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And in a Noon of Gold

"Hail! Who goes there?" A tall Man clad in green and brown, a bow strung in his hand, emerged from the oak and beech woods alongside the path as Rowanna and Gelion approached Emyn Arnen, alerted by the whistled signal from their Ranger escort. Rowanna reined in and inclined her head to him; the Ranger and his fellow exchanged a few swift words of Sindarin before Rowanna's escort bowed to her in the saddle, accepted her thanks, and turned his mount around.

"Rowanna daughter of Míranna, as guest of the Steward and Prince of Ithilien," she presented herself to the sentry. "The Steward had intended to escort me himself, but he is delayed at Council in the City, and gave me leave to ride on ahead." She leant down from the saddle and passed the sentry the note Faramir had hastily penned early that morning before going in to the Council session.

"I must ask you to forgive me," he had said ruefully as he wrote, "and I shall certainly have to get down on bended knee and beg Éowyn's pardon too, for I had promised her I would be back today! But these wretched negotiations with the Haradri ambassadors drag on; and tedious though trade and tariffs may seem, if we cannot reach agreement we'll have unrest on our southern borders ere long that we can ill afford. Aragorn wants resolution, and I cannot leave him unsupported in that, for there are elements on the Council who would urge a more... aggressive approach." He sighed as he finished the note and handed it to her. "You're sure you will not wait another day in the City, and we'll go together?"

"Truly, Faramir," Rowanna assured him, "I would much rather make a start – Minas Tirith seems stifling in this heat after Dol Amroth!" And I was hoping Ithildîs would be gone south for the summer by the time I got here, she added inwardly, whereas she's here for another week dropping unsubtle hints about the urgent need for me to make myself respectable by finding a husband. Besides, everywhere I go... In just two days in Minas Tirith, she had found herself almost in tears half a dozen times, caught unawares by the sharp pain of memory: that street is where the Fellowship stayed, that's the windowsill he used to climb over, that alley leads up to the Houses... "From what you say, the roads are safe enough –"

"There will be plenty of traffic as far as Anduin," Faramir agreed as he got to his feet, "and that note will get you the use of my barge to cross with Gelion, and an escort the rest of the way. Not that there's any danger – all the land between Emyn Arnen and Henneth Annûn is at peace now under the Rangers' watch – but were Gelion to go lame or lose a shoe anywhere across the River you might have a long walk to find any help. Except, of course, for –" He broke off as an equerry strode into the antechamber and bowed.

"Your pardon, my Lord Steward, but the King is most anxious to begin –"

"I shall be with him straight." Faramir shook Rowanna by the hand and turned to go. "Fair journey to you, my lady. And do give my sincere regard and my contrition to my wife, else I may not dare return at all!"

Now the sentry swiftly scanned Faramir's note, and nodded. "Be welcome to Emyn Arnen, my lady. If you follow this path till it forks, and then take the right fork, you'll come to the house in a few minutes. The stables lie behind the house to the southern side, and you should find water, hay and oats there in plenty."

Rowanna thanked him and took the path as directed, grateful for the shade of the trees in the fierce afternoon sun. A few moments later, the woods opened out into a clearing. Towards the rear of it, cradled by the gentle rise of the hills behind, stood a simple white stone house, muslin drapes stirring in the breeze at its open windows. Rowanna smiled in relief, clicked to Gelion and made her way around to the stables.

Once she had introduced the horse to a pair of admiring stable-lads, and seen him watered, rubbed down and comfortably bestowed in a stall, Rowanna walked back round to the house. The great oak front door stood ajar; after a moment's hesitation, though, Rowanna lifted the wrought iron knocker and let it fall. Footsteps sounded within, and a minute later a middle-aged woman in a neat grey dress, fair hair covered in a white cap, appeared.

"How may I serve you, sir?" she began. Then a moment later, looking more closely at Rowanna, "Oh, I beg your pardon – milady! It – it was the breeches, if you'll excuse me..."

"Please, don't worry," Rowanna chuckled. "I know all too well the ladies of Gondor are accustomed to ride in skirts; but I was too many years away from the Southlands to change my habit now! My name is Rowanna; I'm here as a guest of the Steward, but he's been delayed at Council in the City and so we agreed that I would ride on ahead..."

"Oh – yes, milady, we were expecting you. Please, do come in. My name is Frideswide; I'm housekeeper to Lady Éowyn –"

"And came with her from the Golden Hall, I would guess?" Rowanna asked in Rohirric, and won a beaming smile in response.

"Why yes, mistress! How come you to speak our tongue?"

"I was born and brought up in the Riddermark –"

"Well, imagine that! Come within now, mistress, where it's cooler, and let me fetch you something to eat and drink after your ride." The housekeeper ushered Rowanna within to a comfortable dining-room, its shutters partially closed to keep out the harshest of the afternoon heat and light. "I'll let my lady know you've arrived as soon as she wakes, for she's resting just now –"

"Is Éowyn ill?" Rowanna asked, concerned.

"No, no, have no fear – she's just a little tired these days what with –" the housekeeper checked herself – "the heat, and needs to rest after the noon-meal. Let me get you that drink."

Refreshed with a long cold beaker of small beer and a plate of bread, cold meats and cheese, Rowanna talked happily in Rohirric with the housekeeper, who was intrigued to find out how such a Gondorian-looking woman came to have lived in the Mark; and who also told her a little about the household and, as she warmed to her theme, confided her belief about the truth of Éowyn's fatigue.

"It's by no means common knowledge, milady, but since you've known her all her life, and I know you'll not noise it abroad – nothing's been said for certain yet, but my lady's sick in the mornings, very weary, and it's plain to any woman who's seen these things and especially to me, having the care of her linen... she must be with child."

"I'm glad for her – and the Steward too," Rowanna said truthfully. "But I won't disturb her, Frideswide, if she's resting. Once I've finished eating, if you can show me to my room and have some water brought, I'll change into a clean shirt and breeches – for the dust of the road's on these from head to toe! - and then perhaps take a walk from the house."

Installed in a small and comfortable room under the eaves of the house, Rowanna gratefully stripped and washed, changed her clothes, and accepted the help of one of the maids to wash the sweat and dirt of the road from her hair. Combing it out and leaving it spread over her shoulders to dry, she lay back on the bed and gazed at the patterns of sunlight and shadow dancing on the ceiling; but a little while later admitted to herself she was too restless to spend the afternoon lying down.

Pulling her boots back on, she found her water-skin and cloak and went in search of Frideswide, from whom she begged a couple of wrinkled apples by way of rations.

"How far do you plan to go, mistress?" the housekeeper enquired. "Not that it isn't safe enough all the way from here to Henneth Annûn, with the Rangers keeping an eye, but I don't know how well you know the land hereabouts. My lord and lady generally eat a little after sundown, though Lady Éowyn may want to wait dinner tonight once I've given her your message from my lord Steward..."

"I'll be back by sundown for certain," Rowanna reassured her, "for I've no intention of getting myself lost in the dark! I can find my way by the sun and the line of the hills easily enough, I should think. I'd just like to begin getting a feel for the lie of the land, to start to talk to Faramir about where we might best think of starting his stud."

"Have you a cloak or a hood?" Frideswide asked. "It might seem too hot now, but thunder can come rolling in off the hills in no time at this season – we had a great storm and downpour last night, you'll still see the puddles here and there."

Rowanna held out her cloak for inspection.

"That's a fine one!" Frideswide admired, running her fingers over the soft grey fabric. "That never came from the Mark?"

"No, it's –" Rowanna swallowed hard – "Elven weave. It was given me, more than a year ago now, and – I've not had the heart to part with it..."

"Well, it should serve you well enough." The housekeeper smiled and swung the front door wide for her. "A fair afternoon to you, mistress."

Rowanna looked in at the stables on Gelion, who whinnied with pleasure to see her.

"No, I'm not taking you out again yet, lad," Rowanna said firmly, "for you came a good way this morning, and through the mid-day heat; you rest, and I'll go afoot!" She made him a peace-offering of one of her apples, adjusted her water-skin where it hung across her hip from its strap and then, with her cloak slung across her arm, set off across the clearing.

After a little thought, she turned to the north; for further south is the way to the Cross-roads, she reflected, and Faramir said nothing certain about the state of the land south of Emyn Arnen, though I'm sure it's safe enough. Besides, from what I remember of the journey up to Cormallen – she took one sharp inbreath – the Vale of Anduin's broader and the grazing land likely to be better the further north you go.

She moved slowly through the woods, getting her bearings, noting here and there a fallen tree or a scattering of boulders to ensure she would find her way southward again. The forest, though quiet, hummed with life; birds called all about her, bees buzzed in the gorse, and the constant high-pitched sawing sound of crickets underlaid all.

As I thought, she reflected as she walked, close by Emyn Arnen itself's no good; it's still too hilly here, too many rocky outcrops, and it looks from here as though it's wooded all the way to Anduin or nearly. I wonder how far north you have to go to reach more open land? Well, from the sun there's plenty of the afternoon left; no harm in going on, for now.

She grimaced a little at the thought. Going on... that's all I've done, for a whole year, isn't it? Twelve months since – since Arwen came south, and the wedding; and all I could do was keep going on from day to day, trying not to let Mother see that I wished the sun would never come up again, and wondering whether one day, somehow, I'd find a life to live again, and a place to live it in. I just hope I can convince Faramir that his plan is workable...

She heard a woodpecker's repeated tapping somewhere off to her right, and a puff of dust and flash of movement showed her a lizard skittering away from beneath her boots.

I wonder if they have woodpeckers in Mirkwood. I wonder if he is sitting in the shade of the canopy, even now...

Her heart ached, but the treacherous thought would not be suppressed; is he as deep in misery as I've been? I don't know which is worse – the thought that he is just as wretched, or that.. he might not be... She let out a shuddering breath.

Could we have... should we have?... She had gone over and over the previous Mid-summer in her mind, and never found an answer. Everything conspired against us, that day – if only we could have got away from everyone, from the crowds, from that nightmare of a banquet, and just talked, before we heard the Lay of Leithian, before doom was handed down as if from the Powers themselves. Perhaps L-Legolas was right; perhaps our song was already written, beyond our changing. I couldn't see how I could ask him to live with it; the 'binding chain of living love and mortal pain'... but are we both enduring it anyway? Well, it's too late now – he's hundreds of leagues away, and I'll never see him again.

She scrubbed angrily at her eyes; if tears could mend anything, you would have had all put to rights long since! Keep your mind on what you're doing...

There was no human sound other than her own feet scuffing up leaves or occasionally snapping a twig; yet somehow Rowanna became increasingly convinced that she was being watched. If I were riding, I'd watch Gelion, and I'd know! she mused. As long as his ears are forward, or he's stealing bits of leaf and twig to chew on as he walks, then there's no danger...

Around her, though, the sounds of the woodland were untroubled; no sudden silences, no alarm-calls from birds or rustles from startled beasts. It feels... peaceful, Rowanna reflected. I'm sure someone is watching, yet the land feels no threat. So it must be one of the Rangers from Henneth Annûn – perhaps more than one. Though why they don't just show themselves... She shrugged, bit into her remaining apple, and walked on, savouring the scents of pine and herbs in the forest air, occasionally slapping at a fly.

The shafts of sunlight dropping down through the canopy slowly turned to the deeper gold of late afternoon; it occurred to Rowanna that she might think of turning back, yet the walk was soothing her spirits, and she knew that now, at the height of summer, the sun would set late. The air grew a little cooler, and she fastened the grey Lothlórien cloak around her shoulders, where it was less trouble than carried over her arm. From time to time she paused at a clearing or a point where more than one way through the undergrowth was apparent; strangely enough, whenever she stopped, somehow there would come a flash of movement in the corner of her eye, or a slight rustle of leaves, which would draw her attention in one particular direction. She began to ask herself: Am I being followed, in truth… or led?

After more than an hour of this, Rowanna's never-generous patience snapped. Reaching yet another clearing, she stood still, and when something seemed to move in the trees to one side of her, she stood her ground. The Rangers generally used the Grey Tongue, she knew; so she thought for a moment to make sure she had the phrases she wanted, and said clearly to the apparently empty air:

"Very well. I am here. What do you want?"

Although she thought she had marked the spot where her silent watcher balanced in the foliage, either she was mistaken or he had moved swiftly and silently across the clearing; for she neither saw nor heard him drop to the ground, and so it was only at the sound of his voice that she whirled around, dumbstruck.

"Mae govannen, brennilen."

And there he stood, leaning against the trunk of a great tree with folded arms, regarding her with the familiar, quizzical raised eyebrow. Legolas.


For all his apparent ease, something about his posture sent her mind flying back to the very first time she had set eyes on him in Rivendell's Hall of Fire; and as the memory stirred, she realised with a jolt that he was as unnerved and as brittle as she.

For a long moment there was silence. Somewhere in the clearing a bee buzzed.

"What in Arda's name are you doing here?" Rowanna eventually demanded, shakily.

"I might ask the same of you," he responded coolly. "I thought that you were returning to Rohan! To breed horses again with – Aelstan?"

"I – I changed my mind. After the War, everything was… different. And Mother decided to settle in Dol Amroth, with her cousin Pennastir and his wife Almiel, to help with their children…"

"None of which explains what you are doing in the middle of the woodland of Ithilien," Legolas pointed out, eyebrow raised again.

"I am here at the invitation of the Steward," Rowanna retorted. "He wishes to build up Gondor's breeding stock of horses again after all that was lost in the War, and we had thought of establishing a stud farm – perhaps somewhere over near Cormallen, on all that wonderful grazing land close by Anduin. He wrote and asked me to come this summer to discuss it. You, I would have thought, are considerably farther from home…"

"I am a Wood-elf, and this is a forest," he said teasingly. "How could I not be at home?"

Rowanna suppressed an impulse to stamp her foot. "You still speak in riddles, at any rate! What are you doing here and not back away North in the Greenwood? I thought I had heard that your father and the Lord Celeborn had taken each a part of the great forest for their domain and were undoing all of Sauron's evil there?"

"And so they are," said Legolas. "But Eryn Lasgalen, sad to say, is not the only forest in need of healing thanks to the foul works of Sauron and his creatures!" His mouth set for a moment in a grim line. "All over Ithilien from the Crossroads to the Black Gate – wherever orcs had dominion in the years before the fall of Barad-Dûr – they left poison and destruction. It will take lifetimes of Men to restore all; but I offered Faramir my aid to begin, and he accepted."

Rowanna shook her head in bewilderment. "I… I still cannot believe it! To find you, here…"

"Then come and see." For the first time since he had dropped into the clearing, the beginnings of a smile played about the corners of the Elf's mouth. "Why do you think I kept leading you northwards? You followed most attentively, I must say. When Galathil signalled that there was a Mortal woman walking alone through the woodland from the direction of Emyn Arnen, I confess I was curious; and once I realised it was you –"

He broke off abruptly.

"Will you come? Less than a league northward of here we are encamped."

"I – no, I can't – yes!" The reply was out of Rowanna's mouth before she had time to think. "Oh, but – Faramir and Éowyn's folk knew whither I went; Faramir is back in Minas Tirith for Council, and Éowyn was resting when I left, but if I am not back by dark they will start scouring the countryside for me…"

"That we can quickly enough forestall," Legolas said carelessly. "And later, we can lend you a mount, and one of the company will escort you back to Emyn Arnen." He gave a curious whistling call, and a moment later a dark-haired Elf in patched and faded brown and green, almost invisible among the trees until he moved, arrived in answer. Legolas said something swift in what Rowanna thought was the Grey Tongue, except that it was full of words she did not recognise; and the second Elf's reply, lilting and liquid, was completely incomprehensible, reminding her a little of Haldir's Lothlórien accents.

"There," said Legolas as the second Elf vanished once again into the trees. "Galathil cannot bear a message to Emyn Arnen himself, for he has no tongue in common with Men as yet; but he will pass on my order to Taurlaegel, who can be at the house well before dark and whose Grey Tongue will be perfectly comprehensible to Faramir – and to the household, who will be able to cast the message into Westron, or Rohirric for that matter, for Lady Éowyn if it should turn out that Faramir stays in the City tonight."

"I knew I couldn't make out a word of what he said!" Rowanna confessed. "So it was not just a strange accent?" Legolas shook his head.

"Not at all – there are plenty still of Father's people who choose to speak only the Silvan tongue, though most understand the Grey well enough. And those who decide to follow me here are like enough to begin to use Sindarin to talk to the folk of Ithilien – at least when they want to be understood…"

He gestured, somewhat formally, inviting her to follow him, and they set off further into the woodland which covered the hillsides rising to the east.

"So… what are your plans?" Rowanna asked tentatively. "You said 'those who decide to follow you' – are you bringing a great company south?"

"Not yet, for certain. This year I have brought but a small band – some of those who served me most closely in the Greenwood or who are wisest in tree-lore, who spoke up at once when I made known what I wished to do, and asked to join me. We need to take stock, survey all the land and the harm wrought upon it, before we can even begin to plan either the healing that must be done or the bringing south of a greater folk. I promised Father that I would not – how did he put it? 'go haring off upon another wild enterprise' without due planning and forethought, this time!"

Despite her sudden nerves, Rowanna found she could not suppress a chuckle at the image of an errant Legolas thus chided; a moment later, at the expression on the Elf's face, it grew until she laughed out loud.

"A – wild enterprise?" she gasped when she could speak. "You and the Fellowship saved all of Middle-earth and your father called it haring off upon a wild enterprise?..."

Legolas snorted. "I am glad someone else sees the funny side! The rest of Father's Council radiated disapproval when I was seen to smile at that…" He sobered. "Poor Father. My homecoming was not the unalloyed joy he had longed for, I fear. His son was hale, well, lauded as a hero of Middle-earth… and Sea-struck, torn in two between forest and shore, and wanting only to take off again for the Southlands as soon as he could persuade a few comrades to join him."

Rowanna sighed. "The War seemed to split the world in two; those folk who just want everything to be as it was before, no matter what they must close their eyes to to make it so; and those who were touched by it all too closely, and know that…nothing can ever be the same again."

"And no need to ask which half we belong to," the Elf retorted, with sudden bitterness. Rowanna gulped.

"I –"

"No, forgive me. I should not have –" He broke off.

They said no more for some time, threading their way through the woodland side by side, each lost in thought.

As the sun was going down they stepped into a broad clearing where an Elf with elaborately braided hair was tending a small cooking-fire, his short bow and quiver resting against a nearby tree-trunk. Clearly word of their coming had gone before them, for he showed no surprise, merely raised a hand in greeting and called something across to Legolas in the same lilting tongue that Galathil had used.

A little group of horses stood untethered at one end of the clearing, grazing in the evening light; one lifted his head and nickered as they approached, and to her delight Rowanna recognised Arod. The little grey still liked to be scratched along his neck in just the way she remembered, leaning ecstatically into her touch.

"I might have known Arod would get more of your attention than any of us mere two-legged beings!" Legolas protested mock-plaintively. "There's a clean stream running down behind those rocks on the far side, if you want to refill your water-skin." Rowanna did so gratefully, taking a long draught and splashing her face. I need to make sure I am not dreaming, she thought, still slightly stunned. I thought him half a world away! And what in Arda's name am I doing accepting his invitation to supper – for that matter, what in all the stars is he doing asking me?...

"While Falastir is cooking, come," Legolas urged as she returned to the fireside. "Let me show you something of what we have come to do..." He courteously motioned Rowanna ahead of him down the slope, waiting patiently when she had to stop to look for her footing. A year ago you would simply have taken my hand and hauled me through! thought Rowanna, sighing as she clambered across a rocky outcrop.

Placing her feet carefully, Rowanna frowned; now that they were over the rocks there was something increasingly odd about the terrain. The puddles of water which lay here and there in hollows from the previous day's rain had a strange sheen to them, and she caught traces of a harsh metallic smell. Then they came into a small clearing where the ground was pitted and filled with holes, and blackened as though it had been cleared by burning; Rowanna's boots scuffed up a cloud of ash, making her cough. When the dust cleared she saw that the trees around the lower edge of the clearing were stunted, shorter and frailer-looking than those they had passed through before, and the earth around their roots was slimy with blackened and dying plants.

"Watch your footing," Legolas urged. "All these pits have made the ground unstable, and sometimes you don't see the holes. And do not touch the earth if you can help it."

Rowanna shuddered. "What happened here?"

"This," said Legolas grimly, "is but a small example of how Mordor treated Yavanna's good green earth. Digging for metals; you see all the pits? – there is iron and copper in these hills, which they wanted in endless supply to forge their weapons. But if you mine and smelt and take no care to clear away the spoil, then poison leaches back into the ground with the rain, sun-round after sun-round, and flows into the streams and the rivers, and is carried downstream for miles. See what it has done to the earth below the clearing?" He hunkered down, Rowanna crouching beside him, and used a stick to turn over the slimy, blackened leaves. "Leaves and plants thus poisoned do not rot down as they should, to feed the soil – look, there are no earthworms, no burrowing creatures. The earth dies."

He went to take her hand to lift her to her feet, then checked himself and instead carefully stepped back to allow her to rise.

"And this is but the very edge of it, too close to Osgiliath for the Orcs to have been here for long or till recently. Can you imagine –" his voice shook a little – "what the land looks like further from Minas Tirith's writ? As you draw close to Mordor itself? Watercourses running foul, black heaps of slag everywhere, trees all hacked down for their charcoal or simply because Mordor cannot bear a living green thing where it could have ugliness and death…" He looked away, fighting for control.

"I knew it was terrible," Rowanna said softly. "I remember how much pain it caused you on the ride to the Black Gate. But now that you are here… what can be done?"

"To begin with," the Elf replied as he led the way back towards the camp, "we go to and fro all across Ithilien, marking for the Steward every damaged site, all the poisoned ground. We make sure all know which streams they should not drink from, which berries not to harvest, where not to graze animals. And then –" he lifted a thorny branch aside to let her pass – "we go to work! On the way back northward last summer I went to Fangorn, and not only – despite his misgivings – to discomfit Gimli. I talked long with Treebeard, who along with his Ents has much of the same work to do around Isengard, and whose forest wisdom stretches back even before the Firstborn walked Middle-earth. Where we must, we will dig out poisoned soil and take it away – into Mordor, if there is any justice! If we can divert streams, we can wash some of the poison down into pools we line with stone, and filter it out with reedbeds. And Treebeard knows of many plants which can safely draw the poison from the soil without harm to themselves – mustard, pigweed, alpine pennycress, some of which will grow well on Ithilien's slopes. Over a lifetime of Men, we can make the earth clean again. And where we have clean earth – we will replant the trees!"

He stopped to draw breath, and Rowanna could not help smiling at the passion in his voice. "A lifetime of Men indeed! But time, fortunately, Elves are not short of. You will see Ithilien fair again."

"I will set my people on the way, at least," he replied, his tone suddenly less sure. "Whether I will hold out long enough to see it done…"

"The Sea?" Cold dread descended on Rowanna like a sudden mist. "Is its pull truly so strong?"

"It ebbs and flows," Legolas said with a sigh. "Father hoped that back in the Greenwood, hundreds of leagues from any shore, in the forest of my childhood, it would be so faint that I could ignore it; but it would come suddenly from nowhere, and then the pain of knowing I could not reach the Sea, even in a moon-round's journey, was unbearable. I thought that here, close to great Anduin which winds to the ocean, I would be more resigned, knowing that if it became too great I need only step onto a boat… but sometimes that just makes it harder to resist. For days, weeks at a time there is no more than a whisper, and I almost forget it. But when the wind is from the south-west, sometimes, and comes bearing the tang of the salt and driving the gulls before the storm… it is very bad indeed." Rowanna heard the strain in his voice; she had to check the impulse to pull him into her arms, and flushed to the roots of her hair.

"We must be nearly back," she said hastily to cover her confusion, "I can smell something cooking! – fish?..."

Legolas, too, had composed himself and was carefully courteous once again. "Trout, I imagine; they seem to be plentiful around here. Fear not, Galathil knows how to choose a clean stream to fish from, and we will feed you well!"

He led her back into the clearing in the twilight, and the other Elves, looking with open curiosity at Rowanna, readily made room for them around the fire.


Author's Notes:

The idea that after the War Faramir might use a barge to make crossings of the Anduin in a more direct line from Minas Tirith to Emyn Arnen, rather than riding ten miles out of the way northwards to the bridge at Osgiliath and then south again, is the fruit of a question I asked on the H-A mailing list about the likelihood of extra bridges.

Mae govannen, brennilen – Well met, my lady.

The use of certain plants to leach heavy metals and other mining and smelting contaminants from the soil is a genuine process known as phytoextraction (thank you, Wikipedia...)


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