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40
Of Folk of Men and Elven-Kin

Accompanied by the steady beat of thousands of hooves, the cavalcade made its slow passage across the Pelennor and through the Rammas, and the Riders turned their mounts' heads to the North. Rowanna had been assigned a place in Éomer's éored, towards the middle of the column. She knew neither of the Eorlingas beside her; the younger, on her right, was attempting to soothe his roan mare as she snorted and danced.

"Skittish this morning?" Rowanna enquired sympathetically.

"She's not mine," the lad muttered. "And I'm not Heordan, and she knows it. We lost him at the Black Gate."

Rowanna grimaced, not sure how to ask the obvious question. "And your..."

"Fastulf. On the Pelennor. One of those mûmakil things... broke his leg." The boy looked away, blinking furiously, and Rowanna, not wanting to stir up any more distress, said no more.

They were trotting through a warm May morning, under a flawless blue sky, swallows swooping and diving overhead. Normally Rowanna would have been content to fall into the rhythm of the ride and let her thoughts wander where they would; but her mind circled endlessly back to that farewell on the field.

Something was troubling Legolas, I know it. I'm sure he'd done something to his hand, too... She was used to the Elf's air of serene distance when his thoughts were leagues away; but not to him being jumpy, like that, constantly looking over his shoulder. Was it Elladan and Elrohir being there?... She had thought she noticed, long months before in Rivendell, that exchanges between Legolas and Elrohir, in particular, tended towards coolness at times. And it didn't help that I could barely touch him – then I might have felt what troubled him... She sighed. But he always stepped away... Fretting silently to herself, she paid no heed to a messenger cantering back down the line, and jumped when he reined in and hailed her.

"Milady Rowanna?" She nodded. "Éomer King asks for you, and the Elven-lords, up ahead yonder..."

The lines of Riders parted smoothly to let Gelion break rank; one or two raised a hand. It was only as Rowanna was beginning to move up the column that she thought she heard a comment, whose import she did not catch; but muffled laughter greeted it, and there was something in the laughing which made her flush without fully knowing why.

Elladan and Elrohir shifted neatly as Rowanna approached, to let Gelion fall into line between them.

"We thought it was high time for you to explain yourself, rohiril!" Elrohir announced, reaching into the leather scrip at his belt and producing several small and wrinkled apples which he passed around.

"E-explain what?" stammered Rowanna. Elladan laughed aloud.

 "His manners do not improve, do they? Fear not, Rowanna. We merely want to hear the tale of your ride to the Southland - word came back to Imladris that you and Dirgon had reached Lórien and been seen on your way towards Edoras; and the next thing we know, you show up in Minas Tirith in the middle of the War!..."

"It's a long story - " Rowanna protested.

"That's all right," Elrohir retorted cheerfully, "we have all morning! In fact, let us be honest, at this pace we probably have a good six weeks..."

So Rowanna began on an account of how events regarding her search for Míranna had fallen out in Edoras and beyond; which once the Twins' continual comments and interruptions were added took up a good part of the remaining morning. She was particularly matter-of fact at the points where she could not leave Legolas out of the tale; the last thing I want is a pair as indiscreet as these being the first to discover - well, what? That, she realised with an inward sigh during a break in her story, while Elrohir held forth for Éowyn on the capture of the Haradrim's fleet, is half the problem – I'm not even sure what it is I am keeping from them!...

"Do you know what's just struck me?" she broke in when Elrohir's digression had run its course. "I can't think why I never noticed it before, but seeing them alongside a whole éored - Nimloss and Nimfaun could almost be Eorling bred. It's something about the shape of the head, I think..."

"Look Rohirric? So they should!" replied Elladan. "After all, they're of Felaróf's stock..."

"Felaróf?" Both Éowyn and her brother gaped.

"Well, yes – their many-times-grandam was his – sister, wasn't it, Elrohir? She was a gift to Imladris from Eorl after the Field of Celebrant, in thanks for our aid. And with Father's stallions put to her, a rather fine new line did result, I'll freely admit!"

"So the legend about Grey Riders from the North is true!" exclaimed Éowyn. "They were Elves from Rivendell!..."

"I did tell you," her brother pointed out, "dreams and legends spring to life out of the grass, these days..."

This turned the conversation to the breeding and training of horses, which lasted till Éomer called a halt around noon, when they crossed over a stream which offered a good opportunity to water the horses. As the company spread out up and down its banks, Éowyn caught Rowanna's eye and jerked her head towards a little cluster of farm buildings which stood, shaded by a stand of trees, a short distance downstream. Mystified, she walked Gelion in Windfola's wake.

"Are you sure they're safe?" she prompted as they drew closer. "You heard what the Marshal said earlier- there might yet be Orcs hiding out in abandoned farmsteads..."

"You saw the scouts riding ahead to make sure before Éomer called the halt," Éowyn threw back over her shoulder. "And there's no sign of burning or damage. Besides -" she walked Windfola around the corner of the first barn and slid gracefully from the saddle - "I don't want to go in, just to get out of sight for a moment. Here, hold this for me?"

She had delved into her saddlebag, and tossed out a bundle of linen. Rowanna began to chuckle as she unrolled a shirt and pair of breeches. "I did wonder how long you'd last side-saddle! Where did you get that riding-habit, anyway?"

"Lent me by the wife of some noble or other of the City, apparently," Éowyn grumbled. "And you'd never believe how hot it is, or how heavy! Clearly no lady of Gondor ever does anything on a horse but sit about looking elegant! Here, help me unlace the dreadful thing and change before Éomer wonders what I am about, will you?"

"It's just as well Lady Théodwyn insisted you learn to sit side-saddle when you were little," Rowanna pointed out, laughing. "Though I'm impressed at how practised you look - I'm not sure I could carry it off! But why? - surely Faramir didn't insist on it?..."

"As if he could - or would!" Éowyn flashed back. "I'd had it made quite clear to me by the waiting-women that no respectable noblewoman of Minas Tirith would ever ride astride in breeches, so I'd almost made up my mind to do exactly that –"

Of course! thought Rowanna, supressing another chuckle –

"when someone appealed to Éomer and he said that if his sister wished to show herself a graceless lump unable to ride side-saddle properly he was powerless to gainsay me!" Éowyn finished indignantly.

"At which point, of course, you had to show him how it was done..."

"Obviously!" Éowyn emerged smiling from her rumpled shirt. "Now I just need to find the tack-wagon and exchange this wretched side-saddle for something Windfola can bear till we get home to Edoras..."

Home... Rowanna felt the ground unexpectedly shifting beneath her feet. The Riddermark... it was home; the only one I have ever known. And yet- Edoras drove Mother away, nearly at cost of her life. Is she ever going to want to return? And do I, if she will not?...

Steadily the days and the leagues rolled away beneath the hooves of the great riding of Rohan. On their second day out from the White City they came to a place where the road had been churned to a mudbath, now dried into holes and ruts; a little way off, lined up to point northward along the road, was a great mound.

"The burial place of our dead of the North-way Battle," Éomer said sombrely. He called a halt; three times a picked company of Riders circled the barrow, while the rest of the éoreds lifted their voices in lament to the fallen. Rowanna sang with the rest; unable to keep the tears from spilling over as she thought of Dirgon, of young Wulfdan, of Théoden King, of all the losses of the War.

Nor did the company need the burial mounds to remind them; some of the scattered farmhouses they passed were blackened ruins, their roofs fallen in, people and livestock vanished, making Rowanna shiver. I got through to Minas Tirith just in time! Other farm buildings, though, were already being put to rights, repaired by doughty Anóriens who stopped work to wave and cheer the Rohirrim, children and dogs running alongside the cavalcade full of excitement.

After their first day, Rowanna had word from one of the Marshals that she had leave to ride with the Lady Éowyn and the Elflords whenever she would. This she generally did, since she was also, as the only other woman present until they reached Rohan, sharing Éowyn's small tent when they stopped each night. During rest stops for the horses, though, and in the evenings, she roamed among the éoreds seeking out Riders she knew, looking for news of friends from the Eastfold, especially Aelstan and their horses. Béodred had been able to say little other than that all was well when he had left to ride with Théodred to Isen; and besides, Rowanna had the distinct impression - though in a company of several thousand it was hard to be sure - that Béodred was actively avoiding her.

After a few nights, however, she began to feel increasingly reluctant to roam among groups of Riders she did not know well. Where she was known she was always hailed as a friend; but a few times elsewhere she caught nudges, or laughter, or the tail-ends of comments about her wandering, which made her face flame with fury. Can they still not get past the fact that I happen to be a woman? I ride in my own right - even had I no commission from Aragorn, Éomer would have granted me leave!

In the twilight one evening she was heading back to the little enclave of tents smiling, after a few words with an old Eastfold captain who in time of peace ran his herd not many leagues from Aelstan's farm. Humming to herself, she was passing by a campfire where a circle of Riders sat, passing round a mead-flask, when a shout carried across to her:

"Off to bed, lassie? Need anyone to keep you warm?..." Another voice chided the first, but unrepentant the first Rider got to his feet and ambled towards her as she strode on, cheerfully waving his flask:

"No, no, yer al'right, we all know she's no trouble snuggling up to Elves, don't we lads?"

A roar of laughter greeted this; Rowanna was whirling round to tell the speaker exactly what she thought of him when out of nowhere a slender black figure stepped forward, one hand casually resting on the knife-hilt at his belt, and looked the Eorling icily in the eye.

"I wonder if you would care to take back that remark," Elrohir said evenly in perfect Rohirric. "I remembered the Eorlingas as a people of great courtesy - a little rough around the edges, to be sure, but never so crude as to get a cheap laugh at a woman's expense. And since it would show considerable discourtesy to Éomer King if I were to disembowel you - and I do not care to be made discourteous – I heartily recommend you reconsider."

Those of the campfire group sober enough to follow this fluent diatribe were laughing and applauding before Elrohir reached its end. The offender had more trouble; but though the Peredhel had not lifted a finger, the Rohir was not too drunk to read the entirely plausible threat in Elrohir's apparently relaxed stance. Muttering something about pardon, he backed down and resumed his seat to the jeers of his comrades.

As Rowanna marched back to the tents with flaming cheeks, Elrohir dropped easily into step beside her. Here it comes, thought Rowanna with a sinking heart. Surely now he'll be demanding to know what's behind it –

"Thank you, Elrohir," she began hastily, "but there was really no –"

"No thanks necessary," Elrond's son assured her airily. "After all, it was my reputation, such as it is, at stake as much as yours! - assuming, of course, that lout did mean me and not Elladan, though frankly I doubt he can tell us apart..."

Rowanna was momentarily dumbstruck; then she bit down firmly on her lip to suppress a great snort of laughter. Oh, Elrohir, your vanity is truly limitless! Though I should be grateful, for that will save me an infinity of more difficult explanations...

"Where did you learn to speak Rohirric like that, anyway?" she demanded to cover her confusion. "I knew you understood a little, and could speak the odd word, but –"

"- you might have chosen your insults when I beat you in a horserace more carefully if you had known I understood?" the Peredhel put in with a raised eyebrow.

"If anything, I might have been franker!" Rowanna retorted. "But –"

"Oh, Elladan and I have had a fair bit to do with the Children of Eorl over the yéni," Elrohir drawled. "All starting at Celebrant, really, as we were saying the other day..."

Rowanna reeled. "You? You and Elladan are the Grey Riders of the Field of Celebrant? You said Rivendell lent its aid, but I didn't realise – "

"Celebrated in song and story for as long as Rohan has existed," said Elrohir smugly. "Which is why offensive remarks from some child of an Eorling in his cups irritate me more than they perhaps should... Here we are – oh, good, Elladan has found some wine!"

Rowanna took the offered spot by the campfire and accepted a beaker of the wine, her thoughts still whirling.

He was at the Field of Celebrant. The Riddermark's founding legend - centuries ago! I knew he and Elladan were hundreds of years old, of course I did, but I'd never really thought – what they've seen, what they've done – what does a human lifespan look like, to an Elf? It's as Elrohir said – we're children, we're specks of dust...

She went to her bed early that night, finding she was not in much of a mood for fireside conversation; but she lay awake a long time, watching the shadow of the campfire flames dancing on the tent-canvas, Elrohir's words going round and round in her mind.

***

Faramir blew gently on his carefully-arranged bark fragments until the tiny flame caught and licked upwards, then deftly placed more kindling around and over them. As he sat back satisfied on his haunches, Legolas emerged from the trees swinging a bulging waterskin.

"That was quick!" Faramir remarked as he took the water from the Elf and set it to boil. "I knew there was a spring somewhere up behind this clearing, but I doubt I would have found it yet..."

 "I could smell it," Legolas said easily as he dropped cross-legged beside the Steward, "could not you?"

Faramir gave a sigh of contentment as the little fire began to crackle. "I still find it strange to be able to light a fire here openly, without checking the wind's direction and looking continually over our shoulders! I know Elladan and Elrohir reported all this stretch of Ithilien cleansed of orc, and yet –"

"This land is friendly, Faramir, I promise you," Legolas said gravely. "I remember how it felt when we rode up from the White City towards the Black Gate – frozen, fearful; silent even to my ears. Yet now –" The Steward had watched the Elf numerous times, in the day and a half since they had set out from Osgiliath, stop to listen apparently to the air, or pause to lay his hand to a tree's trunk, or sniff the wind. "It is wary yet," Legolas went on, "for it has been much wounded and has learnt to fear all that goes on two legs. But it begins to speak, at least to me, and to hear me."

The Steward and the Prince of the Greenwood were making this foray into southern Ithilien, north of the Crossroads, unaccompanied – somewhat to their own surprise. "With the Steward himself?" Legolas had queried. "Would not a couple of his Rangers be as well able to guide me to survey the land and the state of the forests for you?"

"Doubtless," the King had replied drily, "but ever since the Rohirrim and the White Lady departed for the Riddermark Faramir has been fretting, like a cat compelled by rain to keep to the house. Do me the kindness of taking him to Ithilien with you for a few days and at least I shall not feel guilty that he has too much paperwork and not enough fresh air!"

Faramir was indeed relishing the holiday, though he could imagine what the Rangers of Henneth Annûn would have to say when they heard of it. Pacing to and fro in his study, Aragorn had assured the Steward that nothing was afoot in City or realm which would founder for a few days of his absence: "for I have Imrahil and Húrin by me, and now that we have seen off the first wave of embassages, and put the immediately pressing works of defence and reconstruction in train, you've set in motion all that need go forward for a week or so. A few days out of the City, now that you're fit for horseback, can only do you good. Besides -" he put down his pipe and turned to face Faramir - "in truth, Faramir, I would count it a favour if you were to accompany Legolas. Something is troubling him, I would swear it; and whether it is the Sea-longing, as I fear it may well be, or simply an Elf's discomfort at spending too many weeks cooped within walls of stone, to breathe forest air and climb a few trees may at least ease his heart a little..."

And so the pair found themselves some way north of the Crossroads, watching the last of the sun's rays tinting the hilltops opposite them even as the first stars emerged into the pale green of the evening sky. Faramir pulled from his pack a small, much-stained muslin bag, filled it with dried leaves from a small box and set the tea to steep in the pot which he took from the fire. As he did so, he pulled a few waxy green leaves from a pocket and tossed them on to the flames. Legolas breathed in appreciatively.

"What is it?"

"Bitterleaf, we call it. Its smoke keeps the biting insects off, and on a still evening like tonight we are like to be glad of it!" At the Elf's slight smile he added, "Do you not have midges and the like in Mirkwood?"

"Assuredly," Legolas replied, "but I had never understood why Mortals make such a fuss about them until I saw their effect on the Hobbits after their stay in Fangorn. Elves may be bitten from time to time, but we do not come up in those huge itchy red lumps!"

The Steward threw back his head and laughed. "Yet another quality to envy in the Firstborn – how many more can there be?" He poured two mugs of tea, handed one to the Elf, and then sobered.

"Tell me truly, Legolas, now that we have begun to look more closely at the damage wrought upon this fair land. Can it be made good? And how long might it take?"

"How long..." Legolas shook his head. "I do poorly at reckoning in Mortal timespans, Faramir, in truth. It will take... as long as it will. Where the harm is to the trees only – only!", his face shadowed for a moment, "we can replant, and within a generation make new what has been destroyed. But where the earth itself has been poisoned by Mordor's filth - " He looked away, and Faramir thought he detected a faint tremor in the Elf's normally even tones. "Then we must try to cleanse before we can set seed again; perhaps divert springs and streams for a time, to leach the poison from the ground, which will mean starting upstream and at the top of slopes, and working our way down..." He took a long draught of the bitter tea. "On my way back to the Greenwood from the White City I must visit Fangorn, I think; I will need all the counsel an Ent can give me on the healing of forests. It will be no short labour, certainly not as Men count these things."

Faramir was looking at him keenly. "Legolas, you said 'we'. Does that mean..."

"As we rode to Mordor," the Elf replied, "Elladan and Elrohir saw me weep over the wounded ruins of a tree, and bade me wait for another day. I swore then to Yavanna herself that were I spared and Middle-earth saved, I would come back, if Gondor would have me, with such of my father's folk as would join me, and strive to make good what orc-kind had sought to wreck for twisted pleasure. What think you, my lord Steward?" His clear gaze held Faramir's in the dwindling light. "By the King's leave, has Ithilien room for the folk of the Woodland Realm?"

"For once I will answer on Aragorn's behalf as well as mine without hesitation," said Faramir, putting out his hand. "Most gladly and most gratefully!"

Legolas reached to complete the clasp of arms. "Then you have my word." They both sat back content, draining their mugs of tea; Faramir reached into his pack once again and pulled out bread, cheese and a hunk of ham to divide between them, while Legolas produced and unstoppered a small clay flask of wine.

"There will be no few changes in Ithilien, then, it seems," Faramir remarked as he broke the bread. "For I have it in mind to build a summer house, for myself and the lady Éowyn, perhaps south of Osgiliath at Emyn Arnen – close enough to the City that I can go to and fro at need, yet far enough that Éowyn may feel it an escape..."

"For one raised on the plains of Rohan," the Elf agreed, "the walls of Minas Tirith might well weigh heavy from time to time. I confess I am not easy surrounded by so much stone – fair though it is!" he added hastily - "and I have been within the City barely a moon-round!" He turned the wine-bottle around in his long fingers for a few moments. "Tell me, Faramir... how is it seen among your people, that you would wed a woman of another race? Is there ill feeling?"

"In truth, since we are not formally betrothed, I do not think it is widely known yet," the Steward said thoughtfully. "There will, I am sure, be some consternation among the noble matrons of Minas Tirith who had harboured hopes of me for their favourite daughters! And it is true, there are those of our older families, including some on the Council, whose views on the dilution of Númenorean blood are somewhat...rigid." He reached for the wine-flask and took a long swig. "But most of Gondor will, I hope, give us their goodwill. It must be said that the return of the King perhaps relieves some of the pressure on me in that respect, in that my line is no longer preeminent in the land. And when the King marries -" he caught Legolas' eye, and added carefully "- in the fullness of time -"

"Of course," the Elf replied solemnly, taking back the wine-flask for a swig of his own -

"- and, Valar willing, the marriage is fruitful, then frankly whom the Steward takes to wife will become a dynastic irrelevance," Faramir finished, and reached for the bread and the cheese.

"And if," Legolas enquired after a moment, "you purposed to marry... even further out of your ken? To one of the Firstborn, for example?"

Faramir shot him an intent glance.

"Such alliances are rare and precious things indeed," he said after a pause, "and not, I would imagine, to be undertaken lightly, even less so than marriage otherwise is. Consider though that the Men of Gondor remember proudly their descent from those of Númenor who once were called Faithful, and Elf-friends; for a noble line of Gondor to be joined with Elvenkind would be accorded, I would say, rather honour than otherwise." For a few minutes they both applied themselves to the food.

 "It has always seemed to me, though," Faramir resumed as he dusted the breadcrumbs from his hands, "that the love of a Mortal and an Elf was fraught with peril, if the tales and lays that have come down to us speak truly. Earendil and Elwing, Imrazôr and Mithrellas... And Lúthien overturned death itself for Beren's sake!"

"Which she could do only because the Valar granted her the grace to forsake her immortality for mortal life," Legolas pointed out. "A choice granted to no other Elf, except to her descendants – even unto the brothers Elladan and Elrohir, and their sister the Lady Arwen Evenstar..."

"Elladan and - " The Steward looked startled; then he collected himself. "Well, yes, I suppose they would be! Lúthien, Dior, Elwing, Elrond..." He shook his head. "It still bewilders me, Legolas! I learnt it in my childhood as history and legend and lay, and now..." Sitting forward suddenly, he stared at the Elf. "So you tell me that if one of Elrond's children so chooses, they may for love of a Mortal choose to relinquish the life of the Firstborn? To – to age and die as Men do?"

"Of the ageing, I am not certain," Legolas admitted. "But to die, to embrace the Gift of Men which to us is a mystery – yes."

Faramir blew out a long, slow breath.

 "I see," he said thoughtfully, and for a long moment said no more, reaching instead for another swig of the wine. "And... yes, perhaps that is the only way it could work. Else your Mortal love – and even your offspring! - ages while you are unchanged, grows frail as you do not, and at last must die and pass beyond the Circles of the World where you, immortal, may not follow. Burden rather than gift, I should say!"

Legolas said nothing. For a long time the only sound was the crackling of the fire; Faramir leant over to feed it more kindling, then looked up at the stars overhead.

"Time one of us turned in, I should think," he offered, getting to his feet and stretching before going to undo his bedroll. "Shall I take the first watch?"

Legolas shook his head. "You sleep, Faramir; I have a mind to sit among the trees yet awhile. I'll wake you should I feel the need of rest." The Steward needed no second bidding after their long day on the move, and shortly was but a humped dark shape under a blanket, breathing slow and steadily.

Many hours later, when the Netted Stars had swung across the sky and the moon had set, Legolas still sat motionless in the fork of an oak's branches, cheek resting against the grey-green bark, staring unseeing into the darkness.

~~~

Author's Notes:

The legend of the "two great horsemen, clad in grey, unlike all the others" who were in the front rank of the Rohirrim at the Battle of the Field of Celebrant in T.A 3510 is recounted in two places in HoME (thank you again, HASA Resources!) - The Peoples of Middle-Earth, HoME Vol 12, Part 1: Ch 8, The Tale of Years of the Third Age and Ch 9, The Making of Appendix A: The House of Eorl. The latter does say that "none knew whence they came or whither they went. But in Rivendell it was recorded that these were the sons of Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir." [emphasis mine] - but I decided to stretch that particular bit of not-quite-canon just a little for my own purposes, so that in Rohan the legend is that they were Elves of Rivendell, but it has been forgotten (or was never known) just which ones...

Bitterleaf is my invention, but I'm imagining an oil-bearing leaf something like eucalyptus, whose fumes would repel midges and mosquitoes when burned.


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