Spring was coming early, as it always did in Gondor. Already little leaf-buds could be seen coming out on the trees, and the grass on the plains was beginning to show greenly. And with the spring, came an end to the Travelers’ time in Minas Tirith. None were happy about it.
Greenjade had joined Gondor’s army. There was an outpost in the south of Mordor, in the region of Nurn, where he would be stationed. His duties would mostly involve border patrol, but some building and planting also. For the past two months he had been engaged in rigorous training, a large proportion of the former battlefield being relegated for that purpose. He was thankful that he had trained in Rohan, so that he would not look a mere neophyte, although to all intents, that was precisely what he was. He liked it all, however, enjoying once more the camaraderie, the roughness, and the feeling of pride in learning to defend one’s own. Legolas was captain of his regiment, and Greenjade gained a good deal of respect for him, for the Elf clearly knew his stuff and had no fear at all, as the twins had noted more than once. The King himself came out and drilled with them regularly, and even the Queen practiced her shooting with them. It turned out she was nearly as adept with a bow as her brothers, and had helped defend Lothlorien when she had been living with her mother’s people.
Serilinn adored their corner of the Palace, the view from the terrace, the garden, Mikala and Ruan and the little ones, Radagast and Sméagol and Nilde and Greenjade all together as a family, and of course, the King and Queen and the twins and Legolas. And all the staff members and near neighbors and the folk who ran the shops and restaurants and the library and the guild members, and those who hung about the streets in the late evenings, warming themselves at small fires and telling stories and singing songs, the musicians and artists and craftsfolk and poets and bards who populated the winding street in the daytime. Sméagol had become one of these; after his performance at the Yule party, he had lost some of his inhibitions and enjoyed dressing in strange costumes, painting his face and performing startling feats. He could walk on his hands and climb poles and trees, dance and bend himself into unlikely contortions that made people gasp and snicker. Sometimes he would paint faces on his hands and make puppets of them, which both children and adults loved. The local acting troupe had taken him into their company as a clownish sort, and treated him with respect and affection. Serilinn performed with them sometimes also, and her singing went down particularly well with the populace.
“Everything is changing,” she said as she sat with Greenjade and Meleth on the terrace, the day before their departure. “I wish we could just all stay here, just as we are, only…well, you know. I wish we could have our own house here, and the Academy would be just down the street, or something. I have been so happy here, I cannot imagine living anywhere else now. Not even Calador.”
“I’ve an idea how you feel,” Greenjade said. “I do not look forward to going to Mordor. In fact, I dread it. But wait until my first respite—then we can all be together for a while.”
Radagast and Sméagol came out to join them, along with Nilde. Greenjade pulled out chairs for them.
“Look at Nilde,” Serilinn said brightening. “She is going to have little ones, isn’t she?”
“Aye, that she is,” Radagast said as he caressed the back of her neck. “I think it a good thing, because if she hadn’t a litter to occupy her, she might well pine away for me and Sméagol. Are you sure you will not mind having her, Meleth?”
“I shall be delighted,” Meleth said smiling. “She will provide some company for me while Serilinn is at school. And I am sure there are many about who would like to take the pups.”
“I dare say little Elboron would love to have one,” Radagast said with twinkling eyes. “I imagine his new baby sister is diverting a good deal of attention from him, and a puppy would be just the thing for him.”
The Queen herself accompanied the others when the time came to leave. It was only about eighteen miles to Osgiliath.
“She has been much rebuilt,” Arwen said as they rode along in her carriage, she and Meleth and Serilinn and Greenjade, while Radagast and Sméagol drove the wagon (outfitted with a new cover and a more attractive paint job), and the twins and the rest of their entourage rode along behind or ahead. “She was founded by the King Elendil and his sons at the end of the Second Age. She was burned during the Kin-strife and her palantir was lost, probably in the River Anduin. Long after that, she was struck by the Great Plague so that she fell into complete ruin. So King Tarondor moved the capital to Minas Anor, which was the former name of Minas Tirith. After Minas Ithil fell to the Ringwraiths and became Minas Morgul, the Uruks occupied Ithilien and destroyed the Great Bridge of Osgiliath. Boromir and Faramir fought gallantly to retake her, but they were greatly outnumbered. It was only two years ago that we began to rebuild her. Yet the progress has been amazing, although I dare say she will never be restored to her former glory.”
“There’s something…ghosty…about her,” Serilinn said with a shiver. “Even though it is daylight and many people are about. Why is the school founded here?”
“It is outside the city,” Arwen said. “But we must pass through in order to reach it. That is, if we do not wish to swim across the river.”
She smiled. Serilinn said nothing.
“Did you see the City before all those things happened?” Meleth asked.
“Aye, once,” Arwen said. “But it was a great long time ago. I was little older than Serilinn. She was the capital of Gondor in those days, and I traveled with my parents to attend a gala affair at the Embassy. It was the only time I had ever been to Gondor before my marriage. Yet I remember her well, particularly the Dome of Stars. I am astonished that the people have been as accepting of me as they have been.”
“I wonder if the girls at school will be accepting of me,” Serilinn said softly. “I shall be the only Elf there, yes?”
“I think they will be accepting,” Meleth said. “You have the sort of personality people are much drawn to.”
“I suppose I am worried,” Serilinn said, “about what I shall tell them about my…parentage. I do not wish to make up stories. Yet I don’t wish to tell them all, either.”
“You might tell them only as much as they need to know,” Meleth said. “That you were an orphan and have been adopted by your former nurse. It is true enough, and if they wish to know more, you may tell them you do not wish to discuss it. No need to make up stories, my lamb.”
“Do you suppose I shall be the only one there who does not eat meat?” Serilinn said. “What will they think of that? But I simply abhor the very thought of eating it.”
“I have explained to the headmistress that you are a vegetarian,” Arwen said. “I’m sure they will be accommodating. By the way, I’ve a little gift for you. I was going wait until just before leaving, but I think I shall give it to you now.”
She opened her velvet bag and drew out a tiny box, and handed it to Serilinn, who took it with raised eyebrows. She opened it to find a little silver ring with a single white gem in it.
“Oh, how lovely!” she exclaimed holding up the jewel to the light that came in through the carriage window.
“I had it when I was a lass,” Arwen said, “I think it will just suit you, and if you should be troubled by the Darkness, it will bring you aid, as the Evenstar brought to the Ringbearer. The stone is of the same sort, and has those special properties.”
“Thank you so much, your highness,” Serilinn said with teary eyes as she kissed the Queen’s hand, then tried the ring on her finger and then held her hand up to admire it. “But did you not wish to give this to Lúthien when she grows bigger?”
“I thought to do so,” Arwen said, “but I think it were better for you to have it, since you are acquainted with the Darkness.”
“I shall wear it on the chain with my locket,” Serilinn said. “I know Frodo wore the One Ring so, and to wear it that way might make me feel connected with him somehow. You know he will be my grandfather? I wonder what he would think of that.”
“He would feel honored, I am sure,” Meleth said.
“And I hope the girls will not laugh at Cinnamon,” Serilinn said glancing at the doll by her side. “She has ever been a great comfort. I cannot leave her at the house, and I hope the others will understand. Ah me, I have so many oddities!”
“I think you need not worry,” Greenjade spoke up. “With the connections you have, I dare say you will be well set up.”
“But I wish to be liked for myself, not my…connections,” Serilinn said.
“Of course you do,” Meleth said smoothing back a lock of raven hair. “And so you shall be.”
She smiled, remembering the recent discussion. Arwen had explained that the school did not take just anyone, and all had to take a test in order to be admitted. When she said she had enrolled Serilinn, the girl said, “But I took no test.”
“You did not have to,” Arwen had told her. “I could see right off that you were exactly the sort of girl that belonged there, and they took you upon my recommendation.”
But Serilinn had frowned, saying, “I think I should take the test, just the same. It seems only fair.”
And Arwen smiled, saying, “Very well then. I’ve a copy put away, and will find it for you. And I will help you to study for it…for you will have to study a bit, surely.”
Greenjade felt vastly proud of her, at the same time wishing her admirable qualities had been his own doing.
“Certainly you’ll be liked for yourself,” he said. “Still and all, it can’t hurt to get a foot in the door any way one can…within limits of reason, that is,” he amended when Meleth frowned a little.
And he realized then how little he really knew of being a parent, and was grateful that Meleth had been chosen to have custody of Serilinn after all.
Meleth had quietly and privately told Serilinn she thought Elladan’s proposal had been made somewhat in jest, and he had protested its seriousness in order not to hurt her feelings, and she might do well not to hold him to it. She had spoken to him of it, and he assured her he was very serious indeed, as he had to reassure his sister, who had taken him to task about it.
And so it was that he and Serilinn were unofficially betrothed.
Meleth thought it would be better to keep the matter private, but Serilinn told Mikala of it one day, asking her to keep it to herself. Then Ruan came in just that moment, and heard all. And Ruan, as “everyone” knew, could not keep a secret.
“I only told my mum,” she protested after the story got out, much to Serilinn’s mortification. “And I asked her not to tell it. I think the washerwoman must have heard, she’s an awful gossip. But I didn’t know she was there. Or maybe it was our neighbor, she’s a nosy old busybody, Mum says, and always has her ear to a keyhole, or peeking into windows. But I didn’t know she was about, either. What will I do now?” she wailed.
Elladan took it very lightly, however, and was even pleased.
“Now the place will have something to bloody talk about for a while,” he said with twinkling eyes to his brother and sister, “besides the price of mutton-chops and the glory of the olden days. That’s the trouble with peace—she invariably chooses the Ordinary as her bridegroom, and together they beget boredom and complacency.”
Now he and Elrohir were returning to Mordor, and Greenjade was glad of that, along with the fact that they would be in proximity with each other.
He was in uniform now, and Serilinn and Meleth looked very proud of him. His beard was trimmed very short, his hair to just above shoulder length. Once he had thought to let it grow long for Meleth’s sake, but she assured him he need not try to make of himself something he wasn’t meant to be. Would he want to trim his ears into points next? she joked. Her sense of humor always threw him, it was so unexpected and refreshing.
He was surprised when they entered Osgiliath, it loomed up so suddenly before him. As with Tharbad, it was undergoing reconstruction, but it was far larger and had a cool, austere beauty about it, that depressed him somehow. It was as if someone had plucked a once beautiful statue out of the mud, cleaned it off and tried to replace the missing parts. Why had the Queen chosen to establish the school here?
“It is even more beautiful than Minas Tirith,” Serilinn said after a moment, “yet does not have all the same life and warmth about it. I wonder why that is. I can think of Minas Tirith as a ‘she’ but to me, Osgiliath is still an ‘it’.”
Greenjade laughed a little. “I was going to say that,” he said.
“Truly?” Serilinn looked at him wide-eyed.
“Nay,” he said. “But I know what you mean. Minas Tirith has humanity and voice and thought and feeling. There is beauty and life here, but it has not truly ‘thawed’ yet. It needs a transforming element of some sort. But I do not know what it will take to give it such.”
He thought to himself that Osgiliath was to Minas Tirith as Garland was to Meleth. But he decided to keep this comparison to himself.
“Is that the Dome of Stars?” Serilinn asked a few moments later, as they drove along the street leading to the Great Bridge, which had been rebuilt first thing. Her fear seemed to dissipate considerably, to Greenjade’s relief. She was trying to poke her head out the carriage window now.
“It is,” Arwen said smiling. “You will soon get a chance to see the City in more detail and see all the sights when we return from Ithilien. Perhaps we can even go inside the great hall. I still recall the Stone of Osgiliath, larger than any of the other Palantiri, sitting upon a large marble table in the midst of the room. It was dark, but even as I gazed upon it, it became full of light. It seemed to sing to me, to tell me wonderful things…things I cannot remember now, but it promised me great moments of joy and sorrow beyond anything I could imagine. It sang of a man I would meet, and a mother I would lose, and a kingdom I would rule, and a path I would walk and a bridge I would cross and not be allowed to look behind me. It frightened me, and yet filled me with an excitement I can scarcely describe. I thought it to be akin to the Great Jewels themselves, like the one on the prow of my grandfather’s ship, the Vingiloth, and I thought myself to be in the presence of The One, himself. It was a feeling of embracing, of acceptance of my destiny.”
“How terrible that the Stone should have been lost,” Meleth said softly.
“Perhaps,” Arwen said, “but then again, perhaps not. Had it not been lost, mayhap Sauron would have corrupted it for his own foul purposes, and done even more evil than he did—beyond all imagining. Perhaps it was lost for a reason.”
Serilinn was scarcely listening now, as Greenjade could see. She was looking out the window still…but not at the Dome. She was looking at Elladan.
The Academy building was of white stone and had the same austere beauty, on the outside, as the city of Osgiliath. There was a double door in front with brass overlay in gracefully curving shapes, and a statue on either side, and young trees out front putting out white buds. Over the door the name of the school was carved in marble: THE ACADEMY OF THE STARS.
The Queen wore a dark-grey cloak with the hood over her head, so as not to be conspicuous, Greenjade supposed. It didn't work, of course; such regality as she possessed could not be disguised by a mere cloak. She led the way, opening the door before Greenjade had a chance to do so, and walking coolly in. And everyone followed.
The foyer was paved with polished marble in starry patterns, black and white, with golden chips inlaid, and bronze candle sconces ornamented the walls, softly lighted. Chairs and small marble tables stood about with vases of flowers, and a chandelier hung in the middle, with many small candles glowing. And a beautiful statue of a lady holding a book in her hands, and on closer inspection, one could see her face resembled that of the Queen. A real jewel gleamed on her breast.
And then behind her was the real surprise: a mosaic nearly covering the middle of the wall, depicting nine figures all standing together…and some of them looked distinctly familiar.
Serilinn gasped. Meleth stood stock still, and the twins looked at each other and grinned knowingly, then at their sister, then looked at the mosaic again and fell silent. Greenjade stood behind Serilinn and Meleth, a hand on each of their shoulders, looking up at the mosaic, which was lit by two large sconces on either side, and a lamp on a small pedestal before it, and another smaller chandelier hanging just above it.
No one seemed to know what to say.
Then a woman entered from an adjoining room, tall and handsome with graying hair wound into a braid at the nape of her neck, wearing a dark-colored dress with a small white tree embroidered just below the throat.
“I can never look at it enough,” she said softly. All turned to look at her. She gasped as she realized the Queen was among their midst.
“This is Mistress Haldaraina,” Arwen introduced her. “She is headmistress of the Academy. This is Serilinn, who will be attending this year. This is her mother Meleth, and Meleth’s betrothed, Greenjade. And my brothers Elladan and Elrohir, and the Wizard Radagast and this is Sméagol…”
The headmistress looked at the motley company, particularly at the twins, who were resplendent in black trimmed with gold and scarlet cloaks, red and gold cords twined about their braided forelocks. At Greenjade, who was still in his uniform with the White Tree embroidered on the front, then at Meleth, in periwinkle blue and white. At Radagast in his usual brown, and Sméagol, who could not seem to wrench his gaze from the mosaic, particularly from the central figure. Then she turned her attention to Serilinn, who was looking gravely up at her. The girl wore a dress of rose-colored silk, her hair held back with ribbons.
“I am glad to have you among us, my dear,” Mistress Haldaraina said extending one hand. The girl shyly put forth her own hand. “Will you come up and see your room, and put away your things? Your roommates are already here, I believe.”
“Oh, I haven’t them with me,” Serilinn said. “We are going to see our cottage in Ithilien, and have only stopped here to register me. We will be returning in a week.”
“Well, you might like to see your room, just the same,” the headmistress said. “And meet the girls with whom you will be sharing it, yes?”
She led the way up a flight of stairs just a few steps from the mosaic; there were two such flights, one on each side. Upstairs was a hallway, with four doors on each side.
“There are four girls in each room,” Mistress Haldaraina said as she led the others down the hall and opened the third door on her left. “Ah, I see someone is here already. This is Gilglín. She has been with us for two years now. Gilglin, this is our new girl, Serilinn, from Minas Tirith. Where are the others?”
Gilglin appeared about thirteen years old, tall for her age, thin and sharp-faced, and did not appear very friendly. Her greenish eyes swept over Serilinn. Greenjade held his breath, waiting for her to say something rude so he could hustle Serilinn out of there once and for all.
A voice from across the hall called out, “Mistress Haldaraina, would you please come in here? There’s a window in here that has a cracked pane.”
The headmistress turned saying, “Pardon me for a moment,” and went into the other room to see to the window, leaving the others in the hallway.
Gilglin wore a dress of dark grey, brightened somewhat with a scarlet tie, and an embroidered red and gold badge on her left side showing a many-rayed star. She looked at Serilinn’s dress and then at her, taking her in, particularly her hair. Her own was an agreeable shade of brown, but rather thin.
“That’s your bed,” she said pointing at the one nearest Serilinn. “Where is your bag?”
Serilinn entered the room hesitantly. The others remained outside. The twins were downstairs, along with Radagast and Sméagol, inspecting the classrooms. Arwen was explaining about the school’s policies and history to Meleth and Greenjade, but Greenjade was only half listening, watching Serilinn out of the corner of his eye.
“Not what you’re used to, I suppose,” Gilglin said as Serilinn stood looking at it the bed and the wardrobe.
“Nay, it is not,” Serilinn said reaching down to touch the white linen coverlet. Then she looked toward the door as if contemplating flight.
“Well, if you stick around long enough, you’ll get the feel of it, I’m sure,” Gilglin said with just a hint of a smirk. Then two more girls entered, pushing past the adults without seeming to notice them, Arwen’s back being turned toward them. One had long fair hair in braids; the other had brown hair of a darker shade than Gilglin’s and a bit curly. They stopped short, staring at the newcomer with open mouths.
“This is our new girl…what’s your name again?” Gilglin said.
“Serilinn,” the new girl said.
“Serilinn,” Gilglin said. “This is Kaerwyn and this is Illi—that’s what we call her, at least. Her right name’s too long for anyone to remember.”
“You’re beautiful,” the brown-haired girl said gazing wide-eyed at Serilinn, who smiled shyly and dropped a small curtsey, inclining her head. The fair girl raised her eyebrows.
“Thank you, Illi,” Serilinn said, recovering her graciousness somewhat and smiling. “So are you.”
“Oh--I’m not!” Illi said with her cheeks growing pink, then giggled and looked at the others as if for confirmation, dimples appearing in the corners of her mouth. Greenjade stifled a laugh. She was pretty, but not exactly in a class with Serilinn.
“Kaerwyn is originally from Rohan,” Gilglin informed Serilinn. “Illi is from Belfalas and I am from Lebennin. You don’t talk like any of us. Are you native to Gondor? I suppose not.”
“I am from Eriador, but my home now is in Gondor,” Serilinn said. “I have been in Rohan, but not Lebennin. That is where King Elessar defeated the Corsairs of Umbar with the Grey Company and the Army of the Dead, is it not? At Pelargir?”
Gilglin’s mouth twitched. “Well. You do know some things, don’t you?” she said, sounding none too pleased. Kaerwyn and Illi looked at each other, unsure how to react.
“Some things, aye,” Serilinn said softly. “I read much of Gondor when we came to stay with the King and Queen, but there is so much to know, and I fear I will never know it all.”
“Staying with the King and Queen?” Kaerwyn said wide-eyed. “Are you a princess?”
“I once was, but not any more,” Serilinn said. “Unless my Ada should become king of Calador, which is what Mordor will be renamed, when she becomes a garden once more. Then--”
“Your what?” Gilglin said, putting her thin hands on her thin hips.
“Ada--my father,” Serilinn explained. “He has joined Gondor’s army, and is going to Cal--Mordor to clean up the filth of Sauron and make it a beautiful and holy place. I wished to go and help him, but the King forbade it. So I am here, instead, until it should become more habitable.”
Illi giggled uncertainly. Kaerwyn just stared. Gilglin eyed Serilinn with a touch of suspicion.
“Are you having us on?” she demanded.
“I beg your pardon?” Serilinn said.
“Pulling our leg,” Gilglin said. “You know. Lying. Making up stories. That sort of thing.”
“Oh nay!” Serilinn exclaimed. “It is the truth. I would not make up stories with you. There is the Queen, she will tell you, ‘tis true.”
“The Que--“ Kaerwyn and Illi spoke simultaneously, then clapped their hands over their mouths, looking toward the doorway where Arwen stood still talking to Meleth and Greenjade, who smiled innocently and waved to the girls.
“That is your father?” Illi whispered in obviously admiring tones. Serilinn smiled.
“Aye,” she said. “Is he not beautiful?”
“And the golden-haired lady is your mother?” Kaerwyn said. Serilinn nodded.
“She is very beautiful,” Illi said. “Like you--only you do not look like her. She looks like a queen, also.”
Gilglin was silent, looking not at all happy about the situation.
Then there was a sound of running footsteps issuing from the stairwell, and the headmistress’s voice speaking sharply.
“Girls! You know running is not allowed on the stairs. If you were to fall and hurt yourselves, how would I explain that to your parents?”
“I am sorry, Mistress Haldaraina,” one of the girls spoke. “We are excited. I will not do it again.”
The other girl promised likewise, then both burst into the room.
“There are two Elves downstairs,” one of them exclaimed, “just exactly alike! And they are gorgeous!”
Greenjade held back his laughter with an effort.
Serilinn giggled, her cheeks growing very pink.
“They are the Queen’s brothers,” she said. The girls squeaked, looking toward the doorway to see Arwen smiling at them. “Would you like to meet them?”
Illi and Kaerwyn clasped their hands dramatically. “Oh yes!” they and the other two cried simultaneously. Gilglin was silent.
Greenjade’s laughter subsided. He hoped Serilinn was not going to tell them of the “betrothal”. Meleth had advised her against doing so. The girls were unlikely to believe her, she said. And might be jealous.
“Come with me, then,” Serilinn said inclining her dark head toward the door. All five girls flurried after her, Gilglin last of all. Greenjade surmised she was a leader of some sort, and perceived that her pointy nose was a trifle out of joint now. He grinned to himself, then the grin receded a bit as he realized that she might make things hard for Serilinn….
Still, she most definitely had a foot in the door, and it appeared that the rest of her would follow very shortly.
Gilglin would just have to learn to accept the inevitable. As would he.