"I need to talk to you both," Rowanna murmured out of the side of her mouth, in the Grey Tongue, as she reined in alongside Elladan and Elrohir when the company prepared to stop around midday. "Out of hearing of the crowd, too. Bring Nimfaun and Nimloss upstream a little."
Elrohir arched an inquisitive eyebrow; but quelled by a look from his brother he said nothing, and contrived to make his few yards' journey to the stream a minute or two later look innocent enough.
"Why all the mystery, Rowanna?" Elladan enquired as they let the horses drink and found a spot in the shade to break open their own provisions. They were less than a month off Mid-year now, and the sun overhead around midday was baking.
"Yes, haven't you caused enough gossip for one trip –" Elrohir began, but Rowanna glared at him.
"Just be serious for two minutes, Elrohir, will you? Two questions, that is all. Firstly: do Éomer King and Lady Éowyn – indeed, does anyone here – know of Arwen's coming? And secondly: have you any idea at all where the riding from Rivendell may have reached by now, or when we might expect to meet with them?" She took a large bite of bread and cheese and waited for the brothers' answer.
"The first is simple enough," Elladan assured her. "None of the Rohirrim know anything as yet; they think merely that we intend to return to our own lands in the North..."
"Which return probably can't come soon enough for some of them!" his brother put in, eyes dancing wickedly. "Your adopted people have not yet learnt to love the Firstborn – or at least the Peredhil – I fear, rohiril!"
"I can't imagine why that could possibly be," Rowanna sighed. "But I am sure you are right. Go on, Elladan."
"We bear a letter from Estel to the royal house of Rohan," Elladan continued, "explaining the true reason for our journey, and asking pardon for the secrecy up till now. This missive we are empowered to hand to Éomer King when we are certain that Arwen and Father have left Lothlórien, and when we believe them to be on their way to Edoras. For to answer your second question, Rowanna, I am sure they will be making for the Golden Hall, and that I imagine is where we will meet them; in a ten-day or so, I would think..."
"But how will you know?" Rowanna demanded. "How do you know now, where they are?..."
"We begin to know each other's presence, as they draw closer," the Peredhel explained, taking a long swig from his water-skin. "We dreamed of Arwen last night – she was too far yet to speak clearly, but we felt her coming, and her joy..." Something flickered across his face before Rowanna could read it.
"Grandmother's there too, of course," Elrohir put in, "no mistaking her even in dream! They must have passed beyond the borders of Lórien, for if they were still within her bounds she'd overwhelm any sense of anyone else, except Grandfather; but Arwen was clearly there, and Father, and I'm fairly sure I caught Lindir and, for my pains, Erestor –"
"The Lady Galadriel?" Rowanna gulped; even from her brief passing through the marches of Lothlórien months before, the unseen presence of the Lady of the Golden Wood had struck her as formidable. Then she sat up suddenly, startling Gelion who huffed indignantly.
"But Elladan! If such a great host is coming from Rivendell – the Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn, and Master Elrond – you must let Éowyn know at once! It will be her responsibility to welcome them as Lady of the Golden Hall – how can she make provision when she isn't even back in Edoras yet? She needs to ride ahead with all haste! - or at least send messengers before –"
"Peace, peace!" Elladan was chuckling. "The thought had occurred to us too, though we were loath to disturb Lady Éowyn until we were certain. Though in truth the riding from Imladris – certainly Arwen – will stand on far less ceremony than Rohan may expect! But I think you could be right, the time has perhaps come to discharge this first of the duties Estel has laid upon us – at suppertime tonight, maybe. What think you, brother?"
To Rowanna's surprise, Elrohir was glowering.
"If you must," he said shortly, hurling his apple-core into the stream with a face like thunder; getting to his feet without another word he clicked to Nimloss and marched, followed by his obedient mount, back towards the gathering Rohirrim. Rowanna made to get to her feet and follow, but was forestalled by Elladan's restraining hand.
"What's the matter? What ails him?"
"These are not the easiest of days for the House of Elrond, Rowanna. Our beloved sister, the Evenstar of her people, daughter of the line of Lúthien, rides to Gondor –"
"To be married to Aragorn!" Rowanna protested, glad that they were still using the Grey Tongue so that she need not fear her voice carrying to any passing Eorling. "To the Man she has loved and waited for all these years –"
"And for whom she will give up her life," Elladan said tightly. Rowanna gasped, winded as though she had been punched in the chest, as Bilbo's words long ago in Rivendell came back to her:
"She has chosen mortality, and one day she will leave this world indeed, and the Elves will lose the one they most love...and nothing in all the powers or chances of this world will turn her aside."
"Oh," she said, taking a long juddering breath. "Oh... yes, I see. Elladan, I'm sorry..."
"You understand what it means?" The Peredhel looked at her keenly.
"I – a little. Bilbo told me." Rowanna hugged her knees to her chest, wishing herself a hundred leagues away.
"Then you must pardon me, and Elrohir, if we do not share in Arwen's joy as unreservedly as we always thought we would at our little sister's wedding." His voice broke slightly. "I would do anything not to show her, but Arwen is no fool. She will see at Edoras, if she does not feel it already, what this is doing; to us, to Father. Which makes it all the harder –" he swallowed – "but I must accept it; that her love for Estel is so great that even our grief and our loss will not turn her from her path."
He finished hoarsely, and Rowanna passed him his water-skin; he took a gulp, shook himself like a dog emerging from swimming, and rose in one smooth movement to his feet.
"You haven't explained," he remarked as they called the horses from their grazing and made to rejoin the troop, "why you were suddenly so anxious to know Arwen's whereabouts, or who knew of them!"
"I'd been thinking," Rowanna explained, "about Aelstan – Béodred's uncle, who owns the farmstead where we worked breeding and training horses. From what little I've managed to glean from some of the Riders, all was well enough there when they rode South – and Béodred knows the farmstead was safe before he joined Lord Théodred's éored – but I'd still like to go and see for myself, if I could. You know that since we crossed the Mering Stream the other day, the Marshals are giving Eastfold Riders leave to depart, if they will, to go home and find their kin – well, I had thought of asking Éomer King for permission to ride out to the farmstead, with Béodred if he means to go. In a day or two we'll be passing close, I could be there and back in a day and a half – but I have a charge from Aragorn, even as you and Elrohir do. I promised to come to the Riddermark as Arwen's friend, to be by her on her journey. So if I couldn't ride out to Aelstan's and back before we were likely to meet up with the Elves from Rivendell, then I wouldn't go."
To her surprise, Elladan rested a hand for a moment on her shoulder.
"Arwen will have need of such friendship, I think," he said, managing to smile. "And I am grateful that you thought first of her. But both can be easily done, I should say – we cannot reach Edoras for at least a week yet at the pace we are making; and if I am any judge, we will be there before Arwen and Father and the party from Imladris. Besides –" he clapped Gelion on the flank – "this beast would thank you for a good gallop to stretch his legs, would you not, lad? Speak to Éomer, Rowanna, and get your leave to see that all's well with Aelstan."
Gelion trotted steadily northwestwards beneath a restless sky in which small patches of blue vied with ominous castles of thundercloud. "I wonder if that'll hold off until we reach Edoras?" Rowanna asked him as the stiff breeze whipped at the edges of her cloak. Legolas would know... she thought, the lack of him a pain so physical that she felt it squeeze her heart in her chest. Watching the clouds scudding across towards them, breaking and re-forming, she sighed. I never thought the day would come when I would be relieved to see the back of Aelstan's holding!
The ride out from the royal cavalcade to the farm two days before had been just as uneasy, with Béodred largely taciturn alongside her, giving only the briefest answers to her questions; so that it had been largely left to Aelstan and his voluble wife Gytha to give her all the news of how folk and beasts had fared. The steading, it turned out, had been untouched by the War: Aelstan had just been considering whether to send the womenfolk and children to Edoras for greater safety, as the tales of destruction in the Westfold spread like wildfire, when news had come of the Orcs' defeat at Helm's Deep, and of the muster.
"We'd already Béodred away with my lord Théodred –" he explained as they sat on straw bales outside the farmhouse, downing welcome beakers of small beer, "- and all the rest of the able-bodied lads that we could mount were called to the muster. I was ready to ride too –"
"At your age!" Gytha protested as she refilled his tankard. "As if we hadn't enough to worry about without you leaving the steading undefended!"
"– but the messenger from the Marshals said no, the last man on a farmstead was exempted. We thought of driving the herds across to Dunharrow; but from what we heard, Mordor was looking to Mundburg, not in our direction, so in the end we stayed put, and all worked out well enough."
"It's a mercy we weren't all murdered in our beds," Gytha insisted later as they all sat along the great wooden table for the noon-meal, and Merith the pretty new house-maid handed round steaming bowls of broth. "With every able-bodied man in arms gone with the King, Béma rest his soul, to defend Mundburg –"
"Where people were rather closer than you to being murdered in their beds, Gytha, if truth be told!" Rowanna pointed out between mouthfuls.
"Well, that's as may be." The goodwife folded her arms before her on the table like a barricade. "But between Mordor on the one side and the wizard it now seems was playing us false on the other, let alone the enchantress in the Golden Wood –"
"The Lady Galadriel?" Rowanna was unable to contain herself. "One of the wisest and most powerful of the Firstborn in all Middle-earth? Oh Gytha, surely even you can't possibly rank her alongside Sauron and Saruman –"
"Met her, have you?" Aelstan enquired curiously as Merith began to gather up the empty broth-bowls, bestowing a dazzling smile on Béodred as she leant over his shoulder.
"I've not met Lady Galadriel, no," Rowanna admitted. "But I lived among the Elves for a good few months as you heard, in the house of Master Elrond their great healer at Rivendell, and they are – fair, and valiant, and wise, and – oh, you tell them, Béodred!"
Even as the words were out of her mouth she realised she could not have picked a worse advocate to plead her cause. Béodred glowered down the table at her.
"Fair, and powerful, and skilful they are, without doubt," he ground out. "But they're bewitching and cunning too, and if you ask me Mortals are best off staying well away from them and all their enchantments!"
"Well, there you are." Gytha took a dish of bacon from Merith and thumped it down in the centre of the table next to the basket of bread. "And I'm sure that when Rowanna is back living among sensible folk then sense is what she'll see! Now then – there's bread, bacon, and cheese..."
Aelstan turned to ask Béodred for news of some of their Eastfold neighbours who had ridden to the muster; Rowanna, recognising a lost cause when she saw one, reached for cheese and freshly baked bread and did her best to subdue exasperation to appetite.
Later they'd walked the herds, looking over the yearlings Rowanna had never seen, checking on the mothers due to foal over the summer and discussing which of the mares Aelstan had covered with his various stallions that spring.
"So what are your plans, lass?" Aelstan enquired as they made their way across to the steading's one small stand of trees, where a group of fillies stood flicking their tails against the flies in the shade. "Gytha's taking it as given that you'll be coming back to us, but I saw your face at dinner – you're not so sure?"
Rowanna sighed. "I don't know, Aelstan. You were lucky here, almost unscathed – Gytha has but little idea of how much of the world is changed forever by the War, for ill and for good. Mother was driven from Edoras! – yes," as Aelstan opened his mouth to protest, "I know that was largely thanks to the poison of the Worm, but leave she did, and I think now she's largely made her peace with Mundburg and with her kin; she talks of staying in the Southland. And there are... other things..." She tailed off, scratching one of the yearlings between its ears.
"Well, it's sorry I'd be to lose you," Aelstan admitted, "but I can understand how the Mark may not be the home it was for you, after all that's been. I'd give you a fair price for your share in the beasts, assuming you didn't want to take them with you. Béodred is shaping up to be a fair pair of hands – or was until all this galloping off to war! – and if need be we'll do well enough." He clapped the nearest horse on the flank and they turned to walk back towards the stables.
"You've not been doing badly as it is!" Rowanna smiled, but something within sank a little at the thought. Aelstan doesn't need me, that much is clear, glad though he'd be of my return. Béodred will soon be getting over his bruised heart readily enough, to judge by the way he received Merith's smiles and admiring gazes over dinner! And as for me... everything here is barely changed, so it must be that I am. Why else do I constantly feel like begging them all to look, to see, to open their eyes? This must be how Legolas felt, after first the Sea-longing came on him; no-one looking on us sees anything different, and yet to us the world is turned upside down.
Now, as she rode once again towards Edoras, she swallowed hard on a painful but clear reality: I have left Aelstan, and the steading, and the Eastfold behind. And I am not sure I shall be going back.
"What'll we do this morning?" Merry asked at second breakfast, dipping a spoon into a jar of rose-honey from Imloth Melui. Unusually the sky over the White City was grey, and a steady drizzle had been falling ever since the Hobbits had got up. "Sitting out in the courtyard doesn't exactly appeal. Shall we go and see what Bergil's up to?"
"Sam looks like he's planning a morning in the kitchen," Pippin grinned, indicating the far end of the table where Samwise was lining up jars of dry ingredients and dishes of butter and eggs. "And Gimli's out already; he wanted to go down to the forge on the Third and do some work with Master Galmir the blacksmith, I think. Where's Legolas, does anyone know?"
"Gone since dawn," Frodo put in quietly from the other end of the table, where he was picking fitfully at a dish of berries and green cheese firmly placed in front of him by Sam. "I.. couldn't sleep, and I'd come down to make a camomile tea –"
"You should've woken me, Master Frodo, I'd've done that for you!" Sam protested.
"– and he was just slipping out of the door," Frodo went on. "He said he was taking Arod out, and he might be gone all day, so not to wait for him."
"It hasn't turned into much of a day for riding!" Merry retorted. "But then – you'd think he would have known that; Elves always seem to know what the weather's going to do long before us mere Mortals..."
"He's been disappearing off a lot like that lately," Pippin said thoughtfully. "I know he used to go out all day with Rowanna, but now she's gone back to see how things are in Rohan you'd think he'd be here a bit more! Do you think he's all right?"
"Something troubles him, Pippin, I think," Frodo admitted slowly. "But then he is a Grey-elf; and from what you said he told you of Lady Galadriel's foretelling and then the ride to Pelargir, he has been touched by the longing for the Sea. Bilbo used to say that that desire once woken could never be assuaged; Legolas must be finding it hard, being so close to Anduin and yet so far from the shore..."
Legolas was indeed sitting by the banks of the Anduin, but it was not towards the Sea that his gaze was turned. Shortly after dawn he had called at the smallholding a little way outside the walls where stabling and grazing had been agreed for Arod; the middle-aged couple who lived there, having survived separation and war, were determined to rebuild their ruined house and barn as quickly as possible, and had been more than happy to accept Faramir's advance payment for Arod's keep to help buy their new timber and stone.
Arod had nickered happily at him and gladly accepted the apple he was offered, a little bemused to be taken out in the drizzle for apparently no more than a hack; yet quite content to wander, at the Elf's gentle prompting, through the north-gate of the Rammas and then up along the banks of the wide, lazy-flowing river. A league or so north of the Rammas Legolas had dismounted with a pat to Arod's neck and given him leave to graze, before hunkering down at the water's edge, hood drawn up over his head against the steady rain, gazing northwards.
Some time – perhaps minutes, perhaps hours – later he heard faint splashing and the creak of a pair of oars in their rowlocks, then a soft thumping as the oars were shipped; and afterwards the faint whine of a fishing-line being cast.
"Good day to ye," said a Gondorian accent softly in the Common Speech. Legolas looked round from beneath his hood. Similarly huddled beneath a cloak, a grey-bearded fisherman sat in a small rowing-boat moored a few feet down the river from him.
"And to you, my friend. What do you hope to take this day?"
"Perch, mostly, along this stretch. Maybe a few roach." Legolas noticed a small wooden bucket squirming with white maggots at the Man's feet.
"Well," he gestured towards the darker clouds beginning to mass behind the mountain peaks to the west, "I think a storm is brewing for later, so you should have good fishing beforehand, should you not?"
"Aye, so I reckoned. You've a good weather-eye on you, master."
"So I've sometimes been told," said Legolas wryly, and for a while neither spoke again, the rain pattering gently around them. The Man reeled steadily in, brought a silver-and-black-striped perch aboard and clubbed it neatly on the head before laying it in a leather sack in the bottom of his boat, baiting his line and casting once again.
"And what brings you out of the City to stare upriver in the rain, master?" he enquired in his turn a little later. Legolas said nothing for a moment.
"Missing someone, maybe?"
"Missing many things, my friend, places and people," Legolas sighed. "But yes, one above all."
"Mmph." The Gondorian showed his satisfaction at his guess. "And would she – I'm thinking she, though of course I could be wrong! – be coming back this way?"
"I hope and believe so," Legolas replied. "Before Midsummer, if all goes well…"
"Aye, well, then you're luckier than some." The line twitched gently. "I lost my Ivorwen three years ago this month, and never a day goes by that I don't miss her with all my heart; and believe me if staring up the river could have brought her back she'd have been with me again long ago."
"I am sorry for it." Legolas said nothing for a long moment, then:
"If she draws my heart from my body thus simply over a few score leagues, then… how great must the pain be when all the Circles of the World separate you? When the one you love is gone from you forever? How do you bear it?..."
"As you must," grunted his companion. "At first I felt as though I never would, and I won't deny I did think of a coil of rope and a rafter in the barn; but you go on, because you have to, and slowly it becomes less like a blade in your heart and more like a big stone you carry around in your chest, dull and heavy and aching. What else can you do? – you know what they say: ''tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.'"
"Do they so?..." said Legolas thoughtfully.
In one smooth movement, he rose to his feet and whistled for Arod, who trotted over at once. "My thanks, friend. And good fishing."
Swinging up on to Arod's bare back, he raised a hand in salutation; his hood fell back, letting the rain fall on face and braided hair, and as he turned to gallop back to the City he caught sight of the fisherman trailing his line slack in the water, blinking in astonishment.