Putting down his third steaming mug of tea Aragorn stretched mightily, yawned, and smiled across the breakfast-table at his wife who was neatly slicing a ripe peach.
"How does my Queen on her first morning married?"
"More than well, with this wonderful fruit," Arwen beamed back at him. "I see you've taught the kitchens already to make tea in enough strength and quantity to keep a whole company of Rangers awake for a week!"
"You forget," Aragorn chuckled, "that the Citadel kitchens have been supplying Faramir - and Boromir..." - his face shadowed for an instant - "for years; they're well aware of how Rangers like their brew! But have you had all you want, dearest?"
"Plenty," Arwen assured him, licking peach-juice from her fingers, "unless, of course – " she looked sidelong from under her long black lashes – "you want to come back to bed again…"
"Tempt me not, Evenstar," her husband chuckled, "albeit we have waited half a Mortal lifetime to yield to temptation! We didn't get up till the morning was half gone as it is, and I suspect poor Húrin may already be cooling his heels in one of the antechambers –"
At that moment there was a brisk rap at the door – "See?" enquired Aragorn, rolling his eyes – and Haradir, Aragorn's equerry, slipped in and bowed.
"Forgive me, Sire, Lady Arwen; all your appointments for today were cancelled as instructed, my lord, but – Master Samwise Gamgee the Cormacolindo is outside and is very anxious to see you…"
"Sam is?" Aragorn sat bolt upright. "Show him in, Haradir, at once." As Haradir disappeared again, he and Arwen exchanged a concerned glance. "I hope to goodness Frodo –"
Sam came pattering in, bowed hastily to Arwen, and burst out:
"Begging your pardon for intruding, Lady Arwen, but - oh, Strider – I mean Sire, oh, dear –"
"Never mind that now, Sam," Aragorn urged, getting up from his seat and dropping to one knee in front of the agitated Hobbit. "Try to be calm, and tell me what's wrong; has something happened to Frodo?"
"Mister Frodo? Oh no, Strider, Frodo's fine – it's Mistress Rowanna. I knew after last night something was wrong – and now she's gone, and we can't find Legolas anywhere!"
Once Aragorn had seated Sam firmly in an armchair, and Arwen had poured him tea and gently persuaded him to take a few sips, the Hobbit calmed down somewhat. Having woken that morning anxious about Rowanna, and finding Legolas' room empty and his bed unslept in, Sam had enlisted Pippin and gone up to the Rath Míriel to enquire after her. There he had initially been told simply that Rowanna was not at home to callers; but after he and Pippin had reluctantly left a message with the doorward and turned away, they had been called back to the side-gate by a maid whom Pippin had recognised as Líriel, clearly upset.
"Líriel said that Mistress Rowanna came back early from the feast last night, before the lord and lady of the house, and she'd gone straight up to her room, see," Sam explained. "She didn't answer when Líriel knocked, so she left her be, thinking she was tired and just wanted to go straight to bed. But then when Líriel went to take her breakfast up this morning, Rowanna was gone! – and so were her spare riding-clothes and her few odds and ends; and she'd left a note. Líriel can't read, so she took it first to the housekeeper before she showed her mistress; and the note said she thanked Master Adramir and Mistress Ithildîs for their hospitality, but she could stay in Minas Tirith no longer, and she was going south to Dol Amroth to join her mother…"
Aragorn rapped out a swift order to Haradir, who nodded and vanished, then asked "And Legolas, Sam? You said he's not to be found either?"
"Nowhere about the house, and no-one saw him last night," Sam confirmed miserably. "I was up and about early, and I'd have heard that great front door of ours – unless he just climbed out of a window, o' course! Gimli's gone down on to the Pelennor to the farmer and his wife who stable Arod, to see if he's gone riding, but…"
"What did you mean, Sam," gently asked Arwen, who had been listening closely to the whole exchange, "when you said you knew after last night something was wrong? What happened last night?" The Hobbit sighed heavily.
"I thought as no-one else had noticed," he admitted, "just those of us as were sat close by them. It was the minstrels from Rivendell, Lady Arwen, and the Lay – all that story of Beren dying, and Lúthien giving up the immortal life to save him – well, it was just too much for both of 'em, I could see how much it was hurting 'em just to listen, bein' as how –" He broke off.
"Ohh." Arwen breathed out slowly. "Sam, I think I understand –"
"She loves him," Sam said stoutly. "I saw her say so. And if I'm any judge then he loves her back, and it's breakin' both their hearts, and neither of 'em has the first idea what to do about it." He twisted his mug of tea unhappily around in both hands.
Aragorn called sharply for the equerry again. "Haradir, get the whole City searched at once for Prince Legolas, if you please. Send down to the Gate to know if he has passed in or out since daybreak. And when he is found, please let him know that I would be grateful if he would wait upon me at his earliest convenience." He turned back to the unhappy Hobbit.
"Sam, I'm glad that you came and told us. Is there anything else you think we ought to know?" When the Hobbit shook his head, he went on, "Then there's not much to be gained from keeping you waiting about here. Why don't you go on back down to Frodo and the others; they'll be wanting to know what's happened. I promise that the moment there's any news, I'll send down to you at once. And if Legolas should reappear, grab the first guardsman you see and get word up here to me! I'll get someone to see you back down to the Third. Thank you – and try not to worry…"
When the Hobbit had gone, Arwen sank back down into her chair.
"Ai, Estel; I have been completely blind. And poor Rowanna – unknowing, I have said all the worst possible things…"
"Well, you may have been blind, but I am still in the dark," protested her husband; "you have been with Rowanna the last fortnight – what exactly has been going on?"
As Arwen recounted something of her conversations with Rowanna on the journey from Edoras, Aragorn paced the room chewing furiously on his pipe-stem; Haradir reappeared and made a report, to which the King listened intently before issuing another swift set of instructions.
"Well, now we just have to wait till Legolas is found," he observed, perching briefly on the arm of Arwen's chair and resting his chin on top of her dark head. "Not how I planned to spend our first morning married, beloved, I admit! Do you want to go down to the gardens? - I can send to let you know when there's news..."
Arwen shook her head. "I'll wait with you. I want to know – I should have seen it, I could see on the southward road that Rowanna was unhappy, but I thought –" She broke off.
"That she was just catching Elrohir and Elladan's mood?" Aragorn folded his arm around her more tightly. "It would have been understandable enough." He sighed, got up and resumed pacing the room; Arwen drew her knees up, rested her head on them and watched him.
The next day-bell had chimed from the top of the White Tower by the time Haradir reappeared. "Prince Legolas is found, Sire, and asks your pardon and Lady Arwen's for the delay in reaching him; he is on his way up to the Citadel."
"Where was he, Haradir?" Arwen asked softly.
"In the gardens of the Houses of Healing, I understand, milady," the equerry replied; "looking out over Anduin... in a tree." He bowed neatly and disappeared again.
Aragorn smiled, but ruefully. "Legolas has been complaining to me ever since we arrived in Minas Tirith of the City's shortage of trees, and indeed growing things of all kinds. Clearly I should accept his offer to bring the People of the Wood to plant and tend!"
He got no further, for at that moment, the door opened noiselessly and, unannounced, Legolas slipped in.
He was wearing the previous night's blue and silver tunic, and his braided hair still gleamed; to any Gondorrim observing, the Elf had probably appeared as composed as ever. But as he entered Arwen went very still; then she got to her feet and, crossing the room to Legolas, took both his hands in hers and looked for a long moment into his face. She nodded slowly.
"I will be down in the gardens," she said gently, "if either of you needs me." Then with a momentary rustle of skirts she was gone. Elven prince and Mortal king regarded each other warily.
"Please tell me you are not going to ask me what is wrong, Aragorn," Legolas said eventually, folding his arms.
"As long as you are not going to pretend that nothing is!" Aragorn shot back. "No, I was rather going to ask you if you could shed any light on the news which a very anxious Samwise brought Arwen and myself an hour or more ago, and which we have since confirmed at the Gate and the Citadel stables; Rowanna is gone."
"What?" The colour drained from Legolas' face. "Gone where? When? With whom?"
"According to the note she apparently left for her cousin's household; gone south to Dol Amroth, to join her mother. As to when; the stable-lad says she was saddling Gelion before dawn – and the guards on the Great Gate report a horse and rider matching their description waiting for the Gate to be opened at first light. And although they urged her to wait for a caravan or an errand-rider going south, she left alone."
"Are there guard-posts on the Dol Amroth road?" the Elf demanded urgently, glancing out of the window at the sun overhead.
"You want her stopped?" Aragorn's eyebrows shot up.
"No!" Legolas whirled back to face him. "Dragged back to the City like a criminal or an errant child – what purpose would that serve? She has made her choice, and it is not for me to have you undo it! I only want to know that – she is safe..." His voice cracked a little, and he crossed to the window and leant heavily on the sill, looking out southward towards the Harlond and the river.
"There we have already made some progress," Aragorn reassured him. "Imrahil had an errand-rider due to set out for Dol Amroth today in any case, so I have... commandeered him. He has orders to catch Rowanna up – which he should readily do given that he can get a change of horse at every post – and then, unobtrusively, to keep pace with her, and to send back word by the northbound couriers of where they are. We'll know when she reaches Dol Amroth." He walked over to the window in his turn and faced Legolas. "So now perhaps you will explain to me just what happened last night to cause Rowanna to flee Minas Tirith without a word as soon as the Great Gate was opened this morning?"
Legolas heaved a great sigh.
"It began at the feast; the singing of Leithian… We both knew then what others had been telling us but I, at least, had wanted not to see; that for those not of the descent of Lúthien Tinúviel, between Firstborn and Aftercomers even the greatest love cannot undo time, or death, or the pain of loss… And then – she was in the gardens of the Houses, weeping her heart out just as I once dreamed it, and – and…" He stumbled to a halt.
"Do you love her?" Aragorn held the Elf's gaze steadily.
"Do I –" Legolas exhaled hard in frustration. "I am not even sure what the word can mean, Aragorn, between a Mortal and an Elf! Would I give up my life and go straight to Mandos for her sake? Yes. Can I promise to cherish and protect her lifelong? No. Are we bound together, she and I, even though we have never yet joined in body? I don't know. But this much I will tell you; when I look at her the blood in my veins runs like fire and my heart is drawn out of my body. When I bury my face in her hair then I feel as though I breathed in the essence of Arda itself, and while she holds me I am grounded even against the pull of the Sea. And when I make her smile or hear her laugh then I know myself more alive, in that moment, than ever in all the yeni of my life. Does that answer your question?" He ran his hands distractedly back over his hair, sending braids flying.
"I rather think it does." Aragorn nodded slowly. "Regardless of what word you might choose to use, in the Grey Tongue or the Common – or the Ancient for that matter. What it does not tell me, as Rowanna's King and kinsman and as your dear friend, is what on earth is to be done with the pair of you."
"There is nothing to be done, as you put it," Legolas said heavily. "This is not some… some misunderstanding, Aragorn, which requires only for you to exercise the authority of king or chieftain to drag Rowanna back to the White City, and bring us together, for her to fall into my arms! We have each thought on it all these last weeks, worried, wept, talked – we said to each other all that there was to say last night… and we made our choice." He rested his elbows on the sill and buried his face in his hands. "It is over," he said, muffled through his fingers. "She is gone."
Aragorn watched him for a long moment, then rested a hand on the Elf's shoulder. "Then I am truly sorry for it," he said simply. And then: "Who else knows of it?"
Legolas took a deep, shuddering breath and looked up. "Sam, as you saw – and therefore Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship, I would imagine; at any rate, they all saw me, and probably Rowanna too, fleeing the feast last night. Arwen, now; and," he finished bitterly, "your brethren know – Elladan and Elrohir."
"Do they indeed?" Aragorn turned from the window and went to find his pipe.
"Rowanna broke down on the last night of the ride south from Edoras, when she had been fretting herself sleepless and sick for days over all that Arwen had said about the Choice of Lúthien, and told them it all," Legolas said grimly. "After which Elrohir came storming down from the Citadel as soon as they arrived in the White City, accused me of losing my senses, and threatened to cut me to shreds if I breathed a word to you or to Arwen on your wedding-day…"
"I would have been interested to see him try," the King remarked. "I had better add the two of them to the growing list of people whose presence I need to request…" He paced over to the side-table which held his tobacco-pouch.
"Go down to Arwen in the garden," he said firmly. "If nothing else, the scents of herb and flower may ease your heart more than keeping within doors. And tell her I will be down in a little while."
Legolas nodded, mutely, and slipped out of the door. Aragorn found his tinder and flint, threw himself down in an armchair and, with a sigh of relief, took a long, thoughtful pull on his pipe.
Míranna drew the door of the guestroom softly to with a sigh, and made her way back downstairs to Almiel's sitting-room. Pennastir's wife was leaning against a pile of cushions on her day-bed, a writing-tablet propped on her knee and one of the housemaids standing at her elbow.
"...the seabass with fennel and lemons, I should think, as long as you can get them at the market; and plenty of salad for tomorrow, for if it's as hot as today then no-one's likely to want a heavy meal –" She looked up as Míranna came in. "That will do, thank you, Ithilwen." Then as the maid bobbed a curtsey and disappeared she asked anxiously,
"How is she?"
"Exhausted, above all else." Míranna lowered herself into a chair near the window, enjoying the sea breeze lifting the fine muslin drapes which took the harshest edge off the strong afternoon light. "She's been on the road for days – spending the nights in goodness knows what sort of beds in roadside inns – and from her own account she can't have slept properly for weeks before that..."
"To ride all that way alone!" Almiel shook her head.
"I don't know what Adra was thinking of," commented Pennastir as he came in with a tall glass of lemonade for his wife, "letting her set off unaccompanied..."
"I rather doubt that Adramir and Ithildîs were consulted," Míranna observed dryly; "my daughter has inherited all the headstrong tendencies of her distaff side, Pennastir, I'm afraid! By her own account, she packed her saddlebags the night of the King's wedding, left a note on her bedside table and was gone from Minas Tirith by first light."
"We owe the King a great debt," Pennastir admitted. "Making sure she was escorted without her knowing it, and then sending the messenger here to ensure she had reached us safely."
"But... why?" Almiel asked in wonder.
"That I have promised not to say too much about, even to you, for the moment," Míranna replied, shaking her head sadly, "but... suffice it to say that Rowanna has been most unlucky in love."
Gimli sat on a treestump at the edge of a great clearing, whittling a stick, and glancing up from time to time at Legolas. The Elf knelt in the centre of the open space, head bowed, unmoving. The grass was beginning to grow again, but plain still to see in the slanting autumn sunlight were the outlines of many huge pits – cleansed by the Lady Galadriel, according to Legolas, after she had put forth her power to break the very walls of the fortress stone from stone; the dead decently buried, those for whom there could be neither hope nor help gently eased on their way to Mandos, the pits filled in and left for the forest to reclaim.
"No cairn?" he had enquired curiously of Legolas. "Not even a carved slab let into the ground as their memorial?" and the Elf's eyes had glittered.
"They need nor stone nor cairn whose grave is here," he had anwered grimly. "We will remember." And Gimli believed him. Not so long as a single Elf lingers in Middle-earth will they forget the name of Dol Guldur.
At last Legolas rose, stood another long moment, and came back to him. The Dwarf could see the tracks of tears on his face. Eventually Legolas said bleakly:
"So many, Gimli. So many yeni, so many fëar..."
"It's done," was all the Dwarf could think to say. "And you and I played both our part in that."
Legolas breathed out hard. "That we did... Very well, then. Northwards."
"Through this endless forest?" Gimli baulked. Legolas, to the Dwarf's relief, chuckled.
"Not with Arod; it will be long, I fear, even by Elven count before this southern part of Mirkwood can give up that name and will be open enough for riding! We'll turn back out of the forest, skirt its southern edge and then ride north up the eastern flank, and follow Celduin up to the Long Lake; much faster going for Arod and better grazing too. With luck, another moon-round will see us at Esgaroth." He quirked an eyebrow at the Dwarf. "And by that road, of course, we'll avoid the whole question of whether Father would offer, or you would accept, the hospitality of our halls..."
Gimli merely grunted. "Come on, then. Tell that poor beast he can't have any more grass and must bear his double burden once again, and let's get on our way."
Celduin: the River Running, which in its course south-eastwards from Erebor to the Sea of Rhûn flows parallel to much of the eastern border of Mirkwood, passing through the Long Lake.
Celduin: the River Running, which in its course south-eastwards from Erebor to the Sea of Rhûn flows parallel to much of the eastern border of Mirkwood, passing through the Long Lake.