As Legolas had promised, the trout grilled over the fire was excellent, and Rowanna ate hungrily, managing to talk a little with the other Elves through a mixture of Sindarin and sign-language. The initially very reserved Galathil smiled cautiously when she thanked him, through Legolas, for catching the fish, and was most amused at her attempts to pronounce the Nandorin word, which seemed to involve a strange sound in the back of the throat which Rowanna could not master at all.
Dinner done, they sat for a while watching the stars coming out, the Elves occasionally murmuring together. Eventually Legolas got to his feet.
"Walk with me?" he asked simply.
Legolas said something swift and lilting to his company around the fire, then turned and led Rowanna out of the clearing, deeper into the woods. The night was warm, the sky a clear blue velvet, shading into pale green towards the West where the sun had but lately set. Rowanna breathed deeply.
"It is good, the air of Ithilien, is it not?" said the Elf politely.
"It's such a relief just to be out of the City!" Rowanna exclaimed. "I was only there for a couple of nights after I rode up from Dol Amroth - I wasn't supposed to come out to Emyn Arnen so soon, but Minas Tirith in high summer is unbearable! It's so hot, even at night it stifles, and the walls hold the heat - I'm not surprised Éowyn is out here."
"Faramir told me last year he thought she would prefer Emyn Arnen to the City," Legolas agreed, "and I cannot disagree with either of them. All that weight of stone..."
"It feels like a great wave that's about to topple over and crush you beneath it, doesn't it?"
"That's it exactly," he agreed. "It makes my head spin! I remember, last summer –"
He broke off.
"Dol Amroth's much cooler," Rowanna said wistfully after a moment, "and somehow that fresher air affects its people too -no-one is as stuffy there as in Minas Tirith, not even cousin Ithildîs. No wonder Mother prefers it – she says she may winter in the White City when Almiel's boys are older, but I think it will be Dol Amroth for the rest of the year!"
"Your mother always seemed a wise woman," Legolas agreed. "Fares she well?"
They wandered along through clearings and between the trees, talking with careful courtesy of their kith and kin both in Gondor and the North.
"Arwen enjoyed Dol Amroth," Rowanna mused; "she and Aragorn went on a royal progress of sorts, early in the year, to show her the realm and to let all Gondor meet its new Queen. And its King too - Aragorn did admit that galloping for dear life across Lebennin with the Armies of the Dead in his wake had not been the best way to appreciate the finer points of his southern coastlands..."
Legolas gave a delighted ripple of laughter. "That it was not!"
"Arwen and I had a long talk, on that visit," Rowanna went on thoughtfully, "– we spent a whole afternoon, while Aragorn was discussing harbour levies with Prince Imrahil, sitting in one of my favourite spots overlooking the sea. It was just after Faramir and Éowyn's marriage, and Arwen thought it would not be long before Éowyn was with child. As ever her foresight was good..."
"Is it so?" Legolas raised an eyebrow.
"So Éowyn's housekeeper says – hence she is so weary and sick just now. But she is not three moons gone, so that's not to be noised abroad..."
"Not a word," Legolas promised.
"Arwen told me something else I never knew, while we spoke of child-bearing," Rowanna began, ducking her head clear of a low-hanging branch as they walked on – then broke off in confusion, blushing. The Elf looked at her curiously.
"No, it doesn't matter..."
"It does. I want to know." His voice was unexpectedly cool. Rowanna took a deep breath.
"That... that for Elves to conceive a child, unlike Men, is a matter of conscious will - that love does not beget unless both the lovers choose it so." She paused for a moment as they picked their way around a mossy, fallen treetrunk. "You know, that was one of the things I could not see a way past, last Midsummer... that I might bear a child who would grow old and die in a blink of its father's eye, or else lose its mother when it was barely grown to adulthood. I never knew you could choose for it not to happen at all!"
"You never asked me!" Legolas cried.
"When would I have had the chance?" Rowanna flung back. "You never wanted to look beyond the day!..."
"I – all right, I hold my hands up to that, for Elrohir taxed me with much the same," Legolas admitted. "That I had taken no thought for the future; and that I could not give you children, for they must have either the life of Eldar or of Men, and either way grief must lie..."
Rowanna snorted. "It clearly never occurred to either of you to ask me my view on the matter!"
"Which would have been?..." Legolas let the question hang in the air.
"That as any of the baffled womenfolk of the Eastfold could tell you, I was always far more interested in foals than in babies," she retorted. "And that I would choose one Elf over any number of prospective squalling brats!"
There was a long pause. Somewhere ahead of them an owl hooted, and a moment later its mate called in answer.
"If we cut up the slope just here," said Legolas eventually, in carefully even tones, "there's another of those outcrops of rocks; we can look out over the valley..."
They picked their way between sage and gorse bushes, clambered over the rocks and looked, as the Elf had predicted, across hills and woods bathed now in silver as the moon rose above the trees. Rowanna had plucked a sprig of wild mint as they climbed and was nibbling absently at it.
"What other objections did Elrohir come up with," she enquired at length, "to leave you so convinced that a life with you could bring me nothing but unhappiness?"
Legolas was gazing out across the valley, still as stone.
"That I could not marry you, for there were no vows either in the customs of Firstborn or Aftercomers that I could keep; that as Béodred had said, I could offer you neither hearth nor home nor even promise to be yours lifelong –"
"Béodred?" Rowanna gaped. "You all seem to have decided on my future happiness or otherwise without any reference to me whatever! Legolas, you had known me by then nearly as long as Elrohir, and better – when has settling down around a hearth to be a dutiful wife and mother ever been something I wanted? And did it not occur to you that Béodred and, for that matter, Elrohir too might have had somewhat clouded judgement in any case?" She bit off a large piece of mint and stared at him in challenge.
"I accused Elrohir of as much point blank," Legolas grimaced. "At which point he threatened to run me through – no, wait, that was later –"
"If I ever set eyes on him again, I'll return the favour," Rowanna muttered.
"And it did trouble you when others looked at us askance," the Elf protested. "The Rohirrim, for instance –"
"Not because I cared a mare's tail for what they thought," cried Rowanna in exasperation. "Only because their stares said 'What are you about?' and I wasn't sure I knew the answer..."
The owls hooted once more. Over their heads, bats whirled and dived.
"So now you tell me," Legolas challenged in his turn, "what or who made you so certain that since we could not be Beren and Lúthien, your best course was –" his voice cracked – "to flee Minas Tirith and avoid ever seeing me again?"
"You fled too," Rowanna shot back. "You left me in the garden of the Houses that night –"
"You sent me away, and had I known you were going to take flight before the morning, I might not have gone!" Legolas pointed out bitterly. "Stop changing the subject. I asked you a question."
Rowanna sighed. "It all began on that long ride to Edoras, really. We hadn't parted on the Pelennor as I would have wanted –"
"That was my fault," the Elf admitted. "I'd had Béodred ready to knock me down the previous night for ruining your good name –"
"Your hand!" Rowanna exclaimed. "You never did tell me –"
"– Never mind my hand, by tree and leaf!" Legolas exploded. "Tell me."
"… then talking with Elladan and Elrohir, and later to Arwen, about her cleaving to Aragorn and giving up immortal life; she was so adamant that the alternative would be intolerable, that she could not bear the thought of living on through all the Ages of Arda when Aragorn was gone beyond the Circles of the World without her. I didn't know whether, if you were bound to me, you'd be able to love again, to heal your heart in Aman…"
"So when you wondered if I would forget you –" the Elf gasped –
"I was hoping that you would!" Rowanna cried. "Or at least, that you would not be bound forever to the memory of something that had lasted barely a season in your eyes; that if you found another, you would be able to love again. What if the pain of breaking that bond, when death took me from you, was unendurable? I couldn't ask that of you…"
"I wish you had," the Elf hurled back at her. "And what if I left you first? You've seen the Sea-longing upon me, you know what it can mean! Who knows when the day will come that I can no longer stop my ears to it?"
"Then it seems to me we would be running even risks," Rowanna spat. "Mortals are used to the loss of those they love, you know – unlike Elves most of us manage not to fade away with grief!"
"Arwen said something like that, when first I came South again in the spring, and I could not say... how long I would stay," Legolas said wonderingly. "That an Elf who knew the Sea's call could understand, a little, how Men live with the ever-present possibility of receiving their Gift."
"Why, oh why did we not say all this last Midsummer?" cried Rowanna. "A year, Legolas – a whole year! It may be nothing to an Elf, but – do you know how long it seems, for a mortal, to spend every season, every month, every day of a year with your heart aching and broken and unable to see any way you can ever be happy again? Have you any idea?..." She pounded her fist furiously on the rocks beside her, then winced. "Oww – damn..."
"Are you hurt?" Legolas enquired urgently. Rowanna sucked at her knuckles.
"Only by my own folly. Which is beginning to look like a familiar pattern..."
"Yours and mine," the Elf said ruefully. "And I was going to say that... yes, perhaps I do have some idea, now. As you said before... since the War, nothing has been the same, and will not ever be again."
He had plucked a grass-stem from between the rocks, and was turning it to and fro in his fingers, gazing up at the starlit sky. "While you were gone to Rohan with the sons of Elrond, one day I met a fisherman on the banks of Anduin. He'd lost his wife three years before, and talked of how the pain had changed – not vanished, never that, but become a dull constant ache that he could go on living with. I do not think I would ever forget, but… they say that there is no pain nor loss that Aman cannot make bearable. The fisherman said something else, too; I'm told a commonplace saying of Men, though it is not something the Firstborn would recognise."
His gaze came down from the stars to Rowanna. "He said: 'tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all…"
Rowanna swallowed hard.
"I'm... furious, still; with you, with myself, with the Powers if they have anything to do with the whole blasted mess. But – I can't lie, Legolas, not to you; your fisherman was right."
For a long moment, neither spoke. Then suddenly Legolas looked keenly at something across the clearing below them.
"I need to show you something."
"What – now? In the dark?"
"Yes, now. Come," he insisted urgently. He was already on his feet, with such an intent look on his face that she followed without question.
The glade below the rocks was lush with longer grass than most of the surrounding woodland; Rowanna felt it whisper against her boots and saw the dew sparkle. Across the clearing Legolas pointed upwards.
"Look. Look at the tree. Do you see what it is?..."
It was a great dark mass, its elegant shape just discernible against the sky. Legolas gently plucked a leaf, showing her its blue-black colour.
"The brethilgaer. I found out its name in Westron, in the end – the copper beech. I told you, once in Imladris, that this was your tree – its leaves the perfect match for your hair. And I said – do you remember?..."
"If you ever find one in your homeland, you will know; there is your dwelling-place, and there your heart will find rest." Rowanna took a deep, shaky breath.
"Legolas... all my life I've been sure it was for me to find my own path, to shape my own fate. I learnt that from Mother, I think; she was never one to do what was expected of her or to believe that her life was foreordained. And I was very impatient of anyone – particularly when I first met with Elves! – who suggested that they might foresee my future, or that the Powers might have anything to do with it. And then it seemed that fate, or the Powers, had taken you from me, and I was so bitter and angry and miserable that I swore I'd trust them even less than before. But after the War – I chose, and chose, and all my choices seemed to go amiss. The Riddermark no longer felt like home, because nothing there was different, and yet for me everything had changed. Dol Amroth is too full of men serving the Swan Knights to have any place for a woman who wants to train horses. I even thought of going north to Arnor. And yet, in the end – purely by chance, I thought, because Faramir asked me – I am here; and so are you, and... it turns out there are things we should each have had the courage to say long ago."
"And I always believed," he said slowly, "that because I could hear the Music of the Ainur all around me, shaping my life, my part was written out in full even though it was hidden from me; that I had no power to choose one path over another, even when that took me from you, when I would have given anything in the world to find a way to stay. And yet…any musician worth his salt may improvise upon his own theme, and a Ranger – or an Elf – find many paths to the same destination, may he not? I may not know or have the choosing of what days remain to me in Middle-earth, but can I not at least decide how they are spent?" His voice was husky, uncertain, and she could not read his expression in the summer night.
"Legolas…" Rowanna breathed.
He moved a step closer, reaching out a hand hesitantly half-way towards her. "As everyone seems to have told both of us, I cannot offer you hearth, nor home, nor kingdom, nor marriage-vows; nothing, for whatever time is given us, but myself. And that I willingly give you, a thousand times over. Rowanna, will… will you stay? I don't just mean stay in Ithilien to breed Faramir's horses, but…stay with me?¨
For a long moment neither of them seemed to breathe; Rowanna felt as though they were handling some incredibly delicate thing, eggshell or gossamer, which one wrong move would shatter irrevocably.
¨Tell me one thing...¨ she murmured at last.
"What is it?"
"If – if the Sea grew too strong for you at last, and you could resist the Call no longer…" She bit her lip. "Would you leave without saying goodbye?"
"Never." His eyes were locked with hers, holding nothing back. "Never, never, never."
"But – if you were far from me? What if, I don't know, you were in the White City, or I was gone to the Mark to look at horses for Faramir, and you heard the gulls cry, and you could not hold on...?"
"Then I would go as far as I must, " said Legolas firmly, "and send word to you, and wait – on the very shore of the ocean if need be, with the sound of the surf in my ears – till you came. However long that was. I promise it, melethen."
The moonlight had fallen full on his face, and suddenly his blue-grey eyes were enormous in the darkness. And his expression was unreadable no longer, but bright and clear as the night and full of a longing so intense that she felt a tight answering pain in her own chest and for a moment could not breathe. When she found she could speak, she said very softly:
"I will stay, Legolas. For as long as we both walk beneath sun and stars in Middle-earth; until the Powers deem it time that death or the Sea part us, I will stay…"
Legolas took one more step, and now they were so close that she could have reached out and touched him; and yet she did not move. Her skin was suddenly tingling, as though she had stroked a cat's fur the wrong way. For a moment she wondered at the strange, high-pitched sound she could hear, and then realised it was her own blood singing in her ears. Legolas stood before her in the velvet summer night, and as the moonlight glinted on hair and skin and smile he was so fair to look at that it hurt her; in that long, long moment she knew she could have been content never to move again.
Finally it was the Elf who stirred; lifting his hand again he brought it slowly up to her face, and began to trail the tips of those long, elegant fingers down temple and cheek and jawline. Rowanna closed her eyes and gasped one choking breath as his fingertips brushed, delicately as leaf-fall, down the long curve of her neck until his palm came to cup the base of her throat. He must have felt her blood thudding wildly beneath his hand; for he made a soft, startled noise, and she forced her eyes open to find him gazing into her face in wonderment.
For an instant her legs almost gave way beneath her, and she found herself clutching at Legolas; quickly he slid his other hand behind her head, and she put her arms around him and pulled him close, marvelling at the supple strength in his slim form, burrowing beneath the leather of his jerkin to feel the muscles of his back move beneath her exploring hands. He heaved a great ragged sigh into her neck.
"Rowanna… ai, melethen. I thought – you were gone from me forever…"
She felt a shiver run through him; and then, slowly, hesitant as a wild creature coming cautiously to feed from her hand, his lips were on her throat, following the vein up beneath her jaw, barely brushing the corner of her mouth before slipping away towards cheek and ear. Impatient, Rowanna reached behind his head and turned him back, finding his mouth and kissing him greedily; the very taste of him seemed all clear water and sunlight and new green leaves, filling her with the warm delight of a first, unexpected day of spring after endless winter. She revelled in him. She felt him chuckle against her mouth.
"Madithach nin, melethen?"
For answer she kissed him again, more insistently, until she gasped for breath and broke off, laughing, to feast her gaze on his face again. "I have you back! Oh, Legolas…" His eyes had grown huge and dark, yet the stars still danced in them as he smiled at her.
"Hungry one. Are all mortal women so hasty? The stars are out, the air is warm, and we have all the night before us…"
"This... mortal... woman," murmured Rowanna, punctuating the words with kisses planted up his jawline, "has been dreaming of you for a year and more, thinking the chance to do this was gone forever... and does not intend to delay any longer." Arriving at his ear, she licked at his earlobe, and the Elf drew a sharp inbreath.
"Then far be it from me to keep you waiting, my lady," he whispered as he drew her down beside him, throwing down his green cloak over the mossy ground below the great copper beech.
"This has to come off," murmured Rowanna, pushing Legolas' heavy leather jerkin back off his shoulders and letting him shrug out of it. "And as for this..." She ran her fingers appreciatively over the soft green fabric of his shirt. "Silk! Fit for a prince indeed..."
"'Tis the most practical of stuff," he protested laughing. "Warm or cool according to your need; does not chafe under pack or quiver..."
"And very pleasant to the touch," she pointed out, stroking down the silk from his collarbones across his chest to the hard muscle of his stomach.
"There... is that," he agreed somewhat hoarsely as she pulled the shirt up and over his head. His normally deft fingers caught a little as he began to work loose the lacings of her shirt in its turn, moving closer to kiss her again as he did so. "Ah – I thought so!" His questing hands had found the soft cloth with which she habitually bound her chest for comfort while riding.
"Thought what?" Her breath came harder as he unwound the wrapper steadily and slid it out from beneath her shirt.
"That you'd never wear boning or corsetry if you could help it. All the better..." As his thumbs brushed across her breasts she gasped, feeling the longing within her coalesce into one aching centre; unable to bear it, she pulled him in again and kissed him harder, sliding one hand as she did so down to the lacings of his leggings. It was Legolas' turn to gasp; he kicked his boots off and reached to pull Rowanna's off her in their turn.
Moments later, nothing was left but the breeze and the moonlight on their skin. Gazing at him Rowanna felt a shiver of apprehension run through her.
"How – do Elves – do this?"
"I cannot tell you," Legolas said mock-solemnly, "for I know nothing of how Mortals do, to compare. Shall we find out?..."
As they kissed once more she felt his welter of emotions washing into her; delight, desire, anticipation – yes, that little flicker of nerves behind all just as she felt it herself; how will it be – and then he was there, everywhere, her Legolas, around her and within her, she felt him, knew him, in her mind and her body and her heart; she remembered the very first time she had galloped towards a jump, the steadily rising rhythm, her whole body gathering for it, closer and closer and closer –
At the very brink, somehow, he paused for an instant, lifted on his forearms above her, and time stood still as wordlessly he asked her:
Yes, she answered him, yes, yes! and the stars burst overhead as they went over the edge, falling down, down together into a world entirely new.
When next she knew anything they had come to rest beneath the sheltering boughs of the brethilgaer, the warmth of the summer night-breeze whispering through its blue-black leaves, his head on her breast. He sighed heavily against her skin and shifted a little.
"No – don't move..." She hugged him closer. "You feel good, there." Without getting up he reached behind him and scooped up her grey Lórien cloak, shaking it out to cover them both.
"Strange," he said softly.
"Mmmm?" She stroked the silken fall of his hair back from his face.
"Last Midsummer, in Minas Tirith – when I so desperately needed words to try to explain, to tell you, I couldn't find any of the ones I wanted. And now I know exactly what to say..."
"You don't need any of them. I know." Wrapped around him, skin to skin, she could feel his heart as though it beat within her own body; in a way, she knew, it did now. He shifted back onto an elbow so that he could look her in the face.
"But let me speak them anyway, since at last I have them. Melethen, I love you. I know little and care less whether Man or Elf would know what I mean by love, in the Grey Tongue or the Common or the Ancient, or what the laws and customs of the Eldar would say of it; because I know, and you know. I love you; faer and rhaw I am yours, and you mine, and we are woven together so close and so intricately now that no-one will ever know where my heart ends and yours begins, and nothing but death or the Sea will rend that interweaving."
"And that –" The thought tore at her, inside.
"Might hurt more than either of us has ever known. But you are strong, melethen, and so am I, and whichever of us is left will bear it gladly for the other's sake." She nodded. "And I am not sorry."
"Nor I!" Unexpectedly, Rowanna found tears springing to her eyes; Legolas kissed them away, but he was smiling.
"That's good!" He lay back once more and drew her close into the crook of his arm, covering her carefully with the cloak. "We're sheltered enough here, and we're not so far from camp that I won't hear if whoever is on watch signals an alarm. Sleep now, beloved, my own heart, and let me guard your dreams." Listening to the slow, steady beat as her head rested on his chest, she felt her eyelids closing, and drifted into blissful oblivion.
Some hours later, with the moon high overhead, she woke to find Legolas, propped on one elbow, gazing at her.
"You're not a dream..." she said sleepily, feeling his delight washing over her. "I love you..."
For answer he leant over and kissed her, deeply and slowly.
"Now I shall show you," he whispered, his breath on her skin making her shiver, "how Elves do this."
It was very, very slow, and graceful as a dance, and played so perfectly on her every nerve-ending that Rowanna was not sure whether she would melt, or shatter into a thousand pieces.
Slowly, she drifted out of a hazy golden dream, becoming aware of cascades of birdsong all around her, the rustling of the beech-leaves. As she shifted, she realised Legolas was no longer beside her. For an instant, still half-awake, the absence stabbed at her; then, as awareness dawned, she felt a surge of his pure happiness, joy in the morning, in the very turning of the world. Her heart swelled in her chest as he turned to face her from the rocky outcrop above where he was sitting, barefoot in his leggings, watching the sunrise.
"Aur maer, melethen."
She began pulling her shirt over her head, even as he jumped down from the rocks and ran to her.
"Does every sunrise feel like that, for you?" she asked wonderingly. Legolas chuckled as he pulled his own shirt and boots on.
"How can it not be a joy, to see Anor bathe the world once more? You see, melethen – now you begin to see the world through my eyes, and I through yours." As she finished dressing, he leaned in to kiss her. "And what I see just now is a woman in need of breakfast! Come –" he shrugged into his jerkin and reached for her hand – "let us see what Taurlaegel and the others can provide. And then perhaps Emyn Arnen's new Mistress of Horse should call upon the Steward?"
The Prince of Ithilien hummed contentedly as he spread cherry preserve on a third slice of bread. Morning sunlight slanted from a clear blue sky across the bright room where breakfast was laid: he could smell the rich scent of the coffee which had been a wedding-present from the Dwarves of Erebor; and having done his duty at Council yestereve, today was all his own. He had not got back to the low white stone house in Emyn Arnen till well into the evening, and he and Éowyn had both slept late. Now he smiled across the table at his wife, who was cautiously peeling an apple.
"Feeling any better, my love?"
Éowyn nodded. "Frideswide is right - staying in bed until I've had a bit of dry bread is much better. And that strange drink did help – what did you say it was?"
"Ginger tea." The Steward decided the coffee was sufficiently brewed, and poured a cup. "The Queen knew of it as a remedy for sickness, and by chance Aragorn had been sent some ginger root as a gift from the new Haradri ambassador..."
Éowyn looked anxious. "Faramir, people do not –"
"The King and Queen only," he reassured her, "and they have promised not to breathe a word without your leave." Taking a long pull at his coffee he added, "I wonder what has become of Rowanna. She's safe enough with the Elves, of course, but –"
He broke off as a clattering of hooves came from the yard outside, and the housekeeper appeared.
"Prince Legolas presents his compliments, my lady, my lord. He has returned your guest safe and sound, and wonders whether he might beg a cup of the excellent coffee he can smell through the window."
"That sounds a more than fair exchange!" Faramir agreed, laughing. "Please, show them in."
A moment later Legolas and Rowanna came through the door, their eyes shining, hand in hand.
"Look at them," the Steward murmured to his wife some time later, as they reclined on a rug on the grass, Éowyn leaning against her husband. Legolas and Rowanna wandered under the trees, arms wrapped tightly about each other's waists, the dark head and the fair pressed close together. "Some would say the most unlikely pair in Middle-earth, and I certainly had no idea! – an Elf-prince and a mortal woman – and yet you can see they are two halves of the same whole..."
"Some might have found the pairing of the Steward of Gondor with a shield-maiden of Rohan almost as unlikely," Éowyn pointed out, resting one hand thoughtfully on her stomach, "and you seem to be finding that satisfactory enough."
"Eminently so," her husband agreed lazily. "Did I tell you, by the way, that when I spoke to Legolas of our desire to make a garden here he offered to plant it for us?"
Éowyn grinned. "That's a relief! I would be sure to kill everything in short order; Legolas' hand with growing things will be much surer than mine!"
"All well?" Faramir enquired, as his guests came back across the grass.
"Very well," Rowanna assured him, radiant. "Everything is very, very well indeed!"
Madithach nin, melethen? – Are you going to eat me, beloved?
Aur maer - Good morning.
No - not quite the end, not yet...
Madithach nin, melethen? – Are you going to eat me, beloved?
Aur maer - Good morning.
No - not quite the end, not yet...