I wonder if I was right to press her so hard to come up with us for mettarë, Miranna mused unhappily as she watched her daughter. Rowanna was curled in a window-seat in Ithildîs's ballroom; as the exquisite sounds of one of Gondor's finest harpists entertained the guests, she was resting her head on the window's frame, one hand drawing aside the edge of the heavy blue velvet drape, and Miranna suspected her thoughts were very far away. If I had known how much returning to the White City would pain her...
It was not in her daughter's nature to pity herself or to collapse in floods of public tears - her pride was too much of a force for that - and she had made conversation with the young midshipman furnished by Ithildîs as her escort cheerfully enough; but now that she thought herself unobserved, the hunching of Rowanna's shoulders and her averted gaze made her mother's heart ache. Oh heavens, and now that young man is steering a course straight for her, thought Míranna as she caught sight of the midshipman making his way purposefully around the edge of the room. Fortunately, looking around she crossed glances with Adramir, and flicked her head urgently in the would-be suitor's direction; catching her meaning at once, Adramir intercepted him neatly, and with a hand on his elbow steered him away towards a waiter and another goblet of wine. Bless his tact, Míranna reflected gratefully; how such a kindly and sensible man managed to marry a humourless snob like Ithildîs I shall never understand.
Feeling a touch on her own arm, she turned to find one of the Minas Tirith matrons for whom she had been embroidering a gown, and was drawn into a lively discussion of the latest, allegedly Elven influences on the White City's costume. Thank goodness Rowanna can't hear this, she winced inwardly; quite apart from her daughter's disdain for fashions in dress, conversations which turned to anything regarding the Firstborn – as just now a good many discussions in Minas Tirith's higher society did – were wont to cause Rowanna to flee the room as soon as she could unobtrusively get away. By the time Míranna was at leisure to turn her gaze on the window-alcove again, Rowanna had vanished.
Adramir appeared at her elbow and offered her a fresh glass, which Míranna gratefully accepted.
"Has she left us, then?"
"I suspect so," Míranna sighed. "You know what a strain these public occasions are for her just now – I should probably be grateful that she agreed to come down at all..." She took a long sip at her wine. "Half the problem is that she lacks occupation. When we were back in Rohan she had a craft that she loved, skills that were respected, she worked hard. And now – she broods, she frets, and unsurprisingly she cannot shake off all that happened last summer..."
"Nothing came of my lord Imrahil's stud in Dol Amroth, then?" Adramir enquired. "I thought perhaps after he wrote her the recommendation to his Master of Horse..."
"I am not sure that helped, Adramir, in truth." Míranna grimaced. "With hindsight, it perhaps gave the stablemaster the impression that Rowanna was just an aristocrat with the Prince's favour who wished to play at horse-training. Oh, he could see that she was skilled, but the home of the Swan Knights hardly lacks for breeders and trainers! He was prepared to let her dabble, but any real work or authority... Free-spirited though Dol Amroth may be in comparison to Minas Tirith, it is still Gondor, and it is apparently still not seemly for a young woman of means and good name to carry out much function beyond the merely decorative."
Adramir nodded. "You may be right; Rowanna, you'll admit, hardly fits any of the – conventional – expectations of womanhood here. Which may be all to the good –" he lifted an eyebrow at her – "but makes her position no easier, I fear. The obvious path for a woman of her years and situation would, of course, be marriage, but..."
"Well, quite," Míranna responded dryly. "If you wish to propose it to her, you are braver than I!" She turned to give her glass to one of the waiting-staff as he passed by. "I was fond of Legolas, truly; he was courteous, and fair, and kind. But as things are I could honestly wish that Rowanna had never set eyes on him."
Thranduil brought his mount neatly to a halt at the edge of the clearing with a smile of satisfaction on his face, watching his own breath cloud in the crisp air. The afternoon's deer-hunt had been a success, and now a fine stag was being trussed to a pole to be carried back for that evening's feast.
Legolas had dismounted along with a number of the other Elves to slap Cúvaed on the back and congratulate her on a fine shot, in spite of the low sun slanting through the trees across her vision, and a clean kill. Now, laughing with Taurlaegel and Falastir, he vaulted easily once more onto the back of the spirited little grey he had brought from the South, having left his favourite chestnut, Culagor, resting a sprain. He does seem happier, Thranduil reflected with relief. Something of his old joy, his lightness of heart...and now that Stirring is turning to Spring, and the forest will soon be once again new-leaved and fair, perhaps we will hear no more of this mad idea of leaving for Ithilien –
"Legolas?" Taurlaegel's voice, sharp with alarm, cut through the Elven-king's musings. "Sire!" But Thranduil was already dismounted and racing across the clearing to where his son was suddenly doubled up over Arod's neck, clutching his mount's mane as Thranduil had not seen him do since he was an Elfling on his first pony, and gasping for breath. Halfway there, even as the King braced himself, it came; the great wave of longing and pain breaking over Legolas, the crashing of surf, the salt smell. He felt the power of the tide taking hold of his son, pulling him away –
"Legolas!" He got to Arod's side at last, reached up to grasp his son's hands. "Legolas, 'tis I, your father, do you hear me?..." He was vaguely aware of Falastir waving away Elves who began to crowd curiously around, and Taurlaegel calling back a few who, convinced their prince must have been shot, were about to start combing the woods in search of a hostile bowman. After a long moment Legolas raised his head; Thranduil tightened his grip, and his son's clouded gaze slowly cleared, though his breath still came shallow and ragged.
"How is it, my son? Can you ride?" he asked softly.
"I... yes, I think so." Legolas blinked, heaved one deep breath, and sat straight once again on Arod's back. The well-schooled grey, sensing his rider's distress, was standing stock still, merely huffing anxiously from time to time.
"Good. Very well then; with me." Thranduil turned to take his roan mare from the Elf who was holding her head, and nodded to Taurlaegel and Falastir who still waited protectively on either side. "You two follow. And get the stag brought along behind; the kitchens will be glad to see him!"
He saw Legolas to his chambers, called for spiced wine and made sure the fire was built up. Only once they were alone did he turn to his son, who was curled in a chair close to the hearth, gazing into the flames.
"Has it... passed?"
"For now." Legolas shivered, and took a long draught of his wine. "Forgive me, Father, I did not mean to alarm you, or the company..."
"Believe me, my son, I know all too well this is no choice of yours," Thranduil sighed. "That was worse than the last time, was it not? Is it often so... overpowering?"
Legolas shook his head. "Much of the time it is little more than a distant ache, a faint sense of something missing, far away. But I think when the tide does rise, the pain is the worse for being so far from the Sea; for knowing that were I to ride at the gallop for a moon-round and more, I could not come to the shore..."
"I knew, when you returned, the moment I saw you," his father said sadly; "it was there in your eyes, in your very soul. I hoped that here, in the Greenwood of your birth, under tree and leaf –"
I know, Father. And I am sorry." Legolas lifted his chin and looked Thranduil steadily in the eye. "But you see it yourself; no peace will I have again under beech or elm, not here, so far from any shore, so far even from Anduin which flows to the ocean. I have lived all my yeni as an Elf of the Wood, and yet – in the end, it seems, my fate is the fate of the Grey-elves, and my path is to the Sea. I know not when – but go I must, one day. And... I would wish to go with your good will."
He dropped gracefully from the chair on to one knee in front of Thranduil. Blinking back tears, the Elven-king laid both hands gently upon his son's head.
"If the Powers declare this is your part in the Song, then so it must be," he said hoarsely. "And let it not be said that ever you fared forth from these halls without my blessing. Elbereth guide you, guard and protect you, my son," he kissed Legolas solemnly on the left cheek, right cheek, and finally on the brow, "to the end of the world."
They were very still for a long moment.
"And now," said Thranduil at last, "if you feel strong enough, I suggest you get yourself bathed, find something fit to be seen in, and we both make ready to find out what the kitchens have been able to do with that stag – otherwise Cúvaed will never forgive either of us!" He drew his son to his feet, was rewarded with the beginnings of a smile, and pulled the door quietly closed behind him. Only when he was halfway to his own chambers did he remember the other question he had intended to ask Legolas; the identity of the laughing dark-haired woman whose presence he had briefly glimpsed, beyond the Sea-longing, in the depths of his son's heart.
...will await word from you and assure you as ever of my friendship and regard,
Faramir, Prince of Ithilien, by his own hand this 9th Nárië 3020.
Faramir signed the parchment with a flourish, just as Éowyn tapped at the half-open door of his study and came in.
"Dinner will be ready shortly, my love – Eirien has been roasting lamb, it smells marvellous." She dropped into an armchair across from the Steward with a heavy sigh. "And my stomach seems to have settled since this morning, so I may actually manage to eat some!"
"You're still looking weary," her husband observed with some concern. "Are you sure you don't wish to go to bed, and I'll have dinner sent up?"
Éowyn shook her head. "Truly, I am well. And I was in bed half the morning! Have you finished for tonight?"
"All that can't wait," Faramir assured her. "And I have written to Rowanna, as we agreed." He lit the candle on the corner of his desk, rolled the parchment he had been writing on deftly, and held a stick of sealing-wax over the flame. "That is, if you are still content with the suggestion?"
"Quite content." Éowyn pushed damp hair back from her brow. "You were right, it is an excellent idea, and I hope she'll accept. Besides, the last news I had of her, through Arwen, suggested she was restless in Dol Amroth and lacking in purpose – and that is no state for a woman like Rowanna."
"Or yourself?" teased her husband gently, pressing his seal-ring firmly into the melted wax he had carefully dripped on the parchment and looking up.
"I suspect I shall be discovering a whole new purpose in life in the coming months whether I like it or not!" Éowyn retorted. Faramir got up, came around the desk to her and perched on the arm of her chair to kiss the top of her head.
"Then we had better fortify you in readiness," he chuckled, and offered a hand to draw her to her feet. "Dinner, milady!"
"Have you spoken to Aragorn about it?" Éowyn enquired as they made their way through to Emyn Arnen's dining-room. Faramir shook his head.
"I'd rather have Rowanna's views on how we should begin, and where, before I put it to the King – otherwise he'll only ask questions for which I shall have no answers. I know in principle he'll be in agreement." He drew out his wife's chair for her and took his own seat across the table. "Now we'd better hope Rowanna will say yes!"
"Cousin Rowanna! Look!" Little Halmir came galloping into the sitting-room where Rowanna and her mother were keeping Almiel company. "Look what Papa brought me!" He was astride a new hobby-horse, and he pulled proudly up in front of the window-seat with cries of Whoaaah! "Isn't he fine?"
"Splendid," Rowanna smiled somewhat wearily. "A Dol Amroth grey – you'll be a true Swan Knight!"
Halmir cantered several times around the couch where Almiel sat propped up, neighing and snorting enthusiastically until his mother, laughing, ordered him to go and be a Swan Knight out in the courtyard. He turned back to Rowanna.
"Come too, cousin? Please? Darathor and Penbarad and me want to hear more about all your horses in Rohan..."
"Oh, all right." Rowanna tousled the child's hair.
"Really, Halmir," Almiel protested, "you mustn't pester Rowanna so –"
"It doesn't matter, Almiel," Rowanna sighed as the child galloped ahead of her out of the room. "It's not as though I have anything else to do..."
"That's true enough," Almiel reflected wryly when they had gone, reaching for her writing-tablet from the small side-table. "For my horse-mad boys having such a story-teller always to hand is a great treat, and yet –"
"– it is no way for her to be frittering away her life," Míranna agreed as she rethreaded her needle. "Believe me, Almiel, if you had known her before... what happened, you'd know how out of character it is for her to be docilely led by the nose by a five-year-old! She has so little life in her, nothing of the spark of old – the Rowanna I knew would never have been about the house all day!"
"She's seemed more melancholic still since she came back from Rohan after the winter," Almiel observed as she began a list for the housekeeper. "She must have had some hope that she could go back to farming with – Aelstan, was it?"
"I think it was never more than a faint hope," Míranna sighed. "She said as much to me when she returned – that she already knew in her heart how far she had left the Mark and the old life behind; but Aelstan asked her, and she agreed to visit, more I think because she knew not what else to do with herself. But seeing the farm restored and running so smoothly without her, and Béodred wed to Merith and their first child on the way, and set to inherit the steading from his uncle... well, I think it was very clear to her there was no place for her there." She broke off as the sound of booted feet rang out in the hall; a moment later, Pennastir strode into the room shrugging off his jerkin.
"It's growing warm for Nárië!" he observed as he kissed his wife and bowed swiftly to Míranna. "How fare you, ladies? I come bearing dispatches, for there's a courier down from Minas Tirith; I met him coming up the street. For you, Míranna –" he passed her two parchments – "and I left another with Rowanna in the courtyard. With the Steward's own seal on it, unless I'm much mistaken..."
"That might be from Lady Éowyn," Míranna speculated as she drew her needle steadily in and out of the silk stretched across her embroidery frame. "She does write from time to time –"
She got no further, though, before Rowanna strode into the room, excited children in her wake, her eyes sparkling.
"Mother – a letter from Faramir! You'll never guess what he proposes! He wants to start breeding horses, to replenish Minas Tirith's bloodlines instead of always having to buy from Rohan or Dol Amroth when the King's stables need new mounts, and – he wants me to do it for him!" She waved the letter at Míranna, cheeks flushed with excitement. "He wants me to go up there and look at the land around Emyn Arnen, and advise where he might best establish a stud farm, and if I am willing – to take charge of it for him! Look!" She dropped the letter into Míranna's lap, hugging herself with delight. Míranna scanned it quickly.
"He sounds serious, does he not?" she noted. "Will you write back and tell him you will consider it?"
"I'll do better than that," retorted Rowanna, grinning. "If you'll excuse me, Almiel, Cousin Pennastir – I'm going to go and pack!"
Aragorn strode down the steps of the White Tower, smiling broadly, as a clatter of hooves rang out in the courtyard; a moment later, Legolas had vaulted down from Arod's back. They embraced long and tightly; at last, Aragorn stepped back, hands still on the Elf's shoulders, and scrutinised him carefully.
"Well met, my dear friend," he said at last in the Grey Tongue, "and welcome back to the White City. How fare you?"
"Well," said Legolas, with a half-smile. Aragorn frowned.
"And in truth?... "
"In truth... I will tell you later. Let me stable Arod first."
"Come up to Arwen's sitting-room when you're done," the King agreed. "I know she wants to see you."
They sat late after dining privately in the King's chambers, nursing glasses of wine, the windows open to the spring breezes. Aragorn asked about the Greenwood, about Thranduil and Celeborn's restorations, about the rebuilding of Dale following the battles there, on all of which Legolas was happy to discourse. Arwen sat listening, embroidery in her lap, occasionally putting in a pertinent question or two. The King tried, obliquely, referring to Rowanna and the events of the previous midsummer; the Elf said blankly, "I do not wish to speak of it, Aragorn," and changed the subject. Discussion moved on to the plans for the surveying and restoration of Ithilien.
"I'm sorry Faramir can't be here," Aragorn commented, "for I know the two of you have debated a good deal already. He's out at Emyn Arnen – you knew that he intended to build a summer house there for Éowyn? It's habitable, though not finished yet, and he's taken her out to begin settling in." He took a draught of his Dorwinion. "Next time a messenger goes to the Greenwood, by the way, we must let your father know that his wedding-gift is, as he said, just coming to perfection now – except for the barrels he instructed us to lay down for a twelve-year's time, of course! So... have you and Faramir any sense yet of how long it may be, to cleanse Ithilien entirely of Sauron's depredations?"
"As I told Faramir – last summer," said Legolas with only the slightest catch in his voice, "I do poorly at reckoning such things in Mortal timespans – and Treebeard, who gave me much wisdom on my way back North, is even worse in that respect, since to him the longest-lived of Elves is but a sapling! A lifetime of Men should see all well on the way, but..." He swallowed. "Whether I shall last out that time, I cannot say."
Arwen put down her embroidery, reached across and squeezed his hand.
"It is a strange, new feeling, is it not," she said gently, "not to know when one will depart this world? Perhaps... perhaps one who lives with the Sea-longing may begin to understand, a little, how Men live with the ever-present possibility of receiving their Gift. If it comforts you, Legolas, remember this: strange though it is to us, Men live all their lives with the certainty of loss, and the uncertainty of when the grief will come. And they are joyful nonetheless."
She held his gaze for a long moment. Then Aragorn got up to refill their glasses, and the conversation turned to other things; but Legolas sat long into the night at his window, gazing unseeing at the stars, with the Queen's words going round in his mind.
Cúvaed = bow-skilled.
9 Nárië (Steward's Reckoning): 31st May.
Cúvaed = bow-skilled.
9 Nárië (Steward's Reckoning): 31st May.