ladies; good night..." He bowed once more to the still-stunned Ithildîs and, in a heartbeat, was gone.

"How good of him to come," Míranna said contentedly, "when the host is only just arrived from Cormallen. Bergil must have been glad to see them! - he has been missing his father, I think, though he would never admit to it. Ithildîs, don't stand there gaping like a fish - help Rowanna out of this gown without pulling the pins, could you? I should like to finish sewing before the light goes - and I know not what the rest of you intend, but I feel the need of an early night before the morrow!"

Despite Míranna's admonitions, Rowanna sat by her window long into the night, listening to the faint sounds of harpers and singers drifting up from all the lower Circles, and watching the pinpricks of light which marked the Host's encampment out on the Pelennor. Even so, with the rest of the household she was up early, flinging back her shutters to a perfect blue sky and the endless ringing of all the City's bells, from the sweet tones of the guardhouses' chimes to the deep boom of the Citadel's great bourdon.

Breakfast was hasty; then Ivrenneth, governess to Ithildîs's two unruly children, chased them away to be washed and brushed and squeezed protesting into their most formal dress. I know how they feel! Rowanna thought ruefully, as her mother laced her bodice tight and she endeavoured to remember how on earth one walked without tripping over in heavy, floor-length velvet skirts. She braided and coiled Míranna's hair; Ithildîs was wearing hers bound up in a jewel-encrusted net, and nearly fainted over Rowanna's refusal to do more than sweep her own dark locks up with her usual bone grips, so that finally Rowanna accepted the insertion of a few emerald-studded pins to keep the peace. At last, gowns adjusted and hair arranged, they met Adramir in the hallway and filed out through the courtyard on to the Rath Míriel to join the growing throng descending towards the City gates.

Though they had arrived early and their vantage-point was good, Rowanna watched the complex proceedings unfolding with a feeling of unreality. Can I truly be here? Watching the greatest event of the Age? Pippin's gambeson is not straight... oh, Ioreth, do stop spouting such utter nonsense to that poor cousin of yours or whatever she is. I think my heel's blistering...

In the front rank of the Armies of the West she glimpsed a tall slender figure in brown and green with a longbow over his shoulder, and beside him caught a flash of sunlight on a gleaming axe-head. Perhaps 'tis as well we are no closer, she acknowledged with an inward chuckle, or you would ensure I could not keep my face straight!

***

However Rowanna might have longed for Legolas' return from the Field of Cormallen, in the ensuing days they found they must snatch what moments they could together from among the seemingly endless demands upon their time. Many of the embassages which were already climbing the long way to the Citadel wanted, once they discovered the presence of King Thranduil's son, to seize the opportunity to convey their respects to two kingdoms in one visit; and with every noble family in Gondor returned to Minas Tirith for the Coronation, Ithildîs was equally determined to take social advantage. To Adramir's exasperation she insisted on arranging a series of glittering dinner-parties to precede each of the endless round of balls in which the leading families of Gondor were vying for prominence every evening. Though Rowanna soon compounded her growing reputation for eccentricity by steadfastly refusing to attend most of the balls, for Míranna's sake she could not avoid many of the dinners - until one evening she decided she could take no more of the pompous City merchant with whom she suspected Ithildîs of trying to pair her, invented a terrible headache after the soup course, and fled to her room.

She was leaning out of the window, taking great relieved breaths of the cool night air, when a familiar voice drifted laughing out of the darkness.

"Surely, rohiril, I have not found you playing truant?"

"Where are you?"

A moment later the faint starlight-glimmer she knew so well announced Legolas' easy descent from the rooftiles on to her windowsill. "How did you get up there without a tree?..."

"Even stone may serve an Elf, where needs must and branches lack," he retorted. "So - are you prepared to extend your absence-without-leave, milady? I was sent to invite you down to supper with the Company - Pippin pines for you and Sam wants you to taste the new sauces that the cook at the White Sceptre has been teaching him!"

"You never seem to have to attend these endless balls and parties," Rowanna grumbled. "How does the Prince of the Greenwood escape, when the King cannot?"

Legolas chuckled. "I have made an appearance or two, if only to bolster Aragorn, who cannot slight his noble houses and so must at least show his face at every one. But I have, shall we say, encouraged the rumours -" he grinned wickedly - "that Wood-Elves are so retiring by nature as to find the light and noise of a ball unbearable." He grimaced. "Which it must be said is not entirely untrue! So will you come for supper? I confess -" he caught up her hand and planted a kiss on her knuckles - "that I had thought we might walk down by the most.. roundabout route a simple Elf unused to City streets might devise..."

"If only," Rowanna sighed. "But given that I have taken to my chamber on the pretext of a crippling headache, that there are servants all over the house and that the staircase creaks like an oak in a gale, how exactly do you propose I escape?"

Legolas lifted an eyebrow at her. "What gift gave I you in Edoras, melethen, precisely to hide you from any hostile gaze?" His eyes lit up with mischief as Rowanna gasped in delight.

"Of course! Wait for me two minutes!" Ducking into her closet she wriggled out of her green velvet gown, yanked on breeches and a shirt, and emerged fastening the grey cloak of Lórien at her throat. Legolas looked quizzical.

"And your boots? Or did you plan to go barefoot?"

"Yes I did, as far as the courtyard at least!" Rowanna grabbed the boots from behind the door and tucked them under her arm. "I'll go quieter that way; the cloak doesn't make me inaudible! See you at the postern-gate..."

I don't care if I was seen and Ithildîs lectures about it all day tomorrow, Rowanna reflected sleepily much later as she slid into bed, with Sam's excellent dinner in her stomach and the memory of Legolas' goodnight still on her lips. Every minute of this evening was worth more than any sanction she can devise, and I'll sit through an entire tedious dinner with Gondor's most worthy as penance if I must!

The morrow, however, unexpectedly presented Rowanna with impeccable grounds for absenting herself from dinner.

"I must pray your indulgence tonight, I fear, cousin Ithildîs; I am requested to attend upon the King."

***

Ithildîs could not, of course, possibly compete for precedence with the ruler of Gondor and Arnor; and so the following evening Rowanna - having reluctantly donned the hastily-cleaned green velvet gown once more - walked happily up to the pinnacle of the City as the sun was setting, trying to remember not to whistle aloud as she went.

She had never yet set foot in the Citadel itself, though the blinding white walls of the Tower of Ecthelion had loomed over her often enough when she went to the Steward's stables on the Sixth. As she passed up the long sloping path to the seventh gate, following Adramir's directions, her steps slowed; and by the time she stepped into the High Court and found herself facing its central fountain and the venerable ruins of the White Tree, any urge to whistle had entirely died in her throat.

Somewhat nervously she passed by the impassive black-clad guardsmen, gave her name and business to an equerry who waited at the great door to the Citadel itself, and was escorted, swallowing hard, into the White Tower.

Fortunately, passing from the Place of the Fountain into the King's private audience-chamber was rather like escaping from the chill of the High Pass into Bilbo's sitting-room. The chamber was clearly being used as a combination of dining-room and study, and had an air of having been somewhat hastily refurnished; the luxurious rug, Rowanna noticed, did not quite match the velvet drapes at the windows or the blanket thrown over the back of the couch, and books were piled haphazardly on the shelves and alongside the chess game set out on a small side table. Everything spoke of practicality and comfort over formality or appearance.

Aragorn rose easily to greet her from the deep armchair where he had been immersed in a book, chewing absently on the stem of an unlit pipe. Instructions regarding dinner were given to the equerry, and all was brought and arranged with unobtrusive efficiency while the King made small-talk. He confirmed Rowanna's speculations; the room had been fitted out for his temporary use, "for the King's apartments have been closed up for centuries, and must needs be refurbished before they will be habitable. Faramir is insistent that I should borrow the Steward's accommodations, for he has personally no desire to make use of Denethor's rooms; I am equally adamant that I do not intend simply to displace him without forethought, and that... there may yet be other opinions to be taken into account." For a moment he was lost in thought, smiling a little as though his mind were elsewhere. As the last of the servants departed, Aragorn handed Rowanna courteously to a seat at the small dining-table and sank into his own chair with a sigh of relief.

"I am ready for this, I confess, cousin! For one who thinks nothing of walking halfway across the Angle in a day, it seems ludicrous to find nine or ten hours of sitting about talking to ambassadors tiring, and yet I reach every sundown ravenous and in pressing need of a drink..."

Rowanna smiled. "They do say, Sire, that it's always more wearying to labour an hour in a new trade than a day in an accustomed one -"

" Neither Sire nor Chieftain this evening, if you please," her host said firmly as he filled her wine-glass. "Not only is it good to put titles aside for an hour or two, but I have something I want to ask you, and I would wish before we come to it to make quite clear that I shall be asking it neither as King nor clan-chief, but in the name of friendship. But enough of that for a moment; pass me your plate..."

He piled it high from every dish on the table, and Rowanna found she could not suppress a chuckle. Aragorn raised an eyebrow. "Have they been starving you down on the Fifth?"

"Only at Ithildîs's endless dinner-parties," Rowanna grimaced. "Where it is clearly considered entirely inappropriate for a female to have any appetite whatsoever! Fortunately yesterday evening I had supper with the Fellowship, and was somewhat better fed by Sam..."

"News of that particular... escapade had reached my ears," the King remarked mildly as he speared a piece of the excellent beef.

"Stars!" exclaimed Rowanna. "Is there any aspect of life in Minas Tirith you do not hear of? And I was told it was the late Steward who was considered all-seeing.."

For an instant something flickered in Aragorn's grey eyes, and she wondered uncomfortably what she had said. But he merely smiled and turned the conversation to enquiry after Míranna.

"She is as well as I have ever seen her, in truth, as long as she remembers that she was but lately very ill and does not overtire herself," Rowanna assured him. "And she seems far more kindly disposed towards the White City, and Gondor in general, than ever I remember her being when I was a child; I think her welcome here has been warmer, at least from her own side of the family if not from some of Father's, than she would have expected..."

"When one has been to the brink of the abyss and back, old offences, particularly those which were always more against convention than anything else, may fall into a truer perspective," Aragorn remarked, startling his guest as she took another sip of her wine. I had no idea he knew so much of the family history! But then, he did say he knew Father back in the Mark...

"She talks of settling once again in Gondor," Rowanna went on. "Her cousins Pennastir and Adramir, who both serve in Prince Imrahil's navy, have been singing the praises of Dol Amroth and its healthy climate to her; and the other day she even wondered whether a small house on the Third or Fourth Circles here, where the dressmakers and broderers mostly work, might be within her means -"

"And you?"

"I - in truth, Aragorn, I had not even begun to think..." To her consternation Rowanna found herself both flushing and stammering. Does he know - about Legolas and.. me? I did not think so, but - "So much has changed - everything is, is different..."

"Indeed it is." Aragorn treated her to a long, appraising gaze under which she struggled not to shift uncomfortably. Sometimes for a moment he looks very like Master Elrond! "Selfishly, though, I am glad to hear that you have no immediate plans, and also that Lady Míranna is for the time being so content, for it makes the asking of the favour I want to set before you considerably easier. Before I begin - dessert?" And he raised his voice just a little to call for a manservant who must, Rowanna realised, have been only just out of earshot of their conversation on the other side of the door.

Rowanna had never before tasted the dark berries which made up the heart of the delicious meringue-topped pudding, though she assumed they were native to Gondor and must have been preserved over the winter. Neither she nor the King said anything much for several minutes; only after their spoons had scraped the bottom of their dishes and Rowanna sat back with a contented sigh did Aragorn lean forward with elbows on the table, steepling his fingers (Master Elrond again! Rowanna thought) and explain.

"Any of that great throng which stood before the Gate of the City the other morning probably thought that the new-crowned King of Gondor had just achieved the pinnacle of his ambitions," he said softly, "- even my dear friends in the Fellowship of the Ring. And yet there is a day for which I have waited even longer - and which may, the Valar willing, at last be drawing near." He turned the stem of his wineglass slowly in his long fingers, the crystal winking in the candlelight. "I know not, Rowanna, if you were aware when you were in Rivendell of how matters stood between myself and the lady Arwen Evenstar..."

"I.. in part, I think, Aragorn." For a moment she was transported back to that last night in the Hall of Fire; to Arwen leaning her head on Aragorn's chest as the Lay of Leithian was sung, and to Legolas' wondering murmur in her ear, "I did not know!" "It was never spoken of openly among Master Elrond's people; though Bilbo said something, once or twice. And after the Fellowship departed Arwen and I were often together..."

"Were you?" Aragorn's swift smile bathed her in warmth. "I am glad of it. I know those cannot have been easy days for any of those left behind." He put down the wineglass and leant forward once again. "But what not many know - not even the Company, except for Gandalf - are the conditions Elrond set for allowing the Evenstar of her people to pledge herself to a mortal, a Ranger of the North, dispossessed heir to a broken kingdom. He swore that only to the restored King of Gondor and Arnor would Arwen be wed."

Rowanna gasped in delight. "Then now -"

"Now Arwen should, even as we speak, be riding southwards with her father and the host of Imladris," the King agreed. "Assuming that Master Elrond keeps faith..."

"You cannot think otherwise, Aragorn, surely?" Rowanna's eyes widened.

"Only in the watches of the small hours," Aragorn admitted ruefully, "when I sleep too little and think too much. No; thanks to the Eagles, if not sooner, Elrond will by now have known for some weeks that the Ring was destroyed and Gondor preparing to crown her King. if all falls out as I hope, then he and Arwen are already on their way to the Lady Galadriel in Lothlórien.. which brings me, Rowanna, not to the command of a King or a Chieftain, but to the favour I would ask you as Arwen's friend." Reaching across the table, he poured her another glass of wine.

"In three days' time the éoreds of Rohan, led by their King and his sister, are to depart for the Riddermark. With them go the sons of Elrond..."

"To bring Arwen back to the White City?" Rowanna exclaimed.

"If my greatest hope proves true," Aragorn agreed. "For I have been thinking much upon this great journey that Arwen undertakes; to leave behind Imladris and Lothlórien both, the realms she has called home for near three thousand years... and much else besides." He tailed off for a moment, and Rowanna thought she saw him bite his lip. "To come to an unfamiliar city, in a foreign land. And although she will have her father and then her brothers on the road, it will be as hard a journey for them as for her, and try as they will it may be hard for them to bolster her as much as they would wish." He took a deep breath and gave Rowanna that steady, unblinking gaze which seemed both to see into the depths of her heart, and to lay his own entirely open to her.

"Would you, Rowanna, in friendship to the Evenstar and to me, ride north with Elladan and Elrohir and bear Arwen company on this, her ride from an old life into one utterly strange and new?"

"Gladly!" Rowanna cried, a great wave of affection at the thought of Arwen's situation washing over her. Then she was brought up short. "Oh, but -"

"Indeed," said Aragorn dryly, "we must not, as a certain Ent of my honoured acquaintance would have it, be hasty. I would not have you commit yourself to such an expedition - several weeks away from the City at the least - without being sure all was provided for here. Although -" the swift smile once more - "it warms my heart that your first impulse was to give such ready consent."

"Arwen was a dear friend to me, at a time when I had sore need of one," Rowanna assured him. "Anything in my power to help her I would gladly do. But -"

"Firstly, of course, you must consult with Lady Míranna, and be sure she will not have need of you," he agreed. "Though if it reassures you, she has my guarantee that should she have the least concern, for her health or any other need, she has but to send word to Faramir or to me and she will, matters of state notwithstanding, have our immediate attention - and the best care the City can provide; that is the least I can offer in return." Pushing back his chair, he paced slowly up and down, chewing once again on his pipestem. Strider, indeed! thought Rowanna with a smile. "Is there aught else that would concern you?..."

Legolas! thought Rowanna with sudden heartache. How can I leave him for...weeks, Aragorn said? "Perhaps... other companions, Aragorn? Have you thought of asking any others of the Fellowship to go?.."

"I would rather they did not," the King admitted. "Dear though I know Merry and Pippin in particular are to you, I could not ask them to leave the others behind without a great deal of explanation, which would in short order be all over the City. Perhaps it is no more than superstition, but..." he gnawed for a moment on his pipe, "I am loath to have my hope known to any but the most closely chosen few, lest in the end all come to naught."

Rowanna's brief flare of excitement was dampened. "What then would you have me tell Mother, and indeed others who will ask why I am riding North?..."

"To any casual enquiry," he responded, "I am sure you can come up with reasons enough why you might need to be making a trip to the Riddermark. To Lady Míranna... would she accept it, think you, if you were to tell her truly that I had asked you to ride with the northbound company to do a very particular thing for me, but which you were not yet at liberty to divulge?..."

"For you, Aragorn, I think she would accept it if I were to tell her that you were sending me down to Dol Amroth to learn to command the navy!" Rowanna retorted, and the King threw back his head and laughed aloud.

"I hope I shall never be driven to such straits! Very well, then, we are agreed. Talk with your mother tomorrow, send me word, and only if you are both entirely content with this will it go forward, in which case you will have two days to make your preparations - and put down anything you need from any merchant in the City to my account, by the way." He moved around the table to assist Rowanna courteously to her feet. "Come and be more comfortable, now - we'll let Haradir get the table cleared - and tell me more of how you and Arwen spent your days last winter..."

At the end of a most convivial evening, after the guardsman commissioned by Aragorn had waited to see her safely within the house on the Street of the Jewels, Rowanna mounted the great staircase slowly, deep in thought. I must see Legolas tomorrow, early. And then get up to the stables and make sure Gelion will be fit...After the King's excellent dinner, however, even brooding on the days ahead could not keep her long from a deep and satisfying sleep.

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