Fourth Age 120, March, Ithilien
The wind was restless in Ithilien that day.
It thrashed in great gusts through the branches of the trees, tossing them about in violent flurries. Rowanna leaned from her window and watched the sullen clouds driven fast and high across the sky. A south-west wind, such as often came when Stirring was about to turn to Spring. A wind from the Sea.
She shivered, drawing the folds of her shawl more closely about her, though in truth it was not the wind which made her cold. Old bones, she told herself impatiently, they don't hold their warmth as well as they used to. Yet when a high, keening cry cut its way through the soughing of the trees, and she quickly looked far into the sky to find the small white shape which wheeled and dived down the curve of the air, she could not tear her eyes away.
They rarely fly so far inland! It must be rough out on the ocean, today, for them to be blown so far up the Anduin and across to us. All the way from the White City and beyond...
At that thought, chill dread settled in the pit of her stomach, and would not be suppressed. Leaning more heavily on the window-frame, she craned to see further between the trees, turning into the full force of the wind to see the way he would come. Twenty years before, she would have climbed without a thought up one of the rope-ladders to a high flet, to look out over the tree-tops; but she was resigned, these days, to remaining earth-bound.
How long had he been gone, now? Long enough to spend a week or more in the White City, and return; but she had no way of knowing how long he would stay. The messenger from the Queen had told him that Gimli, too, was summoned to Minas Tirith. Even when all was over, doubtless they would want to sit and talk long together, remembering. Perhaps he would bring Gimli back to Ithilien with him for a while. She smiled, cheered at the thought of the Dwarf once more a reluctant piece of baggage on an Elf's horse. None had been more surprised than she at the firm friendship that the War of the Ring had forged between that most unlikely pair; a fine one you are to talk of improbable pairings, she mocked herself. But I remember in what mistrust and animosity it all began! I wish I could have seen his face when Master Elrond told him that if he wished to be numbered among the Company, he must consent to walk with a Dwarf!...
He will come soon, she insisted. She tried to ignore the insidious voice which whispered, in the back of her mind; but the wind is from the Sea, and the gulls are crying. What if he never comes at all?...
Find something to do, she told herself firmly. There was never any lack of tasks around the stud farm which had been her charge for so many years, first from Faramir and now from Elboron; even now that mucking out for hours was beyond her, she still supervised grooming, and watched over foalings, and trained colts although it must be left to the youngsters to gallop them across the meadows. It had to be said, though, that these days the stables were in such good hands that she sometimes suspected the stable-master and the grooms were merely indulging her. She chuckled wryly at the memory of the conversation she'd overheard, a few days earlier, between her head groom Halvant and his newest lad:
"Does the old lady have to breathe down our necks all the time?"
That had earnt him a cuff round the ear; Rowanna had heard him yelp, though not hard.
"Mistress Rowanna's birthed and trained and mounted more beasts than you'll have hot dinners your whole life, you cheeky whelp. She may not ride over fences any more, but you wait till you first have a tricky foaling or a horse with colic, and aren't sure what to do, and see how grateful you'll be for her craft then! If you can pull your weight as she does when you're more than a century old, then I give you leave to be pleased with yourself. Now get on and finish strawing down, and no more of your lip – and whatever you do, don't make smart remarks like that in front of Legolas the Elf-lord, or you'll learn what an Elven tongue-lashing is!"
She threw a cloak over her shoulders, and went slowly out to look over the mares due to foal later in the spring and make sure they were getting enough meal. Sure enough, everything had been taken care of. I've trained the men – and a few lasses! – as well as the horses for so many years; they can do it all on their own now.
Oddly enough, the thought did not hurt; rather, it comforted her. I've lived long, and worked hard, and had all the reward I could have asked. She leaned on a gate, chewing on a grass-stem, gazing over the house and the stables and out to the fields where her herds grazed contentedly. I've done all I need to do. And had Legolas with me, all this time. The wind whipped at the edge of her cloak, and she shivered. Come soon, my love...
It was out of the deep gold of the setting sun that Elf and Dwarf rode into the clearing where the long, low stone house stood, and found Rowanna, leaning a little on the doorpost for support, waiting to greet them. They did not have to speak a word; even before they drew close enough for her to see their faces, something in their approach spoke of more than weariness, and she knew what tidings they bore from Minas Tirith. Legolas dismounted, helped Gimli down from Arochril's back, and handed the horse over to one of the grooms, all as though sleepwalking. Finally, he came to stand before her, and she saw that he was drawn tight around his misery lest it break forth and shatter him. He did not speak. Gently, she broke the silence for him.
"He has passed?..."
"Aragorn Elessar, King of Gondor and Arnor, has passed." And then the deliberately formal words could hold the grief at bay no longer, and he walked into her fierce embrace, leant on her shoulder, and wept.
Much later that night – after a dinner with Gimli at which they had all three drunk and talked and remembered until the household had given up on them and gone to bed – they lay side by side in their own chamber, listening to the wind still rushing against the house and howling in the trees. His head was on her shoulder, her arms locked tightly about him, and they lay quiet, with little need of speech, closer than thought.
"How does Arwen truly fare?"
"Ill," he said softly, grimacing. "I sat with her many hours, and did what I could, and Eldarion is a rock to her even in his own grief. Yet I think, despite all the years of knowing it must come, she never truly understood what it would mean – until now." She heard his voice crack a little on the words.
"I should have gone to her!" Rowanna cried, feeling a great ache swell in her chest at the thought of her old friend so bereft. "If I had been with you..."
"Melethen, you know it could not be. Such a long ride, in such haste..." She sighed, admitting the truth of it. It was years now since she had galloped at full stretch. I could almost be back in Rivendell, gingerly walking out the quietest mare in the stables! But then I was healing, my strength waxing, whereas now it only wanes...
"Arwen is fading," Legolas murmured sadly, breaking into her thoughts. "I do not think she is long for this world. I would fain have stayed, but – she sent us away..."
She could find no words; but her arms tightened reflexively about him, and he turned more comfortably into the warmth of her embrace. A little later, she said softly into his hair;
"I was not sure you would come back, this time."
He stirred against her, and sat up abruptly. Icy fingers clutched her heart as she realised he had turned very pale. Not the silver glimmer which was so familiar in the darkness, as if he carried his own starlight within him; but a transparent pallor as though she could almost see through him at the edges. She whispered,
"This morning – on the wind – I heard a gull cry..."
"They were blown up the Anduin by the storms out at sea," he agreed dully, and she heard ragged strain in his tone at the memory. "Every day, as we waited on the walls for Arwen's word to go in to him, they wheeled and cried over the city, endlessly. Never any rest... I began to think I could hear the Sea itself, at first a distant whisper, then always louder until it roared in my ears. I thought I should go mad. Several times Gimli had to drag me inside."
"I knew... as soon as I saw you, I felt sure it was more than the grief for Aragorn. You were drawn so taut I thought you might snap...."
"If I let my guard down for a moment, in the White City, it began to draw me. I could not rest, could not dream. Only when I was with Aragorn, or thinking of you and Ithilien, could I silence it." He smiled shakily at her. "I was never more glad to leave the City and return to the trees! Here there is some peace..."
Taking his hands, she found them chill. Stroking them gently to warm them, she murmured,
"The call grows ever stronger, my dearest. Are... are you sure you wish to go on resisting it?"
His head snapped up, eyes wide with shock. "You mean...?"
"Go West. Go to the Havens, and sail. Go at last to Valinor."
She watched the reactions warring in his face, and she knew, finally, that it was time. For between the pain and the desire, she felt his momentary surge of relief.
"Three thousand sun-rounds and more I have trod the soil of Middle-earth," he said heavily, "her turning seasons in my blood, her levain and galas my delight. I came close to giving my life up for her before the gates of Mordor. Never had I thought my heart could dwell elsewhere. Until I heard the cry of the gulls before Pelargir... and even then, rohiril, Middle-earth drew me back, for I had found my lodestone." He drew her to him again and buried his face in her shoulder, breathing deeply her aromas of woodsmoke and earth. Iron grey her hair is now, like one of the rocks Gimli is so fond of. And it would still seem thick, to one who had not run his hands through it for a century and more, and felt it slowly thinning. "But now..."
"When first I came to Ithilien, " she said softly against his cheek, "I thought every night that in the morning you might be gone. I had seen the Sea's pull so strong upon you, those first days after the War; every day that I awoke and found you still beside me was a gift. But these last years, I was beginning to think you might outlast me..."
He stroked her back, feeling the knotting of the aging muscles, the stiffening of her spine. I felt as though she would never age, for we were happy, and we made Ithilien beautiful, and I loved her. But Arwen loved Aragorn, as utterly as Lúthien loved Beren; and Aragorn knew that his time had come, and he is dead. And I came back from the White City, and suddenly she is old. I would not leave her! Elbereth, grant me to endure a little longer...
"A wild fancy came to me as we rode back from Minas Tirith," he murmured. "I thought - what if I could take you with me to Valinor?..."
"Oh, Legolas!.." She began to laugh; then, drawing away to look into his eyes, realised he was only half in jest. "Even if you could build a ship in time to bear these decaying bones, my dearest, and even if there were the remotest chance the Valar would admit me, I could not go. If you, who are Firstborn, hesitate to go from Middle-earth, think how I am bound to it! For I am earth of its earth and dust of its dust..."
"I know, melethen. It was only a mad moment." The smile was back in his voice. "Perhaps I will take Gimli. I have persuaded him to sit on a horse and to sleep in trees; how much harder could this be?"
Rowanna threw back her head and laughed aloud, low and musical; and for a moment all the years rolled away, and he laughed with her.
"I heard you laugh like that the first day I ever saw you, galloping along the valley in Imladris. Did I ever tell you? - I was sitting in a tree after the Council, cursing myself for a fool for losing Gollum, and trying to work out how to persuade Elrond to allow me to join the company to go with Frodo. It could be yesterday!"
"I was just thinking how long, long ago it seemed." Rowanna sighed, and leaned against him. "Six score years, my love. Faramir and Éowyn are gone; Éomer King is gone; now Aragorn is gone. And I am weary..."
"Do you wish – ?" He broke off, and she looked up at him, puzzled. "There were things... I could never give you. Children..."
The familiar, slight tightening in her chest at the thought. One of the many arguments that had been employed, after the War, to try to persuade them both to give each other up and forget. He could never beget a child with her, for who could tell whether it would have the life of the Eldar or of Men? And what life for any child, Mortal or Elven, to be abandoned by a father who could no longer resist the call of the Sea and was gone, into the West?
"I told you over a century ago that I would choose one Elf over any number of squalling brats. I never thought that choice a poor one."
"Nothing else?" He was in earnest, looking intently into her face. "Nothing you would do otherwise?"
"Nothing." She locked her fingers tightly with his as she had done so many times. "Nothing, nothing, nothing."
"Not even... that night, after –" he swallowed - "Aragorn and Arwen's wedding, when everything seemed doomed, and we both ran; and took a sun-round to mend our folly?"
"Not even that, in the end," Rowanna said thoughtfully. "For always after that, when things went hard – when the Sea-longing was tearing you nearly in two, or I could not bear the thought of all the ages you'd spend in Aman without me, and wondered if we had chosen aright – I could tell myself; I had tried living without you, and you without me, and it was misery." She brought his knuckles up to her lips and kissed them. "So no, no regrets – not even when you disappeared for weeks on end planting saplings, or filled my house with Dwarves..." The throaty laugh came again.
He chuckled, all the old familiar emotions stirring at the sound of that laughter, and trailed his lips gently down from her ear to her shoulder. "I am glad, rohiril, for it is a little late to repent of it now. Come here..."
The wind roared on outside. Slowly, the candles flickered lower; and by their dying light, ageless Elf and mortal woman made again the choice of six score years.
Gimli arose the next morning with the Sun; the wind had died away almost to nothing, and high white clouds drifted in a blue sky. He stretched in the doorway, joints cracking, and made his way out into the sunlight. He expected to find Legolas already abroad, for he had never yet greeted the dawn before the Elf. But there was no sign of him anywhere; and slowly it dawned on Gimli that the house, too, was uncannily silent, with none of the usual morning bustle of Rowanna's activity or her calling instructions to the household.
Meeting no-one but one or two maidservants, who darted timidly away at the sight of him as he searched from room to room, Gimli grew increasingly uneasy. Finally he screwed up his courage, made his way to Legolas and Rowanna's chamber, and when he received no response to his knock, very gently pushed the door open.
Rowanna lay upon the bed pillowed on her own flowing grey hair, utterly still, without breath. Beside her sat Legolas, not taking his eyes from her, his slow tears falling silently on her cold cheek.
The two of them did all that needed to be done that day; Gimli eventually lost his temper with the maidservants, who wept continually, and sent them home to weep there. Together they dug her grave beneath the great copper beech behind the house; together they dressed her in the wine-red velvet dress that Legolas had loved, and lowered her gently into the ground; together they built the cairn. They sat keeping vigil as the sun set, and as the stars wheeled overhead; and for many long, silent days thereafter Gimli watched over his friend.
Another day of restless gales blowing from the south-west, carrying with them the high, keening cries of the gulls. Legolas turned his face into the wind, heaved a great breath of its salt tang, and it seemed to Gimli that for the first time something stirred under that frozen mask of grief. He waited. Finally Legolas spoke.
"Gimli: have you ever built a ship?"
To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
And so singing Legolas went away, and was seen in Ithilien and in Middle-earth no more; and only the wind, the sun and the stars watched over Rowanna's grave.
levain - animals, fauna
galas - plants, flora
The verse of Legolas' song at the end is from Return of the King Chapter IV, The Field of Cormallen.
levain - animals, fauna
galas - plants, flora
The verse of Legolas' song at the end is from Return of the King Chapter IV, The Field of Cormallen.